Posts Tagged 'Sports'

Chicago’s Forgotten Baseball Team

In the early twentieth century, America’s cities were growing. Baseball was popular.  The country already had the National and American Leagues.  Surely there was room for a third major league.

In 1913 a group of entrepreneurs organized the Federal League. At first the new league did nothing to challenge the NL/AL monopoly.  The Chicago team, known as the Chifeds, was headed by local businessman James A. Gilmore, and played its games at the De Paul University baseball diamond.  Operating on a tight budget, the Federal League got through the 1913 season.

James A. Gilmore and Charles Weeghman

Now the league began to attract some deep-pocket investors. For 1914 the Feds declared themselves a full-fledged major league.  They immediately began trying to sign players away from the two established majors.  Gilmore was named the new league president.  That opened the door for Charles Weeghman.

Weeghman had made his money running a string of low-cost lunch counters around Chicago. A few years earlier he’d been rebuffed in a bid to buy the St. Louis Cardinals.  Now he took over the Chicago Federal League franchise and immediately started operating.

“Going Major” meant the Chifeds needed a better ballpark. With the White Sox playing on the South Side and the Cubs on the West Side, Weeghman staked out territory on the North Side.  In December 1913 he secured a 99-year lease on a parcel of land at Clark and Addison Streets.  He hired Zachary Taylor Davis, architect of Comiskey Park, to design the new Weeghman Field.  Work immediately began erecting the steel-and-concrete stadium.

1914 Chifeds

That same month Weeghman pulled off a coup by signing Joe Tinker as the Chifeds manager and shortstop. The onetime Cubs’ star was the first “name” player to throw his lot with the new circuit.  Tinker’s signing gave notice that the Feds meant business.  Over that winter a bidding war broke out as the Feds tried to entice more players away from the two established majors.

The Chifeds opened their new stadium on April 24, 1914. A capacity crowd of over 18,000 people was on hand.  Bands played, school children marched, and the ladies’ auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic displayed a giant American flag.  The home team capped the day with a 9-1 victory over the Kansas City Packers.

“Baseball Magazine” April 1915

Throughout the season, the Feds battled the NL/AL monopoly in the courts. On the field the new league held its own.  In Chicago and in other cities where they faced off against the older leagues, the Feds cut heavily into ballpark patronage.  Federal League owners said they were willing to put up with a few seasons of red ink.  They were playing a long game.

And in Chicago, the Cubs and Sox were having mediocre seasons. Meanwhile, the Chifeds were battling for the league pennant.  The 1914 season ended the team with the team in second place, only one game behind the champion Indianapolis Hoosiers.  Pitcher Claude Hendrix led the league with 29 wins.

For 1915 the Chifeds were given a new name, the Chicago Whales. But the big news came when the team announced it had signed the great Walter Johnson away from the Washington Senators.  Alarmed that baseball’s best pitcher would be drawing more fans away from his team, Sox owner Charles Comiskey quietly paid Johnson $10,000 to stay in Washington.

The renamed Whales opened their season before another capacity crowd on April 10. Newly-elected mayor William Hale Thompson threw out the ceremonial first ball.  Once again, the team was in the thick of the pennant race.  But now some of the Federal League owners were growing tired of the baseball war.  Peace talks began with the two established leagues.

Big Bill Thompson at the 1915 Whales opener

The 1915 Federal League pennant race turned out to be one of the closest in all major league history. The Whales squeezed out the championship over St. Louis and Pittsburgh.  Spitball ace Slats McConnell topped the league’s pitchers with 25 victories.

That December the Feds signed a peace treaty with the two older major leagues. The Federal League was dissolved.  Weeghman bought a controlling interest in the Cubs, bringing with him Tinker, McConnell, Hendrix, and the best Whales players.  He also moved the Cubs to the ballpark at Clark and Addison, where they remain to this day.



Inside Football (12-18-1932)

Super Bowl Sunday has become an unofficial American holiday.  But let’s go back to pro football’s Jurassic Era.  Things were a lot different on this date, when the National Football League staged its first championship playoff.

In 1932 pro football was still a poor cousin to the college sport.  The NFL was barely surviving with eight teams.  When the regular season ended, two teams had tied for first place—the Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans.

(That’s Portsmouth, Ohio.  In 1932 this metropolis on the Ohio River had a population of about 35,000.  And you thought Green Bay was small!)

The NFL had never had a first-place tie.  A special playoff game was hastily arranged.  The two teams were scheduled to meet at the Bears’ home, Wrigley Field, on the afternoon of December 18.

As game day approached, Chicago turned cold.  Daytime temperatures peaked at about 19 degrees.  Since pro games only drew a few thousand people in the best weather, league officials were afraid nobody would show up for their championship.

