Editor’s note: The series has completed a look at the development of the major intersections along Lake Park Avenue, and turned to stories of interest within the Hyde Park and Kenwood communities. The articles are all of varying topics, but relate to the residences that currently or in the past have defined the urban fabric.
By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS
The late Bart Giamatti once noted that baseball was a game designed to break your heart. The “game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone,” the Commissioner commented. “You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”
As the nights grow long and the air brisk, autumn ball marks the impending close of yet another year. Baseball lots that dot the neighborhood — where leagues like the Hyde Park-Kenwood Legends teach young boys and girls the virtues of character and loyalty demonstrated by the game — grow silent. “Legends” is a perfect name for a local league, for the community’s association with America’s pastime goes deeper than one might imagine, right to the very roots of the game.
Those roots have been the subject of many a paternity claim and an equal number of legends over the years. A century ago, Kenwood resident Albert Goodwill Spalding decided to find a satisfying answer to the question once and for all. At the turn of the 20th century, the former Major League Baseball player and sporting-goods magnate chaired a committee tasked with finding baseball’s origins.
After several years of searching his panel found its answer. It came in the form of a 1905 letter typed by one Abner Graves, proclaiming that a young Abner Doubleday — later a Civil War general — had invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York. Graves placed this spurt of creativity sometime around 1839, but couldn’t remember the date exactly. However, in a follow-up letter Graves improved his tale, saying he had been playing marbles with Doubleday the day he sketched a plan of a ball field in the dirt.
Doubleday died more than a decade before Graves wrote his letter, and there was no evidence he had ever played baseball or had even been to Cooperstown. And, at age twenty in 1839, Doubleday was well past the playing marbles stage of life. But with Graves’ somewhat faulty testimony and the support of Albert Goodwill Spalding’s blue-ribbon panel, Abner Doubleday became known as the father of baseball.
Clearly the dark haired, mustachioed Spalding was an interesting and ambitious fellow, and his Woodlawn Avenue house reflected his personality. He began his career in Rockford in 1867, and while visiting there the founder of the Boston Red Stockings recognized talent and recruited the young Spalding. He played with the east coast team for five years before returning to Chicago to join the White Stockings. Here he went on to manage the team, and in 1876 pitched 47 games as the team won the first ever National League Pennant. Although still young, Spalding retired from playing the game to concentrate on a sporting goods store founded with his brother. A.G. Spalding & Bros. obtained the rights to produce the official National League baseball, which they manufactured for the next hundred years.
We are able get a brief glimpse inside the Spaldings’ now demolished house thanks to a collection of images discovered in 2001, found wrapped in newspapers in the Architecture Library of the University of Melbourne. Spalding filled his house with the trappings of success, and this and other photographs collected by Australian architect Edward George Kilburn during his 1889 tour of the United States and Europe, provided examples of residences that came to influence Australian architects.
Baseball mania had come to Hyde Park — the Herald ran “Base-ball Notes” during the summer months, nestled among stories of tennis tournaments and pigeon shooting. In June of 1884 the pages came alive with games where thunderstorms interrupted play in the last inning (Hyde Park won when the drops stopped, 16-10), and where Blacks and whites played on separate teams, yet within the same league (“The ‘Unknowns,’ a colored nine, defeated Pullman…with an inning to spare.”) Games were often played on the “Boulevard grounds” at the corner of 41st Street and Drexel Boulevard where 200 spectators would gather to cheer — as large a crowd as would attend games between the nationally organized Chicago and Baltimore Union teams.
Spalding’s retirement from baseball was short-lived; by 1882 he returned to the National League as president and owner of the Chicago White Stockings. That same year, a young man named Charles A. Comiskey became a professional ball player with the St. Louis Browns, and eventually bought a team. The success of these teams attracted many competitors, and in 1894 Comiskey became involved in the founding of a new Western League. In 1901 the Western League became the American League, as baseball became enormously popular and increasingly lucrative. Despite intense opposition from the White Stockings, that year Comiskey moved his team to Chicago’s South Side where he built a wooden grandstand on the grounds of the old Chicago Cricket Club at 39th and Princeton streets. When Spalding’s White Stockings changed their name to the Cubs, Comiskey decided to use their old name. In 1908 Comiskey purchased property four blocks north for construction of a baseball field, while the Cubs eventually moved from their field on the near-West Side to the North Side of the city.
Before long, Hyde Park’s association with baseball and Chicago’s two rival Major League teams became even more interesting. The National Register of Historic Places referred to the dashing architect Zachary Taylor Davis as the “Frank Lloyd Wright of baseball.” A graduate of the Armour Institute and trained in the offices of famed architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, Davis worked on North Dearborn Street after partnering with his brother in 1900. Locally he designed apartments such as the three now-demolished buildings pictured here on Cornell Avenue just north of 53rd Street, as well as Saint Ambrose Church on 47th Street where he was a parishioner. Davis lived in Kenwood; his residence at 951 E. 45th St. has been demolished.
