Influence, Clout and Media Partisanship in Chicago's Baseball Marketing Wars
Chicago's (Un)-Civil War: Cubs vs. Sox
by Richard Lindberg
Copyright © 2002
After four unsatisfying, and mostly disappointing seasons as owner of the Chicago White Sox, Bill Veeck, that great carnival promoter and showman who could fill a stadium on the backs of midgets, realized that the old methods of maintaining profitability (while saddled with a losing, lackluster ball club on the field), were trumped by the Chicago media who had shown a clear and decided preference for the National League team. By the third year of his second Chisox ownership (1976-1980), the canny Veeck was measuring the amount of column inches in the Windy City's last two surviving daily newspapers. He arrived at the inescapable conclusion that the White Sox were playing a poor second fiddle and shortchanged by a new generation of columnists and beat reporters obsessed with the Cubs and all things Wrigley. The White Sox were thus placed at a competitive disadvantage he believed impossible to overcome. Veeck, who never held on to any of his teams longer than four seasons, put the White Sox on the auction block in 1980 and was prepared to transfer them to Denver if necessary, rather than continue this war of fan attrition with the powerful, albeit, losing Cubs. It is interesting to note that these events occurred a full two years before the Tribune Company, the richest and most powerful media conglomerate in the Midwest, bought the Cubs in 1981.
Until the late 1960s when changing fan demographics and a series of unfortunate marketing decisions on the part of ownership regarding their television arrangements, the Chicago White Sox were not in a position to make accusations of bias against the local press corps. From the earliest days of the 20th Century when Charles Comiskey, baseball's venerable "Old Roman" and founder of the franchise courted the baseball scribes and local wheeler-dealers in the sumptuous surroundings of the "Bards Room," his private stadium dining area, the White Sox enjoyed favorable press attention and the warm affection of a supportive, enthusiastic press cadre who genuinely took the team to heart.
At the conclusion of each season, Comiskey invited his most ardent supporters in the world of politics, high finance and the journalism (Ring Lardner, Sy Sanborn, Gus Axelson, Hugh Fullerton, Jim Crusinberry among others) up to his hunting estate near Mercer, Wisconsin for a week of outdoors funall expenses paid. The original "White Sox Rooter's Association" founded by a slick public relations promoter who helped launch the Blackhawks hockey team named Joseph Chesterfield Farrell and the famous Chicago criminal defense attorney Robert Emmet Cantwell in 1903, evolved into the socially prominent and politically connected "Woodland Bards," so named for their mutual interest in baseball and Shakespearean verse, recited in nonsensical doggerel over blazing campfires in the Wisconsin woods of late autumn. Thereafter the Comiskey Park stadium club became forever known as the "Bards Room," where by the custom of the day, women were not permitted to enter.
Their gracious host's first-class accommodations and hospitality toward the "Bards" paid long-term dividends for the franchise, even in the long and dreary 30-year period (1921-1950) accompanying the Black Sox Scandal when, for much of the time, the team languished in the nether regions of the American League.
Politicians gravitated to Charles Comiskey, the son of a prominent Civil War-era politician from the "auld sod." Because so much of Chicago's political establishment in the early 1900s was Irish-American in composition and a number of bigwigs including a score of past and future mayors hailed from the South Side Bridgeport neighborhood where the ballpark was situated, the owner received certain "accommodations" when necessary (or "clout" as it is commonly understood in the corridors of City Hall), including valuable zoning concessions when, for example, it was announced in 1908 that a new concrete and steel Comiskey Park was to be built at 35th and Shields. That same year his constituents and enthusiastic members of the City Council touted the "Old Roman" for alderman, but he modestly declined the invitation on the grounds that he had a baseball team to run.
Through the modern era the White Sox enjoyed the patronage of a succession of South Side mayors including the two Richard Daleys and the late Harold Washington, whose influence within Democratic circles in Chicago reached downstate and helped secure the passage of the controversial stadium funding bill that rescued the franchise from a certain exodus to St. Petersburg, Florida in 1989. The elder Richard Daley was an important "behind the scenes" operative when the late Bill Veeck struggled to purchase the team from John Allyn in 1975 after the American League indicated its willingness to re-locate the club to Seattle.
