Comiskey Park is dying. Long live Comiskey Park.
On Sept. 30, after the Chicago White Sox play the Seattle Mariners, Comiskey Park, the oldest baseball lot in the major leagues, will be closed and later demolished. Two lanes of traffic--an easy fungo shot--across 35th Street, on Chicago's South Side, workers are 60% finished with the new Comiskey Park, a $150-million project that will be ready next April for the club's home opener against the Detroit Tigers.
The only possible temporary reprieve for the old Comiskey Park would be if the White Sox overtook the Oakland Athletics in the American League West and qualified for the playoffs and a possible World Series.
The White Sox in a World Series would be an unusual RIP for Comiskey Park. Since the first game was played there--the St. Louis Browns beating the home team, 2-0, on July 1, 1910--the Sox have won only three pennants and one divisional title.
They lost two of those three World Series, and after one of the defeats--to Cincinnati in 1919--the White Sox were called the Black Sox because charges that eight of their players conspired with gamblers to lose the Series were upheld by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, then commissioner of baseball. Among the eight was Shoeless Joe Jackson, who, with a career batting average of .356, would have been a cinch for election to the Hall of Fame. He is still not in the Hall.
Just as Chicago fans with long memories have had a lingering love-hate affair with the 1919 White Sox, they also have mixed feelings about leaving an 81-year-old landmark.
"It will be nice to have something new in this old neighborhood," said Barbara Egan, who lives in a nearby house five years older than Comiskey. Egan has two children who sell hot dogs at White Sox games.
Old park, new park, it doesn't seem to make much difference to Andy Rozdilsky, the 72-year-old performer who has been affectionately known as "Andy the Clown" around Comiskey for 30 years.
"I've gone through many owners, many ballplayers, many managers and now I've even gone through the ballpark," said Rozdilsky, still bitter that he has never been paid more than $1,000 a season, adding he would have been fired by current White Sox management if there hadn't been a media outcry several years ago.
Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, the former law school classmates who have run the White Sox since they bought the club from the late Bill Veeck in 1981, are saying that the new Comiskey Park will take the franchise into the 21st Century. But in terms of bottom-line economics, this is the third-best scenario for the owners.
At one time, with no new stadium in view, the White Sox were close to moving to a new domed facility in St. Petersburg, Fla. As the only big league baseball club in Florida, they would have enjoyed enormous statewide television and radio rights and annual revenues might have improved by about $9 million a year.
Reinsdorf says that after buying the team for $19 million, about $25 million was spent in refurbishing the park. The White Sox also tried to move to Addison, a working-class suburb in burgeoning DuPage County, about 35 miles northwest of the Chicago Loop. A referendum for a stadium there failed to pass by about 100 votes.
Jerome Holtzman, a veteran baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune who was recently inducted into the writers' wing of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., grew up near Comiskey Park and was a White Sox fan.
"If the White Sox had been able to move to Addison, it would have helped them tremendously," he said. "They would have been able to build a new fan base, and there's tremendous growth still going on in that area. As it is, all they have is a new ballpark in the same semi-industrial neighborhood that's never been advantageous for drawing crowds."
In the summer of 1988, when the Illinois General Assembly moved the clock back to four minutes before the midnight deadline and approved the Comiskey Park project by nine votes, Reinsdorf was saddled with his promise that he wouldn't leave Chicago if the club was given a new stadium. The new Comiskey will be financed by a state-city sports authority that will pay for revenue bonds through a 2% tax on hotel and motel rooms in Chicago.
There is something to be said for the traditional approach that the White Sox have taken in building the new park:
--They have retained the name of the old park--named after Charles A. Comiskey, the "Old Roman" who began the White Stockings in Chicago in 1900--apparently with no discussion whatever. In Baltimore, where a new stadium is being built, there is almost more debate over the naming of the park--one faction wants it named after Babe Ruth--than there is about winning the American League East.
--The natural-grass field from the old park will be transplanted, making Comiskey II the first new baseball stadium without artificial turf since San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium opened in 1969.
--The seating capacity of 43,000, about the same as the old park, will enable the fans to be closer to the action than they are at most new parks, which, unlike Comiskey, are designed to accommodate both baseball and football.
The old Comiskey Park may close on Sept. 30, but the scrapbook of memories will remain open.
