By George W. Hilton
Inevitably, the deeds done in ball parks receive more publicity than the stadia themselves. Comiskey Park is where Luke Appling and Bill Pierce went to greatness and Chick Gandil to infamy, but the architect's name is all but unknown. This is lamentable, for the park has long been admired for its spaciousness and symmetry, and recently it has succeeded to the honor of being the major league's oldest active ball park.
When the Chicago White Sox were founded in 1900, only the Philadelphia and Cleveland clubs of the National League had ball parks of permanent concrete and steel construction. The new American League acceeded to Cleveland's League Park, but every other franchise operated with a wooden grandstand and bleacher. Charles A. Comiskey, upon moving the St. Paul club of the Western League to Chicago to become the White Sox in 1900, was confronted with the necessity of building a park quickly. The wooden stadium he had used as manager of the Players League's Chicago club in 1890 had been a good example of the older class of park. It had enjoyed a fine location at Wentworth Avenue, on one of the major streetcar lines running south from the central business district. This park, however, had been demolished, and Comiskey was unable to acquire the land on which it had stood. Consequently, Comiskey leased the grounds of the Chicago Cricket Club at 39th Street between Wentworth and Princeton Avenues, on which he built a single-deck wooden grandstand of about 15,000 capacity. During the first decade of the White Sox' history, Comiskey repeatedly stated that he would build a permanent park of steel and concrete as soon as he was able to pay cash for land and the building.
The White Sox were a great initial success, quickly winning the loyalty of the South Side's industrial population. Their National League rivals, later to be known as the Cubs, still played on the West Side, which was becoming a slum of foreign-born population with limited interest in baseball. The White Sox capped their early successes by winning the 1906 World Series from the Cubs.
Comiskey in this period made enough money that he was able to buy land for his projected permanent ballpark. He was still unable to acquire the former Players League site at 35th and Wentworth, but on February 1, 1909, he announced purchase for $100,000 from the estate of Chicago's first mayor, John Wentworth, of the lot immediately to the west at 35th Street and Shield's Avenue. The lot was 600 feet square, reportedly the largest in the major leagues. Comiskey was strongly of the opinion that first class baseball required an ample playing area, so that fielders could roam widely, runners could demonstrate themselves on extra-base hits, and home runs should be fully earned.
Design of the park was entrusted to a relatively obscure Chicago architect, Zachary Taylor Davis (1872-1946). Davis, a graduate of the nearby Armour Institute (now the Illinois Institute of Technology), had executed many of the two- and three-story walk-up apartment buildings characteristic of Chicago, and had designed St. Ambrose Church at 47th Street and Ellis Avenue. Later he was to do the court house at Kankakee, Illinois, and in collaboration with Gustave Steinbach, the Quigley Memorial Chapel and educational buildings of the downtown campus of Loyola University of Chicago. The Comiskey Park commission established Davis as a specialist in ball parks. Later he was architect of Wrigley Field, Chicago, and Wrigley Field, Los Angeles.
Davis was reported to have traveled to all of the other recent major league ball parks, end to have been most impressed with Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, opened in 1909. Davis adopted the Pittsburgh stadium's plan of a double-deck grandstand between first and third bases with detached single-deck pavilions beyond. The design, shown in an accompanying illustration, was an obvious embodiment of Daniel H. Burnham's "City Beautiful" concept of classical building set in park-like surroundings. The Roman facade, which resembled Shibe Park and several of the other new steel and concrete parks of this period, was never applied. No explanation of the change was ever made, but presumably Comiskey, exercising his well-known passion for economy, had Davis redesign the exterior with en ordinary brick facade with a motif based on repetition in the bays of s block letter "C". Consequently, the park emerged aesthetically as an undistinguished example of modern architecture.
