The study of history has been in bad repute of late, but that’s nothing new. My children are in their 40s now but I recall each of them as kids answering any sort of easy historical question I’d pose by saying indignantly, “How am I supposed to know that? That was before I was born!”
Still, as Abe Lincoln noted, we might ignore history but we can’t escape it. That thought has occurred frequently during the current baseball season as the White Sox mount a surprising playoff drive in front of empty seats in their U.S. Cellular Field home while the Cubs, fielding as poor a team as one can imagine, continue to pack ‘em in at Wrigley Field.
The details are more startling than the general picture. The Cubs have the second-worst won-lost record in baseball (47-76), yet through 58 home dates were selling tickets at a rate of 36,948 a game, 90% of the capacity at Wrigley and tenth best in the majors. Even on-field prosperity hasn’t rescued the Southsiders; while their attendance has bumped up since the break, they still rank 24th in the Majors at 24,481 a game through Tuesday. Any home crowd of 30,000 or more remains a big deal for them.
Clearly, something is up here, and inquiring minds want to know what. The estimable Dan McGrath addressed the issue on these pages recently and concluded that the reasons included the Sox’s disappointing 2011 campaign, the team’s lack of deep-dish rivalries like those between the Cubs and the Cardinals and Brewers, and “Ozzie fatigue” tracing to eight seasons of rhetorical bombardment by the Sox’s volatile ex-manager. All those things may be true, but by me they don’t go far enough. To see the elephant whole, you have to step back a few yards. In other words, you have to invoke the dreaded “h” word.
The first light history sheds on the Cubs vs. Sox question debunks the notion, commonly accepted in recent years, that Chicago always has been a “Cubs’ town.” Simply put, ‘tain’t so. While the Cubs went into a coma following their 1945 pennant, the Sox fielded lively, contending teams throughout the 1950s and ’60s, winning a pennant in 1959 and battling down to wire for one in other years (especially 1965 and ’67). They outdrew the Cubs in 16 of the 20 seasons during those decades, and while the Cubs overtook them during the Leo Durocher years (1966-72) the Sox held their own at the box office well into the 1980s. They were the first Chicago baseball team to top the two-million mark in a season’s attendance (in 1983) and also topped the Cubs in 1984, the year the Northsiders made one of their strongest pennant runs. You can win barroom bets with that info.
The worm turned in earnest in 1969, that fabulous summer of joy and despair for Cubs fans, but the change had begun a year earlier in much-quieter fashion. In 1968 the Sox jumped or were pushed into a fateful decision to leave WGN as their television home, in favor of WFLD. That was Channel 32 on the dial, in the UHF range. Some Chicagoans’ TV sets lacked UHF capacity at the time, getting decent reception for the high-number channels was a tough trick for many others, and WFLD was a low-budget operation that couldn’t match WGN’s production values. Some of the same conditions remained several years later when the Sox moved to WSNS on Channel 44.
In 1981 the Sox plunged deeper into living-room anonymity by putting most of their games on Sportsvision, a fledgling pay-TV venture. Most of Chicago wasn’t wired for cable then, and the idea of paying for content that theretofore had been free wasn’t universally cheered. That move also cost the team the services of Harry Caray, their popular broadcaster. It’s news to younger Chicagoans that Harry worked for the Sox, but he spent almost as many seasons with them (11) as he did with the Cubs (16), and during his Sox years he still had the night-life stamina to create his mayor-of-Rush Street image. His jump to the Cubs, at a time when WGN was a burgeoning national “superstation,” cemented the team’s TV supremacy at home and extended it far beyond Chicago’s borders.
Eventually, of course, cable took hold (both the Cubs and Sox now air most of their games on Comcast), and the Sox rejoined WGN in 1990, but for two decades they were a ghostly TV presence in their home city. A couple generations of young baseball fans came home from school on spring and summer afternoons to watch the late innings of the Cubs’ games, while the Sox were nowhere to be found on the dial. Most of those kids grew up to be Cubs’ fans, and they help fill the seats at Wrigley today.
The other heavy chain the Sox drag is their U.S. Cellular Field home. The place is swell once you get inside it—it’s well-kept and hospitable and still has that new-stadium feel after 21 years of use—but getting to it is a good deal less than half the fun and no one wants to be last out of the parking lot after games. “The Cell” doesn’t match the antique charm of Wrigley Field, and the area around it, in an expressway wilderness off the roaring Dan Ryan at 35th Street, has nothing near the good-times pull of Wrigleyville. The Cubs, proprietors of the world’s largest party boat, don’t have to win to draw, and prove it most years. For the scuffling Sox, even success afield is no guarantee of a good gate.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. When he bought the Sox from Bill Veeck in 1981, Jerry Reinsdorf’s first priority was to move the team from old but uncharming Comiskey Park. To that end he and his partners purchased a 140-acre tract near Addison in the western suburbs to which much of their team’s white fan base had fled, and drew up plans to put their new stadium there.
Alas, some west-suburban pols weren’t keen on the prospect of Chicago riff-raff invading their pristine precincts or, it was whispered, on the Sox’s Jewish ownership. They blocked financing of the stadium in the Illinois legislature and engineered a non-binding but telling 1986 Addison referendum on the park that failed by a 50-vote margin, 3,816 to 3,766.
Reinsdorf’s sole remaining option was to put his stadium next to the site where old Comiskey Park stood, and to get even that he had to do what owners always do in such situations, which was to threaten to move the team, to St. Petersburg, Florida. Some still haven’t forgiven him for that. In the end it took a march on Springfield by Sox fans, and the promise of a new grandstand at suburban Arlington Park racetrack, to win lawmakers’ approval of a new Comiskey Park in the last minutes of the 1988 legislative session.
The new place opened in 1991, and while the Sox set a city attendance record of 2,934,154 in that first year, its allure quickly faded, making them a small-market team in a big-market area. Winning can cure that, but it must be sustained and predicable. It’ll take a long time for the Sox to get out of the bind they’re in, but, then, it took a long time to get into it.
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FRED KLEIN is the former national sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He blogs at fredkleinonsports.blogspot.com.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house with photo courtesy swanksalot/cc.