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The Color Of Money

One of the many stories Bill Veeck would tell about his daddy, who was president of the Cubs in the 1930s, was this one: One afternoon he was in his father's office where the stacks of cash from that day's game receipts were resting on the old man's desk.

"Can you tell where this money came from?" Veeck Sr. asked the puzzled young Bill. The lesson? A dollar has the same value regardless of whence it came - be it from the wealthy or the poor, from white, brown, or black folks, or from immigrants or native-born Americans. All paying patrons were welcome at Veeck's ballpark.

And yet, baseball still faces great challenges attracting dollars from across the spectrum. I thought about this while reading The South Side, the new book from WBEZ's Natalie Moore, during the same week as Cinco De Mayo, when the Sox entertained the Red Sox in the finale of a three-game series while the Nationals invaded Wrigley Field for the first of a four-game set.

Baseball had moved onto center stage in Chicago earlier than in recent memory, with the Bulls already weeks into their off-season hibernation and the Blackhawks' hopes for back-to-back Stanley Cups dashed 10 days previously. Of course, Cub mania alone would have been enough to grab the spotlight, but the surprising Sox, now winners of 22 of their first 32 games after sweeping the sickly Twins over the weekend, have spiked the fever a few degrees.

In one of their few sloppy games of the season Thursday, our Sox dropped a 7-3 four-hour decision to Boston's Sox before 20,126, while the North Siders disposed of the Nats 5-2 as 37,564 looked on.

While friends of mine who were at Wrigley said they weren't aware that the Cubs gave so much as lip service to Cinco de Mayo (at least beyond the locker room), the Sox promoted the game as Cinco de Miller, because, after all, the beer people sponsored the game. Sitting behind the tarp down the left-field line, sounds of Spanish permeated the air much like it does at most games at The Cell.

The Sox posted photos of former players of Mexican descent on their vast new video board. It was nice to be reminded of guys like Salomé Barojas, Francisco Barrios and Aurelio Rodríguez.

It wasn't so nice to be reminded of the stereotypes that still exist, as the goofy mascot Southpaw strutted around the premises wearing a straw sombrero and a pencil-thin mustache curled upward at both ends. Someone in the marketing department apparently has been consulting the Trump Playbook. Made me wonder if a Jewish heritage night would feature Southpaw sporting side curls and a tallith.

Anyway, compared to the White Sox, the dollars have rolled in far more easily for the Cubs for quite a while now, especially since 1988 with the arrival of lights at Wrigley Field. Regardless of won-loss records, since 1985 the Sox have outdrawn the Cubs only in 1991-92, when the opening of The Cell piqued the curiosity of thousands of extra people, many of whom probably haven't returned.

Even in the championship season of 2005, and the season that followed it, weren't enough to push Sox attendance over that of the Cubs. And now that there is a steamroller of a team on the North Side, the re-invigorated, energetic White Sox will nonetheless continue to play second fiddle to the Cubs for the foreseeable future.

I know Sox fans who are indignant that the Cubs are a much bigger draw. But I rather like the fact that I don't have to wait in long lines for concessions and bathroom privileges. If I drive, the lot isn't full. If I take the "El," I can get a seat. I pass through the security lines quickly and exit the park with ease, as opposed to Wrigley where fans inch toward the exits only to creep slowly toward the turnstiles at the Addison station.

Of course, years ago the Sox were kings of Chicago baseball, outdrawing the Cubs in all but one year - 1958 - from 1951 until 1967.

So what happened? Like most things Chicago, I suspect race has played a role. As Moore writes, "Due to the city's hypersegregation, white parents equate the South Side with danger and dysfunction."

That would certainly keep some white folk outside of the immediate area from traveling to the Sox's park - though I grew up on the North Shore and we went to lots of Sox games as kids. Bless my parents.

Having said that, the times were much different. The newspapers weren't filled with daily stories about violent crime. If white kids like the Grimes sisters or the Schuessler-Peterson boys were found murdered in "safe" (white) communities, you'd hear about it. But day-to-day the threat from Russian missiles was to be feared much more than violence in our communities.