An elderly Chicago architect, Karl Vitzthum, in an interview with Dick Hackenberg of the Chicago Sun-Times in 1965, reported a further consequence of Comiskey's habitual nickel-nursing. Vitzthum, then a young architect on Burnham's staff, was apparently engaged to work out some of the engineering details of the stadium. He stated that it was he, rather than Davis, who made a tour of the ball parks in Cleveland, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh in preparation for executing the design. He reported that Ed Walsh, the White Sox leading pitcher, accompanied him, and was responsible for the park's generous outfield dimensions. Vitzthum reported that on his return he endeavored to interest Comiskey in a cantilevered grandstand, free of posts. Such a design would have been a pioneer among ball parks, but Comiskey upon discovering that cantilevering could add as much as $350,000 to the cost of the park, vetoed the idea, and ordered the architects to proceed with a conventional design of vertical steel beam supports.
The ball park was built in great haste in early 1910. Ground was broken about February 15, and by mid-March the foundation was nearing completion. Symbolizing the team's attachments in its early years to the South Side Irish population, Davis laid a green brick by the main entrance on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, to initiate building of the superstructure. The contractor was George W. Jackson, a friend of Comiskey.
The design called for 35,000 seats, 6400 in the boxes, 12,600 in the grandstand, and 16,000 in the pavilions and bleachers. The bleachers were wooden, apparently built in the expectation of eventual removal for permanent stands. Comiskey, who had made his success in the American Association and American League on 25c admissions, was careful to provide a mix favorable to the cheaper seats. The distances, as Comiskey and Walsh wanted, were ample: 362 feet on each foul line and 420 feet to center. Investment in the park was variously reported between $500,000 and $750,000.
The park was ready for play by mid-season of 1910. The seats, which were narrow, straight-back and cramped, were installed in June. Comiskey, who took personal pride in the transfer of the Milwaukee Brewers to St. Louis in 1902, arranged for the Browns to open the new stadium on July 1, 1910. The engraved invitations read "White Sox Park”, although the stadium was known as Comiskey Park at least by 1913. Ed Walsh, whose heroic pitching for the White Sox had contributed so mightily to the building of the ball park, pitched the first game, but lost to the Browns, 2-0. The crowd was 24,900 paid and was an estimated 28,300 total. Initially, the park was thought to have a curse of ill luck, for four White Sox pitchers were injured in the first five games. The injuries were minor ones stemming from loose sod, a problem which quickly resolved itself.
In the decade from the opening of the new stadium to the revelation of the Black Sox scandal in 1920, the
White Sox had the most successful period in their history, including the world's championship of 1917 and the pennant of 1919. The park witnessed three consecutive World Series when the Cubs leased it for their home games in the 1918 classic. The only major changes in the park in this period were expansion in the bleachers to raise capacity to 41,000. The largest crowd in the original configuration of Comiskey Park was 43,825 in the 1925 City Series.
The 1920's in one sense were an unlikely time for Comiskey Park to be expanded. The Black Sox scandal had plunged the team into the second division, and beginning in 1925 the team performed the unmatched feat of finishing fifth four years consecutively. Nonetheless, Comiskey in the mid-1920's decided upon replacing the wooden bleachers with permanent steel and concrete stands.
The addition to Comiskey Park of the 1920's was a "House that Ruth Built" no less than Yankee Stadium. The existing stands were entirely adequate for the crowds which the White Sox of the 1920's could draw but the mania for Babe Ruth was at its peak, and the crowds which the Yankees attracted warranted greater capacity.
The City Series was still a major attraction in Chicago, drawing to the two ball parks a double set of fans.
Accordingly, Comiskey commissioned Davis to draw up plans for double-decking the pavilions along the right and left field lines, with extension of the double-decked stands around the outfield, closing the perk with a small, high bleacher in dead center. Davis also closed the open areas between the original stands and the pavilions by adding two small seating areas (Sections 16 and 35) of 14 seats in width. Comiskey had long since acquired the old Players League grounds between the stadium and Wentworth Avenue and was able to build the stands in the right field area out to the east.
