Welcome to the final edition of Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Comiskey Park
HOME TEAM: Chicago White Sox
VISITED: June 27, 1989
CHRONOLOGY: 6th of 34
RANKING: 1st of 34
A new, state-of-the-art Comiskey Park will soon be taking shape directly across 35th Street from the current Comiskey, the oldest existing major league ballpark. […] The new ballpark will offer all the amenities to fans who come to White Sox games while at the same time retaining some of the look and charm of the old stadium. “Nostalgia” will be a key ingredient as the new 43,000 seat stadium rises immediately to the south of the current facility.
—Chicago White Sox 1989 game program
Now you can tear a building down
But you can’t erase a memory
—Living Colour, “Open Letter To A Landlord”
He called me kid. He called everybody kid. “Kid,” he said, “the NutraSweet party’s tonight. I won’t be able to make it, but you’ll be there, right?”
I nodded. In doing so, I lied. I lied to my publisher. I wasn’t going to any NutraSweet party.
The Institute of Food Technologists has a big annual convention every summer. Sounds like guys in lab coats waiting for a girl in a swimsuit to jump out of a chemically enhanced cake, but that’s not quite the scene. They set up shop in a massive convention hall and, as is the case with any trade show, it couldn’t be more numbing. Acre after acre of booths are set up so you can stop by, be told how incredible some new development/product is, take some literature and maybe have a sample.
Samples are everywhere at a trade show, especially one with food and/or beverage implications. The hot item at IFT twenty-one years ago was cheese, or some artificial simulation of cheese. “Would you like to try one?” some pretty booth hostess with a tray would ask. Sure, I’d say. I said it too often. I couldn’t look at artificial cheese by the time my first day at IFT ’89 at Chicago’s enormous McCormick Place was done. Not that looking at artificial cheese was ever a goal of mine in particular.
I wasn’t at this show for cheese. Not my beat. I was there for the beverages, or, more specifically, for the beverage ingredient makers. They were an intrinsic part of what we covered at the beverage magazine I had joined a little more than three months earlier. My job was to cover those booths — grab brochures, talk to executives or PR people and, when you got right down to it, let the magazine’s advertisers know editorial cared about them.
That’s why the NutraSweet party was on my publisher’s mind. NutraSweet was a huge advertiser. They were, at the time, the only company with a patent to produce the aspartame sweetener in the United States. Aspartame was the key ingredient in diet colas. It had revolutionized the category in the 1980s, making for a better-tasting and (according to repeated reputable testing) safe product for calorie-conscious consumers. By 1989, there was no doubt that every soft drink marketer and bottler in America knew how important NutraSweet was to their business. Why they had to advertise in trade magazines, it occurs to me now, isn’t clear, but convincing them it was vital was the genius of men like my publisher, the ultimate trade magazine ad salesman.
His fallibility, however, was believing me when I nodded that I’d be at the NutraSweet party once he told me he wouldn’t be there. Having already attended to NutraSweet’s IFT booth and having scooped up literature and quotes and whatever else I needed in terms of information and face time — and having determined that the NutraSweet party was the kind of gala cocktail soiree from which a single trade magazine reporter’s absence would go wholly unnoticed — I made an executive decision. I would pass on the NutraSweet party. I had some sampling of my own volition to do.
My publisher had sent word through my editor the week before: “Tell the kid to get his suit pressed.” (Apparently I struck him as a bit rumpled the first time he saw me in action away from the office.) My father, who grew up upstairs from Prince Valet in Jackson Heights, told me you don’t just get your suit pressed — you get it dry cleaned. My mother was still peddling the same advice she’d been giving me and my sister since we were kids.
“Put five dollars in your shoe.”
What was I — an idiot? Granted, I had never been to Chicago before, but I knew how to clean myself up, knew how to dress myself and knew enough not to get — as my mother confided to my sister she was afraid would happen to me in the strange city because I was too nice — “rolled”.
