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Era Ending in Chicago : Comiskey Park, the Oldest in Majors, Is in Its Final Season

August 13, 1990|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — Comiskey Park is dying. Long live Comiskey Park.

On Sept. 30, after the Chicago White Sox play the Seattle Mariners, Comiskey Park, the oldest baseball lot in the major leagues, will be closed and later demolished. Two lanes of traffic--an easy fungo shot--across 35th Street, on Chicago's South Side, workers are 60% finished with the new Comiskey Park, a $150-million project that will be ready next April for the club's home opener against the Detroit Tigers.

The only possible temporary reprieve for the old Comiskey Park would be if the White Sox overtook the Oakland Athletics in the American League West and qualified for the playoffs and a possible World Series.

The White Sox in a World Series would be an unusual RIP for Comiskey Park. Since the first game was played there--the St. Louis Browns beating the home team, 2-0, on July 1, 1910--the Sox have won only three pennants and one divisional title.

They lost two of those three World Series, and after one of the defeats--to Cincinnati in 1919--the White Sox were called the Black Sox because charges that eight of their players conspired with gamblers to lose the Series were upheld by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, then commissioner of baseball. Among the eight was Shoeless Joe Jackson, who, with a career batting average of .356, would have been a cinch for election to the Hall of Fame. He is still not in the Hall.

Just as Chicago fans with long memories have had a lingering love-hate affair with the 1919 White Sox, they also have mixed feelings about leaving an 81-year-old landmark.

"It will be nice to have something new in this old neighborhood," said Barbara Egan, who lives in a nearby house five years older than Comiskey. Egan has two children who sell hot dogs at White Sox games.

Old park, new park, it doesn't seem to make much difference to Andy Rozdilsky, the 72-year-old performer who has been affectionately known as "Andy the Clown" around Comiskey for 30 years.

"I've gone through many owners, many ballplayers, many managers and now I've even gone through the ballpark," said Rozdilsky, still bitter that he has never been paid more than $1,000 a season, adding he would have been fired by current White Sox management if there hadn't been a media outcry several years ago.

Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, the former law school classmates who have run the White Sox since they bought the club from the late Bill Veeck in 1981, are saying that the new Comiskey Park will take the franchise into the 21st Century. But in terms of bottom-line economics, this is the third-best scenario for the owners.

At one time, with no new stadium in view, the White Sox were close to moving to a new domed facility in St. Petersburg, Fla. As the only big league baseball club in Florida, they would have enjoyed enormous statewide television and radio rights and annual revenues might have improved by about $9 million a year.

Reinsdorf says that after buying the team for $19 million, about $25 million was spent in refurbishing the park. The White Sox also tried to move to Addison, a working-class suburb in burgeoning DuPage County, about 35 miles northwest of the Chicago Loop. A referendum for a stadium there failed to pass by about 100 votes.

Jerome Holtzman, a veteran baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune who was recently inducted into the writers' wing of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., grew up near Comiskey Park and was a White Sox fan.

"If the White Sox had been able to move to Addison, it would have helped them tremendously," he said. "They would have been able to build a new fan base, and there's tremendous growth still going on in that area. As it is, all they have is a new ballpark in the same semi-industrial neighborhood that's never been advantageous for drawing crowds."

In the summer of 1988, when the Illinois General Assembly moved the clock back to four minutes before the midnight deadline and approved the Comiskey Park project by nine votes, Reinsdorf was saddled with his promise that he wouldn't leave Chicago if the club was given a new stadium. The new Comiskey will be financed by a state-city sports authority that will pay for revenue bonds through a 2% tax on hotel and motel rooms in Chicago.

There is something to be said for the traditional approach that the White Sox have taken in building the new park:

--They have retained the name of the old park--named after Charles A. Comiskey, the "Old Roman" who began the White Stockings in Chicago in 1900--apparently with no discussion whatever. In Baltimore, where a new stadium is being built, there is almost more debate over the naming of the park--one faction wants it named after Babe Ruth--than there is about winning the American League East.

--The natural-grass field from the old park will be transplanted, making Comiskey II the first new baseball stadium without artificial turf since San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium opened in 1969.

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