Commentary: The federal shutdown and a baseball night to remember | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: The federal shutdown and a baseball night to remember

Oct 10, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The current edition of the U.S. House of Representatives has been likened to a hip hop band from Detroit called the Insane Clown Posse and -- with due apologies to insane clowns everywhere -- I can't think of a more apt comparison.

While readers contemplate a superpower that can’t decide if it wants to continue operations, I offer a related question: Is it really a good idea to elect candidates whose principal qualification for office seems to be hatred of government? If you owned a company, would you hire managers who wanted to put it out of business?

Faced with pressing foreign policy concerns, a shuttered government and the looming debt-ceiling crisis, President Obama recently opined on whether the Washington Redskins should change their name. (He thinks it might—possibly— be a good idea, or not …) Following the chief executive’s lead, I’ve decided to devote today’s column to sports and the strange events baseball inspired in Chicago on the night of Sept. 22, 1959.

The setting

When it comes to the national pastime, all Chicago is divided into two parts. North-siders follow the Cubs; the White Sox rule in the south; and the rival fan bases are none too fond of each other. I was driving through the southern suburbs a few years ago and saw a billboard for a community newspaper: “Sox win, Cubs lose: a perfect summer day.”

As the ’59 season drew to a close, the American League pennant race came down to the White Sox and the Cleveland Indians. With the perennial champion Yankees eliminated, it was the underdogs’ turn to howl.

The Sox left for a final road trip to Cleveland needing one win to clinch their first AL title since the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919. More than 54,000 fans crowded Municipal Stadium that fateful night, hoping the Tribe could sweep the series and steal the pennant.

The politics

Of course, athletics always unfold within a broader social context. When the U.S. took ice hockey gold in the 1980 Olympics, for instance, the feat was elevated from “exciting” to “historic” because it entailed defeating the heavily favored USSR during the Cold War.

Similarly, the Sox pennant drive that year took place during the first term of Richard J. “Boss” Daley. He was both mayor of Chicago and the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee.

Being king of the city and party king-maker, Daley had consolidated power and was widely regarded as a political heavyweight of the highest order. A life-long resident of the south side Irish enclave of Bridgeport, he was also considered to be the "First Fan" of the White Sox.

And as they later would in the Winter Olympics, the Soviets were about to play an unwitting role in an American celebration.

The game

Future hall-of-famer Luis Aparicio got an RBI double in the top of the third, and scored later in the inning to give the Pale Hose a 2-0 lead.

After the Indians answered with one run, Al Smith and Jim Rivera hit back-to-back sixth inning dingers to give the Sox a 4-1 advantage that would hold until the bottom of the ninth.

With the bases loaded and one out, the game was on the line when Cleveland’s Vic Power came to the plate to face reliever Gerry Staley. Power hit his first pitch to Aparicio at shortstop, who deftly fielded the ground ball, stepped on second and threw to first—thus turning the 6-3 double play that secured the first Sox pennant in 40 years.

The players went wild.  They weren’t the only ones…

The celebration

Most of Sox Nation had followed the action on flickering black & white television screens back in Chicago. When the game ended, the south side erupted. Among the delighted onlookers was the city’s Fire Commissioner, Robert Quinn. He decided to take the festivities to the next level by activating the city’s air raid alarm system, thereby imparting an official imprimatur to the joyful proceedings.

In retrospect, Commissioner Quinn’s gesture had a couple of problems. The first of these was that not everyone had watched the game.

The sirens went off at 10:30 p.m. Some people had turned in for the night. As the Chicago Tribune later reported, “…The sirens sent thousands rushing into the streets. After all, this was 1959, the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. It didn’t take much to rattle people.”

Indeed, it did not. School children at the time routinely took part in air raid drills and some private citizens had installed fall-out shelters in their backyards. The prospect of nuclear attack was anything but hypothetical in the public imagination.

Even fans who’d watched the game were not immune to panic as many failed to make the obvious connection between a double play in Cleveland and an air raid in Chicago. As citizens ran into the streets in their bed clothes or huddled with loved ones in basements and broom closets awaiting thermonuclear annihilation, the sirens wailed for a full five minutes before the all-clear was sounded.

Police, fire and media switchboards were swamped with callers. One informed citizen advised that it couldn’t be a Soviet attack because then-Premier Nikita Khrushchev was visiting Iowa at the time, and he didn’t believe the Reds would bomb Chicago while their leader was touring cornfields in a neighboring state.

The aftermath

Conspiracy theorists long speculated that Daley had ordered — or at least, approved — the celebratory sounding and that Quinn shouldered the blame to spare his boss embarrassment. There is no proof of that assertion.

For his part, Quinn apologized if he had “…inconvenienced any people or upset them.” Daley dismissed both the matter and the calls for Quinn’s removal by attributing the incident to “…the hilarity and exuberance of the evening.”

Today, Quinn would be sent to some sort of rehab; Daley would be forced to appoint a blue-ribbon panel to prevent a recurrence; and somebody would write a letter to the editor complaining that Cleveland’s team moniker is offensive to the Windy City’s Native American population.

In the event, Quinn retired in 1978 and the Chicago Fire Academy is named after him. 

It’s tempting to look back at the old machine politicians and chuckle condescendingly at their antics. But before you start feeling too smug, remember that those clowns had enough sense not to shut down their own circus…