I was 26. If I hadn’t been “around,” I’d also venture to say I wasn’t an utter naïf. I was pretty confident I could handle getting on an overly early flight to O’Hare on a Monday morning (magazine too cheap to pay for a civilized extra night’s stay), getting to McCormick, getting a convention badge and getting on with IFT. At the first available break, I managed, all by myself, to uncheck my luggage at the convention center and check into the adjoining hotel when my room was ready. I even knew enough to tell housekeeping, when they came around to inspect, that no, I had not enjoyed a Heineken and M&M’s from the minibar, I had only just entered this room five minutes ago, that must have been the last guy.
Not rolled by hotel management. That was encouraging.
God, I was tired. The flight was too early for my nocturnal system, and United Airlines mysteriously offered only caffeine-free diet cola. No caffeine? What was the point of that at seven in the morning? Settling briefly into my room, I flipped on the radio to hear what Top 40 sounded like in Chicago (pretty much the same as it sounded everywhere else) and, just as the minibar lady with her clipboard left, the new Great White hit, “Once Bitten Twice Shy,” caught my ear.
You’re lookin’ tried
You’re lookin’ kinda beat
The rhythm of the street
Sure knocks you off your feet
Per Great White’s expert reading of my mental state, I would’ve loved a nap right about then, but I had miles of trade show booths to go before I could sleep.
Back to McCormick. Back to the floor.
I’d always wanted to go to Wrigley Field, but so did everybody else. The Cubs were hot stuff in June 1989. They held first in the National League East (damn it), so that made their already limited inventory of tickets even scarcer. Throw in the advent of night baseball on the North Side — lights were switched on for the first time the previous summer — and games that took place after traditional working hours were in near impossible demand.
At the end of my first day at IFT, I returned to my room, turned on WGN, Channel 9, and saw the joint was jumping. Another sellout, they exclaimed — it was all happening at Wrigley.
Before I nodded off for the evening (it didn’t take much), I opened the Tribune sports section and examined the upcoming schedule. The Cubs were home again tomorrow night, but that figured to be sold out, too. They had a day game the day after that, but I was flying home that night and how would that work? What was I supposed to do with my stuff? How does one approach a Wrigley Field scalper? Does one risk getting rolled? And what about my flight out of O’Hare — how close exactly was the airport to the ballpark?
I wasn’t a naïf, but I also didn’t know very much.
Yet I did know this, or at least I allowed it to occur to me: Chicago had another ballpark, home base to another team, one whose games were immaterial to divisional races and — based on my scanning of box scores — did not loom as major attractions. Best of all, that ballpark would, in the spirit of IFT, be open for business this week; the next night, in fact. It had never really crossed my mind to see it, but I was in Chicago, it was there on the South Side, relatively close to where I was from my best reading of Second City geography…
What the hell? If Wrigley was prohibitive, I’d sample the other place.
He called me sir. He called everybody sir, I suspected, out of professional courtesy.
“Good evening, sir.”
“Good evening. Comiskey Park, please.”
The NutraSweet party was in my cabdriver’s rearview mirror. Somewhere ahead of us, baseball. Baseball in Chicago. Not the baseball in Chicago I’d always yearned to be a part of, but it would do for now.
It’s not like I’d never heard of Comiskey Park before. It, like the White Sox, penetrated my consciousness every few years. Bill Melton led the American League in home runs with an absurdly low total when I was a kid, the season before Richie Allen became Dick Allen. Richie Zisk became a free agent bargain when I was in junior high. Disco Demolition became a catastrophe the summer between my being a high school sophomore and junior. In 1983, while I was in college, they hosted an All-Star Game and then morphed into the embodiment of Winning Ugly. It was supposed to refer to their style of play, but it could have been an allusion to their ever more hideous uniforms.
