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Eddie Einhorn's Anti-Veeckian Legacy

Eddie Einhorn was unfamiliar to longtime White Sox fans when he surfaced in Chicago as Jerry Reinsdorf's partner, leading a team of investors who purchased the ballclub prior to the 1981 season.

Einhorn, who died last week at 80, has been credited with bringing college basketball into the living rooms of millions of Americans beginning in the 1960s via his innovative TVS Network. But as far as baseball on the South Side was concerned, there was no connection when he surfaced 35 years ago.

Eddie went to Northwestern law school with Reinsdorf, and the two developed a close friendship. Both were from the New York City area - Einhorn from Patterson, New Jersey, about 30 minutes from mid-town Manhattan, and Reinsdorf from Brooklyn. Jerry's devotion to the Brooklyn Dodgers is well-documented, and it's probably not a stretch that Eddie felt the same way about the franchise that abandoned the borough of Brooklyn in 1958 for the riches of the West Coast.

My earliest memory of watching the NCAA finals on television was 1963 when the Loyola Ramblers of Coach George Ireland overcame a 15-point second-half deficit against two-time defending champion Cincinnati. The North Side quintet won in overtime. Cincinnati had defeated in-state rival Ohio State the two previous Marches to win the national title, but I have no recollection of seeing those games on TV, let alone any of the games leading up to the championship.

Einhorn changed that. He understood the potential for a nationwide market of college hoops. His network made agreements with college conferences to televise their games at a time when primarily only local teams found their way to TV coverage. Hence Chicagoans were able to watch Loyola in 1963.

The Houston Astrodome showdown on January 20, 1968, between reigning champion UCLA and Lew Alcindor and the Houston Cougars of Elvin Hayes solidified Einhorn's niche as the leading pioneer for putting college basketball on television. It was a Saturday night in prime time, and Einhorn owned the rights to the game. Houston upset the Bruins 71-69 in front of more than 52,000 along with millions, including myself, watching on TV. If college basketball didn't come of age that evening, it certainly took a huge step toward its Bar Mitzvah. And Eddie Einhorn engineered the spectacle.

(Note: UCLA got its revenge in the NCAA final, thrashing Houston, 101-69. Of course, the game was televised.)

When news of Einhorn's death became public, the accolades and tributes rolled in from people such as Reinsdorf, Hawk Harrelson, Kenny Williams, Robin Ventura, and trainer Herm Schneider. He was hailed as a "creative whirlwind" by Reinsdorf, who noted his friend's keen vision in foreseeing the age of cable television and its impact on sports programming long before we received invoices for hundreds of dollars for our bundled TV, Internet and telephone service.

Once he arrived in Chicago, Einhorn's brainstorm was SportsVision, a pay-for-TV service which would offer subscribers live action of Sox, Bulls, Blackhawks and Sting (Chicago's soccer team) games. The revenue generated from subscriptions - fans who paid had a box on their TVs to unscramble the SportsVision signal - would enhance the bottom line of the teams involved and, by the way, make ownership more lucrative.

However, Eddie's timing was flawed. Sox fans had for years received free telecasts. Why would we now pay to see selected games? Furthermore, the Cubs remained on WGN absolutely free of any additional charge. Sox fans could be excused for thinking they were being singled out by the new management to see if we would pay for something that was heretofore gratis.

Harry Caray, never the shy type, resigned at the end of the 1981 season as the voice of the White Sox, taking his not inconsequential ego to the North Side. He wasn't interested in SportsVision. He never would have been content with the smaller audience compared to folks watching for free on superstation WGN. For Harry, it was a no-brainer, and the Cubs were more than happy to accommodate him.

While spending money to watch the White Sox on television - which today is simply part of your cable package - was repugnant 35 years ago, Einhorn stumbled on a couple of other fronts. Being the more outgoing of the Jerry and Eddie tandem - they were dubbed The Sunshine Boys - Einhorn had a weekly radio show where fans could call in and ask questions. This was a staple of his predecessor Bill Veeck, whose Sunday morning show with his wife Mary Frances, an articulate and knowledgeable host, was popular with Sox fans.

Einhorn behaved as though he was unaware that Veeck may have been the most beloved owner in Chicago sports history, not necessarily a lofty accolade considering the company. Unlike Eddie, Bill grew up in the suburb of Hinsdale, his dad had been president of the Cubs, and Bill was credited with planting the ivy at Wrigley Field in 1937. He was not only baseball savvy but also a promoter who created entertainment meant to make coming to the ballpark just a lot of fun.

Veeck was famous for listing his phone number in the White Pages in case anyone wished to call him, and, in fact, he personally answered at all hours of the day and night. Bill also made hundreds of personal appearances at social clubs, schools, churches and synagogues not only to sell tickets but also because he genuinely enjoyed the interaction and banter with Sox fans.

Bill removed the door to his office at Comiskey Park, indicating, "If you want to see me, just walk in." Yet in the weeks after purchasing the team, Einhorn proclaimed on the radio that he and his partners were going to make the franchise a "class" operation. One way to do this was to open an office in the Hancock building.

Furthermore, Andy the Clown now had to buy a ticket, and the Sox Supporters' banner no longer was welcome in the left field lower deck.

Personally, my reaction was, "Who are these guys?" I was accustomed to an owner I could identify with. He was a fan. He enjoyed the games and going to the ballpark. He loved talking baseball along with a plethora of other topics, not the least of which was literature. He went to Miller's Pub. He drank beer. Lots of it. Writers like Bill Gleason and Dave Condon were his pals. In fact, Veeck often sat in the press box with the scribes during Sox games.

So Eddie and Jerry entered the scene and vowed that things would be different. After all, Veeck, along with Minnesota's Calvin Griffith the last of the owners who derived their income solely from baseball, presided over a losing team and an underfinanced franchise. Veeck rented Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble in 1977 when the team was in first place as late as mid-August, but things fell apart quickly from there as the losses piled up.

After the strike-shortened season of 1981, the Sox won 87 games in 1982 and surged to 99 wins in 1983 before losing to the Orioles in the ALCS. Attendance soared past two million, and the stench of the failed SportsVision was quickly forgotten. The team, however, stumbled severely in the late '80s, and Reinsdorf and Einhorn threatened to move the Sox to Florida unless public money built them a new ballpark.

Of course, they got their U.S. Cellular Field. The Sox won it all in 2005, and Reinsdorf became The Chairman long ago while his law school chum spent most of his time back in New Jersey for the past 25 years. Einhorn would surface every now and then such as during the World Series sweep in '05 and for special events thereafter.

Certainly some folks in the organization who knew Eddie found him to be engaging, warm, friendly and interesting. He apparently was a glib storyteller. Sportswriter Phil Rogers said he would miss Einhorn's smile and laugh.

However, his relationship to most Sox fans was nebulous. Did he help negotiate TV contracts on behalf of MLB? Apparently so. Was he an important media adviser to the ballclub? Without question. Was he responsible for making our experience at the ballpark fun and exciting? I doubt it. Will Einhorn be remembered as an iconic figure in White Sox history? Again, doubtful.

Did he have a delightful, unforgettable experience being a honcho for a major league franchise which won a World Series? You bet your SportsVision he did.

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Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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