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How the White Stockings grew up to be the Cubs

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May 20, 2014 | 02:03 PM
The first major league team to call Chicago home was the White Stockings, who began their history in the city in 1871. They were ‘southsiders.’ As any Chicago baseball fan knows, there has been a long and good-natured rivalry between the fans from the near north side and those inhabiting the southern environs of that fair city. But a closer inspection of the White Stockings reveals some very interesting and largely forgotten lore about baseball in the city of windy fame.

The great Chicago Fire of 1871 ‘shut out’ professional baseball until its reemergence in 1873. That’s when the White Stockings, a National League franchise, moved into their new ball yard at Lake Front Park. It would be their home for the next 20 years. Lake Front became legendary for having the shortest outfield fences in the history of the game: 180 ft. to left, 190 ft. to right and 300 ft. to dead center.

In 1884 Ned Williamson hit 27 homers, a record that would stand for 25 years until Babe Ruth broke it in 1919. In 1893 the White Stockings moved their address to a playing field known as West Side Grounds. And here they would remain until 1916.

Just as a footnote, in the mid-to-late 1800’s, the pitcher’s mound was measured off at 50 ft. from home plate and the designated hurler was allowed to give up as many as seven balls before the batter was awarded a pass to first base.

West Side Grounds counted among its most memorable moments a fire that broke out on August 5th, 1894. Chicago players Jimmy Ryan and Walt Wilmot were credited with saving more than 1,600 lives when they rushed to a wire fence separating fans from the playing field and hacked openings in it with their bats, which allowed the trapped onlookers to escape the blaze by running onto the outfield grass.

By this time, the so-called White Stockings were renamed the Chicago Cubs. That’s right, the Chicago Cubs. From the southside!

In 1914 a new professional baseball team made its presence known on the near northside. A team called the Whales, from the upstart Federal League. The Whales had two main calling cards.

First, they were nowhere near the stockyards, which freed both them and their fans from the stench that so often overwhelmed those attending games on the southside. And second, they were playing in a brand new 14,000 seat stadium built by their owner, Mr. Weeghman, and appropriately enough, called Weeghman Park.

The Whales involvement with professional baseball was short-lived, being disbanded when the Federal League collapsed in 1916. Mr. Weeghman began shopping around straight away for a new team to replace the now defunct Whales.

The ball club he bought was the old Chicago White Stockings, cum Cubs, which he promptly moved into their new home at the corner of Clark and Addison, where they have resided ever since.

The old White Stockings moniker would be resurrected and revised as the White Sox under the aegis of Charles Comiskey, as an American League franchise. Mr. Comiskey was fated to forever be associated with the scandal known to all as the “Black Sox”, from the fix put in by gamblers on the 1919 World Series; which destroyed the careers of some of the game’s greatest players, including Eddie Cicotte and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” still echoes down the shadowy corridors of one of baseball’s darkest moments.

The Cubs, while still the White Stockings, brought with them to the north side a sterling history. The franchise had won four pennants between 1901 and 1906, led by pitcher Mordecai Brown and manager Frank Chance. The record they set in 1906 of 116 wins remained unmatched for ninety-five years, until the Seattle Mariners tied it in 2001. The team was eventually purchased by chewing gum magnate, William Wrigley Jr., in 1918. The ball park his team now played in had been renamed Cub’s Park in 1916, and would retain that designation until 1926.

The first Wrigley Field was not in Chicago, but located on the West Coast. It was home to Mr. Wrigley’s minor league franchise, the Los Angeles Angels, of the Pacific Coast League. It was so named in 1925. Cub’s Park would have to wait a year longer, until 1926, before being given over to the name of its newest owner. Under William Wrigley’s direction, the ball field in Chicago underwent several renovations. The stadium was double-decked in the 1920’s and the ivy and signature scoreboard appeared by 1937.

Wrigley Field witnessed one of its most historic moments in the 1932 World Series, during Game 3. The Cubs were playing the Yankees. Babe Ruth, who had been shamelessly and ceaselessly heckled throughout the series, came to the plate, looked towards right-center and made a motion with his right arm. He then proceeded to create one of baseball’s most enduring legends. The stuff of which the Great Game is made. On the very next pitch the Babe slammed a soaring homer over the right field fence. To this day, the debate rages on as to whether Ruth actually “called his shot” or simply made a random gesture that was later given an embellished meaning.

The Cubs can also lay claim to another storied page in their history. In 1911 they acquired a centerfielder by the name of Clarence Howeth Beaumont, nicknamed “Ginger” for his almost orange shock of red hair. He was blessed with blazing speed and a cannon for an arm. “Ginger” played his final season in the majors with the Cubs. In the course of his career he compiled a .311 lifetime batting average, led the majors four times in hits and is listed 39th out of the all-time 100 centerfielders to ever play the game.

And there were some pretty good ones, including Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, to name only a few. And “Ginger” was a hometown boy, born and raised in Rochester. The red-haired Chicagoan would be forever remembered as the first-ever hitter, in the first-ever World Series, played between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Red Stockings in 1903. Boston won the championship, in eight games.

Despite popular lore to the contrary, Wrigley Field was the first ballpark in the majors to have lights, when the field was still called Weeghman Park. The lights, however, were for “entertainment” purposes only, used to permit evening performances of various vaudeville acts when the ball club was out of town. Mr. Wrigley was a staunch supporter of night baseball, even though many have been taught to believe otherwise. In fact, he had gone so far as to purchase a complete lighting system, scheduled to be installed in time for the 1942 season.

Fate intervened, however, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, precipitating WWII.

In an act of unselfish patriotism, Mr. Wrigley ordered all the steel and other material from the lighting equipment be shipped to the War Department, for use in the war effort. Wrigley Field would have to wait another four decades, until August 9, 1988 for its first major league night game.

As a final note, it was Jack Brickhouse, not Harry Carey who exemplified sports in the Chicagoland area. This included announcing all the Cubs and White Sox games, all the Blackhawk games and all the Bears football games, when they were still played at Wrigley Field.

This was in the era when WGN held exclusive broadcast rights to these teams and Jack Brickhouse was the sole anchor for each of their seasons. And if that were not enough, Jack Brickhouse found time to go over to the now defunct Thillens Field in the evenings and televise the newly created phenomena of Little League baseball. The guy with the funny glasses and middling version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was ‘OK’, but he was definitely no Jack Brickhouse.

Harry was just a “personality.” Jack was Chicago sports, all of it. Every season, year in, year out, for over two decades. They had a statue made for Harry Carey.

There should be a shrine for Jack Brickhouse, where sports fans might go to remind themselves who it was that never faltered in promoting the Cubs, Sox, Bears, Blackhawks and youth baseball in Chicago.

Jack Brickhouse may not have made them all what they were, but most of what they have become belongs to his legacy.

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