Celebrating Baseball Old-Timer Lena Blackburne

In February I started a project on this blog of asking people to name their favorite obscure baseball figure: it can be a player, manager, umpire, or anyone else employed by pro baseball. My choice is Lena Blackburne, for several reasons. His rubbing mud is the industry standard; his endearing nickname (his real name was Russell Aubrey Blackburne); him getting the White Sox’s first two hits at the real, original Comiskey Park, him pitching for the first and only time in the majors at age 42: that was his last game, in 1929. He hit a single to win a 1927 game when he was 40 and the temporary White Sox manager in place of an ejected Ray Schalk; he died on Leap Day 1968 at 81; he was a baseball lifer, who worked for the Philadelphia and Kansas City A’s, into his 70s, as a scout for the A’s. Lena covered practically the full spectrum of baseball jobs: infielder, pitcher, coach, manager, scout, entrepreneur. He was a baseball man, one of the old-timers who help keep MLB together, and he was also apparently a strong-minded, proud, tough man, which is a nice contradiction of his feminine nickname.

Here’s what Jim Bintliff, who now runs the Baseball Rubbing Mud enterprise Lena started in about 1939, had to say about his character:

“Having only met Lena as a young boy I don’t know a lot of his history. I do know he was a hard nosed German man. Proud and fair, and could be as gentle as he could be tough.

“I was told a story about him walking in a snowstorm one night to get medicine for a sick player on his minor league roster while he was a manager. But I also heard that he sent one player packing for not reacting to every pitch while playing left field. He was a die hard American Leaguer, not even offering to let the National League have his mud until the late 40’s early 50’s. I know he had the first official hit in Cominsky Park.”

Disco Demolition Day at Comiskey Park: July 12 1979

In Sox: From Lane and Fain to Zisk and Fisk, his book on the old White Sox, Bob Vanderberg described this as “that July evening in 1979 when hordes of young rock fans, celebrating the destruction by fireworks of thousands and thousands of disco records, poured onto the Comiskey Park playing held, causing the second game of a twi-nighter to be forfeited and thousands of Sox fans to swear they would never again go near Comiskey Park until that goofy Veeck left town.”

Newsweek said:

The between-games blast had been planned by two of the city’s hypesters: Mike Veeck, promotion director of the White Sox (and son of Sox owner Bill Veeck), and deejay Steve Dahl, a militant anti-disco agitator who preaches tirades from WLUP-FM each morning. When they invited fans to bring records to “Disco Demolition Night” and pay only 98 cents for entry, a fence-bending crowd of 49,000 mobbed the stadium – about a third of them clutching disco discs. No sooner had the helmeted Dahl detonated the records in a metal bin in center field than about 7,000 fans poured onto the playing field. Before police could chase them back to the stands, they had destroyed the batting cage and the pitcher’s mound and set several small fires.

Bill Veeck said: “Disco Demolition was a disaster. And the strange part about it, it was a disaster because I had done insufficient investigation. It had never occurred to me that anything like that could have happened.

“The most he [DJ Steve Dahl] had drawn anywhere before that was 4,500. He drew that night, in total, at least 100,000 people. Because there were more people outside the park than there were inside. It took six squads to close the gates so no more people could get in, although we hadn’t sold the place out. And cars were backed up on the Dan Ryan all the way to north of Fullerton. (That represents a backup of nearly eight miles.) This was after the first game was over–they were still backed up.

“And inside, they had all those signs, and that was the worst thing, the most offensive thing. Oh, it was so embarrassing. But it is remarkable what a promotion it was. The promotion was too good. It was a disaster only because if we had had any idea what was going to happen, we could’ve controlled it. But it had never occurred to anybody. They kept coming and coming and coming.”

Veeck went out onto the field, spoke over the public address mike, and asked the rioters to leave, but nothing happened.

Veeck: “I couldn’t get anybody to leave, which was a pretty humbling experience. I stood on that field for 45 minutes. I couldn’t get anybody off. But I didn’t want to cause a real riot by bringing in the police. You know, I felt, let them run until they run themselves out. Actually, we could’ve played the second game, but the umpires were frightened. But that was a disaster. I suppose you’re entitled to one every four years.”

Detroit manager Sparky Anderson: “Only two things could happen. This game was scheduled to be played tonight or an act of God would cancel it. This was not an act of God. The home club must be responsible for everything in their park. Who else can be? It’s sad.”