The support of a tightly-woven and insular circle of Democratic power-brokers living within the shadow of Comiskey Park in the city's historic and fabled 11th Ward served the various ownerships well down through the yearsa key advantage that has kept the team anchored to the Windy City despite repeated marketing fiascos, years of losing baseball, and a shrinking fan base.
They also managed to earn favorable press through the mid to late 1960s. If the Sox weren't winning on the field, they could at least count on the favorable editorial slants of John Carmichael, Arch Ward, Warren Brown and Irving Vaughn to prime the pump and spread the good word during the pre-season with glowing reports about the team's coming prospects for the New Year. Young up-and-comers like Gene Kessler with the Sun-Times, Bill Gleason for the American, Dave Condon at the Tribune, and John Kuenster of the Daily News followed the leaders and voiced support for the White Sox who remained a popular, crowd-pleasing draw during their string of winning seasons in the 1950s as a result. In his first White Sox go-around (1959-1961) Bill Veeck, like Charles Comiskey before him, demonstrated his skill at playing the press and working the reporters to good advantage through his collegiality and socialability. Veeck sent a strong message to the media that he was after all, "one of them," by opting for front-row seating along press row and not in the owner's luxury box. There he would hold court, quaff a beer or two, and exchange wit and sagely wisdom with a cadre of admiring reporters who easily succumbed to his charm and flamboyance. Some were even admitted into his privileged inner circle.
The veterans on the Chicago baseball beat courted by the Comiskeys and Veeck were well known to several generations of fans, and their word carried great weight. Brown and Carmichael spanned a 40-year period from the 1920s extending through the mid-1960s. Warren Brown authored the first published team history in 1951 for G.P. Putnam's Sons. Carmichael, the host of the witty and urbane "Barber Shop" column in the afternoon Daily News was unabashed in his partisanship and frequently engaged in good-natured banter with fellow scribe and Cub fan Lloyd Lewis, host of the paper's long-running "Voice of the Grandstand" column. Later, after his newspaper days ended, the White Sox hired Carmichael to head up their speaker's bureau.
By the late 1960s, a dramatic change took root. The media and public relations pendulum swung away from the White Sox, never to return. Warren Brown was retired and Carmichael was an ancient figure from another time. In 1966, the Chicago White Sox opted out of their agreement with WGN-TV, and granted broadcast exclusivity to WFLD, the new UHF frequency in Chicago. It was a disastrous miscalculation on the part of ownership. Few people outside of the Sox purists bothered to purchase a de-coder box, necessary for unscrambling the station's weak signal. In 1968, nearly the entire White Sox home and away schedule was aired over WFLD, but few were watching, and home attendance plummeted, forcing owner Arthur Allyn to play a series of 10 "home games" in Milwaukee as a test run for possible franchise relocation. The team tumbled out of the A.L. first division for the first time in 17 years, while the Cubs were on the rise with a vastly improved ball club.
The first taste of losing baseball on the South Side since the 1950 season was bitter and unpleasant. The failure of the team to maintain its winning ways dovetailed into the concerns of suburban whites that the neighborhood was gang-ridden, dangerous and likely to erupt in racial violence at any moment. Long simmering racial tensions on the West Side escalated into violence in 1965, 1966, and 1968 but these incidents occurred nowhere near Comiskey Park. Ironically, the Deering Police District was less than four blocks from the ballparkdown the street from Daley residence on Lowe Avenue. Bridgeport, an isolated pocket of ethnic whites reported one of the lowest crime rates in the city per capita during the time Allyn was weighing his options.
Art Allyn, a diffident, headstrong LaSalle Street blueblood was out of step with the political current around town, and never warmed up to the first Mayor Daley or the 11th Ward Irish Catholic establishment in control of the City Hall. In 1966, when Allyn pushed forward a scheme to build a new Comiskey Park closer to downtown on a parcel of choice lakefront property, he was politely rebuffed by Daley who had his own pet idea for a circular, multi-purpose facility to be shared with the football Bears on a strip of landfill jutting into Lake Michigan. Allyn was not interested, thus setting in motion the aborted plan to transfer the Sox to Milwaukee for the 1970 season.
