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Should the White Sox Leave Chicago?

The Sox haven’t outdrawn the Cubs since 1992 — even in 2005, when they won the World Series. Would they thrive in their own market?

Photo: Chicago Tribune

As the White Sox work on their seventh straight losing season, in whatever they’re calling that ballpark at 35th and Wentworth these days, the team is practically giving away tickets. Currently, you can sit in the upper deck for $5, less than you’d pay to sit on the lawn at a Kane County Cougars game.

Despite this, the Sox are drawing half as many fans as the Cubs, whose cheapest tickets cost more than twice as much. With the Sox so desperate for wins and attendance, it’s worth asking: Can Chicago still support two baseball teams? And if it can’t, would the White Sox be better off with a city of their own, instead of soldiering on in the ever-expanding shadow of the Cubs?

At the beginning of the modern major league era, in 1901, there were five two-team towns. By the end of the 1950s, Chicago was the only one left. In Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston, and New York, the less popular franchises moved to new cities. In every case, they were more successful than they’d been in their old homes.

But the White Sox had no reason to leave Chicago. In the ’50s, they were a bigger deal than the Cubs, winning more games (and even a pennant) and drawing more fans. Back then, the South Side was a political and economic powerhouse. Bridgeport, the team’s home neighborhood, was the duchy of the Sox fan Daleys. The stockyards fed America, and the steel mills built its skyscrapers. Plus, Wrigley Field didn’t have lights, so the city needed a team for people with day jobs.

The balance of popularity between the two teams began to shift in the late ’60s, for reasons related both to baseball and to the diverging fortunes of the North and South sides. “The Chicago White Sox, 1968-70: Three Years in Hell,” an article by Sam Pathy for the Society for American Baseball Research, pinpoints when and how things went south for the South Siders.

On April 10, 1968, the White Sox lost their home opener, 9–0. What was worse was that only 7,756 bothered to show up. The game came less than a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and subsequent riots accelerated the growing fear that Comiskey Park, and its Bridgeport neighborhood, were dangerous to visit (even though the closest riots to the park happened more than five miles away). In the last decade, white flight had affected the Canaryville and Back of the Yards neighborhoods near the park, as the Union Stockyards all but closed down, eliminating decent jobs.

That year, the White Sox played nine games in Milwaukee. There was talk that the team would move there to fill the gap left by the Braves, who had departed for Atlanta two years earlier. But the Seattle Pilots beat them to it.

The White Sox considered moving to Seattle in 1975, but the Mariners took that market. And, of course, Jerry Reinsdorf threatened to move the Sox to St. Petersburg, Florida in the late 1980s if the state didn’t build him a new ballpark. Now the Rays are there.

The White Sox got another bad break when divisional play began in 1969. They were assigned to the American League West, which meant their West Coast games were on too late for fans to listen. The Cubs, meanwhile, got into the National League East.

The Cubs also made a few smart marketing moves that helped them build a strong regional — and even international — following. First, they hired announcer Harry Caray away from the White Sox. When the Tribune Company bought the Cubs, they beamed his broadcasts nationwide on the WGN Superstation, making him a beloved figure associated with a team who just couldn’t win a pennant — the “Lovable Losers.”

On various maps of baseball fandom, Cub Country encompasses northern Illinois, Iowa, central Indiana, and southwestern Michigan. It envelops Sox Country, which is limited to the South Side, the south suburbs, and Northwest Indiana.

Meanwhile, as professional services replaced industry as the linchpin of Chicago’s economy, money, people, and power migrated to the North Side. The Cubs both benefited from this trend and encouraged it, as their crumbling old stadium matured into a lifestyle amenity. (The Cubs can never leave Chicago because they’re inseparable from Wrigley Field: they’re a ballpark with a team, not a team with a ballpark.) The Sox haven’t outdrawn the Cubs since 1992 — not even in 2005, when they won the World Series.

Also — let’s be honest — the Sox haven’t built much of a reputation on the field. They are arguably the least distinguished, most anonymous franchise in baseball history. They have fewer postseason appearances (nine) than any of the Original 16 teams, and are tied for the fewest pennants with six. They’ve had some Hall of Famers — Ted Lyons, Luke Appling, Nellie Fox, Frank Thomas, Harold Baines — but nobody on the All-Century Team. (Shoeless Joe Jackson might have made it, but he didn’t play long enough, having been banned from baseball for allegedly throwing the 1919 World Series.)

The Chicago Public Library holds twice as many books about the Cubs (274) as the Sox (131). And now, the popularity gap is worse than ever since the Cubs won the World Series. The Cubs even have their own souvenir shop on the Magificent Mile. The St. Louis Browns were in a similar position, until they moved to Baltimore to escape the Cardinals.

There are plenty of reasons for the Sox to stay in Chicago. They’re important to the South Side’s identity. If they left, it would take a generation for the Cubs to build a fan base down there. Their stadium is, frankly, a more pleasant place to watch baseball than overpriced, overcrowded Wrigley Field, and it’s nice to have the option of not feeling ripped off when you want to see a game. Plus, now that the Cubs are the Evil Empire, the Sox have acquired a hip, cultish appeal.

The Sox have also been around for 119 years, which is a lot of history to sacrifice. And they’re in the middle of the pack in team value, at $1.6 billion (half as much as the Cubs). 

If Reinsdorf is making money on the South Side, why leave?

Because it may be better for both franchises, and for baseball. Sure, there are other two-team markets, but New York and L.A. are big enough to support two clubs, and in the Bay Area, the Giants and A’s play in separate cities.

In the 1950s, Chicago contained 2.5 percent of the nation’s population. Now, we contain 0.8 percent, and we might be a more successful baseball town with one team. Since the first decade of the 20th Century, when Chicago dominated baseball, the city has won two championships in 111 years.

Where would the Sox go? Charlotte is a good option. That’s the home of the Sox’s AAA affiliate, the Knights, so the team already has a connection there. Las Vegas, which just got a hockey team and is about to get a football team, is another. With a town all to themselves, the Sox could thrive as a franchise.

The book Total White Sox: The Definitive Encyclopedia of the World Champion Franchise, by Richard C. Lindberg, covers the team’s history through 2005. It ends with this assessment of the team’s World Series victory: “After so many disheartening seasons of playing in the shadow of the Cubs, it offers Sox fans hope and the unique opportunity to achieve parity in a two-team town.”

If the Sox stay in Chicago, their fans can continue living on that hope, as Chicago baseball fans have done for generations. It’s unlikely, though, that they’ll ever escape their status as the Second City’s second team.

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