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Let the people speak, White Sox — we dare you

The people’s money for a fancy new park? Let’s vote on it!

Comiskey Park under construction, 1910.

FIRST, A LITTLE HISTORY

A while back, my wife gave me a book titled Turning the Black Sox White. Nice idea, but it’s so excruciatingly boringly written it’s a slog to get through unless you’re desperate to know who all of Charles Comiskey’s team members were on any outfit he had anything to do with in the 19th Century, and how many hits they had on a given day. Basically a paean to Comiskey verging on idolatry, it reads like a master’s thesis, intended only to send a couple of teaching assistants into a permanent coma, not to be foisted on an innocent public.

The book’s one virtue is that it is well researched, with more footnotes than The Fall of the Roman Empire, so it was a handy place to check on the construction of the first Comiskey Park in 1910. The White Sox had been playing in the wooden, 15,000-seat South Side Park four blocks south of where Comiskey Park went up, and Charles had his sights on better things.

The South Side Park version in which the White Sox played.
wikimapia.org

Construction had all sorts of adventures, from a city-wide steelworkers strike that ended with a pay hike to 65¢ an hour ($21 today) to a worker falling to his death on the day before the park was to open. Original cost estimates of about $375,000 ($12.1 million today) were a tad optimistic, with the final price coming in at twice that. There was no public money involved, not even a thought of it, because forcing taxpayers to fund rich people’s playthings wasn’t a done thing at the time.

Part of the cost differential to modern times was, of course, inflation, but there were other factors as well. There were no luxury boxes so the hoity-toits didn’t have to breathe the same air as the riffraff. There weren’t even beer stands. There had been a bar under the bleachers at South Side Park, which led to a public outcry against drunkenness at games, so Comiskey had no booze sales at his new park — even though it meant he lost an income stream (such public outcry these days shamed MLB into banning booze after the seventh inning, making sure of minimal loss of dollars from drunks),

The new park seated about 30,000, with standing room for another 7,000 or so. It didn’t take long for Charles Comiskey’s dreams of grandeur to need a fix, so the park was almost doubled in size in 1926, adding the outfield upper deck and expanding to 52,000 seats, at a cost of another $750,000 ($13 million today). Again the money was all from the White Sox, not from feeding at the public trough.

That park, with various updates, was the team’s home for eighty years, more than double the time it has taken Jerry Reinsdorf to decide he needs a new monument to himself he’d rather not pay for. It wasn’t long after the Comiskey Park expansion that public funding of sports facilities came into play, but it was a one-off not repeated for decades.

LET US PAY A VISIT TO CLEVELAND

In 1930, Cleveland Stadium became the first sports facility built with public money (well, since maybe the Roman Coliseum). It was the brainchild of rich folks wanting people drawn near their businesses as well as the Indians, but before taxpayers got hit with the charges, there was a referendum in November 1928. Note the date — 11 months before the Wall Street crash — which was fortuitous timing, since the expenditure was approved by 59% of those casting ballots (it needed 55%) and would probably have had no chance a year later.

The monstrous, 78,000-capacity stadium jutting into Lake Erie, biggest in MLB for most of its life, was used by the Indians for 60 years, the Browns from 1946 to 1995, and many other teams and events. The referendum approved $2.5 million ($46 million today), but there were of course the usual cost overruns, bringing the cost to $3 million.

Neither the idea of public funding nor that of holding a referendum for such things caught on right away ... not for a quarter-century.

IN WALKS MILWAUKEE

Desperate to prove it had big-league chops, Milwaukee issued bonds in 1950 (no referendum) to finance County Stadium, and the plan worked, luring in the Braves from Boston. The stadium hosted some Packers games and other activities as well, and the $5.9 million in bonds ($75 million today) was paid off by 1964 — just in time for the Braves to flee to Atlanta.

You may not think of Milwaukee as a trendsetter, but it definitely was when it came to public financing of stadia. The rich folks who owned teams knew a good way to rip off everybody else when they saw it, so hands covered with expensive jewelry were out from then on.

WHICH BRINGS US TO REFERENDA

Once public financing of billionaires (well, maybe not billions back then) became a thing, the public in a lot of places demanded a say. Not in Chicago, of course, but places where publics got says.

Appropriately, because Milwaukee was such a trendsetter, Marquette University’s Law School delved into how votes on stadiums went, when such votes were allowed by the politicians who wanted to claim a prize and probably cushy luxury seats. The study was several years back, so it doesn’t include the billion-dollar-level projects, but it’s illustrative anyway.

Marquette looked at referenda from 1995 (when Milwaukee area taxpayers decisively voted down using lottery money for Miller Park (64% against), only to have a sales tax increase levied on them anyway) to early 2016, shortly before a whole lot of ballot issues were coming up around the country.

The study covered about 40 sports facilities of various types, with about two-thirds passing (and politicians and owners somehow getting around many of the losses). Eleven were specifically for Major League Baseball teams, with seven of those passing.

Most often the billionaires with their hands out and their pet politicians on the leash made the public funding palatable on the old, “Don’t tax thee, don’t tax me, tax the man behind the tree” system, generally with hikes in hotel taxes or rental car fees or other ways to primarily stab visitors. Sometimes tax increment financing was involved, because nobody really understands TIFs or realizes they were originally meant to clean up blighted areas (which the South Loop definitely isn’t) not blighted teams (which the White Sox definitely are). However, there is already a TIF on The 78 for some reason, no doubt because the chairman of the company that owns it is only worth a little more than $10 billion and needs the help.

Of course, the sales pitch usually has been how much the new stadium or arena will bring in added revenue to cover the lost tax money, never mind the numerous well-documented studies showing that almost never really works.

WHICH BRINGS US TO A MODEST PROPOSAL

This artist’s rendition of the stadium proposal is listed on Yahoo as “recently deleted,” perhaps because the artist forgot to leave anyplace for the 70+ acres of current White Sox parking on the 62-acre plot.

What say, Mr. Reinsdorf, sir, how about a little gamble? What say we put a new stadium for the White Sox (and one for the Bears while we’re at it, but that’s a separate issue) up to a vote. And just to show you’re a sporting gentleman, let’s make it an honest vote.

I propose that you do all your negotiating with the city and state knowing that a vote is coming, and that whatever the public share ends up being in those negotiations goes on the ballot, all overruns on you, and all infrastructure being included — infrastructure in this case apparently being not just water and sewer lines, but whole new el stations and other massive works.

The ballot issue would also include how the public money would be raised, as well as options for that money, whether new taxes or continuation of the current one you grabbed so neatly ... schools, police, repairs and maintenance of infrastructure, reducing the pension fund mess, or whatever it may be.

Let’s put it to a vote in November. It passes, you get whatever amount you negotiated. It fails, you pay for the whole monument to yourself out of your $2.4 billion net worth. No fingers-crossed-another-chance-at-the-treasury, just up or down and you don’t get to go to the politicians instead..

That should make the negotiations more honest, as you try to hit the most you can grab without losing the vote. Could be quite the challenge.

Hey, seven of 11 in the Marquette study passed. Popular as you are, you’re bound to win, right?


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