You thought of the White Sox in the 1970s and 1980s, you thought of oversized sluggers in lumpy throwback blouses (with or without shorts), or horizontal stripes that could never quite take the measure of a Ron Kittle. The last time, by 1989, that I had thought more than a minute about the White Sox was probably 1986, when Chicago traded misplaced Met icon Tom Seaver to Boston, which I appreciated, because there had been talk he might wind up on the Yankees.
Tom Seaver looked good in every uniform, but that’s not one I ever wanted to see him try on.
“If you don’t mind me asking, are you a sportswriter?”
The cabdriver’s question tickled me. I had once been mistaken, sort of, for a Mets ballplayer, but I chalked that up to my youth (barely 19), my Mets jacket (a Starter), my surroundings (the Tampa airport, across the bay from the Mets’ Spring Training home in St. Pete) and the person who made the mistake (lady in the airport gift shop who definitely needed her eyes and/or judgment checked). This case of mistaken identity? I guess it was plausible. Though I had left my suit jacket and tie back in the hotel, I was still wearing a buttondown shirt and my suit pants — ever less pressed, but still presentable. Am I what a sportswriter looks like? They’re not all rumpled like Oscar Madison…or me, normally? I can pass for a sportswriter?
“No,” I said. “Just going to the game.”
I didn’t ask, but I figured my driver didn’t get many fares to Comiskey Park. In 1989, the White Sox were dead last in American League attendance, drawing a smidge over a million by season’s end. In 1989, someone would probably have to have a reason to want to go there on a Tuesday night, like it was his job. They would literally have to pay you to go see the White Sox.
Not me. They paid me to go to IFT. And the NutraSweet party, I suppose.
He mistook me for a sportswriter. I liked that.
The NBA draft was in progress, and attached to the cab’s meter was a news ticker of sorts. Interrupting the steady stream of traffic updates was this flash: The Chicago Bulls, with the sixth pick, selected Stacey King, from the University of Oklahoma. There was much hooting and hollering to be heard over the cab radio. The dispatcher was happy. The other drivers were happy. My driver was happy.
“Sir, do you follow basketball?”
“Everybody’s very excited about this draft pick.”
The Bulls were worth talking about in Chicago. The White Sox weren’t.
Six-something dollars (plus tip) from the convention center hotel, we were there: Comiskey Park. It didn’t look like much — the major construction site next door perhaps lessened its impact — and it didn’t appear to be in the middle of anything you’d want to be if you didn’t know your away around. To minimize the possibility of being rolled, I asked my courtly driver if there were cabs around after games. No, he said, there weren’t, so he gave me a business card with the phone number of the cab company circled. Just call, he said, and one will come to get you.
Sounded reasonable in theory. I thanked him for the ride and the information, if not the sportswriter remark.
As predicted, no problem getting a ticket to a White Sox-Rangers game in late June. Walked right up to the window (no wait) and went for an $8.50 box seat down the first base line. You couldn’t get a box seat at Shea in those days without major finagling. Three weeks earlier, I took my friend Chuck, visiting from out of town, to his first Mets game in ages. We had to buy our tickets from a guy who was selling them out of his trunk.
Not the case on the South Side of Chicago. Getting in was a breeze. Getting home might be another matter, but that was for later.
It reeked of baseball. That’s what Comiskey Park did. Reek does not carry pleasant connotations — “to be pervaded by something unpleasant” is the dictionary definition — but that was the word that came to me 21½ years ago. I meant no offense by it. To the contrary, it was the highest compliment I could pay it. What better to reek of than baseball? What better to sense oozing out of the pores of a building than 80 seasons of national pastime? I knew very little about Comiskey Park when I bought that ticket, but I could feel everything about it once I stepped inside.
This place reeked unapologetically of baseball, baseball and more baseball. Baseball had infested this ballpark like termites. The baseball was peeling from its walls. The baseball formed puddles at your feet. You needed a bucket to catch all the baseball dripping from its ceilings.
There was no mopping it up, no patching it, no stepping around it. You walked through Comiskey Park, you were immersed in a flood of baseball.