Meanwhile, a new generation of beat writers, impressed by the legions of young fans pouring into Wrigley Field, the eccentricities and crude antics of the "Bleacher Bums" and the lovable underdog persona of the team adopted the Cubs as "destiny's darlings," forsaking the White Sox who were rapidly slipping off the radar screen. Chicago Today columnist Rick Talley (later with the Tribune) led the chorus of cheers from the Wrigley press box. But it wasn't Talley's criticisms of the South Side ball club that irked Sox fandom and ownership. They would have no doubt welcomed any controversy that would keep their name prominent in the paper. It was his stunning indifference and apathy that was so alarming. Talley had little to say about the White Sox in his forum, either pro or con. And as every author and actor knows from experience, it is far better to speak ill of a book or a performance in published reviews than to say nothing at all.
In 1969, the Sox drew just 589,546 patrons to Comiskey Park inclusive of 11 Milwaukee games. In stark contrast, the re-energized Cubs boasted a (then) record-setting city home attendance of 1,674,993. Marginalized by the Chicago fan, the drumbeat of franchise re-location grew louder by the day. To Art Allyn it seemed the only way out. One noted Chicago sportswriter, the late John Justin Smith, son of the esteemed author and journalist Henry Justin Smith of bygone days in Chicago, examined Allyn's financials and attempted to rally the troops behind the embattled owner after realizing the Sox teetered dangerously close to bankruptcy. Smith, who inherited the bellwether Daily News "Voice of the Grandstand" column from Harry Sheer, was a Sox bonafide to the point of antagonizing Cub fans with well aimed and sarcastic barbs throughout their magical 1969 season. But when the popular columnist hosted a special Comiskey Park outing and invited thousands of his readers to join him in the left field grandstand compliments of the Daily News and the White Sox, only several hundred shivering fans sat with him on a cold night with their blankets and banners. Smith held out hopes of filling the park to demonstrate that Chicago still loved the Sox, but the reported attendance that night was less than 8,000.
The perceived media imbalance accelerated in the 1970s, with only Bill Gleason at the Sun-Times left to spread the Sox gospel once John Justin Smith took over the reins of travel editor for the Times after the News folded in 1978. By this time, Bill Veeck who had purchased controlling interest from the Allyn family was frustrated and losing money. As home attendance sagged in 1980, the owner took immediate steps to divest his holdings. He considered moving the Sox to Denver before eventually selling to Jerry Reinsdorf the front man for a Chicago-based investment group.
Through thick and thin, the South Side team showed remarkable resiliency against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They weathered four different relocation crises between 1969-1988, secured public financing for the new Comiskey Park, staring down stiff opposition from downstate Illinois legislators, community activists, historic preservationists, and negative public opinion. At the same time, the press corps became more hostile toward owner Jerry Reinsdorf and his front office factotums, particularly in the years following the opening of Comiskey Park II (now U.S. Cellular Field). The apathy of a Rick Talley, a Ray Sons or a Dave Nightingale back in the 1960s gave way to a new and aggressive style of journalism magnified by a front-line attack launched against the White Sox in the 1990s by transplanted Detroit columnist Jay Mariotti. His style of no-holds-barred criticism and name-calling in the Sun-Times tore away at the gentlemanly fabric of journalistic decorum practiced by the earlier generation of writers who never lost sight of the fact that baseball was still, after all, a game, an amusement, and a diversionnot a grim and polarizing, winner-take-all shootout.
Week after week Mariotti pounded away at Jerry Reinsdorf, questioning his integrity, his business accumen and his professional ethics, creating the impression among readers that his print diatribes had less to do with legitimate sports commentary than fulfilling a personal vendetta aired against one man in a public forum. After years of enduring this kind of lambast, Reinsdorf responded with a few course words of his own and allegedly attempted to coax the Sun-Times bosses into discharging Mariotti, but the gambit failed and over the next several years, the columnist stepped up the attacks becoming even more shrill and abrasive. In hindsight the threat of a defamation of character lawsuit might have likely achieved the desired result of toning down or silencing Mariotti. The Sox owner seeemd to have sufficient grounds for an action.
