When Baseball Became Just a Cell of Itself. Happy 100th Birthday Old Comiskey Park.

I didn’t have a choice. My grandfather played baseball. My dad played baseball. And as you can see by this picture taken when I was a mere two months old, I was going to play baseball.

In fact, my grandmother and grandfather’s first date was to Comiskey Park back in the 1920s. So yeah, I didn’t have  a choice.

My family grew up on the South Side of Chicago, which of course mandated that we would all be White Sox fans. No choice there either. I grew up hearing stories of Sox greats, Ed Walsh, Nellie Fox, Minnie Minoso, Billy Pierce, Luke Appling, Hoyt Wilhelm and of course, Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Surprisingly, I never heard about the so called Black Sox (the 1919 Sox team that conspired to throw the World Series). It was never spoken of in our house.

Comiskey Park was a great old historic ball park. The first game I can remember going to was in 1969 when I was five years old. I remember it because the White Sox had blue detailing on their uniforms, the only year they did that. I may have been to Comiskey before that, but that game in 1969 was the earliest one I remember.

Why all the baseball nostalgia? Well, PBS is running Ken Burns’ Baseball series from 1994 again this summer in preparation for an updated chapter this September. I didn’t catch all the episodes the first time it ran, but I did get a copy of the DVD release this month so I could watch them all.

It brought back a lot of memories. Seeing those old Roman windows cut out of the facade behind the lower deck seats really took me back. This photograph of my dad, my sister and me standing in the outfield sums it up. Dad and Mary are looking at the camera as I am taking in the concept of being on the field!

So much history took place there. The Black Sox Scandal certainly, but also many stories of Babe Ruth running across the street between innings to buy hot dogs. Built in 1910, with Opening Day 100 years ago this month, the “Baseball Palace of the World” was host to four World Series, including one played by the Cubs against the Boston Red Sox in 1918 because Comiskey had more seating than the four year old Weeghman Park, later to be renamed Wrigley Field. The Cubs lost.

The incredible players from the Negro Leagues also played at Comiskey on a regular basis with teams called the Chicago American Giants, the Chicago Brown Bombers, the Chicago Columbia Giants, the Chicago Giants, the Chicago Union Giants and the Chicago Unions. Their annual East-West All Star Game at Comiskey was considered by some to be more important than the World Series, attracting up to 50,000 fans each year.

All that was ancient history by the time I started showing up, but it was the history of the park. When I was growing up if you asked me if I could be anywhere in the world, my answer would have been, White Sox Park (as it was renamed between 1969 and 1975).

Comiskey Park was like a shrine to me. The texture of the panted over, painted over, painted over railings had a cool clammy feel on hot summer days. The long dark concrete tunnels that opened out onto the amazing green of the manicured grass, like Dorothy stepping out into Oz. It was my park.

So I will admit that Ken Burns’ series was a little bittersweet to watch this time around. Like the Brooklyn fans of Ebbets Field before the Dodgers moved to LA and the New York Giants fans of the Polo Grounds before they too followed the Dodgers west, the park I used to go to and love as a boy is no more.

A little trivia: Do you know why the Dodgers are called the Dodgers? It’s short for Trolley Dodgers after the Brooklyners who literally had to dodge the trolleys on the crowded Brooklyn streets. What are the Los Angeles fans Dodging? Maybe paparazzi? The stray bolder from earthquakes? You tell me.

In the fall of 1990, I attended my last game at Comiskey and I was there the sad day that the wrecking ball hit the Baseball Palace along with a hundred or so other fans who had come to pay their respects. Across the street was the new Comiskey Park, now renamed US Cellular Field, or The Cell as it is more aptly nicknamed.

I remember being at the 1989 news conference at the State of Illinois Building, just by chance, when then Governor Jim Thompson unveiled the scale model of the new Comiskey saying, “It has retained all of the features of the old Comiskey.”

I stared at the model and then back at the Governor and I now regret not saying out loud what I was thinking in front of all the news cameras and reporters.

“Retained all the features? Where?”

I didn’t say it and I should have. It was probably too late to tell them that the intimacy of the original Comiskey was nowhere to be found in this new design. That the upper deck in the new park was so far removed from the field that the last row of the upper deck in the old park was closer than the first row of the upper deck in the new park.

That the old Roman Windows that defined the look of old Comiskey were missing from the inside of the new. That the new Comiskey resembled more a modern airport terminal than a ball park.

Nope, new Comiskey was a sterile stadium more than a ball park.

I didn’t say any of those things, but should have. Maybe I could have prevented the utter failure that the new park was to be. The fact that it was the last new Major League ballpark that wasn’t designed with the old classic ballparks in mind proved me right. The new Comiskey… I mean Cell… was a cautionary signpost in modern baseball park design. And White Sox fans have to live with it now.

Or not.

After a few miserable seasons trying to learn to love The Cell, after three family generations of White Sox fans, I began attending games at the last real ballpark in Chicago, Wrigley Field. I even began sending my Cubs ticket stubs in an envelope to White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, the evil mastermind behind the new Cell. His career started as a tax attorney for the I.R.S..

The Prosecution rests.

It’s difficult to go to US Cellular Field and know that none of my fond childhood memories happened there. But I can go to Wrigley and point to the same spot that Babe Ruth allegedly pointed to before he hit his “called shot” home run.

About 10 years ago, I flew my parents out to Boston to take in a few White Sox/Red Sox games at old Fenway Park. Ownership was toying with the idea of tearing down that old park at the time and we wanted to experience that park before it was gone. Cooler heads have since prevailed and Fenway seems in no danger of the fate of old Comiskey for the moment.

I know that things change and progress is inevitable, but baseball is frankly a fairly boring game. It’s all about the history and the statistics. Without the grandeur, it’s just… well… a Cell.

All of the pictures you see here are from family photo albums. As an added bonus, when I was 15 years old, I was lucky enough to receive a Super8mm movie camera for my birthday. I shot a lot of 50 foot rolls of film with my new camera. A few years ago I had them transferred to a modern digital format and collected all the footage I had shot of Comiskey Park between 1977 and 1979.

You can view the footage and my talking about my memories of the old park, here on Vimeo. Harey Carey, Wilbur Wood, Ralph Garr, Bill Veck and the famous original Exploding Scoreboard. Not exactly Ken Burns, but not bad for a 15 year old.

Comiskey Park Memories from Billy Sheahan on Vimeo.

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2 thoughts

  1. I’m trying to find footage of opening day Comiskey Park 1975. Louie, Truck and myself dodged school that day and headed to the field. Wildest ball game I have ever seen. Streakers, fights, guys being thrown out of their sits onto the field and Sharylanda? A well built black streaker who started left-field box seat aisle and being led by larger guy, displayed her beauty all the way around to right-field side. I think it was the Angels, but I can’t be positive. During one play, I remember an outfielder for the Angels being so caught up in what was happening in the stands that a base hit shot right by him. Players were yelling at him to get the dam ball. We had a hell of time! Is there any footage anywhere of this magnificent event? Tnx

  2. Hey there Brian. Thanks for writing. 1975 was a year or so before I got my Super8 film camera as a teenager, so I don’t personally have any footage of Comiskey Park from the game you mentioned. Maybe a YouTube search might help you find some amateur footage? Seems like an Opening Day game that might have been well covered.

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