Their solution was to play indoors.  The game was moved to the Chicago Stadium and rescheduled for 8:15 in the evening.  Though the stadium’s floor could be covered with dirt, one problem remained—there wasn’t enough room for a standard football field.

That meant the rules had to be adjusted.  Since the field was only 60 yards long (instead of 100), every time a team crossed midfield, the ball was spotted back 20 yards.  The grandstand walls were flush against the sidelines, so each play had to start away from them, near the center of the field.  The end zones were only a few feet deep, so the goal posts were moved up to the goal line.

The game was played with little difficulty.  A near-capacity crowd of 11,193 came out—or rather, came in.  The Bears won, 9-0.

The 1932 playoff turned out to be a milestone.  The NFL discovered that some of the temporary rules made for a more action-packed game, so those rules became permanent.  The league itself was divided into two conferences.  Now each season would climax with the excitement of a championship game.

As for the Portsmouth Spartans, they played one more season in the NFL.  In 1934 the team moved to Detroit and became the Lions.


Chicago’s Original Walking Man (11-28-1867)

Most Chicagoans know about the Walking Man, the tall dude with the long hair and mustache who silently stalks the downtown streets. His reappearance each spring is usually good for a few lines in the papers or a few thousand tweets on the net.

One hundred fifty years ago the city greeted another walking man. His arrival made national news.  His name was Edward Payson Weston.

Born in Rhode Island in 1839, Payson spent his teens bouncing around the country. He worked as a reporter and as a circus roustabout, traveled with a singing troupe, and failed at a number of other jobs. Politics finally found him his life’s work, though not in the customary manner.

Edward Payson Weston (1867)

Over dinner one night in 1860, Weston and a friend were talking about the upcoming presidential election. Weston was sure Abraham Lincoln had no chance of being elected, and said that he would walk from Boston to Washington to attend the inauguration if Lincoln won.  When Lincoln did win, Weston did walk the 500 miles in 10 days.  It was a charming story for a country about to be split by civil war, and Weston got his first taste of fame.

Weston’s war service as a Union dispatch runner was short and unremarkable. By 1867 he was deeply in debt when he met a promoter named George Goodwin.  Remembering Weston’s inauguration trek, Goodwin bet fellow businessman T.F. Wilcox $10,000 that Weston could walk the 1,226 miles from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in thirty days.

Weston eagerly agreed to the plan. His share of the possible winnings would be $4,000.  He’d also receive a $6,000 bonus if he walked 100 miles in a single day.

Weston stepped off from Portland at noon on October 29, 1867. He covered the first 105 miles to Boston in two days without incident.  Then, as he moved through New England, crowds began to gather.  In anticipation of the turn-out, Weston carried with him a supply of studio portraits, which he sold for 25 cents each.

The press picked up the story and ran with it. Harper’s Weekly magazine and most of the newspapers were supportive, considering Weston’s “pedestrianism” as an athletic endeavor.  Still, some thought him nothing more than a publicity-seeker.  There were also reports of “counterfeit Westons” strolling through towns to grab a share of his glory.

Weston walked on. In Providence three young women rushed out of the crowd to give him a wreath and kiss him.  In Buffalo he had dinner with ex-President Fillmore.  In Fremont, Ohio, local police saved him from thugs who’d been hired to delay his progress.  In South Bend enthusiastic crowds pushed into his hotel to get a look at him while he tried to sleep.

During his journey, Weston made several attempts to win the bonus for walking 100 miles in a day. Each time he came up short.  One newspaper noted that many of Weston’s friends had been betting against this, and suggested Weston was in on the fix.  Nothing was ever proven.

Weston Tobacco Card (1909)

Fearing last minute sabotage, Weston arranged for an armed escort on the final leg of his journey. He arrived at the Village of Hyde Park on the evening of his twenty-ninth day.  The next morning he began his final walk into Chicago.

Thousands of spectators lined Wabash Avenue as Weston made his victory lap on November 28—Thanksgiving Day. They waved American flags and cheered themselves hoarse.  As the conquering hero approached the Sherman House hotel, the crush was so thick that police had to clear the way.  At the hotel he gave a short speech to his admirers before retiring.  The next few days saw a series of public exhibitions and testimonial dinners before “Weston Fever” gradually subsided.

Edward Payson Weston parlayed his 1867 Chicago trek into a fifty-year career as a professional “pedestrian.” He performed all over America and Europe, and was respected enough to be featured in a tobacco card series of famous athletes.  In 1927 the man who’d walked from New York to San Francisco in 100 days suffered the indignity of being hit by a taxi while crossing the street.  He never fully recovered, and died in 1929.


