Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on July 9, 2014, and is reprinted here by permission.
Late in the evening on Sunday, April 22, 1923, just days before the Chicago White Sox’s home opener, a violent explosion rocked Comiskey Park at 35th Street and Shields Avenue. The blast could be heard more than a mile away, but no injuries were reported—only the destruction of a hot dog concession stand on the sidewalk and shattered office windows above the ballpark’s main entrance.
Five days earlier on the north side of town, a bomb was discovered outside the Chicago Cubs’ home park, now known as Wrigley Field. The device never exploded, but a police investigation turned up other signs of vandalism inside the ballpark: several thousand dollars’ worth of recently installed plumbing fixtures were destroyed.
Near the end of the season, on Sunday, October 14, another bomb did go off outside Cubs Park, at the corner of Addison Street and Sheffield Avenue. The blast caused about $5,000 in property damage, leveling four ticket booths while shattering windows and peeling the paint off the exterior of nearby houses. Chicago police also said the bomb nearly took out a few supporting columns underneath the grandstands. But the next afternoon, the ballpark was in good enough shape for the Cubs to play host to Game 5 of the postseason City Series against the White Sox.
Who in the world was targeting Chicago’s baseball stadiums?
The Chicago Tribune offered a clue underneath its banner headline of “BOMB WHITE SOX BALL PARK” on April 23. A curious sub-headline on the newspaper’s front page read: “Blame Landis Award for New Attack.”
When questioned about the Comiskey Park bombing, White Sox secretary Harry Grabiner told police that the ballpark had recently been re-painted by “Landis Award painters” and attributed the attack to an ongoing labor dispute. Union workmen, Grabiner said, had been picketing both the White Sox’s and Cubs’ stadiums since Opening Day with signs declaring that the teams were hostile to organized labor.
Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was hired as baseball’s first commissioner in the fall of 1920. He had many fans in his home city of Chicago, and he was credited with cleaning up the game following the Black Sox Scandal. But it was Landis’s other job title—as federal judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois—that contributed to the pattern of violence afflicting Chicago’s ballparks in 1923.
As Landis biographer David Pietrusza explained in Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the end of World War I had led to a massive “economic readjustment, with deflation slashing wages in industry after industry. . . . [The] construction industry was sick, operating well below pre-war levels. Building costs and rents were high; families could not afford homes.”
Baseball was among the industries affected, as the White Sox and Cubs players knew firsthand. In 1919, the first season after the war, owners shortened the schedule to 140 games and lowered salaries across the board.
In the spring of 1921, with new construction virtually nonexistent across the city, the Building Construction Employers’ Association of Chicago attempted to impose a 20 percent wage cut on workers. The trade unions balked, and management imposed a lockout on nearly 25,000 workers. Judge Landis was asked to step in and resolve the dispute.
In Landis’s controversial arbitration decision, issued on September 7, 1921—just a few weeks after he permanently banned the Black Sox from Organized Baseball for throwing the 1919 World Series—the judge blasted the state of the construction industry. He said the “industrial depression [had] resulted in a virtual famine in housing accommodations and brought about the idleness of many thousands of men willing to work.”
In order to spur business development, he cut worker wages by an average of 12.5 percent, lifted restrictions on machinery and materials, and settled many jurisdictional disputes to cut the “monopoly” of the trade unions.
The decision, as Pietrusza wrote, “had nationwide influence and was credited with helping revive the American construction industry.” Nearly a half-billion dollars was soon committed to new construction in Chicago alone. Companies were happy to follow Landis’s edict, since it allowed them to offer lower wages for more working hours than they had been paying before. But naturally, many workers hated what became known as the “Landis Award.”
Throughout 1922 and into the spring of 1923, sabotage reigned as the battle was fought to enforce the Landis Award provisions. Some worker-friendly companies refused to use the Landis Award wage scale, and tensions ran high between “Landis Award” shops and union shops. Prominent business leaders formed a vigilante Citizens’ Committee to protect non-union workers from being attacked on the job (or, depending on your perspective, to attack and intimidate union workers fighting for higher wages). Construction sites and factories were often plagued by arson, bombings, beatings, and other random acts of violence.
