Illinois politicians dub March 8 ‘Cubs Day’ despite contentious history

Illinois politicians dub March 8 ‘Cubs Day’ despite contentious history

Springfield lawmakers passed a ceremonial resolution March 8 congratulating the Chicago Cubs on winning the 2016 World Series. But that pat on the back doesn’t make up for the adversarial relationship politicians have held with the Cubs and other professional sports franchises in Chicago.

Four months after the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series championship in 108 years, Illinois lawmakers are joining the celebration, putting aside any work on the budget or potential reforms to designate March 8 “Chicago Cubs World Series Champions Day.”

The resolution, introduced by state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, and adopted March 7 reads – after listing the Cubs’ various regular season and postseason accomplishments during the 2016 season – that “(the General Assembly) congratulate the Chicago Cubs on winning the 2016 World Series; and be it further resolved, that we congratulate Joe Maddon guiding the Chicago Cubs to the championship with his zen leadership, convincing both players and fans to look forward, not backwards, to think positively, and to ‘Do simple better’; and be it further resolved, that we designate March 8, 2017 ‘Chicago Cubs World Series Champions Day’…”

But Cubs fans won’t be celebrating March 8 a year from now as the date to recognize the team’s 2016 World Series title, which they clinched Nov. 2, 2016. This empty gesture shows the hypocrisy of politicians, who have a long, contentious history with sports franchises in the state. It’s easy for politicians to celebrate the value sports franchises bring when it’s politically expedient for them, but actions over the years show Illinois politicians, especially in Chicago, care less when those franchises refuse to play ball with them.

The Cubs are no exception.

How politicians blocked lights at Wrigley

The Cubs hosted their first World Series games in 71 years Oct. 28, 29 and 30, 2016, also marking the first time the team had ever hosted World Series games under lights.

The Cubs were the last Major League Baseball team to install lights when they did in 1988. But most people don’t realize one reason for this delay was a powerful Springfield 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.

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, 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 appealed to 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.

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’ lightless 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, (House) Speaker (Michael) 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 in 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’s fiscal irresponsibility, in particular a $79.9 million property tax hike in late 1986. Suddenly an anti-tax Republican, 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.

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, other teams

But 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 Chicago machine politics toward businesses – notably sports franchises – still exists today, taking different forms.

The Ricketts family, who now own the Cubs after purchasing the team in 2009, has been in a longstanding feud with aldermen led by Alderman Tom Tunney, 44th Ward, preventing the family from using their own money to renovate the ballpark and surrounding neighborhood.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported Oct. 3, 2016 that the Cubs were extending offers to aldermen and state lawmakers from Chicago districts to purchase Cubs post-season tickets – including for the World Series – at face value. The Cubs extended the same offer to Chicago politicians during their 2015, 2008, 2007 and 2003 playoff runs. City ethics officials, however, ruled Oct. 21 that aldermen cannot accept these ticket-purchase offers unless they perform a ceremonial duty – such as publicly welcoming the crowd, making a speech or throwing out the first pitch – at the game.

Aldermen were originally planning to take the Cubs up on that offer, but cried foul once the rule changed.

“I’m a poor alderman, I cannot even afford to buy a $1,000 ticket. I cannot afford that,” Alderman Milly Santiago, 31st Ward, whined at a City Council meeting.

Alderman Anthony Beale, 9th Ward, said he deserved the tickets because he’s a “baseball fanatic.” Alderman Ameya Pawar, 47th Ward and now a 2018 candidate for governor, went so far as to personally demean the new Board of Ethics chairman and the board’s decision preventing him easy access to tickets.

Aldermen’s complaints, though, never amounted to any sort of change in the ruling or extra perk from the Cubs.

But 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, formerly U.S. Cellular Field, and is benefitting from the new money in the Guaranteed Rate naming deal. 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 to the tune of $36 million just this year.

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, you have to play ball.

And it’s no surprise that Madigan would have the final say. In Madigan’s position as House speaker, which he has held for 31 of the last 33 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 power.

The Cubs overcame a lot to win their first World Series title since 1908 – beyond intense media pressure; they faced a 3-1 series deficit in the World Series and a 2-1 series deficit in the National League Championship Series. And, of course, decades of losing, talk of “curses” and collapses. But what isn’t discussed is the adversarial relationship the organization faced with politicians in Chicago and Springfield – something other sports franchises and businesses in the city and state know all too well.

Want more? Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Thank you, we'll keep you informed!