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Old Comiskey Park

     

   
Harry Caray,
Falstaff Beer, and
Wild Comiskey Park!

The World's Largest Outdoor Saloon at 35th & Shields

by WSI editor George Bova

There is quite a contrast between kiddie baseball and adult baseball.  In kiddie baseball, fans chant, "We want a hit!"  In adult baseball, fans shout, "You're a bum!"  In kiddie baseball, fans squeal delight with each pop fly.  In adult baseball, fans moan contemptuously before the ball even reaches its apex.  Kiddie fans go to the game for the sunshine.  Adult fans go for the night life.  Wrigley Field specializes in kiddie baseball.  As if to emphasize the point, they passed out Barbie dolls to the fans last season.  Comiskey Park is quite different -- populated by denizens of the night, looking for more action than a fireworks show.

In the 100 seasons of adult baseball played on Chicago's south side, perhaps no period more illustrates this fact than in the mid-1970's.  Lots of events conspired to create the wild and rowdy atmosphere of Comiskey Park.  Here's a nostalgic look back at a time that has passed -- never to come back.

Today's Chicago south side bears little resemblance to the neighborhood surrounding Old Comiskey Park in the 1970's.  Long before anyone had heard of "supply-side economics", "downsizing", or "the Asian economic tigers", Chicago's south side was a vibrant manufacturing area.  Large mills like Wisconsin Steel belched smoke and paychecks to legions of south siders, game-fully employed in solid blue-collar jobs.  When their shift at the plant ended, they went to the corner tap and then to 35th and Shields to continue their imbibing.  The drink of choice was not white zinfandel.  Every summer evening on the south side, Comiskey Park was filled with the cigarette smoke and serious drinking.

When they arrived at Comiskey they found a new crown prince to the festivities, the newly-hired tv and radio announcer, Harry Caray.  Gone was the understatement of Sox legend Bob Elson.  Harry was brash, opinionated, and eager to draw attention to himself.  Most of all, Harry was one of the guys.  He did broadcasts from Comiskey's center field bleachers.  He watched the blondes in the stands as much as the rest of us.  He of course had a microphone in his hand to let the whole world know what he was thinking.  There was his giant fishing net inside the booth for catching foul balls.  Most famously, there was his seventh inning rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."  Anyone with cable tv is familiar with a similar routine he did through the 80's and 90's at Wrigley Field.  Many fans from coast to coast think that is what Harry always did -- and of course they're wrong.  In the 70's at Comiskey, a younger sharper Harry didn't slur his words, and wasn't a caricature of himself.  With Nancy Faust's organ accompaniment, Harry led a rousing and drunken chorus of fans in a way Wrigley Field's kiddies could never duplicate -- nor he.  At Comiskey Park it sounded for all the world like a bar room anthem.  Of course at Comiskey Park, it was a bar room anthem.

Harry had spent years in St. Louis shilling the Busch family's #1 brand, Budweiser.  Upon his arrival in Chicago in 1971, Busch's crosstown rival, Falstaff, was all too eager to make him their spokesman.  "The choicest product of the brewer's art," was Falstaff's tag line.  Now Harry Caray became the choicest pitch man for the shot and beer crowd who came to Comiskey.

"Ah, what I wouldn't do right now for a plate of barbecue ribs and an ice-cold Falstaff!" 

That was during the game.  Each half-inning's commercial break, Sox fans were deluged in a sea of Falstaff advertisements, too.  "Falstaff -- because we're all in this together."  Other beer brands moved into Comiskey soon enough and Falstaff faded from Sox fans' minds along with its national stature.  Schlitz, Stroh's, and yes -- Budweiser, soon became the park's official brands.  None of them ever matched the advertising blitz Harry Caray and Falstaff achieved.



 


Harry leads the Comiskey crowd.

The craziness at Old Comiskey didn't stop.  Upon Bill Veeck's arrival, outrageous new promotions became a nightly feature.  In 1978 alone, Veeck staged Music Night, Golf Night, Jogging Night, Diamond Night, Farm & Garden Day, King & His Court Day, Teen Night (three of them), and Family Bargain Night.  There was also individual games devoted to seemingly every ethnic group who ever crossed the ocean and arrived in Chicago to ask, "Where's mine?"  There was Polish Night, Italian Night, Croatian Night, Lithuanian Night, Greek Night, and of course Irish Night.  Comiskey Park's Oktoberfest lasted three days.  As if swilling beer wasn't top of mind enough, there was Beer Case Stacking Night, too.   Veeck's promotion calendar was so filled, the garden variety "bat day" promotion was held April 9 -- the first home series of the season.

Veeck also opened two new fan-friendly attractions catering to Comiskey's most boisterous fans -- The Bullpen party room and The Corner Saloon.  Hard drinking and hard partying were not just embraced, but encouraged.

And presiding above it all was Harry Caray.  Along with sidekick Jimmy Piersall, no Sox fan would ever feel they didn't have a friend in the booth seeing exactly what they saw from below in Comiskey's ancient wooden seats.

"Aw, how could he lose it in the sun.  He's from Mexico!"

"Str-r-r-uck him out and made him look hor-r-r-ible!"

"Bal-l-l-l three.  C'mon, throw strikes!"

"Little tap -- easy out.
And it's none of my business but Dick Allen looks like he could use a little batting practice.
And he didn't set any speed records running down to first base either."

"Hey coach, Soderholm looks like he's running the bases
with a piano strapped to his back.  That's ter-r-r-ible!"

Yeah, Sox players hated the harassment, but Sox fans loved it.  Twi-night doubleheaders were especially entertaining -- the effects of five hours of drinking clearly audible in Harry's voice.

"Leon Russell, Stephen Stills, and Jethro Tull are all at the ballpark tonight drinking Falstaff."

Sure he didn't know it was a joke.  But even if he did, he still would have read it on the air.  It was a wild place back in a wild time.  Now Harry, Falstaff, and Old Comiskey are all gone.  The likes of them and the world they created for us Sox fans won't be coming back.  That's sad.

Hey Sox Fans!

For a nostalgic look back at the hey-day of Falstaff beer, White Sox Interactive highly recommends visiting this web site created by John Smallshaw.  It's filled with old advertisements, company history, and brewery photographs, including several pictures of Falstaff's old malting facility that once stood alongside the Chicago Skyway near the Indiana state line.  It's gone now.

Falstaff Brewing Corporation
Dedicated to the preservation of
"The Choicest Product of the Brewer's Art"

Found a spot that sells Falstaff?
Tell us about it!


Do you have a thought about
Harry, Falstaff, & Wild Comiskey Park?
You Can Put it on the Board -- Yes!

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