Best. Reek. Ever.
The first thing I loved about Comiskey Park was grasping that it had been there forever. It went up in 1910, before Fenway, before Wrigley. If I didn’t know the exact date on the night I was there, I could have guessed it was the oldest ballpark in the majors. It, unlike me, had been around. And unlike its more celebrated contemporaries, it didn’t emit preciousness. Fenway and Wrigley had been lauded my entire life for being what a ballpark was supposed to be, yet Comiskey didn’t need accolades. Its sturdiness spoke volumes. This was a ballpark that kept to itself and didn’t demand attention.
Yet it had mine, instantly. No, the whitewashed brick outside augured nothing overly sensational, and the utilitarian concourses told you mostly that these walls had been well lived between (as did the concession stands, which were still selling 1983 A.L. West Champion buttons six years after the fact). But when you ambled down the first base side and came out the tunnel to your right field box seat and your $8.50 became the investment of a lifetime.
You were in baseball paradise. Nothing else existed except baseball. You just knew you were in the right place. The double-decked grandstand; the way it turned at sharp angles as if to put its arms around the field; the roof above the top deck warding off glare and rain for generations; the posts holding the roof aloft and keeping everybody on top of the game; the arches behind the bottom deck that let in shafts of natural light and a suggestion of the neighborhood beyond; the leafy trees behind the arches; the festive scoreboard ready to ignite at a homer’s notice; the picnic area where I once read Claudell Washington would help himself to ribs; the yellow accents; the green seats; the green fences; the green grass; the incredibly green grass…more than any ballpark I’d ever seen or would ever see, this place said in plaintive fashion to me, “Baseball.” That was it. That was all it had to say.
Once bitten by Comiskey Park, you were never shy about loving it.
A game between the 1989 Chicago White Sox (managed by Jeff Torborg) and the 1989 Texas Rangers (managed by Bobby Valentine) served mostly as an excuse to allow Comiskey wash over me, much as the shower Bill Veeck had long ago installed in the center field bleachers once refreshed and invigorated his customers. I cheered with temporary conviction for the home team, moaned theatrically at the success of the road team — featuring five players (starting pitcher Kevin Brown; left fielder Sammy Sosa; first baseman Rafael Palmeiro; right fielder Ruben Sierra; and second baseman Julio Franco) whose careers would extend to at least the mid-portion of the first decade of the next century; and came mighty close to picking off a foul ball (a father and son, actual White Sox fans, nabbed it in the row ahead of me). Otherwise, I just soaked up the evening. There was Nancy Faust’s organ and Old Style beer and the low, contented buzz of a night game in late June when there are few in the stands (9,631 announced as attendance) and not much on the line (the Sox were 17 out) and no reason whatsoever to want to be anywhere else in the world. The Mets were in Montreal, the NutraSweet party was a million miles away, I was where I always wanted to be but just hadn’t known it until I found it.
They should have had to have dragged me out of there kicking and screaming. It should have taken a Chicago police presence on the scale of what the first Mayor Daley unleashed on the 1968 Democratic Convention to move me. I should have claimed eminent domain and declared my box seat a sovereign nation. Instead, I bolted early, after six innings.
I was worried about getting a cab back to the hotel. Not knowing from the El, I didn’t want to be stranded on the South Side of Chicago; Jim Croce advised me years earlier that if you go down there, you better just beware of a man named Leroy Brown. And even if it wasn’t as bad (bad) as all that, I still felt a little uncomfortable with the notion of a sparse crowd filing out and me standing around a mostly deserted ballpark waiting on a ride. So while there were still people on the premises, I figured the smart thing to do was leave paradise behind with three innings to go, find a pay phone, use that business card and make a smooth exit.