To the north, however, Comiskey Park fronted 34th Street, which though unpaved end mainly unused, was a public thoroughfare. North of 34th Street is a small municipal park. Thus, although Comiskey Park has always been notable for its symmetrical playing field, Davis was unable to provide symmetry in seating: in the lower deck in right field he designed 31 rows, but in left field he could provide only 19. In the upper decks, he was able to design 20 rows in both. Relatively high and with a steep pitch, the outfield stands proved to have excellent sight lines, making attractive what inmost ball parks are unpopular seats. In contrast, the lower deck seats in the former pavilion area are relatively unsatisfactory. As in most parks of the time, these seats face directly to the outfield, with no canting toward the plate. Thus, the sight lines toward the infield are oblique through posts, and frequently obstructed by one’s fellow fans.
Oddly, and probably irrelevantly to Davis’ intentions, the design of Comiskey Park was to make it an excellent football field. With the normal north-south placing of the gridiron, the asymmetry between the right and left field stands was to give the higher capacity along the sidelines, and the sight lines in the former pavilion areas were entirely appropriate to football. Comiskey Park was the home of the Chicago Cardinals for many years. It was there on Thanksgiving Day of 1929 when Ernie Nevers scored a record 40 points in s historic Cardinal victory over the Chicago Bears of George Hales and Red Grange, 40-6.
Comiskey undertook the expansion of the park immediately after the 1926 City Series. Concrete had already been poured for some of the foundation, and the stands were erected during the winter. Not all of the seats had been installed for the home opener on April 20, 1927, but in a good indication of the purpose of the extension, fans were assured that the entire facility would be ready for the Yankees' first visit in May. Davis' plan had been for a capacity of 55,000, but the Chicago Fire Department intervened to hold seating to 52,000. Nonetheless, the seating of the new stands had the flat backs and close proximity of the earlier portion. Lou Gehrig hit the first homer in the new pavilion on May 7. It was a grand slam off Ted Lyons. The large crowd included Vice President Charles G. Dawes.
Comiskey in his new stands was true to his principle that good baseball requires a big field. The new dimensions were 352 feet down each foul line and a heroic 440 feet to center field. The walls were 9 feet high to the right and left field stands. Consequently, Comiskey Park was to be a pitchers' park in which home runs were honestly earned. One of the most effective features of the design was the 70 foot height of the outfield stands. Hitting a ball onto the roof or entirely over it required a drive with a ground-to-ground distance of at least 474 feet. This was possible, but could never be common. The feat was achieved with about the frequency of pitching no-hit games, and in similar fashion made players memorable who might otherwise have been undistinguished. Buddy Bradford joined Ruth and Foxx in hitting one out of Comiskey Park, just as Bob Keegan joined Ed Walsh and Bob Feller in pitching no-hitters there.
The prospect of seeing a ball hit out or of seeing a no-hitter pitched was an incentive to come out to the park; a fan who had seen either wee a man of status among his friends. The infield was moved out 14 feet to provide Al Simmons with a better shot at the fences after the 1934 season, but the experiment was ended when Simmons left a year later. Similarly, inside fences in left end right fields were tried in 1949 and 1969-70, but then abandoned. Since 1949 a fence has reduced the centerfield distance, currently to 400 feet. To their credit--and that of the management--Bill Melton in 1971 and Dick Allen in 1972 won the American League hone run championships with the park's 1927 foul lines. Ironically, Sherm Lollar remains the player who hit the most homers at Comiskey Park -- 66.
Had Comiskey anticipated the events of the 1930's, it is doubtful that he would have expanded the stadium.
