Zalusky: Chicago baseball's link to the Great Chicago Fire

Over the years, Chicago sports teams have paid homage to the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, which recently marked its sesquicentennial.

Pro football and soccer teams have adopted the Chicago Fire as their name.

The fire occupies a special niche in Chicago baseball history, particularly Cubs history.

Chicago's first professional ballclub emerged as a result of a crisis in civic pride - the 43-22 drubbing of the amateur Excelsior Club of Chicago by the Buckeye Club of Cincinnati on July 21, 1868.

At the time, Chicago was vying with Cincinnati for stature as the greatest Midwestern city, and the Excelsior Club's humiliation spurred efforts to establish a first-class professional team with some of the best players in the country.

That team, the Chicago Base Ball Club, made its debut in 1870. It was soon dubbed the White Stockings, due, according to one reporter, the "snowy purity of the hose" the players were wearing.

Initially, the team encountered potholes on the path to success. In a July 23 game against the New York Mutuals, the White Stockings lost 9-0, becoming the first member of the National Association of Base Ball Players to be held scoreless in a professional game, spawning the term "Chicagoed."

Led by second baseman and captain Jimmy Wood, the team soon fulfilled the city's hopes and defended civic virtue by winning the series against the mighty Cincinnati Red Stockings.

Hopes were high when the White Stockings moved from Dexter Park near the Union Stockyards into their new lakefront stadium.

The park at Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street, just west of the Illinois Central tracks, known by various names, including White Stocking Grounds, Lake Front Park, Union Base-Ball Grounds, and Lake Shore Park, inhabited a site that today is part of Millennium Park.

But those hopes went up in flames, when a fire that began in Patrick and Catherine O'Leary's barn swept across the city, ravaging three square miles of the metropolis from Oct. 8 to 10.

When the fire broke out, the White Stockings shared first place in the newly formed National Association of Professional Base Ball Players with the Philadelphia Athletics.

The conflagration consumed the ballpark, and according to Carl Smith, in "Chicago's Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City," published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 2020, the park that once contained the diamond became a refuge to those fleeing the fire.

The fire not only claimed the stadium, but also most of the White Stockings players' homes and possessions.

Jack Bales, in his superior history, "Before They Were the Cubs: The Early Years of Chicago's First Professional Baseball Team," published by McFarland in 2019, said the team received free railroad passes to travel east and finish the season.

The White Stockings traveled to Troy, N.Y., Oct. 21 to play the Haymakers. The team presented a motley appearance, since they were forced to wear mismatched hand-me-down uniforms from various teams.

Bales wrote, "Gone were the attractive, well-tailored shirts and pants with which the men had started the season."

The team, which finished third, saw its players scattered throughout the league.

But the White Stockings, like the city itself, would rise from the ashes, returning to play in 1874, this time at a South Side park, the 23rd Street Grounds, with original players Ned Cuthbert, Fred Treacey, and Levi Meyerle. The very first player the White Stockings signed for the 1870 campaign, Jimmy Wood, managed the club, but was unable to play, because of an accident that forced his leg to be amputated.

In the team's opener, the White Stockings "Chicagoed" Philadelphia 4-0, their cause helped by third baseman Adrian "Cap" Anson's five errors.

Anson's glory days were ahead of him, though, with the White Stockings, who would return in 1878 to the site of their former glory at a rebuilt lakefront park.

Meanwhile, the White Stockings would undergo several name changes, becoming the Colts, Orphans and, finally, the Cubs.

An 1871 view of the White Stockings stadium as depicted in Harper's Weekly. The stadium location is No. 3. COURTESY OF JACK BALES
An 1883 Harper's Weekly view of the rebuilt lakefront stadium. COURTESY OF JACK BALES
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