Archive for the 'THIS DATE IN CHICAGO HISTORY' Category

Almost Perfect (6-27-1958)

Back in the 1950s, the era of the Go-Go White Sox, Billy Pierce was arguably the best left-handed pitcher in the American League. Whitey Ford got the most publicity because he was a Yankee. But whenever the two aces went head-to-head, Pierce usually came out on top.

Besides, in the 1955 season, Pierce posted an ERA of 1.97. That was remarkable for such a high-scoring era.

Billy Pierce

Pierce was a power pitcher, always among the leaders in strikeouts. That was also remarkable, since he wasn’t a big man. His full overhand delivery was the likely explanation.

On the evening of June 27, 1958, Pierce took the mound at Comiskey Park. The Sox were playing the last-place Washington Senators. About 11,000 people were at the park. I was ten years old and listening on the radio, trusting I could stay awake despite Bob Elson’s droning play-by-play.

The Sox scored a run in the third, and added 2 more in the eighth. Meanwhile, Pierce was shutting down the opposition. Going into the ninth inning, he had retired the first 24 Senators in a row.

Pierce quickly disposed of Ken Aspromonte and Steve Korcheck. With the pitcher due up next, the Senators sent in a right-handed pinch-hitter.

Ed FitzGerald

Ed FitzGerald was an eleven-year veteran. The Senators’ roster listed him as a catcher, but at this stage of his career, he was mostly a pinch-hitter. He was good at it, too, batting better than .350 as a sub in 1958.

The book said FitzGerald was a first pitch, fastball hitter. Pierce wound up and threw a low curve. FitzGerald swung, slicing the ball down the right field line. It landed fair by a foot.

As FitzGerald chugged into second, the park erupted in boos. At home I vented my disappointment by shouting a bad word at the radio. I don’t recall what Bob Elson said.

The perfect game was gone. So was the no-hitter.  Then Pierce struck out Albie Pearson on three pitches to end the game. Afterward the police escorted FitzGerald from the park.

In 2014 Billy Pierce was honored at Sox Park for his charitable work. He died in 2015.

Ed FitzGerald celebrated a birthday last month. He is now 93. He has not been seen in Chicago for some time.



A Forgotten Tragedy (6-22-1918)

It happened 99 years ago today.

Just before dawn, a Michigan Central train plowed into the rear of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train just east of Hammond.  The cars in the circus train caught fire, and 61 people were killed, most of them as they slept.  The Michigan Central engineer said the warning semaphore he went through had been obscured by steam.

The victims’ remains were buried in a mass grave in the Showmen’s Rest section of Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park.   Despite the elephant monuments—and contrary to urban legend—only human performers are interred at the site.


For 366 stories like this—one for every day of a leap year—buy a copy of my book, On This Day in Chicago History


Bleacher Bums (5-24-1920)

Forty-seven people were arrested today in the year’s biggest gambling raid.  The location was the bleachers at Cubs’ Park.

Club officials had been aware of the problem for some time.  The gamblers had staked out their own section of the stands.  Anybody in the park who wanted to place a bet knew exactly where to go.

So today undercover cops infiltrated the open-air casino.  They wore various disguises—“teamsters, sailors, soldiers, ice wagon drivers, sewing machine agents, bootblacks, farmers.”  They ate peanuts and drank pop like ordinary fans.  They watched the gamblers operate.

The Cubs were playing the Phillies.  Betting started as soon as the umpires announced the batteries.  Once the gamblers knew who was pitching, they could calculate the odds and accept wagers on the outcome of the game.

When play got underway, the action in the bleachers was even more intense.  Now there was betting on each pitch.

“Ten cents says he swings!”

“A dollar the pitcher changes his windup on the next one!”

“Two bits they send in a pinch-hitter the next time around!”

“Who wants ten dollars on the runner?  Ten dollars says he streaks down to second!”

At the end of the first inning, the undercover cops all stood up.  In one voice, they announced: “You’re all under arrest!”


The gamblers went meekly.  One of them tried the sympathy angle.  “Do you want to break up a home?” he pleaded to the nearest officer.  “My wife will get a divorce if she finds out about this.”

The cop was unmoved.  “Six bits says she finds out,” was his answer.

At the Town Hall Station, the 47 gamblers were charged.  They were each released on $25 bond.  Four of them didn’t have enough money.  They’d have to spend the night in jail, and probably lose their night-shift jobs.

