The owners of the Chicago White Sox were adamant: they were going to get a new ballpark.
As for “In what state?,” Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn were open-minded.
The Sox had played on Chicago’s south side since 1901. However, in the summer of 1988, business leaders and politicians were offering a sweet deal in St. Petersburg if the Sox would become Florida’s first Major League Baseball team.
A cherished dream of many Floridians — the state’s own major-league baseball team — moved closer to reality Tuesday when legislators approved a $30 million plan to lure the Chicago White Sox to St. Petersburg.
”We are extremely pleased,” said Larry Arnold, chief assistant city manager of St. Petersburg.
”We have taken a major step toward bringing major-league baseball to Florida. We have every hope that they’re going to be in St. Petersburg in 1989.”
This was a fact: Unless Illinois lawmakers passed the stadium bill by midnight (60 votes needed in the House) on June 30, the White Sox would be Florida-bound on July 1. The reason: after that date, the legislative bar would be raised. A proposal as controversial as the $150 million taxpayer-funded White Sox stadium bill would never get the super-majority (71 House votes) needed for approval after June 30.
On June 30, the stadium bill needed to first get 30 votes to clear the Senate, itself a seemingly impossible task.
It all had to happen by midnight.
In the Senate, Chicago Democrats favored the proposal, but at least three Republicans needed to join them. Noted Chicago-hater James “Pate” Phillip of DuPage County was the Republican Senate leader. His opposition meant no Republicans were willing to vote for the stadium bill.
Governor Jim Thompson, a Chicago Republican popular in his hometown, understood losing one of the city’s two Major League teams would be a blow to the local and state economies. Thompson, in his fourth and final term as governor, also knew a departure of the the White Sox on his watch would stain his legacy.
It was more personal for Speaker Michael Madigan, a White Sox fan whose legislative district is located on Chicago’s south side. But, regardless of what Madigan wanted, saving the Sox would be impossible without Republican support.
June 30, 1988
In the late afternoon on June 30, based on Senate President Phillip’s opposition, Lt. Gov. George Ryan pronounced the Sox stadium bill “dead.”
Phillip had a vice-like grip on his members, so there was no reason to doubt Ryan as the bill awaited a Senate vote. But, Gov. Thompson wasn’t giving up.
“I said, ‘Pate, this is personal. I want this stadium and you have to help me,'” Thompson said.
In a surprise, Phillip dropped his opposition, allowing his members to vote as they wished. The Senate Minority Leader smirked as Thompson prowled the Senate floor, looking for Republicans willing to support the bill.
Shockingly, Thompson convinced three Republicans to go along, giving the bill the minimum 30 votes needed. As soon as the votes were tallied, Thompson and his lobbying team literally sprinted into the House chamber to try to get the bill passed before the midnight deadline.
What happened next was as dramatic as anything that happened at Comiskey Park during the 80 years it hosted ballgames.
The sound in the House chamber was a dull roar. The atmosphere was extremely tense.
Thompson scurried around the Republican side of the aisle in a feverish attempt to find supporters. Voting for a stadium for Chicago was not an easy sell for downstate and suburban Republicans.
Every Republican Representative was a potential supporter, as far as the governor was concerned. With all eyes on him, and with Speaker Madigan’s support, Thompson unashamedly played “Let’s Make a Deal” on the House floor.
Afterward, there were stories that Thompson was awarding “pork” projects right and left. One legislator said the governor had promised to support him for Secretary of State.
I’m not sure how a representative could hear any of the promises being made. The decibel level in the chamber ranged from “very loud” to, as midnight drew near, “deafening.”
Ordinarily, a bill is read and debated, voting opens and, after 30 seconds or less of members being prodded “Have all voted who wish?”, voting ends and results are tallied and posted. Reporting a legislative vote “live” for the radio is an uncomplicated task, normally.
What happened shortly before midnight on the evening of June 30, 1988, was not normal.
In the House press box, with a phone jammed against my ear but unable to hear anything being said to me by the WMAQ-AM news producers back in Chicago, I had to assume I was “live” on the air. With one eye on the House tote board and the other on Gov. Thompson twisting arms on the House floor, more than 20 minutes of radio “play-by-play” was improvised for audiences in Chicago and St. Petersburg.
Here are the last eight minutes of the WMAQ broadcast of the House vote. Listen for the tone signaling midnight.
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.
WMAQ was the only news outlet to broadcast the entire vote “live.” Chicago TV stations, believing the Sox bill was dead, had left Springfield while Chicago’s radio news leader, WBBM, cut away from the Statehouse to air CBS network news at the top of the hour.
WBBM took the “midnight deadline” literally. Speaker Madigan did not.
In the House, after many observers saw their watches read past midnight, the constitutionally mandated adjournment time, the House passed the measure by a 60-55 vote. The published roll call read 12:03 a.m. Friday, which normally would mandate any bill passing by a three-fifths majority, or 71 votes.
“I don’t think there is a judge in the nation, especially in Illinois, who would challenge this,” said Madigan (D., Chicago), who also had strong-armed three Democrats to switch their votes before the electronic toteboard was closed.
“By my watch, it was 11:59′” Madigan said. “I didn’t know this would pass. The Republicans told me they had seven votes when we went in, but the governor and I and all the members took risks and passed this bill to keep the White Sox in Chicago.”
It was akin to the White Sox coming from behind to win after the final out had been recorded.
“You bet I was worried,” a relieved Thompson told reporters. “Wouldn’t you be worried? Weren’t you watching the votes? This is a political resurrection from the dead, a baseball resurrection from the dead.”
During his 14 years as the state’s chief executive, Jim Thompson usually governed with Republican minorities in both the House and Senate. He won some and lost some but, unlike the current governor, Thompson would never have claimed he was “not in charge.”
Because Jim Thompson knew how to govern, he was able to save the White Sox for Chicago and Illinois.
# # #
Had Thompson failed, Chicago would have missed out on an amazing 2005 season.
The stadium bill’s passing meant the end for a great ballpark. Watch a brief documentary on Comiskey Park
A look at what might have been from a Tampa-St. Petersburg baseball fan
*This Sox stadium anniversary post is a revised and updated version of a McBarronBlog post from last year.