Galloping Ghost Snagged by Bears! (11-22-1925)

Harold Grange—Red Grange, Old #77, the Wheaton Iceman, the Galloping Ghost—signed a contract to play pro football for the Chicago Bears today.  And that was front page news.

Grange at work

Grange at work

In 1925 college football was the only football that mattered.  The play-for-pay version was casually referred to as “post-graduate” football.  The NFL was struggling through its sixth season.  Though a big college game could attract 70,000 spectators, the pros usually played before a few hundred.

Grange was the most famous football player in the land.  He had rewritten the record book during his three years as a University of Illinois halfback.  In one game against a tough Michigan squad, he’d scored four touchdowns in the first twelve minutes.

Normally, after the football schedule was over, Grange would have returned to campus, gone back to class, and finished up his undergrad studies.  Then he might use his fame to get started in business.  Or if he wanted to stay in touch with football, he could look for a coaching job.

Grange at rest

Grange at rest

Most pro football players earned less than $100 a game.  A promoter named C.C. Pyle convinced Grange he could do much better.  Grange played his final college game against Ohio State on November 21, 1925.  The next day he came to Chicago and signed with the Bears.

George Halas, coach and part-owner of the Bears, immediately arranged a 19-game, coast-to-coast barnstorming tour.  Grange was paid a guarantee plus a percentage of the gate.  Newspapers speculated he might earn as much as $60,000—about what Babe Ruth got from the Yankees.

That figure was too low.  The tour drew so many people Grange pocketed over $100,000.  And the NFL had gained $100,000,000 worth of publicity.

In 1926 Grange and Pyle tried to start their own league.  When that venture failed, the Galloping Ghost returned to the Bears.  He retired from active play in 1934.

Even a half-century later, George Halas always declared that Red Grange was the greatest football player he’d ever seen.  In 1975 an interviewer asked Halas how many yards Grange might run up in an NFL season today. “Oh, about 750 or 800,” Halas replied.

“That’s not so much,” the interviewer interrupted.

“Well, you’ve got to remember one thing,” Halas said.  “Today, Red Grange is over 70 years old!”


Million-Dollar Horse Race (8-30-1981)

The sporting world had never seen anything like it.  Arlington Park was holding the first thoroughbred horse race with a million-dollar purse.  The race was called—what else?—the Arlington Million.


The idea originated with Joe Joyce, who’d headed the track since 1976.  The inaugural Million was scheduled over a distance of one-and-one-quarter miles, and was open to three-year-olds and up.  The winner was to receive 60% of that $1 million purse—nearly double the prize of the Kentucky Derby.

Joyce wanted international attention, and he got it.  The final field of fourteen horses included entries from England, Ireland, and France.  Interest in Europe was so great that NBC added special satellite TV coverage of the race.  One writer said that the first Million would be “the race people may be telling their grandchildren about, fifty years from now.”

Million Day was a Sunday.  The weather was pleasant, and 30,637 people came out to Arlington.  As the horses readied for the 3:40 post, the favorite was 6-year-old gelding John Henry, with legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker up.

Racing fans call a thoroughbred race “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”  The first Arlington Million took slightly longer than that, 2:07:06.  Most of the excitement was provided by The Bart, a 40-1 shot who led most of the way.  Charging furiously at the end, John Henry finally came through and won by a nose.


Watching the replay in the paddock, jockey Shoemaker could only shake his head and say, “That was even closer than the real thing!”  He predicted the Arlington Million would have a splendid future because it had such an international flavor.  And he added, “This might be the greatest race I was ever in.”

Dave Condon of the Tribune had a humorous take on the day’s events.  Because Illinois didn’t have (legal) off-track betting in 1981, Condon tried to place a wager on the Million with a London gambling house.  And since this was 1981, there wasn’t any internet.  So Condon had to make a long-distance phone call to London at 3 a.m. Chicago-time.

When he finally got through, after various adventures, he was told that American Express wouldn’t allow him to charge a wager on his credit card.

Today the Arlington Million is a major event on the racing calendar.  At the track itself, a sculpture titled “Against All Odds” commemorates the 1981 battle between John Henry and The Bart.


A Star Is Born (8-21-1914)

Okay–this is three days late.  I was busy with the eclipse!

In August 1914 golf’s United States Open championship was being staged at the south suburban Midlothian Country Club. Among the entrants was a 21-year-old pro from upstate New York named Walter Hagen.

Hagen had finished fourth in the previous Open. But he’d been ready to abandon golf in favor of a baseball contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was back at the Open only because a wealthy friend had bankrolled the trip.