Then one of the other accused stepped forward and posted their bond.  He didn’t know any of the four, but that made no difference.  “I have faith in human nature,” the Good Samaritan said.  “I’m betting they show up in court.”

What happened next?  The papers lost interest in the story, and nothing more was reported.  The final decisions are buried somewhere in a set of musty court files.

Cubs’ Park is now called Wrigley Field.  Is there still gambling in the bleachers?

Wanna make a bet on it?


Dirty Tricks at The Wigwam (5-18-1860)

On this date, for the first time ever, a citizen of Illinois was nominated for President of the United States.  His name was Abraham Lincoln.  And it happened in Chicago.

The Republican Party was a new, dynamic, anti-slavery party.  Four years ago, in their first presidential campaign, they’d run a surprisingly strong race.  Now the Democrats were split on the slavery issue–so Republicans would be picking the next occupant of the White House.

The Wigwam

Chicago was hosting a party convention for the first time.  The site was a big wooden barn at Lake and Market (Wacker) called The Wigwam.  Local boosters bragged the building could hold 10,000 people, making it the largest auditorium in the country.

Senator Seward

As the Republicans gathered, the smart money was on New York’s William Seward to win the nomination.  Lincoln was a longshot, an obscure lawyer from Springfield.  He was known mainly for the vigorous, unsuccessful campaign he’d run against Senator Stephen Douglas.

And now begins Chicago’s reputation for hardball politics.

On this great nomination day, thousands of Seward fans marched through downtown Chicago.  They waved their banners, they shouted, they sang.  But when they got to The Wigwam, they couldn’t get in.  Lincoln’s supporters had printed counterfeit tickets and packed the hall.

The nominations got under way.  As expected, Seward led on the first ballot.  Yet whenever a speaker mentioned Lincoln’s name, the audience exploded into cheers that threatened to take the roof off The Wigwam.

Uncommitted delegated were impressed.  Honest Abe seemed to be the people’s choice!  The maneuvering went on behind closed doors.  And on the third ballot, Lincoln was nominated.

The Republican nominee

The Chicago Daily Press and Tribune, owned by his friend Joseph Medill, was ready.  A special souvenir edition was rolled out, with a discount price for bulk purchase.  The paper also offered the delegates a variety of mail subscriptions, so they could follow the campaign once they returned home.

Following tradition, Lincoln had not attended the convention.  He stayed in Springfield and got his news by telegraph.

If he had come to Chicago, Lincoln might have walked a few blocks from The Wigwam to McVicker’s Theater to see the hit comedy Our American Cousin.  Four years later, when he was president, Lincoln finally caught the play in Washington—and was assassinated during the performance.


How the School Board Spends Money (5-9-1922)

William Hale Thompson—otherwise known as Big Bill—was in his seventh year as mayor of Chicago. While he was celebrated as a builder of great public works, his administration was not noted for its honesty.

On this date, the Chicago Board of Education was under scrutiny. Mayor Thompson’s appointees formed a majority on the board, and had been involved in one controversy after another. Now a special grand jury was looking into examples of their waste and fiscal mismanagement.

Mayor Thompson

Mayor Thompson

State’s Attorney Robert Crowe conducted the investigation. The state’s attorney loved any kind of publicity—reporters said the most dangerous spot in the city was getting between Crowe and a news camera. Many thought Crowe was positioning himself to challenge Big Bill in next year’s primary.

Still, the probe was turning up all sorts of things.

State's Attorney Crowe

State’s Attorney Crowe

The board had recently purchased a thousand phonographs from a clout-heavy wholesaler for $157 each. The wholesaler had paid $40 for each machine and pocketed over $100,000. In other deals, the board bought $133 potato-peelers and $133 electric hand-driers. Principals reported receiving mahogany tables they had not asked for, and window shades that were not needed. At some schools, working clocks were smashed so that new ones could be ordered. Once again, the trail led to politically-connected suppliers.

The revelations didn’t seem to be altering the board’s methods. Mayor Thompson’s loyal majority was planning to ram through $1,032,000 in no-bid contracts for cleaning, decorating, and general repair. The reform minority could only fume.

One of the reformers had protested that the public might not be happy over the expensive mark-ups the board was paying for textbooks. He was told: “To hell with the public!  We’re at the trough now, and we’re going to feed.”