I’m not convinced that my cab ever came. The seventh became the eighth and patrons began to trickle out in my wake. My anxiety quotient was rising at the thought of being the last out-of-town fan standing around in the dark. Thus, when a taxi bearing a name different from that on the card wandered by in my general vicinity, I hailed it down, jumped in the back seat and, before the driver had a chance to confirm I wasn’t the fare he’d been sent to pick up, I directed him to my hotel.
I may not have known the South Side, but I’m from New York. I know how to steal a cab.
Leaving three innings of the ballpark with which/whom I fell in love on the table made sense after the sun went down on June 27, 1989, and it doesn’t really bother me now. Comiskey had proven its point to me. She was The One. I knew it. I wasn’t a ballpark aficionado when I showed up. I had no more than a very vague desire to see as many of them as I could, maybe one day see them all, but I didn’t walk in with an agenda. My life list was only five before Comiskey. Nothing that preceded it in my travels, however, could approach it for beauty and feeling and baseball. Not Fenway, not Shea even.
Five years later, blown away by what had been constructed in Baltimore, I admit I had to think about it, but no, Comiskey could not be topped. Her cousin in Detroit touched me deep inside upon our one dalliance in 1997, but Tiger Stadium somehow fell short, too. PNC Park, this century’s gift to the future…only in a discussion that includes Comiskey could the jewel of Pittsburgh be considered an also-ran.
There would be no place like Comiskey Park for the rest of my life. Soon enough, there wouldn’t be a Comiskey Park. That dusty construction site next door would see to that.
Comiskey Park was shuttered forever in September 1990. I’ve been alternately sad and pissed off about it ever since. I suppose I want to be sad and pissed off about it. Comiskey Park deserved to survive and celebrate a centennial this very year. Getting all out of sorts over its enforced absence from the current baseball landscape is my way of keeping it alive. When I need my dismay stoked, I pull out what amounts to my bible in this matter, Baseball Palace of the World: The Last Year of Comiskey Park by lifelong White Sox fan Douglas Bukowski.
Bukowski took part in a doomed preservation effort — Save Our Sox — right up to the end. It didn’t go anywhere, but the diary he left behind in the form of his book is every bit as affecting to me as Comiskey itself. Bukowski refused to be taken in by club owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s clarion call for progress and amenities, the twin siren songs of all ownership-driven pushes for new/more profitable facilities. Comiskey Park was four years older than Wrigley Field. Nobody was tearing down Wrigley, Bukowski argued. They were maintaining it. Comiskey needed devotion, not demolition. Reacting to then-commissioner Fay Vincent’s likening Wrigley to a cathedral (and Comiskey to “an old car”), Bukowski wrote:
St. Peter’s stands as a landmark to the baroque. People visit to get a sense of seventeenth-century Rome; they do not complain about the lack of central heating or air-conditioning. For the cathedral metaphor to hold, Fenway and Wrigley have to appeal through their sense of the past. Fans venerate both — and Comiskey — because they are so unchanged: the field and stands are virtually the same as they were in the days of Ted Williams or Hack Wilson or Luke Appling.
All that has been done to Wrigley Field is good housekeeping and regular maintenance. The commissioner is confused when he talks about [modifications to Wrigley] moving forward “with the interest of the fans.” Skyboxes and night baseball are to the benefit of the few and well-heeled, not the average Chicago Cubs fan. At least Vincent had it right about Comiskey Park not changing. That is precisely what makes it a cathedral of baseball.
Douglas Bukowski came off as a bit of a curmudgeon as he chronicled his 1990 Comiskey farewell (and retained that chip on his shoulder in the best of White Sox times), but he had every reason to do so. His righteous love of his ballpark, well-earned and well-honed, is palpable. I can muster only a scintilla of his depth of appreciation of Comiskey Park, but I totally feel it still.