The Chicago Tribune, a staunchly anti-union paper, reported regularly on any incident that could be blamed on Landis Award opponents. A sample of headlines drives home the picture:
- “Reward Offered For Arrest of Labor Sluggers” (March 17, 1922)
- “Landis Award Building Bombed for Second Time” (April 13, 1922)
- “Landis Award Shop Wrecked by 3 Sluggers” (April 22, 1922)
- “Landis Award Worker Beaten by 5 Gangsters” (August 6, 1922)
- “2 Landis Award Houses Bombed; Fear New Drive” (December 23, 1922)
This was the toxic labor environment in which the Chicago baseball teams opened their seasons in 1923. When White Sox owner Charles Comiskey decided to repaint his stadium’s exterior before the home opener, he hired non-union painters to do the job. Cubs owner William Wrigley hired non-union workers to install 5,000 new seats at his North Side ballpark. That decision saved the owners a lot of money, but it also put them both at risk of retaliation.
Luckily for both teams, no one was injured in the April 22 bombing incident at Comiskey Park or the October 14 explosion at Cubs Park. Ticket booths and concession stands were quickly rebuilt, and the shattered windows were all replaced.
Despite the banner headlines in the Chicago papers, these shocking but isolated incidents were quickly forgotten. No suspects were named or apprehended, and the ballpark bombings are almost never mentioned today in Chicago baseball history books.
The White Sox, under Manager Kid Gleason, opened their home schedule against the Cleveland Indians four days after the bombing. It was a forgettable season for the Sox, who were still decimated by the loss of their star players following the Black Sox Scandal three years earlier. Gleason abruptly announced his retirement after the Sox stumbled to seventh place with a 69–85 record.
The Cubs, managed by Bill Killefer, were slightly more competitive in the National League, finishing in fourth place at 83–71. But they still lost the postseason City Series to the White Sox in six games.
One final point of speculation about the ballpark bombings:
It’s easy to wonder if the ballparks were targeted in part because of Judge Landis’s connection to baseball. They were two of the most high-profile construction sites in town, and Landis by that time was well established as baseball’s commissioner. More likely, they were just convenient targets, two random bombings in a long string of labor-related violence that plagued Chicago all year long.
From the moment Landis took the job as commissioner, he was pressured to step down from his position as a federal judge. If he had done so immediately, he never would have been in the position to make the disputed arbitration decision in the first place. But to the chagrin of Landis’s many critics, no law existed at the time to limit a judge’s outside employment opportunities. So for a short time, he enjoyed the best of both worlds.
Seven months before the arbitration decision, in February 1921, Ohio Congressman Benjamin Welty—perhaps with support behind the scenes from American League President Ban Johnson, who had effectively ruled over baseball’s kingdom until Landis was hired—initiated an impeachment probe against Landis in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was an unsubtle attempt to force Landis to give up his government job. Landis, who was always up for a fight, dug in his heels. “If there’s an impropriety here, I haven’t seen it,” he said. “They will never impeach me.”
Landis was right about that, but eventually the pressure to choose one job or the other got to be too much. A house judiciary subcommittee determined that his service as commissioner was “inconsistent with retention of a federal judgeship.” In early September 1921, a week before the Chicago arbitration decision, the American Bar Association formally censured Landis with “unqualified condemnation,” declaring that his dual role was “derogatory to the dignity of the bench.” Eventually, Congress did pass a statute that would have prevented Landis from holding both positions at the same time.
After the furor died down, Landis finally resigned as a judge in February 1922. “There are not enough hours in the day for all these activities,” he announced as he turned his attention fully toward America’s National Pastime. The Chicago building trades decision was the last major case in his stormy career as a federal judge. But he would spend the rest of his life presiding over the baseball world.