The time has come to close up shop in Springfield, where I’ve lived for 21 of the last 35 years. That means getting rid of a lot of the stuff that cluttered my homes over the last three decades and which, I’ve been told, will not clutter our new, downsized, Chicago home.
While going through the “pitch or keep” process, I ran across a 29 year old, never used, wristwatch.
I wondered, “Why do I still have a watch that I never wore? It doesn’t even tell time.”
A friend set me straight:
“Because it tells a story.”
The biggest controversy of the 1988 Illinois General Assembly spring session was a proposal that taxpayers build a new ballpark for the Chicago White Sox.
Ancient Comiskey Park was deteriorating and team owners, Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, claimed a new ballpark was an absolutely necessity for the Sox to draw fans and successfully compete for free agents in the future.
The owners were adamant that the White Sox would have a new ballpark. The only question was, “Where?”
The owners didn’t care whether the Sox played on Chicago’s south side (which had hosted the team since 1901), or in St. Petersburg, Florida, where local business leaders and politicians were offering a very sweet deal if the Sox would become Florida’s first Major League Baseball team.
A couple of things to keep in mind: June 30 was (and remains) the last day of the state’s fiscal year. Bills voted on before the deadline could be approved with simple majority votes (30 in the Senate, 60 in the House). After the deadline, a super majority would be required.
Their bags were packed…
There was little hope the White Sox would remain in Chicago. Public support for the stadium bill was meager. Republicans, who controlled the Senate and had few House seats in Chicago, were largely opposed. DuPage Republican James “Pate” Phillip, a noted Chicago-hater, was the Senate GOP leader.
But the campaign to hold on to the Sox had supporters.
Gov. Jim Thompson, a Republican who always ran well in his hometown of Chicago, understood that losing one of Chicago’s two Major League teams would be a significant loss in prestige for Chicago. Thompson in his fourth and final term as governor, also knew the White Sox leaving town on “his watch” would stain his legacy.
For Speaker Michael Madigan, whose legislative district is located on Chicago’s south side, it was more personal.
Madigan was/is a proud White Sox fan. He has been seen, even recently, wearing a Sox jacket and cap when headed to functions in Springfield. He was very focused on keeping the Sox in Chicago. But doing so would require downstate and suburban Republican votes in the House and Senate.
June 30, 1988
In the early evening of June 30, Lt. Gov. George Ryan, based on “Pate” Phillip’s opposition, publicly declared the Sox stadium bill “dead.”
Then, a miracle.
After 11pm, Senate supporters of the stadium proposal, in what seemed to be a perfunctory exercise, put their bill on the floor. Refusing to admit defeat, Governor Thompson was in the chamber, desperately trying to drum up support.
Instead of watching the final nail being hammered into the bill’s coffin, bedlam erupted when the stadium bill passed the Senate with the bare minimum 30 votes. I don’t know what Gov. Thompson said to Pate Phillip that caused the Senate Republican Leader to lift his opposition, but Philip was wearing a big smile as Thompson and his lobbying team literally sprinted across the rotunda to try to get the bill passed in the House before the midnight deadline.
After midnight, under the rules, passing the bill would take, instead of a simple majority, a three-fifths majority, an impossible task regardless of Thompson’s considerable political skills In short: if the bill failed to pass in the House by midnight, the Sox would be Florida-bound.
Reporters who hadn’t already headed to the press room to write “Sox bill dies in Springfield” stories ran behind the Thompson team to the House chamber, where the atmosphere was highly charged.
What happened next was a master class in the use of political muscle.
Speaker Madigan had the votes he needed, so the Thompson team scurried around the floor of the House in a feverish attempt to generate Republican support. Voting for a stadium for Chicago was not an easy sell for downstate and suburban Republicans. In 1988, just as in 2017, Illinois government was wracked by geographical resentment and prejudices.
Every Republican was “in play” as far as Gov. Thompson was concerned. With all eyes on him, the governor unashamedly pursued House votes.
There were stories afterward that Thompson was awarding “pork” projects right and left. One legislator said the governor had promised to support him for Illinois Secretary of State.
I’m not sure how any of the representatives could hear the promises being made, as the decibel level in the chamber rose to a din.
As midnight approached, it became deafening.
Covering the vote
I was in the House press box to cover whatever was about to happen. After the unexpected Senate vote, I had spoken to WMAQ Radio in Chicago, which had very recently gone to an “all news, all the time” format. I had a very loose agreement with them; if something was happening in Springfield and they didn’t have one of their reporters on site to cover it, I’d report it for them and they’d pay me a few bucks.
The station wanted to make a splash in Chicago news circles by broadcasting the outcome of the Sox vote before anyone else. This would help establish WMAQ as a significant news operation. It also mattered that the station was the flagship home of the Chicago White Sox radio network.
Ordinarily, the vote would be easy to report for radio:
- The bill would be read, then debated
- The voting would open and, in 30 seconds or less, after a couple of “Have all voted who wish?” inquiries from the chair, the voting would end.
- The votes would be totaled, announced and the outcome would be final.
That’s how things were done. Normally.
What happened was not normal.
Senators, having adjourned for the night, filled the rear of the House chamber. When the voting opened in the House several members did not register their votes on the electronic board. The voting was closed, thereby forcing representatives to declare their votes. The board showed only 54 yes votes, and 60 were required. The roll call was not announced, giving Thompson and other supporters time to convince reluctant representatives to change their votes. The clock on the vote board was switched off, so nobody could be sure of the exact time. Slowly six representatives, three from each party, asked that their votes be changed from no to yes. When the 60th vote was lit up on the board the vote was immediately announced, as well as the time of 11:59 p.m., although the printed roll call recorded the time at 12:03 a.m.
Circumstances forced me to do an impromptu LIVE play-by-play report of the House action. You can hear how the the last eight minutes unfolded.
That’s the “top of the hour” tone sounding well before Gov. Thompson successfully threatened/promised/begged the needed number of downstate and suburban Republicans to vote for the Sox bill.
We were the only news outlet to have a LIVE broadcast of the vote and the WMAQ brass were thrilled. A few days later, I came to Chicago, carrying a proposal that the station establish a full-time Springfield bureau that would be staffed by…me.
Unfortunately, a full-time position wasn’t in the cards. The station wasn’t making money, and never did. It struggled throughout its existence and, in 2000, got entirely out of the news business.
AM-670 is now the home of WSCR, Chicago’s top sports-talk station and, incidentally, the flagship station for the World Champion Chicago Cubs.
But they did give me a cash bonus. I also received a “WMAQ News watch.”
It represents the highlight of my radio career. I guess I’ll keep it.