In the end, nobody was punished. The school board scandal did force Thompson to drop out of the 1923 mayoral race. But he came back for one more term in 1927, and it was more of the same. As for State’s Attorney Crowe, he ran into some scandals of his own, and was eventually voted out of office.


For 366 stories like this—one for every day of a leap year—buy a copy of my book, On This Day in Chicago History

The Tallest Rock (5-3-1973)

Chicago put one over on New York today.  The Sears Tower was topped off.  Our city had the tallest building in the world.

Sears had maintained its main office in North Lawndale for decades.  During the late 1960s the company decided to build new headquarters.  After looking in the suburbs, they chose a downtown site.

The original plan was to build two separate buildings.  That was changed to a single structure, 1,454 feet high.  As board chairman Gordon Metcalf explained, “Being the largest retailer in the world, we thought we should have the largest headquarters in the world.”

Construction began in 1970.  The foundations were dug, and the steel frame began to rise slowly over Wacker Drive.  On the way up, the Sears Tower passed the former record holder, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York.

Today’s ceremony was almost postponed.  The weather was raw and windy.  The final girder contained the signatures of the 12,000 people who had worked on the project.  The construction chief was worried that the 2,500-pound beam might smash into some windows on the way up.

But a few hundred people had already gathered at the site.  Cardinal Cody and Mayor Richard J. Daley had come to give their blessings.  The girder was hoisted and set in place.

That was the signal.  A chorus of electrical workers burst into song, serenading the crowd with such lyrics as:

“She towers so high,

Just scraping the sky.

She’s The Tallest Rock.”

Speeches followed from various dignitaries.  Then the mayor brought the proceedings to a close.  “I want to thank [Sears] for staying in Chicago when so many are leaving,” he said.  “Sears, Roebuck—a name that means everything to the people of America—has no equal in the business world of Chicago.”

Everyone went home happy.  The Sears Tower lifted the spirits of Chicago.  Having the World’s Tallest Building helped the city get through some tough years.

Still, records are made to be broken.  The Sears Tower kept is title until 1996.  Today all the sky-piercing structures are going up in Asia.

Meanwhile, in 1992, Sears again moved its headquarters, this time to Hoffman Estates.  The tall building on Wacker Drive is now known as the Willis Tower.


The Great Loop Flood (4-13-1992)

Today Chicagoans got an unexpected history lesson.  Today was the day of the flood.

Early in the 20th Century, a network of tunnels was built 40 feet below the streets of downtown Chicago.  The tunnels were used mostly for hauling freight between Loop buildings.  They were abandoned during the 1950s.


By 1991 most Chicagoans knew nothing about the freight tunnels.  That December, a contractor happened to be sinking wooden pilings into the river at the Kinzie Street Bridge.  The work caused a crack in one of the tunnel walls.  The city was notified about the accident.

Months passed.  There was no water leak, so there didn’t seem to be any hurry about fixing the crack.  Then, shortly before 6 on the morning of April 13, the Fire Department received a call about flooding in the basement of the Merchandise Mart.

Had a water main broken?  That explanation was soon discarded, as the real problem became evident–the river had pushed through the crack in the wall of the freight tunnel, and was pouring in.

The flood spread southward, into the Loop.  Electric and gas lines were knocked out.  More basements were flooded.  The waters eventually reach as far south as the Hilton.

4-13--flood at Kinzie.jpg

Trading was suspended at the exchanges.  Government offices shut down.  Businesses closed early and sent their employees home—but not on the subway, because the power was out there, too.  Thousands of people milled aimlessly around downtown, trading rumors.

It was an odd disaster.  At street level, everything looked as it always had.  Officials assured the public that the situation was under control.  Governor Jim Edgar met with Mayor Richard M. Daley at City Hall.  Afterward the governor told reporters there was no need to call out the National Guard.

About 11 a.m. the river locks were opened.  That let the Chicago River resume its natural course into Lake Michigan.  The water in the tunnels continued to rise, but more slowly.

By evening the water level had finally stabilized.  Now the cleaning up and pumping out began.  It would take weeks.  A private contractor finally had to be brought in to seal the original leak at Kinzie Street.

The water emergency was expensive.  Some estimates place the price tag for damaged goods, repair costs, and lost business at over $100,000,000.  For insurance reasons, the event is officially classified as a “leak.”  But no matter what name is used, those who experienced it firsthand often echo the reaction of their mayor—“What a day!”


For 366 stories like this—one for every day of a leap year—buy a copy of my book, On This Day in Chicago History