30 years later: How Madigan kept the Cubs in the dark

30 years later: How Madigan kept the Cubs in the dark

Thirty years ago Aug. 8, the Chicago Cubs played their first game under lights at Wrigley Field – after first battling Chicago politicians for the right to do so.

Aug. 8 marks the 30th anniversary of night baseball at Wrigley Field, when the Chicago Cubs played four innings of baseball under lights against the Philadelphia Phillies, before thunderstorms rolled in and postponed the game.

The Cubs were the last major league baseball team to install lights when they did so in 1988. While the tradition of day baseball was certainly part of the Cubs’ tardiness in installing lights, many don’t realize another reason for this delay involved a powerful politician: Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

After the Tribune Company purchased the team in 1981, a push to illuminate Wrigley Field began with pressure from Major League Baseball. Former Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley resisted installing lights after originally opting against it in 1941 in favor of donating the lighting equipment to the war effort. But as the league started to have night playoff games in the 1970s to maximize television viewership, lights became an issue for the Cubs, if they were ever to make it to the World Series.

How politicians blocked lights at Wrigley

Though the need for lights was real, Madigan and an ally in Chicago City Council made sure the Cubs wouldn’t have their way easily.

Before the Cubs could install lights, the owners needed permission from City Council ­– which was busy putting roadblocks in the team’s path.

Former Chicago Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, who also served as City Council president and chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, led the fight in City Council to ban the installation of lights at Wrigley Field. Prior to that, a city ordinance passed in 1941 allowed the Cubs to install lights if they chose to do so, but banned any innings from being played after 8 p.m.

Vrdolyak was successful, getting a 42-2 vote to ban lights at Wrigley in 1983. The Tribune Company then proceeded to try to get the General Assembly in Springfield to override Chicago’s ordinance.

Vrdolyak’s political motivation behind the lights ban

Vrdolyak had one motivation to pass the ordinance in the first place: He wanted the Tribune Company to stop publishing editorial criticism of him.

And luckily for him and his vendetta against the newspaper, he had an ally in Madigan, as they were both Democratic Party leaders, and the Tribune’s desired Wrigley-lights-ban override failed in 1985. This was less than a year after the Cubs’ light-less World Series fiasco almost happened, when the team came one win away from advancing to the 1984 series and having to cede the home field advantage due to the inability to host night games.

Paul Lis, whom the Tribune Company hired as a lobbyist for the lights issue, said after the override failed that “certainly, Speaker Madigan’s consistent and persistent opposition to any limited schedule of night baseball during any regular-season games doomed the effort.”

In a blistering 1985 editorial following that legislative defeat, the Tribune called out Vrdolyak and Madigan, and was straightforward about the shenanigans going on.

The editorial board slammed Vrdolyak for his willingness to hold Cubs matters hostage to his quest for favorable editorial coverage:

“[T]he Cubs will be playing morning games on a sandlot in Gary…” before such a concession would be made.

And the editorial board was explicit about how vast Madigan’s power had become:

“Mr. Madigan made sure the Cubs weren`t successful in getting the state legislature to override the city ordinance preventing the Cubs from installing lights and playing some night baseball in Wrigley Field during the regular season.

“Mr. Madigan and his law firm represent a lot of people who end up doing business with state government. Largely because of the vacuum of leadership in Springfield, Mr. Madigan has obtained a position of extraordinary power in the legislature. You come by him or you don’t get by. And if your cause happens to conflict with that of someone closer to him that you are, forget it …

“To handle Mr. Madigan, you have to make some kind of deal. Take him some incense, myrrh, maybe some silk from the East and kneel when you go before his throne. Then maybe, just maybe, you`ll get lucky and he’ll throw you some scraps from his legislative table. That`s what everyone else has to do.”

A change in the political winds – and lights for Wrigley

Vrdolyak, a Democratic Party boss, was closer to Madigan than the Tribune Company was. So what changed in 1988 that got the Cubs their lights?

While Vrdolyak was an important Madigan ally in leading the Cook County Democratic Party in the ‘80s, Vrdolyak changed his party affiliation to Republican in 1987, becoming outspoken against then-Mayor Harold Washington, and particularly against a $79.9 million property-tax hike in late 1986. Vrdolyak ran for clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County in 1988 and lost. He then ran for mayor in 1989 and lost in a landslide to Richard M. Daley.

A 1988 Illinois Issues article said that Madigan, who runs a law firm specializing in property-tax appeals in Cook County, “wants to ensure that whoever is mayor of Chicago after the 1989 and 1991 elections must deal with him… [he] fears the impact of Democrat-turned-Republican Ed Vrdolyak’s anti-tax talk …”

And thus Vrdolyak’s political career ended. When Chicago City Council passed an ordinance, with the support of then-acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer, allowing lights at Wrigley Field in 1988, Madigan did not make a peep.

Despite lights concession, Chicago politicians continue to make life difficult for Cubs

Even though the Cubs got their lights and have since been allowed to increase the number of night games the team hosts each season, the prevailing attitude of many Chicago politicians toward businesses – notably sports franchises – still exists today, taking different forms and new battles.

The Ricketts family, who now own the Cubs after purchasing the team in 2009, has been in a longstanding feud with aldermen led by Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th Ward, who often stands in the way of the family from using their own money to renovate the ballpark and other surrounding properties.

Other Chicago sports teams have faced similar pressure, and some have opted to deeply entrench themselves with politicians.

The Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, or ISFA, exists almost solely for this. The General Assembly created the politically stacked ISFA in 1987 to provide taxpayer funding for the construction and renovation of stadiums for professional sports teams. The ISFA owns and operates Guaranteed Rate Field, home of the Chicago White Sox. The ISFA also oversaw the renovations to Soldier Field in the early 2000s, and is still handing out taxpayer money to the Chicago Bears for that deal.

Former ISFA Chairwoman Perri Irmer, who served from 2004-2011, claimed in a 2013 lawsuit the ISFA exists as “nothing more than a cash cow puppet for (Chicago White Sox and Bulls owner Jerry) Reinsdorf,” not to serve its intended purpose of economic development through sports stadiums. And since the ISFA was created, Reinsdorf has made large donations to powerful politicians in the city and the state, including Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and both former Gov. Pat Quinn and Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The Tribune Company likely would have got its way much faster had it followed Reinsdorf’s lead. Whether it’s lights, renovations or development, businesses too often have to play ball in Illinois.

And it’s no surprise that Madigan would have the final say. In Madigan’s position as House speaker, which he has held for 33 of the last 35 years, he has used administrative rules to grow and maintain his power, making sure nothing passes without his blessing. By way of the House Rules Committee, he can decide which legislation can be heard and which can’t. He draws legislative maps, effectively allowing politicians to pick their voters, and has defeated every attempt at term limits to hold lifelong politicians accountable.

The Cubs – who have been playing baseball in the city since 1876 – have not been immune to Madigan’s control.

Fans are now accustomed to lights at Wrigley, with the number of night games steadily increasing each year and handfuls of night games each of the last three Octobers during Cubs’ playoff runs. But as fans look back at the team’s 30th anniversary of first lighting up its ballpark, it’s important to remember the hurdles it took to get there. That kind of political adversity is something all too common for Chicago businesses and taxpayers, and professional sports teams are no exception.

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