Billy Pierce, a sales and public relations representative for an envelope manufacturer not far from Comiskey, won 211 games in the majors, 186 of them for the White Sox. Pierce, 63, pitched four one-hitters in the 1950s, three of them at Comiskey.
He was within one out of a no-hitter against the Washington Senators in 1958 when Ed Fitz Gerald singled, spoiling the left-hander's bid.
"Fitz Gerald was a right-handed hitter, and he hit that ball over the first baseman's head about a foot fair down the right-field line," Pierce said.
Besides 26 one-hitters, eight no-hitters have been pitched at Comiskey, three of them against the White Sox. With double-deck stands in left and right fields and wall heights ranging from almost 10 to 11 feet, Comiskey has never been known as a hitters' park. The season high for home runs by Sox players is 37, by Carlton Fisk in 1985 and Dick Allen in 1972, when Allen was earning $225,000, the highest salary in the majors.
"Comiskey was always a pitchers' park, although I think it changed some when the new scoreboard was put in," Pierce said. "The wind seemed to change then, and I think more homers were hit in the park after that. And you knew when the wind was blowing out, with the hitters. There was a tremendous smell that came from the stockyards."
In 1960, the year after the White Sox won their first pennant since the Black Sox scandal but lost the World Series to the Dodgers in six games, Bill Veeck, who had two regimes as club owner, installed an exploding scoreboard in center field. When a Sox player homered, the board shot off fireworks, belched smoke and made weird noises.
One day, when Clete Boyer of the Yankees homered, manager Casey Stengel pulled a stunt to mock "The Monster."
"That's one of the things I remember best about Comiskey," Pierce said. "Casey and about 10 of his players, standing in front of the dugout and waving sparklers. I've been able to see that in my mind forever."
Although the White Sox won only one pennant, they had a run of contenders from 1952 through 1965. During that stretch, they finished lower than third place only twice, and five times they were second, failing to catch the Yankees by only a game in 1964.
"Frank Lane was responsible for that," Pierce said. "He came in as general manager and changed the franchise. There was no comparison between the old clubs and the new clubs after he arrived."
Pierce says he will be at Comiskey for the final game on Sept. 30.
"I want to be there for the last night game (Sept. 29), too," he said.
Roger Bossard is Comiskey Park's groundskeeper, and his father, Gene, who took care of the field for 41 years, is the son of a groundskeeper who worked for the Cleveland Indians.
Gene Bossard, 73, who retired in 1982, still works for the White Sox as a consultant. Two of his brothers were also groundskeepers.
The ground around home plate at Comiskey used to be sarcastically called "Bossard's swamp" by visiting managers and players.
"We had some good sinkerball pitchers, guys like Bob Shaw, Dick Donovan and Tommy John," Gene Bossard said. "Most of their pitches would be hit into the dirt. The softer the ground, the harder it would be for hitters to bounce the ball over infielders or bounce the ball high for infield hits."
Bossard reasoned that if Gaylord Perry and other pitchers were using spitballs, a groundskeeper was entitled to balance the scales. When the White Sox had Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio, good bunters, Bossard kept the ground sloped toward fair territory along the foul lines. When the opposition had base-stealing threats, Bossard heavily watered the dirt near first base.
"One time, the umpires noticed," Bossard said. "They told me to get rid of the mud around first base. So a few of us went out there and fooled around, acting like we were doing something. But the damage had already been done. The moisture had already sunk into the ground by about a half an inch."
Two of Bossard's favorite players were Fox and Wilbur Wood.
"They were outgoing, real friendly," he said. "Some others, like Sherm Lollar, didn't like to talk to us much. But that was OK, too. That was just their way."
In 1960, Andy Rozdilsky won two season box seats to White Sox games in a charity raffle. A professional clown, he told his wife one night that he was going to wear his outfit to a game at Comiskey.
"There was a tremendous reaction from the fans, so I kept doing it," Rozdilsky said.
In 1961, Andy the Clown bought two season seats and the White Sox gave him two seats. "Then, for 22 years, I got nothing," Rozdilsky said.
In the 1980s, the White Sox wanted Rozdilsky to quit clowning around.
"I wound up on the 10 o'clock news and they took me back," Rozdilsky said.
Since then, Rozdilsky has been paid $1,000 a season to do his clown routines at Comiskey.