Never a public relations oriented man to begin with, the shell-shocked Jerry Reinsdorf retreated into his own corner. He was not cut out of the same cloth as Veeck, and he made no attempt to court the media. The privacy of the owner's suite suited him just fine, and never would he be seen hobnobbing inside the press box unless there was a major storm brewing, like the pending 1994 player's walkout forcing him to articluate his position among baseball powebrokers at an improprtu interview session.
The owner was understandably suspicious and mistrustful of nearly every reporter knocking on his door with a tape recorder and a notepad in hand. Fearing a press ambush, or the likelihood of being misquoted, or seeing his comments twisted and taken out of context in the morning paper, Reinsdorf fended off requests for interviews, especially from younger reporters, or reporters he did not know personally. Offended, and their pride badly bruised, this new "MTV generation" of writers (the editorial talent pool is comprised mostly of non-Chicagoans, unfamiliar with the current of Sox and Cub history), jumped aboard Mariotti's bandwagon. This was true of both print journalists and 24-hour sports talk-show hosts.
By 2005, the Sox found themselves in a state of seige in their dealings with the local media. On the one-hand, there were the ultra-critical Chicago Sun-Times nabobs to contend with, who turned their baseball writing chores into a daily "Jerry Reinsdorf Celebrity Roast"exercise. On the other hand, theWhite Sox faced the awesome might of the Chicago Tribune, parent company of the Cubs. On any given day the amount of Tribune column inches given over to White Sox news was half, or a third of the space devoted to Cub news. On slow news days, or by some odd quirk of fate when coverage was equal, the Cub story would inevitably be positioned on top of, or before the Sox account..
A simple explanation the Cub editorialists will argue. After all, there are more Cub fans in Chicago than Sox fans, so it makes good common sense for the paper to cater to the needs and wants of its reading public, assuming of course that two-thirds of those readers happen to be Cub fans. From the business and demographic side of the argument the point is conceded, but it becomes more of a gray area when professionalism and journalistic ethics are called into question, and the appropriateness of editorial bias in favor of one entity over another.
The Tribune carefully tip-toed around the more damaging news stories of the day that reflected poorly on the Cub franchise: the shoddy practice of selling tickets for more than face value is one example. Sun-Times man Greg Couch spotlighted the Cubs' neighborhood ticket-scalping shop, but the story died a quiet death after the team refused to face up to it honestly. Couch is bewildered by the whole thing. Nor did the Tribune have much to say after an enraged motorist shot a fan to death following an altercation outside the main gate moments after a game had ended, or when the team erected a"spite fence" opposite the leftfield stands to obstruct the views of fans seated atop the neighboring buildings.
Frustrated Sox fans, divided between support and condemnation of Jay Mariotti, were unanimous on only one issue: the Cub-une (as they called it) was not serving their interests well. Cub fans tend to regard the White Sox as the annoying "rascally rabbit" who refuses to be browbeaten, chased out of town or devoured. They sense that the Wrigley Field inhabitants are the victim of a more subtle media bias played out on a mich bigger stage: the East Coast-West Coast rubric. From their perspective the Cub-Sox contretemps are a tempest in a teapot.
The ESPN Fly-over Zone
In September 1994, PBS premiered Baseball, film producer Ken Burns' 18 ½ -hour-long paen to the National Pastime, spread across nine evenings. Baseball was destined to become the most watched series in PBS history, with 45-million viewers tuning in. Critics on the East Coast were unanimous in their praise and all agreed with as assessment filed by David Bianculli of the New York Daily News who said, "[Baseball]...resonates like a Mozart symphony."
The poetic resonance rings true for the particular brand of critic or fan residing along the Eastern seaboard with strong spiritual ties to the Yankees, Red Sox, Giants, or the Brooklyn Dodgers. For the residents of the "Fly-over zone"that great expanse of land stretching from the Ohio Valley to the western edge of the RockiesBaseball was a disappointing, and futile exercise of insufferable East Coast elitism, shutting out the cluster of teams situated in the Heartland. Even Cub fans received their first bitter comeuppance of media apathy, courtesy of the Brooklyn-born documentarian who called upon Billy Crystal to wax poetic about the hated Yankees, and Doris Kearns Goodwin and her fellow New England-New York literary pedants to recite their dewy-eyed nostalgia for the late, lamented Dodgers and their modern-day incarnation, the Boston Red Sox.