The team lost its hold on fifth place and began contending with the Red Sox for last place in 1929. Ruth became older, and lost some of his appeal at the gate. The Cubs-- since 1916 on the North Side -- in 1929 began a pattern of winning pennants at three year intervals through 1938, and were contenders annually. The Great Depression was abroad in the land, and the White Sox attendance sank to a low of 233, 198 in 1932 – a figure for which the old 39th Street Park would have sufficed. In 1930, a man arrived who was to be for the White Sox statistically, and more important, emotionally, what Walter Johnson had been to the Senators or Ty Cobb to the Tigers: Luke Appling, but not until the mid-1930’s did the enthusiasm for him begin to make itself felt at the gate.
With the improvement in the team after Jimmy Dykes' assumption of the managership in 1934 and the simultaneous upturn in national business conditions, attendance rose beyond half a million in 1937. Comiskey died in 1931, and his heirs, with the help of the long-time general manager, Harry Grabiner, brought the team through the most difficult years. After a poor 1938 season, in which the team finished sixth, the management in 1939 decided upon night baseball. In 1910 Comiskey had stated that the park was designed for eventual installation of lights for "hippodromes and night baseball". Davis' design easily adapted itself, to installation of light towers, and the first night game was played, fittingly, against the Browns on August 14, 1939. For the 1941 season the management replaced the grandstand seats in the original stands with wider, curved back models, which are vastly more comfortable. For 1947 the original movable box seats were also replaced with curved-back fixed seats. The changes, together with blocking off the center of the bleacher for better visibility by batters, reduced the official seating capacity to 46,550.
Except for isolated games, Comiskey Park's capacity after 1927 was not really utilized until after World War II. The arrival of Negro players and the upturn in the team's fortunes in 1951 increased attendance to levels over a million from 1951 to 1965 annually with the exception of 1958. Attendance reached its all-time high in 1960 at 1,644,460. Bill Veeck, whose control of the team coincided with the 1959 pennant, promoted attendance with his usual avidity, and wrought several changes in the park. Believing strongly that the park was a good structure, and in a neighborhood far better then its reputation indicated, Veeck painted the park white -- obscuring Davis' green brick, alas -- knocked the bricks out of the left field wall to provide a picnic area with a view of the game, end installed the famous exploding elements on an electric scoreboard installed by the Comiskey management in 1951.
The park necessarily has had a large number of minor changes. Building office space, washrooms, vending facilities, storage areas and even a bottling plant gave the area under the stands an anarchic character that helped create a bustling atmosphere totally appropriate to a ball park. Inevitably, the park developed odd features: Beneath the three stairways leading from the lower deck to the upper, ladies rooms are behind home and first; one men’s room is behind third.
Withal, the park has survived essentially in its 1927 state. Arthur Allyn, who succeeded to the team in
1961, considered covering the entire stadium with a dome, but never executed his plan. He also considered replacing Comiskey Park with a new ball park for the Sox and Cubs as part of a three-stadium complex on the site of Dearborn Station. This project, together with various municipal plans for a multipurpose stadium, perished quietly. Comiskey Park's closest brush with the wrecker came in 1969 when Arthur Allyn arranged terms for sale of the White Sox to Milwaukee interests. Instead, the team passed into the hands of his brother, John Allyn, who has kept the team at its traditional stand. The current management has generally reverted to the name "White Sox Park" even though the stadium is owned by a subsidiary of the White Sox called the Comiskey Park Corporation. Remarkably, the park's all-time record attendance, 55,555; was achieved only recently on May 20, 1973.
There are three types of good architecture: seminal buildings which initiated a new style of architecture, such as Louis H. Sullivan's Carson-Pine-Scott department store in Chicago; distinguished examples of the architecture of their tine, such as the United States Capitol; and buildings which gain esteem through long acquaintance and effective service to their purpose. Comiskey Park is a fine example of the last category. It is best seen from the upper deck in either the right or left field stands. There one can appreciate Davis' fine proportions of the stands and graceful curve behind home plate. More important, the narrow seats and straight backs remind one of Comiskey's famous preoccupation with economy, but the ample dimensions of the field below testify to his respect for baseball and his regard for the surroundings in which it is played.