Saturday, July 14, 2007

"They Died Old"--Vol. II

"The very heart of the ballpark, where it's at its weirdest, is down under the stands...The mixture of people, strange places and things, resembles a drive-in flea market taking place at the same time with a world ethnic food festival...Aisleways of all different sizes, some no wider than four fat people walking abreast, force folks to cram together...Pickpockets must have a field day...Junk clutters it...Paper cups, All-Star ballots from God knows what year lie ground into the floor..."

I borrowed the above quotation from one of my all-time favorite books, Dodger Dogs to Fenway Franks by Bob Wood, which chronicled his 1985 trek across America to visit each and every Major League Baseball stadium, and his entry on Chicago's Comiskey Park is one of the best chapters in the book.  From the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal to the 1979 "Disco Demolition", the original Comiskey Park had quite possibly the wackiest history of any ballpark in baseball, wackier than even venerable Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.  Built in 1910 by owner Charles Comiskey, the park was home to some of the craziest shit the grand ol' game has ever witnessed during its 81 seasons of existence.

The "Old Roman", Mr. Comiskey spared no expense on building the stadium, but was a total skin-flint when it came to paying his players, hence the player revolt that led to "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and the boys throwing the 1919 World Series vs. the Reds (chronicled in the fine film Eight Men Out, starring John Cusack and Charlie Sheen).  The White Sox didn't return to the Fall Classic until 40 year later during the "Go-Go Sox" era and lost to the L.A. Dodgers 4 game to 2 in the 1959 World Series, during which outfielder Al Smith received a beer shower (Old Style, I presume).  The park's other big moment in the sun was when it hosted the very first Major League Baseball All-Star Game in 1933.  Also known as White Sox Park during the '60s and '70s, Comiskey Park I at one time featured the heinous combination of an Astroturf infield and grass outfield (visible in the top photo) during the early '70s, and also served as home field to the NFL's Chicago Cardinals until they moved to St. Louis in 1960.
Things got really fun when Bill Veeck (as in "Wreck") bought the team in '59 and installed the park's trademark, the exploding scoreboard, replete with pinwheels and fireworks that went off after each White Sox home run.  Never afraid to try any gimmick, Veeck even employed aliens (legal ones!) on his ground crew.  He sold the team after just two years, then bought it again in 1975 (after they nearly left town), and that's when the insanity truly began...

Veeck would try practically anything to put fannies in the seats, so nothing was too outrageous on the South Side.  Ever the baseball purist, Veeck immediately chucked the Astroturf infield for the 1976 season, and outfitted the team in baggy turn-of-the-century retro uniforms.  He also took the waredrobe alteration a step further by having the Sox wear shorts during selected home games.  Upon seeing the players wearing them for the first time, former K.C. Royals first baseman John Mayberry smirked, "You guys are the sweetest team we've seen yet!"  Veeck didn't stop there—he installed a shower in the center field bleachers where fans could cool off during hot summer afternoons, and you could also get a haircut from a professional barber (for free, I think) in said bleachers.  All the while, you had Hall of Famer Harry Caray singing "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" from the broadcast booth during the 7th inning stretch, and his radio partnership with borderline psychotic Jimmy Piersall was the stuff of urban legends.

Veeck's legacy is synonymous with his biggest promotion that backfired—the infamous "Disco Demolition Night" on July 12, 1979.  Chicago DJ Steve Dahl conducted the ceremony between games of a doubleheader between the Sox and Detroit Tigers.  Fans could get in the park for a mere 98 cents (Dahl's FM radio station frequency) if they presented a disco record, which coincidentally made a damn good frisbee, and they were flying like foul balls throughout the first game.  During's Dahl's between-game ceremony, a crate full of disco records was blown to smithereens, thus setting off a full-fledged riot as fans overtook the field and tore the place apart.  The White Sox wound up forfeiting game two of the doubleheader.  Long live Rock, indeed!!

No account of old Comiskey Park would be complete without mentioning the First Lady of Chicago, organist Nancy Faust. This gal can play just about anything—Jazz, Rock, Country, Gospel, Polkas, the Mickey Mouse theme, whatever—Nancy is very beloved on the South Side, and she helped make "Na Na, Hey, Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" the penultimate "Turn Out The Lights" song at any sports stadium, and she still plays for the Sox today at U.S. Cellblock—er uh—Cellular Field.

I visited the old park at 35th & Shields twice, first in 1985 and again during the stadium's final season in 1990.  Mr. Wood's account of the unkempt-ness of the park in the opening paragraph above was pretty darn accurate, but I loved it anyway.  It was a taste of a by-gone era for me, and I got a kick out of how quirky this place was.  The picnic area under the left field stands was so aromatic from the burgers being grilled, and I'd never been that close to a left fielder during an actual game before.  I loved the zig-zag ramps that ran behind the exploding scoreboard too, and I remember ashes from the fireworks fallout after a Sox dinger landing on us in the right field stands.  The layout of this stadium was goofy as all get-out too—pillars in the middle of the concourse that seemed to serve no useful purpose, hallways that led to nothing, and I remember this one soda/popcorn stand that was carved into upper deck stands on the first base side in which the poor concessionaires literally could not stand straight up—the Hunchback of Notre Dame woulda loved it!  The old seats at Comiskey were harder than marble too, and I couldn't believe how bad the sightlines were in the seats down the foul lines—you literally had to turn your head at a 45ยบ angle to see home plate!  I'll also never forget the sound a Carlton Fisk batting practice home run made when it struck the metal beam on the front of the left field upper deck stands—it sounded exactly like the climactic gong at the end of the Moody Blues' "Nights In White Satin"!

As twilight set in on Old Comiskey Park, so did senility, and as goofy and crazy and beloved as the place was, it had to be replaced, or its prime tenant would have become the Tampa Bay White Sox in 1989.  Almost too late, the Illinois legislature okayed funds at the 11th hour to build Comiskey Park II right nextdoor.  For reasons that are unclear to this day, the stadium designers opted to aim the new park away from the famous downtown Chicago skyline and instead give Sox fans a lovely view of the ghetto!  From an upper deck seat with a decent pair of binoculars at the rather antiseptic new park (which opened in 1991), one could easily catch a glimpse of Thelma and J.J. from "Good Times" having yet another argument in the Projects across the Dan Ryan Expressway!  The White Sox partially realized the error of their ways a couple years ago and made some very nice cosmetic changes to Comiskey II, including lopping off the top five rows of the veritgo-inducing upper deck and replacing them with an old-school ballpark roof.  They did succumb to corporate gluttony by changing the name to U.S. Cellular Field, but considering that Charles Comiskey was a complete and total dickhead anyway, in this case I'll waive my usual disdain for corporate stadium names.  And great day in the morning—the White Sox won the freakin' World Series in 2005, too!

The old joint had one last moment of grandeur, as a scene from the John Candy/Ally Sheedy film Only The Lonely (as in the classic Roy Orbison tune) was filmed there following the 1990 season, and the exploding scoreboard put on one last show.  Sadly, like a relative dying of old age, old Comiskey Park was slowly demolished in 1991.  It would have been more fitting to just detonate the place (just like those Disco records in 1979), with a climactic barrage of pyro from the scoreboard, which could have literally exploded for the finale.

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