Filmmaker Burns working with New York producer/collaborator Lynn Novick (both based in Walpole, NH, Burns' hometown), described the process. "After more than four years of work we produced an eighteen-and-a-half-hour filmed history of the game for public television, and, as the arc of the life of Ebbets field, which opens our film, suggests, our interest in this game has gone well beyond a round-up of baseball highlights. [We]
.hovered for hours above ancient diamonds in Iowa, West Texas, South Carolina, and a particularly beautiful old park built in a marshy area of Boston called the Fens."
Though they may have hovered above the Iowa cornfields and outhouses (their assertion seems dubious), surprisingly, Baseball had very little to say beyond 30-second sound-bites about the Tigers, Reds, Twins, Brewers, White Sox, Cubs, Indians, Cardinals, and Royals. Given the fabled Cub-Cardinal rivalry, the great Tiger teams of the past and a White Sox tragedy extending beyond the border of the 1919 Black Sox ScandalMidwestern fans were badly shortchanged. Not even the collective resources of the Tribune Company media empire were able to carve up a larger slice of the Burns' pie for the hometown Cubs.
Throughout the nine-part series, the team occupying the "marshy area of Boston" shared the footlights with the Dodgers and Yankees; cast in a mystical aura of literary New England pretense that makes most Chicagoans want to gag. The so-called "Red Sox Curse" may be the stuff of charming folklore, but as any rock-solid Chicagoan will tell you, the cumulative Cub-White Sox curse easily dwarfs the Fenway misfortunes. Kearns-Goodwin and Ken Burns were oblivious to our Midwestern misery in their quest to uncover the soul of American baseball.
Admittedly, the cinematic presentation and the visual imagery of Baseball was a stunning triumph, but the editorial content reflected strong regional bias, and was exploitive and offensive to the baseball purists living in the center of the country.
Similar complaints echo across the Midwest with regard to Bristol, CT-based ESPN Radio and television, founded in 1979 on a wing and a prayer in a studio situated exactly halfway between the Big Apple and the "Fens." With the exception of Atlanta-based CNN, all of the major television networks are concentrated in the Northeast, and the coverage of the regional northeast teams is disproportionate to the rest of the country.
Do the underserved sports fans exiled west of the Hudson River-New England axis really care to listen to Red Sox manager Terry Francona spouting off to Dan Patrick and Rob Dibble about congratulatory calls? (ESPN, 12/24/04). Syndicated ESPN programming has never played well in Chicago for good reason. Chicagoans will never shed their chip-on-the-shoulder attitude toward New York. Ever since 1884, when press dilettantes in Herald Square tagged Chicago the moniker "Windy City" for its bluster and swagger in attempting to land a national political convention, hating all things New York has always been in fashion. Chicago fans personally loathe the Yankees and Mets. Why then would the average "Joe Six-Pack" listener be remotely interested in the front office intrigues of both of those teamsgrist for the daily gossip on the Patrick Program and Mike & Mike in the Morning?
The underdog image perpetuated by the Red Sox and the romantic idealization of the team by the national media and their "losing plight" is seen as another slap in the face to Chicago sports fans quick to point out that at least the Red Sox make it to the World Series once every 20 years or so. The same cannot be said of the Sox and Cubs whose last Series appearances pre-date the construction of the Berlin Wall. A World's Championship? The repeal of the Volstead Act, Calvin Coolidge and the Cold War have come and gone since that last happened. And with their deep pockets and ability to sign Type A free agents like Manny Ramirez without the team accountants batting an eye, the Red Sox and their ownership group are as much an underdog in the sporting world as IBM is to Wall Street. Their World Series triumph in 2004 will hopefully spell the end to the "Curse" silence the eastern talking heads and allow the whole thing to fade into memory, but the smart money says it won't.
In the final analysis, it's all about money, influence and power amongst those who have it and those who do not. If the Tribune Company purchased the White Sox and not the Cubs in 1981, we might not be having this discussion today.
This essay is slated for inclusion in a forthcoming baseball book about sports media by Chicago journalist and Cub partisan George Castle, and is due for publication in 2006 with the University of Nebraska Press.