Hey, hey-ey! Goodbye.
Chicago White Sox fans still sing that taunting refrain whenever an opposing pitcher is yanked, or in the ninth inning of an impending win. It is ironic to hear it these days, however, because those mocking lyrics could just as well be directed at the ball club itself, which, after 88 years on the South Side of Chicago, appears ready to relocate to St. Petersburg, Fla. Unless the Illinois state legislature passes a generous financial aid package before it adjourns on June 30—a package that one Sox executive likens to a "farm subsidy"—or unless five of the 14 American League owners vote to block the move, an unlikely scenario, it will be Hey, hey-ey! Goodbye to one of the charter members of the junior circuit.
Why would White Sox general partners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, who were known in Chicago as the Sunshine Boys before they had ever considered moving to the Sunshine State, walk away from the third-largest market in the U.S.? And why would the city of shrugging, er, big shoulders, whose fans just four years ago spun the turnstiles 2.1 million times to watch the Sox, wave bye-bye with an attitude of na-na-na-na apathy? It is a uniquely Chicago story, part politics, part prejudice, part phobia of stadiums built after the presidency of Calvin Coolidge. It is also a story no more complicated than the bottom line of a balance sheet. Reinsdorf and Einhorn, try as they might to justify their intentions by claiming that Chicago has evolved into a one-baseball-team town, feel they've stumbled upon a gold mine in Florida. Yes, stumbled. Because had it not been for the political infighting between Chicago and Springfield, the state capital, Florida would not be so close to getting a major league team.
Certainly Florida is an attractive baseball market. With a population of more than 12 million, the state ranks as the fourth-largest in the U.S., after California, New York and Texas, and it is expected to move up to third in the mid-1990s. Eighteen teams, including the White Sox, have their spring training sites in Florida, a state that attracts some 35 million tourists each year. Many of those visitors come between April and October. The Tampa-St. Petersburg area has two million permanent residents, and four to five million live within a 100-mile radius. The city council thought the place was so irresistibly major league that St. Pete began building a 43,000-seat, $85 million domed stadium even before it had a team interested in moving there. In case the Florida Suncoast Dome is not ready for the start of the 1989 season, the Sox are making plans to play next April in Al Lang Stadium, the spring training site of the St. Louis Cardinals, after it is enlarged from 7,500 to 20,000 seats. To defray the costs of moving and to retire the team's existing debt. Einhorn and Reinsdorf have been offered a low-interest, $10 million loan by Florida Progress Corp., a diversified holding company that already has a White Sox connection. A company vice-president, Allen J. Keesler Jr., is the father-in-law of Sox reliever Bobby Thigpen.
Einhorn and Reinsdorf see their club as much more than St. Petersburg's team. It will be called the Florida White Sox. "The terms of the stadium lease in St. Petersburg are not as favorable as what we've been offered by Chicago," says one Sox official familiar with the ongoing negotiations. "But the cable, broadcast TV and radio money more than make up for it."
One report, commissioned by St. Petersburg officials, predicts that the Sox would take in at least $10 million in local television, cable and radio revenue in their first year in Florida, compared to the $9 million they will get this year in Chicago. "Florida is the last virgin franchise area in the country," says Mike McClure, the White Sox vice-president in charge of marketing. "It is the greatest opportunity in baseball since Walter O'Malley took the Dodgers west to Los Angeles."
Best of all, St. Petersburg is about a thousand miles from the Chicago Cubs.
An interesting thing has happened to Chicago in the last few years. The Cubbies have taken over the town. Einhorn and Reinsdorf claim that one large reason for this resurgence is the Tribune Company, which in 1981 added the Cubs to a family that includes the city's largest newspaper, radio station WGN and its affiliated independent TV super-station. But Chicago has certainly not been a Cubs town for long.
Between 1951 and 1967 the Sox never had a losing record and they outdrew the Cubs in 16 of 17 seasons. It was not even close: The Sox averaged 1.17 million in 43,931-seat Comiskey Park during those years; the Cubs averaged 800,000 in 39,012-seat Wrigley Field. Both teams had virtually all their home games televised on WGN, with the popular Jack Brickhouse at the mike.
Things changed in 1968. The Cubs, managed by Leo Durocher and featuring Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and an aging Ernie Banks, finally became competitive, while the Sox had the first of four straight sub-.500 seasons. The Cubs outdrew the South Siders for the next five years. Also in 1968, Sox owner Arthur Allyn Jr. made the terrible mistake of pulling his team off WGN so more Sox games could be aired on Channel 32. But reception on the UHF station was snowy, the team was poor and a lot of viewers missed the affable voice of Brickhouse. Even so, this was not the mortal blow that some in the club's current regime would have people believe. The Sox outdrew the Cubs at the box office in four of the six seasons from 1980 through 1985. During that time each team won a division title; neither won a pennant.