American League president Lee MacPhail awarded the forfeit to the Tigers, and declared: “It was the judgment of the umpires that it was not possible to start the second game of the July 12 doubleheader because of inadequate crowd control and damage to the playing field, both of which are the specific responsibility of the home team. My decision is based on playing rules. . . and the general responsibility and authority invested in me over the administration of the game on the field. This game should not be rescheduled.”

Along with Disco Demolition Night, Bill Veeck had some other troubles with the Comiskey crowd in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Bob Vanderberg explained that “a lot of the hard-core Sox fans have been staying away because they feel the place has been taken over by brawling, drunken creeps who didn’t know a ball from a strike.”

Veeck: “We have had some problems here. Oh sure it bothers me. But look at Detroit, where they had to rope off about 10,000 seats. And in Philadelphia, what did you see at the World Series? Mounted police and attack dogs.

“So it isn’t something that happens only at Comiskey Park. Something’s happened to our society. I don’t think necessarily there are more violent people per thousand. But there are more thousands.

“But no group of people is above this sort of thing. You know what goes on at soccer games in South America. And even in the Far East-the inscrutable Far East, where their expressions never change and where they are always so polite. Well, we went to Japan to do their all-star game for ABC a few years ago-actually, we did two of them so we could show the best game. So we did the one in Tokyo and then we were supposed to go to Nagasaki the next day, except they couldn’t play at Nagasaki because they had burned the ballpark down. The inscrutable, unemotional Far Easterners. They’d burned the whole joint down. An umpire’s call had upset them a little bit. I shouldn’t say they burned the whole park-they burned the leftfield stands down.”

Finally, one more item from Bill Veeck on Comiskey. He was quoted in the Chicago Tribune at the end of the 1960 season saying this: “We’ll give fans a better team in 1961, and continue to make it fun to come to clean Comiskey Park. That exploding scoreboard will be remembered as just a firecracker by the time I finish the winter improvements. I’m practically going to put the whole park in orbit. We’ll continue to use paint and soap and water. Did I tell you the Milwaukee Braves sent a man down to scout our rest rooms?”

Comiskey Park’s Last Game

On September 30, 1990, old Comiskey Park hosted its last game, a 2-1 White Sox defeat of the Seattle Mariners. There were three triples in the game, and Bobby Thigpen extended his record for saves in a single season by registering his 57th in support of Jack McDowell, who’d pitched the first eight innings.  The last play was a Harold Reynolds grounder to second baseman Scott Fletcher, who threw to Steve Lyons for the out. Rich DeLucia pitched the full eight innings for the Mariners. The next day, a New York Times writer from Chicago remembered:
Comiskey Park has always seemed a rather scruffy but friendly ball park. Never scruffier or friendlier, however, than now.

Next season the team will cart its bats and balls and bases across the street to a newly constructed, pinkish facility, bigger than the old one and literally dwarfing it in its shadow.

Maybe this move will be good. After all, the team was going to leave town if city officials didn’t help provide for the new ball park.

Sometimes, though, progress takes a toll in the psyche, and maybe the heart, too.

Sentimentality can be a dangerous luxury, having the property of skewing reality. Yet the ball park is in fact a Chicago landmark, a landmark with white paint peeling on the exterior and exposing blotches of old brick.

He continued: Through the years, my work had periodically taken me back to Comiskey Park, and I didn’t much think about it. But now, with its end in sight, you take another look, as you might at an independent, slightly eccentric old aunt whose charms, the funny hat and cheery circles of rouge on the cheeks, you appreciated only as she began to fail.

The last game at Comiskey Park was played on a crisp, sunshiny fall day. Little was riding on this contest between the second-place White Sox and the fifth-place Seattle Mariners.

Certificates were handed to incoming fans, proof positive of their attendance at this historic game. It was a capacity crowd of 42,849, the game having been sold out for months, and the last of 72,801,381 paying customers over eight decades.

This throng seemed happy to be here, sharing this would-be memory. ”Goodbye, Ol’ Friends,” waved a banner on the left-field wall. The Mayor, Richard M. Daley, threw out the first ball.

When it was all over, and the White Sox had defeated the Mariners, 2-1, the local players left and then returned to the field and threw some baseballs into the cheering crowd and waved their caps.

[Read some more about the old Southside ballpark here.]

Published in: on December 13, 2008 at 1:04 am  Leave a Comment  
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