For nearly a century, millions of words poured from the confines of the Tribune Tower in stories about crooked politicians, murderous lovers, civic giants, sports heroes, regular folks and big shots, charting all the joys and tragedies of the human condition. No longer home to a newspaper but to luxurious condominiums, the building now delivers a new and fascinating tale, of a baseball long buried, a baseball that some believe is worth $1 million or more.
The ball is a homely and bruised and beaten thing. It was discovered earlier this year when three time capsules were found during the remaking of the building.
The Tribune Tower was sold for $240 million in June 2016 to the CIM Group in partnership with Chicago-based Golub & Co. Its transformation began after all former tenants — including some 750 Chicago Tribune employees, WGN-AM 720 staff and equipment, a barbershop, restaurant, candy store and other businesses — were relocated and scattered across the city in June 2018.
“I love this building and this has been the most interesting and complicated project I have ever worked on,” says Lee Golub, the executive vice president at Golub & Co. “But there has been great joy in that, because I think this is the greatest building in the world.”
He is happy that two-thirds of the building’s 162 condominiums have been sold, for prices ranging from $700,000 to more than $8 million. He was happy and proud as he walked around the building with Tribune photographer Chris Sweda and myself, neither of us having visited since we left four years ago. Not to play architecture critic, but I was impressed by the transformation, a remake that was jarring but impressive. We saw some apartments with terraces, soaring ceilings and dramatic arch windows. We saw a space with all sorts of amenities, including a gym and swimming pool. We saw a landscaped exterior courtyard, meeting rooms, sundecks, outdoor terraces and grill stations. We saw much more and listened to Golub say, “It was important that we keep the history of the building intact,” and walked through a landmarked lobby cleaner than we had ever seen it. It sparkled.
But back to baseball.
The three battered and worn metal box time capsules — placed inside the cornerstones of the former printing press building, which rose in 1920; Tribune Tower, completed in 1925; and the WGN Radio building, completed in 1950 — contained more than 100 items.
Most of these were predictable time capsule knickknacks. There were yellowed copies of the Tribune newspaper, a 1907 political cartoon from Pulitzer Prize winner John T. McCutcheon, war cartoons from 1942 and motion pictures set to recordings of speeches from owner/publisher Robert McCormick, as well as all of the 263 submissions for the 1922 design competition that offered a $50,000 first-place prize, won by New York architects John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood, and a penny from 1847, the year the Tribune was founded.
It was noted as well that there was also a baseball, one reporter speculating that it was “possibly from the 1919 ‘Black Sox’ World Series.’ ”
The minute Golub saw the ball, he called his friend Grant DePorter. The pair have known one another for years. “I just knew he’d want to see this,” Golub says.
“I ran over the minute he called,” DePorter says.
DePorter is the CEO of Harry Caray’s Restaurant Group, overseeing the operation of seven restaurants. He co-authored a 2008 book with Elliott Harris and Mark Vancil, “Hoodoo: Unraveling the 100-Year Mystery of the Chicago Cubs” (Rare Air Limited). Late in 2003, he paid $113,824.16 for what was known as the “Bartman Ball,” which was exploded early in 2004 in a nationally televised event from the restaurant, with money raised going to charity.
DePorter is also a passionate historian and the mere sight of the baseball compelled him to start digging. He was able to determine, with the help of FBI Special Agent and expert on memorabilia Brian Brusokas, that the ball was used in the 1919 World Series between the White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds.
“And it was a record-setting baseball,” says DePorter. “It is a baseball that struck out more batters in a row in a World Series than any baseball in history.”
The Cincinnati pitcher, his name long faded into history, was Horace “Hod” Eller. He pitched well, striking out nine batters, including a then-World Series record of six in a row during the fifth game, which was played in Comiskey Park in front of 34,379 fans.
“Eller was known for a shine pitch, a pitch that involved putting paraffin wax on one part of the ball and also in the stitches of the ball,” DePorter says, handing me a pile of his research. “Chemicals found in paraffin are used in solvents and also can burn. The ball has a mark where the paraffin shine was placed and the ball’s dark coloring would be attributed to the fact that it was placed in a time capsule for 100 years with paraffin present.”
That 1919 World Series resulted in what DePorter and many others consider the biggest scandal in the history of sports, known as the Black Sox Scandal. It has been the subject of many books, the best of which is Eliot Asinof’s 1963 “Eight Men Out,” which gave birth to the 1988 film of the same name.
In short, the scandal involved eight members of the Sox being accused of throwing the series against the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for money from a group of gamblers. The players’ names were: Arnold “Chick” Gandil, George “Buck” Weaver, Oscar “Happy” Felsch, Charles “Swede” Risberg, Fred McMullin, Eddie Cicotte, Claude “Lefty” Williams and, most famously, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.
A Chicago grand jury indicted the players in late September 1920 and, though all were acquitted in a public trial on Aug. 2, 1921, baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis the next day permanently banned all eight for life from professional baseball.
Along with the baseball, DePorter found a letter.
“It was hidden in a pile of moldy documents,” he says. “It was written by Tribune sports editor Harvey Woodruff and the letter does not mention anything about any controversy tied to the series even though it was written and placed in the time capsule in May of 1920, seven months after the series.”
DePorter kept digging.
“When Woodruff wrote this letter he was the top choice to be the chairman of the National Baseball Commission and as such would have been the one to decide whether to investigate the rumors that the World Series was fixed,” DePorter says. “He had not written any negative story that would hint that gamblers might have fixed the games. He even told one of his reporters that he did not believe the series had been fixed.”
DePorter believes that had Woodruff been appointed chairman, it would have changed baseball history. He says, “It is also highly likely that “Shoeless” Joe Jackson would have been inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame.”
The letter confirmed the ball’s vintage. “This baseball was used by Pitcher Horace (Hod) Eller of the Cincinnati Reds in the fifth game of the World’s Series baseball contests of 1919 against the Chicago White Sox,” Woodruff wrote.
Many of the items found in the time capsules are slated to have a new home in the Chicago History Museum but not that baseball. It will formally meet the public later this month at the Green Tie Ball, an annual event to benefit the nonprofit, public-private partnership that is Chicago Gateway Green, which is dedicated to the greening and beautification of the city. Golub and DePorter, whose father, Donald DePorter. started the organization in 1986, are co-chairs of the event. Golub will perform there, playing drums, with his band, Dr. Bombay.
The event takes place Sept. 17 at the Chicago Sports Museum. DePorter is the founder of the museum and that is where the old World Series baseball will be on display.
“We have a lot of great memorabilia there,” DePorter says. “But this baseball … No piece of memorabilia has made me more insane, combing through archives, old newspapers, websites. It is hard to put a price on it, but a Mickey Mantle 1952 baseball card, not even in pristine shape, sold last week for $12.6 million. I think of this baseball as a treasure and it tells a great story.”
This story has been updated with the name of the Tribune photographer.