Comiskey’s 1991 replacement, also named Comiskey Park until a sponsor came along in 2003, was not what it was cracked up to be. Everything was farther away from the field. The upper deck stood absurdly high. A major renovation effort would be needed in its second decade to make it palatable to White Sox fans once the novelty of its modernity wore off. And in the great sweep of ballpark history, new Comiskey represented an aesthetic setback. It opened one year ahead of the great success of the age, Camden Yards. New Comiskey feinted toward nostalgia for inspiration and delivered no sense of timelessness. Camden, of course, became legendary as the first brick in the revival of baseball’s architectural integrity.
Peter Richmond, author of Ballpark: Camden Yards And The Building Of An American Dream, and presumably a disinterested party, framed the differences between what the White Sox gave up on…
Comiskey offered an antidote to the daily jungle. It was one of the first parks to install lights. In fact, Comiskey was a better park for watching baseball than Wrigley. It was small, and built on a human scale, for a human-scaled game. Its upper-deck front rows were forty-five feet closer to home plate than Wrigley’s. Down in the street-level concourse, the scents were shellacked onto the walls, adhering to the brick like the very soul of the game made manifest; cigar smoke, Old Style beer, sausage, cooking oil.
…and what they were rushing toward:
[T]he upper-deck cant — 35 degrees, among the steepest in the majors — was enough to induce vertigo. Its seats furnished a view of the Dan Ryan Expressway and its caravans of trucks, and the aural accompaniment was the incessant hum of rubber tire on highway. We also heard a train, but we couldn’t see it.
The steep upper deck was required to furnish sight lines; without columns below, the upper deck in a stadium has to be set farther back. With the extra height forced on it by three decks of luxury boxes — they are wincingly prominent, like the prow of a ship, the staterooms looking down on steerage — the upper deck up top has to be cantilevered even more.
Old Comiskey was home cooking, a one-of-a-kind family recipe. New Comiskey may as well have been concocted in some food technologist’s lab. You don’t need that refined a palate to tell the difference.
When your favorite ballpark ever is one you can’t go to any longer, you take what you can get. You read your books, you search out blogs and pictures, you keep an eye open for video. You sit through an hour of the morose John Candy comedy Only The Lonely only because one scene takes place in Comiskey Park; Candy takes Ally Sheedy for a nighttime picnic in the infield (he’s a cop and he knows the security guard). Candy laments it’s a shame they’re gonna tear this place down.
I’m not a White Sox fan, beyond reflexively wishing them well because they’re not the Cubs. I never begrudged them their plucking Tom Seaver off our unprotected pile in that abortion of a compensation pool draft in 1984 — it just showed they had good taste. But other than the 2005 postseason, when their fans deserved a break, and whenever they play the Yankees, I’ve never particularly cared what they do. I have no attachment to the White Sox. But oh, how I adored Comiskey Park and how I’d love to be able to go there again, but that’s never happening again, obviously. All that sits where it used to stand (besides a parking lot) is a marker signifying the site of home plate, with its year of birth and its year of death.
Seeing it on one of my visits to Comiskey’s half-baked replacement only pissed me off and saddened me more.
But that’s not what ballparks, even the ballparks whose unnecessary passings you endlessly rue, are for. Ballparks are for the best moments in our lives. Ballparks are where I’ve had most of mine. Whether it’s six innings one unplanned evening far from home; or thirty-six seasons in what you considered your home; or the throwback field exponentially enhanced by an ingeniously resuscitated warehouse; or the desultory circle on foreign soil and fake turf that made you think you were inside a warehouse; or that plastic place planted off some highway which everyone else thinks is splendid but you still believe to have been soulless; or that place that took the place of your home — the place you’ve given 63 chances to win you over and hasn’t quite after two seasons, but you’re going to give it as many chances as it takes…well, I must have a very limited imagination, because from Olympic Stadium and Royals Stadium, through Citi Field and Shea Stadium, all the way to Camden Yards and Comiskey Park, there’s nowhere else I’d rather have gone and that I’d rather go than the ballpark. Any one of ’em.
Thanks for taking these journeys with me to my 34 ballparks. No doubt I’ll let you know when I get to a 35th.