Comiskey Park

Comiskey Park was one of baseball’s earliest modern steel-and-concrete stadiums, opening a little more than a year after the first (Shibe Park). It was also one of the longest-lived, logging nearly 81 seasons and over 6,000 games. From 1970 until its closing, it was the majors’ oldest park.

The South Side stadium was built on land originally owned by “Long” John Wentworth, a former Windy City mayor. Before he sold it to Charles Comiskey in 1909, the site had been used for a city dump. The rush to build the park in time for its July 1 opening was hindered by a steel-workers’ strike and the death of a carpenter who fell from a scaffold hours before the first game cast a pall over the Opening Day festivities. The White Sox lost the inaugural game to the Browns 2-0.

The ballpark constructed at 35th and Shields Avenue by the “Old Roman” was one of the most impressive of its period due to its symmetry (unusual at the time) and generous size. Its original 29,000 seats set a baseball record, and it eventually reached a capacity of 52,000 after numerous expansions throughout the late 1910s and mid-1920s. The thrifty Comiskey vetoed architect Zachary Taylor Davis’s idea to build a column-free grandstand with an ornate Neoclassical facade and external landscaping, but the park’s brick exterior was nevertheless graced by arched openings and Prairie School details. In its early years, it was dubbed the “Baseball Capitol of the World.” Due to its large seating capacity, it was borrowed by the crosstown Cubs for the 1918 World Series.

Comiskey was ideally suited for dead-ball-era play. Its spacious outfield (originally 362 feet down the lines and 420 feet to center) was influenced by pitcher Ed Walsh, who toured several major league parks with an employee of Davis prior to design. But the changing nature of the game soon made Comiskey Park out of step. The long-ball hitting of the games’ stars was handicapped by a park its size, at a time when the fans demanded high scores and frequent home runs from their heroes.

It wasn’t until 1934, after Comiskey’s death, that the ownership dealt with this problem. The plate was moved forward 14′ to accommodate power hitter Al Simmons, but when he left a year later the plate was moved back to its original location. In 1949 a wire fence was installed by Frank Lane to spur greater power production, but it was the opposition and not the White Sox who profited from the smaller dimensions — it was removed it after only a few games. In later years, the home plate was moved out about 20 feet to accommodate added rows of box seats, once again shortening the distance down the lines by about 14 feet.

Comiskey was home of the NFL Chicago Cardinals for 35 seasons, and was the site of the first All-Star game in 1933; it was also the permanent site of the Negro Leagues‘ yearly East-West All-Star game from 1933-50. The infield was a hazard in those years. Once Luke Appling tripped over a copper kettle protruding near second base which had surfaced after a few decades.

Night games (which began in 1939) helped bolster sagging attendance. In 1950, a scoreboard was built in center field, replacing the ones situated on the left and right field walls. Ten years later Bill Veeck added fireworks and spinning pinwheels to the scoreboard’s capabilities. In 1968 artificial turf was installed in the infield, but it was removed in 1976.

Hampered by a limited budget during his second term of ownership, Veeck was forced to sell the team. After the new owners, Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, installed a new Diamond Vision board, luxury suites, and improved front office facilities with the proceeds of taxpayer-subsidized bonds, they proceeded to campaign for a new stadium, claiming that the old one has dangerously deteriorated. A grassroots group called Save Our Sox sprung up to fight for the old ballyard and suggested that it be the working centerpiece of an urban national park devoted to sports.

Engineering surveys sponsored by both proponents and opponents of demolition failed to document any serious structural hazards, but the owners’ threats to move the team and other political hardball eventually doomed old Comiskey. New Comiskey Park now stands on a site just south of the old one.

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