The South Side simply was a place to stay away from because black people lived there. And black people were often given plenty of reason to stay away too, as the Dan Ryan built a racial barrier that was only compounded by the nature of the new stadium that replaced the old Comiskey. From Deadspin:

What happened next was everything Bess had sought to avoid. New Comiskey was thrown up in 1991, a suburban stadium dropped into an urban setting, uprooting 250 households, disrupting the street system, turning the old Comiskey Park into a parking lot and more or less gutting the old neighborhood of Armour Square.

It's not clear if the White Sox ever seriously considered Bess's proposal. My guess is Jerry Reinsdorf took one look at a rendering and laughed himself out onto 35th Street.

Bess never really had a chance, anyway. As Charles C. Euchner has written, the architect's proposal would've removed the buffer zone - a park - between black Armour Square and white Bridgeport, a politically influential neighborhood that has been home to five Chicago mayors, including the current one, Richard M. Daley.

The Bridgeporters never would have allowed it, and so the ballpark that sprang up across from old Comiskey was, in many ways, a tribute to the characteristics of its surroundings: small-minded, hostile and all about clout. That, in Chicago, is a true neighborhood park.

Still, today's Sox are trying to heed the teachings of Old Man Veeck. Few care anymore where the dollars come from. This ballclub simply knows they need as many of them as possible. Hence Cinco de Mayo is celebrated with gusto at The Cell. With Latin stars such as Jose Abreu, Jose Quintana and Melky Cabrera, the Sox are marketable in the Latino community.

Billboards around the city - the one pictured here is from last year at Armitage and Ashland on the North Side - hype the Sox to the Spanish-speaking community.

Sox Billboard.jpg

The Cubs might advertise in Spanish, though I've never actually seen that. Perhaps they don't have to.

The Sox clearly have African-American fans, starting with the guy in the White House. But my observation is that less than 10 percent of the people in the stands are black. The team also lacks a big-name African-American player. Black kids are very aware of Derrick Rose, but ask them about Austin Jackson or Jimmy Rollins and they'll draw a blank.

This is not a situation unique to the White Sox, as Major League Baseball has had initiative after initiative to encourage more African-American kids to play the game, while pushing its franchises to hire more black people for front office and managerial positions.

Looking to the future, if the Sox marketing department seeks to attract a larger black audience, an African-American fixture on the field would certainly help. I'm sure they're pulling hard for shortstop prospect Tim Anderson to emerge as the star of the future.

Of course, winning ballgames always has and will continue to be by far the best marketing tool. For the first time in nine seasons, Sox attendance actually increased last year, a slight improvement over the previous two seasons. Aside from a slightly better, but still disappointing, 76-86 record, pre-season trades and signings contributed to the increase. After 15 home games this spring, they've averaged 19,691, a slight dip from their first 15 games a year ago. Obviously Sox fans were skeptical as the season began.

However, that will change rapidly if the boys continue to play even close to their present .688 pace. After losing two of three to the Red Sox, Robin Ventura's club showed healthy resilience over the weekend as the bullpen bailed out Mat Latos on Friday night, protecting a slim lead en route to a 10-4 win. It was Chris Sale's turn on Saturday, and he ran his record to 7-0 by beating the Twins 7-2. Sale walked one and hit two batters in the first inning when Minnesota scored both its runs. After that it was all White Sox.

Jose Quintana closed out the homestand with seven innings of one-run ball before yielding to Nate Jones and closer David Robertson in a tight 3-1 contest. The Sox are now 20-0 when leading after six innings.

The Sox face the Texas Rangers in Arlington for three games beginning Monday night. Having been swept by the Sox in Chicago two weeks ago, the Rangers will have all the incentive they need. This weekend will find the Sox in Yankee Stadium before returning home, where it's a good bet they'll find more fans in the seats, bringing in more dollars which will all look the same.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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