Hagen at Midlothian, 1914

Hagen at Midlothian, 1914

This was Hagen’s first visit to Chicago. The night before the tournament, Hagen and a buddy had dinner at a Loop restaurant. Within a few hours, the young golfer was throwing up.

Hagen wanted to withdraw from the tournament. His buddy convinced him to at least give it a try. Popping pills and stumbling around in a daze, Hagen shot 68, a course record. He was leading the Open.

By now, Hagen was feeling better. His scoring fell off the next two rounds. Still, he held the lead going into the final eighteen holes.

On his way to the most important round of golf in his life, Hagen stopped to watch a 7-year-old boy knocking a golf ball around the practice green. Hagen asked what he was doing. “Playing golf,” was the answer. As Hagen listened intently, the kid proceeded to give him a lesson.

Fourth round. Hagen’s play was raggedy now. Yet he managed to drain a long putt on the last green and post a final total of 292. When local amateur Chick Evans just missed holing out a chip on that same green, Hagen became the 1914 U.S. Open champion.

Afterward, at the ceremony where officials presented Hagen with the trophy, nobody was prouder that a certain 7-year-old boy. He went around telling everyone that he’d taught the new champ to play golf only a few hours earlier.

For his part, Hagen didn’t stick around the clubhouse too long after his victory. During his final round, he’d become acquainted with a young lady in the gallery, and they’d made a date. Now he hurried off to meet her.

Walter Hagen went on to become one of history’s greatest golfers.  He was the winner of eleven major championships—or sixteen, if you count his five Western Open titles, a big event in those times.  He summed up his philosophy of life memorably: “You’re only here for a short time. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.”


Bowler of the Half-Century

When bowling was big and when Chicago was the bowling capital of the world, the greatest bowler in Chicago was Paul Krumske.  And there’s one story about Paul Krumske they always tell.

During one close match, Krumske suddenly keels over on the lane, grabbing his chest and gasping for breath.  The match stops.  Medical help is summoned, and Krumske is revived.  He gamely declares that he will go on.

By now the opposition is totally unnerved—especially when Krumske rolls the next half-dozen strikes.


This incident happened during the famous match Krumske bowled against Ned Day . . . or in a team match in the Chicago Classic League . . . or in a tournament in Detroit . . . or was it in a late-night pot game at Marigold?  Maybe he faked heart attacks on all those occasions.

After the first few times, though, you’d think the other bowlers would get wise, and just step over Paul as they bowled.

Born on the South Side in 1912, Krumske dropped out of high school to go to work as a clerk at a meat-packing plant.  One evening, when he was 17, the boss needed a sub on his bowling team.  Krumske volunteered.

He learned fast.  Within five years Krumske had rolled his first 300 game and was carrying one of the highest averages in the city.  The papers started running stories about the new boy wonder of bowling.

There wasn’t any pro bowling then.  The better bowlers all had day jobs.  They made money by getting on a top-flight team, then competing in leagues and tournaments, or by rolling matches against other hotshots.

Krumske Ball Cleaner (1946).jpg

Krumske followed this route.  He bowled in the city’s best league, the Chicago Classic, for nearly forty years.  For twenty years he was league secretary.  Recognized as one of the country’s top players, he was named to the annual All-American team seven times.

His finest moment came in 1944.  Ned Day was bowling’s match-game champion—the equivalent of boxing’s heavyweight champ.  He’d never been beaten in a head-to-head match.  But Krumske challenged him, and won the title in an 80-game showdown.

In 1951 a newspaper poll named Krumske Chicago’s “Bowler of the Half-Century.”  Bowling was starting to enjoy boom times.  By now Krumske was endorsing bowling products and giving exhibitions for an equipment manufacturer.  He also had a full-time job at the Peter Hand Brewery.

His title was Sports Director.  That meant Krumske was captain of the brewery’s famed Meister Brau Beer bowling team.  By staying in the news, the team helped sell beer.  And as secretary of the Chicago Classic, Krumske could convince bowling proprietors to stock Meister Brau in their bars.


Krumske appeared on the many bowling shows that were popular in the early days of TV.  For awhile he had his own local program called “Bowl the Professor.”  In 1957 comedian Jerry Lewis made a surprise visit, bowling a hilarious one-game match against Krumske.  The tape of that show was later used for charity fund-raising.

Like most athletes, Krumske’s skills declined as he grew older.  His bowling winnings shrank.  His exhibition contract was not renewed.  Then, in 1972, the brewery closed.

Krumske did some instructing and ran a few tournaments.  Early in 1979 he decided to make a fresh start and moved to Florida.  That same summer, Paul Krumske died in his new Boca Raton home.

The cause of death was a heart attack.