How Charles Comiskey came to know Davis is not clear, but he commissioned the architect to design a new facility for the Sox team. On a 14-acre site of a former cabbage farm and city dump, a kite-shaped baseball park took form. The exterior was noted for the sloping Romanesque archways built of common red brick, which made the park blend in with the surrounding working class neighborhood. Comiskey wanted a pitcher’s park, and Davis gave it to him. He toured the country looking at the best and worst of stadiums with pitcher Ed Walsh. Walsh was with the Sox between 1904 and 1916, and to this day holds the best record in Major League Baseball history — a 1.82 Earned Run Average. The park’s imposing field dimensions (362 feet to the left and right fields, and 420 feet to centerfield) were no doubt due to Walsh’s input, and he must have loved hurling balls there.
As to the architecture surrounding that pitcher’s paradise, Davis was one of the first architects to use steel beam and concrete construction for a stadium. He later took his expertise to the design of the home of the Sox hometown rival, the Cubs. Davis was the architect of Weeghman Park (now Wrigley Field), originally built for the 1914 Federal League Chicago Whales.
Around this time another businessman associated with baseball moved to the neighborhood. In 1910 architect Howard van Doren Shaw designed a magnificent Tudor Revival estate for Thomas E. Wilson, the head of the Wilson Packing Company, and the estate clearly reflects his success. Wilson was also the founder of Wilson Sporting Goods, which manufactured the pinstriped flannel uniforms both for the White Sox and the Cubs.
By the time scandal rocked the game of baseball, the Hyde Park landscape was transformed by the erection of large apartment hotels along the lakefront. Two in particular, the Sisson and the Cooper-Carleton (now the Del Prado), have a long association with the game, hosting visiting American League teams when they were in town to play the Chicago White Sox. For a short time the Cooper-Carleton was home to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner of baseball. Landis was a U.S. district court judge who presided over some of the most famous trials of the early years of the 20th century. Elected in 1920 as baseball’s first commissioner, he immediately had to deal with the aftermath of the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” scandal, and permanently banned eight team members for throwing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. While credited with restoring integrity to the game, Landis is also remembered for a different way baseball broke hearts — racial segregation. African American players were not allowed to stay in the hotel Landis once called home.
In the ’20s and ’30s entertainment played a significant role in social life. Of all of the spectator sports, baseball was at the time the most popular. Attendance records at the parks were broken, while many others listened to baseball’s exploits on the radios in their living rooms — Babe Ruth calling his 1932 World Series home run against the Chicago Cubs, and the first All-Star game in Comiskey’s park the following year.
When Comiskey died in ’31, his eldest son took over the reins of the last-place team; they finished the season 51 games out of first place. The 300-pound Lou Comiskey was superstitious — he added stripes to the team’s socks in an attempt to shake off the bad luck. They lost even more games the next season. Lou was also a Hyde Parker; he lived on the 11th and 12th floors of 5555 S. Everett Ave., renting all of the statuary, furniture, rugs and paintings present in the palatial unit. This evidently became a problem when Lou’s widow Grace Reidy Comiskey moved from the apartment in 1940 in controversial fashion. According to the Chicago Tribune the building owners filed a lawsuit, accusing her of trying to take part of the apartment with her, moving out “eight doors, three walls, and seven chandeliers.”
From the end of World War II through the 1960s, baseball saw a huge transformation in the game. What changed most about baseball during this era was race, and one Kenwood resident had a major role in making this happen. The New York Times described one of the more famous occupants of Y.C Wong’s Atrium House complex as the “creative and provocative promoter” owner of the Chicago White Sox.
Bill and Mary Frances Veeck lived for many years at 1380 Madison Park. The year he bought the Sox team, they won the 1959 American League pennant. More importantly Veeck is credited with integrating the American League; he proposed integrating baseball as early as 1942, but the idea was rejected by then Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Veeck pressed on and in 1948 he brought Larry Doby from the Negro Leagues to the Cleveland Indians.
On July 5th of that year, with the Indians on a road trip to Chicago, Larry Doby made his debut as the second Black baseball player to play in the majors (Jackie Robinson crossed the color line first). But all was not easy; Veeck hired two plainclothes police officers to escort Doby to the park. And after the game, Doby went not to the Del Prado Hotel where the other Indians players stayed, but to the DuSable Hotel at 764 E. Oakwood Blvd.
In its heyday, the DuSable Hotel was a major landmark for Chicago’s Blacks. It was a hotel for travelers — entertainers, musicians, gamblers and baseball players — all stayed in the eight-story building in Bronzeville. Well before World War II Oakwood Boulevard was primarily white, while most African Americans lived north of 39th Street. But that entire area slowly yielded to the pressure of Black expansion; the residents of the DuSable Hotel witnessed the changing demographics.
And as they did baseball changed as well. African American players were accepted and their security guards were employed for other reasons. Downtown hotels welcomed their business, while the Del Prado turned increasingly seedy. Comiskey Park came down, participation in little league baseball went up. Yet the ebb and flow and heartbreak of the game as described by Giamatti never changes. When the days are all twilight, when you need it most, baseball stops.
But then again, spring and hope lie just around the corner.
The DuSable Hotel was situated near where Drexel Bouelvard, Cottage Grove Avenue and Oakwood Boulevard all converged. On the corner of Oakwood and Drexel boulevards, just blocks from where the Hyde Park ball-club once played, was the Drexel Arms Hotel. Meet me outside the hotel, and take a stroll down Drexel Boulevard —in the next several articles.