Posts Tagged 'Sports'

Joe Louis’s Home

Joe Louis was born in Alabama and grew up in Detroit. He spent his later life in Las Vegas.  But during the twelve years he reigned as heavyweight boxing champion of the world, he lived in Chicago.

Born Joseph Louis Barrow in 1914, he dropped his last name when he began amateur boxing as a Detroit teenager, so his mother wouldn’t find out what he was doing. As Joe Louis the kid fighter attracted the attention of John Roxborough.  Roxborough, one of the city’s gambling kingpins, became Louis’s manager.

In 1934 Louis turned pro. Roxborough began grooming him for a shot at the heavyweight championship, and that meant a move Chicago, where Louis could train under Jack Blackburn. Local promoter Julian Black joined Roxborough as a partner.  He found Louis an apartment on 46th Street off South Park Way (King Drive).

Joe and Marva

Louis quickly rose through the ranks with a string of knockouts. During one of his gym sessions he noticed Marva Trotter, a secretary at the Chicago Daily Defender newspaper. They started dating.  On the morning of September 24, 1935 Joe and Marva were married in New York.  Joe then went off to Yankee Stadium, knocked out ex-champ Max Baer in four rounds, and went back to his hotel and Marva.

The new couple settled in at the Rosenwald Apartments at 4648 South Michigan Avenue. The 454-unit complex had been built by white philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to provide decent housing for the city’s African Americans.  Louis later said that the Rosenwald “was the most fabulous building black people could live in at the time.”  Gwendolyn Brooks, Nat “King” Cole, and other prominent Chicagoans were also residents.

Louis continued winning in the ring until Max Schmeling stopped him in June 1936. Louis then rebounded with a new string of victories.  On June 22, 1937, he knocked out James J. Braddock at Comiskey Park to become the new heavyweight champion.

Marva was not at the fight. According to the Tribune, she listened to the action on the radio in their apartment at 4320 South Michigan Avenue.  After the fight, Louis had trouble driving back the few blocks home through the crowds.  “I thought all of Chicago was standing outside my house,” he wrote in his autobiography.  “Marva and I had to come out, I don’t know how many times, and wave at the people.”

Joe Louis’s Chicago Home

Exactly when the Louises relocated from the Rosenwald is unclear. According to the 1940 Census, Joe had purchased the three-story apartment building for $7500—about $140,000 in today’s money.  Their personal flat had five rooms.  At that time the tenants in the other five units paid rents ranging from $40- to $65-a-month.

One year to the day after he’d won the heavyweight title, Louis took care of his old nemesis, Max Schmeling, in just over two minutes. In the course of twelve years Louis would successfully defend his title 25 times, more than any other boxing champion.  Some critics scoffed at his challengers as the Bum-of-the-Month Club.  More likely, Louis was just too good for anyone.

Louis served in the army during World War II, mostly fighting exhibitions. When he came out of the service, his skills had noticeably deteriorated.  He won a few fights, but the magic was gone.  In October 1949 he announced his retirement from the ring.

Meanwhile, Louis’s marriage had also deteriorated.  Joe liked the ladies, and the ladies liked Joe.  Joe and Marva divorced in 1945, remarried in 1946, then divorced a final time in 1949.  Marva kept the two children and the apartment building on Michigan Avenue.

The rest of Louis’s life was not happy. He had trusted too many people with his money, and the Internal Revenue Service came after him for back taxes, which he couldn’t pay.  A boxing comeback was an embarrassment.  He had health problems and battled substance abuse.  His final years were spent as a greeter in a casino.

Joe Louis died in 1981. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  A few years after his death, his favorite local golf course—Pipe O’ Peace in Riverdale—was renamed Joe Louis the Champ Golf Course.  The apartment building he owned on Michigan Avenue during his glory years remains a private residence.



Jack Johnson Sentenced to Prison (6-4-1913)

Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson was sentenced to 366 days in the Joliet penitentiary and fined $1,000 today.  He’d been convicted of violating the Mann Act by transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes.

The law was supposed to curb prostitution.  But for the federal government of 1913, the big problem was that Johnson was black, and the woman he’d brought from Pittsburgh to Chicago was white.

“This defendant is one of the best known men of his race,” the judge said.  “His example has been far reaching.”  Johnson was allowed to remain free on $30,000 bail while his conviction was under appeal.  Rather than take his chances with the appeal, he jumped bail and left the country.

Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard in a 1915 bout.  In 1920 he returned to the United States, served his prison time, and was released.  He died in an auto accident in 1946.

Recognizing the injustice done to Johnson, President Donald Trump granted the boxer a posthumous pardon on May 24, 2018.


Going Stagg

Amos Alonzo Stagg did not invent football.  But during his 41 years at the University of Chicago he developed much of the modern game.

Stagg was born in New Jersey in 1862.  He began making his football headlines while a divinity student at Yale University.  Playing end on the varsity squad, he was named to the very first All-American Team in 1889.

Young Stagg

After graduating from Yale, Stagg wanted to remain connected with football.  Coaching offered the best opportunity—there was no NFL in those days.  So when the brand-new University of Chicago asked him to take charge of its athletic program, Stagg headed west.

The year was 1892.  Stagg was given an ample budget and also faculty rank, something no full-time coach had ever had at any college.  His title was Director of the Division of Physical Culture.

Though he never did become a minister, Stagg felt he could promote the Christian ethic through football.  “The coaching profession is one of the noblest and most far-reaching in building manhood,” he once said.  Of course, that didn’t mean he had to field a losing team.

And Stagg’s teams were winners.  The University of Chicago Maroons won seven Big Ten championships between 1899 and 1924.  The undefeated 1905 and 1913 teams were ranked #1 in the nation.

Stagg was an innovator.  He invented the huddle, the direct pass from center, the lateral, the man-in-motion, the backfield shift, and cross-blocking.  Wanting his players to develop stamina along with strength, he introduced wind sprints.  He was also the first to put numbers on uniforms.  “All football comes from Stagg,” Knute Rockne declared.

Stagg Field (original), University of Chicago

But at the university, football wasn’t Stagg’s only responsibility.  He ran the entire athletic program.  At different times he coached baseball, basketball, track, and swimming.  Oh—and while he was at it, he also invented the batting cage.

Stagg led a sedate life.  He didn’t smoke or drink, went to church, raised a family, and stayed married to the same woman.  That didn’t mean he shied away from publicity, or that he wouldn’t express his opinions.  Stagg didn’t like college fraternities.  And he thought that pro football was a “menace” to amateur athletics.

Old Stagg

In 1929 Robert Maynard Hutchins became U of C president.  His vision of a university didn’t include high-powered football teams.  When Stagg turned 70 in 1932, Hutchins forced him to retire.

The Grand Old Man of Football wouldn’t go quietly.  Stagg told the press he was leaving the university against his will.  Moving to California, he signed on as head coach at College of the Pacific.

In 1946, at 84, Stagg retired from the Pacific job.  He had 314 wins to his credit, the most for any football coach.  Still refusing to obey the calendar, he then went to work for his son, as an assistant coach.

He celebrated his 100th birthday in 1962.  Asked by a reporter about his future plans, Stagg quipped: “I may go on forever—statistics say that very few men die after the age of 100.”

He almost made 103, dying in the spring of 1965.  Today he is memorialized by a number of athletic fields in various cities.  There are also two Amos Alonzo Stagg High Schools, in Palos Hills and in Stockton, California.



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!”