"But it costs me $700 a year just to print up pictures and hand them out to the kids," he said.
Rozdilsky's wife, Helen, used to sew the two-inch spots on his clown suit, but she died a few years ago and now a daughter does the work. Recently, the vendors at Comiskey, who went on a bus trip to Milwaukee to see the White Sox play, took Andy the Clown along.
"Old Leather Lungs" was the nickname Bob Elson, a broadcaster of Sox games from 1931 through 1970, gave Andy the Clown. "If the public-address system ever breaks, they can always use Andy," Elson said on the air one day.
Will Andy cross 35th Street to the new Comiskey next year?
"I don't know," he said. "They didn't even put it on the scoreboard when I had my 30th anniversary."
THE BASEBALL WRITER
Jerome Holtzman is known as "the Dean" in the press boxes at Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field, because he has covered so much baseball for Chicago newspapers.
"I grew up near Comiskey, so I was a Sox fan," Holtzman said. "You're either a Cub fan or a Sox fan in this town, and it usually is related to where you grew up. The Sox fans were the poor kids. The Cub fans lived in neighborhoods that were better off."
One of Holtzman's first memories of Comiskey Park is of the day in 1943 when Orval Grove, pitching a no-hitter against the Yankees, was tagged for a ninth-inning double by Joe Gordon.
Holtzman also remembers the season, in the 1960s, when Ken Berry, the fleet White Sox center fielder, leaped against the canvas just above the wall four times, robbing batters of home runs.
"Those plays didn't come by accident," Holtzman said. "Berry would practice that catch before games. He'd have somebody stand at second base and fungo the ball against the canvas."
Holtzman remembers Bill Veeck, in ill health, selling the White Sox to Arthur Allyn Jr. in 1961. Allyn covered the grass with artificial turf, tried to get the city to build a new stadium, then played some regular-season games in Milwaukee, after the Braves had moved out, and threatened to move the club there.
"What nobody knew for a long time was that Arthur's brother, John, who everybody called John the golfer, owned 50% of the club," Holtzman said. "The family assets were rearranged, John became the 100% owner and he blocked the move to Milwaukee."
Shortstop Luke Appling's entire 21-year big league career was with the White Sox. At 83, Appling still works with minor league hitters for the Atlanta Braves.
Appling batted .310 in 2,422 games. He had 2,749 hits, 2,161 of them singles. Appling was renowned for making contact, fouling off one good pitch after another. He walked 1,302 times and averaged just one strikeout for every 4 1/2 games played.
Appling got his first hit in Comiskey Park in 1930.
"I should have gotten a double," Appling said. "That shows you how much country I was as a rookie."
By 1940, Appling was brash, not country. Bob Feller of Cleveland pitched the only opening-day no-hitter in history, beating the Sox at Comiskey, but Appling maintains that he hit a ball down the right-field line that should have gone for a double. Bill McGowan, the umpire, ruled that the drive was foul.
When Appling argued, McGowan said: "Oh, what the hell, this kid (Feller) is going to be a credit to the game."
"What the hell does that make me?" Appling said. "A bum?"
Back at the plate, Appling drew one of those 1,302 walks before Feller completed the no-hitter.
THE CROSSING GUARD
Barbara Egan is a street-crossing guard for children at the Robert S. Abbott School, just a couple of blocks away from Comiskey Park present and Comiskey Park future. Many of the 500 pupils live across the street from the school, in a large housing project.
A free-lance photographer warned a reporter about walking around the Comiskey Park neighborhood, even in daylight. But Egan walked the several blocks to her home one day after lunch hour at the school was over.
She pointed down a street to Our Lady of Nativity church.
"That's the mayor's (Richard M. Daley's) church," she said. His father, the powerful Richard J. Daley, also went to that church.
Egan pointed to where the new Comiskey Park was going up.
"There used to be a lot of rundown homes there," she said.
About 70 homeowners were paid about $200,000 each to relocate. The old Comiskey, which was built on ground that had been a truck yard and a junkyard, will become a parking lot.
Charles Comiskey built a park that would endure, of concrete and steel. One day, however, Luke Appling, fielding a ground ball at shortstop, tripped over a rusty kettle drum. It had apparently worked its way up from the past and from the bottom of that buried junkyard.