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What would Cubs fandom be like if the White Sox had left Chicago?

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It nearly happened, several times between the late 1960s and late 1980s.

Kyle Schwarber steals a base against the White Sox during spring training this year
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

The city of Chicago has had two Major League Baseball teams for 120 years, ever since the American League was created with the Chicago White Sox as one of their charter franchises.

I’ve always felt this was a great thing for the city. There are only four metro areas (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco/Oakland) with two MLB teams, and this brings much more of a variety of baseball to those areas. Before interleague play, it meant that Chicago baseball fans could see players from every team come to play. Interleague play began in 1997 and that made for a more intense Cubs/White Sox rivalry as they played each other in regular-season games. After 23 seasons that Cubs/Sox regular-season series is nearly dead even: 60 wins for the Cubs, 62 for the Sox. The Cubs have outscored them 554-532, and the games are intense and competitive even when one of the clubs is having a good year and the other isn’t.

While the Cubs have remained an iconic franchise in the National League since the league and the team were both created in 1876, the Sox nearly left Chicago several times. You’ll pardon the interruption on this Cubs site, but this article is now going to morph into a brief history of the White Sox from around 1967 through 1990. After that we’ll get back to how a Sox departure might have affected the Cubs.

In the late 1960s, the Cubs began to assert themselves and contend after two decades of losing and the Sox collapsed into ruins after 1967. Other factors beyond that, including the Cubs’ ascendance on WGN-TV as the Sox put their games on UHF channels and a perception that the Sox’ South Side location was dangerous (it really wasn’t), led to fans deserting the Sox in droves and a flirtation with Milwaukee. In 1970 the Sox drew only 495,355, fewer than 6,000 per date, as they lost a franchise record 106 games. That attendance figure was over 1.1 million fewer than the Cubs and 150,000 fewer than the next-lowest club (Padres).

The White Sox played nine “home” games at Milwaukee County Stadium in 1968 and 11 in 1969 (one against each A.L. team). Bud Selig, who had formed a group dedicated to bringing major-league baseball back to Milwaukee after the Braves had departed following the 1965 season, had arranged those games and came close to making a deal to purchase the White Sox from the Allyn brothers, John and Arthur, who owned them at the time. But John Allyn didn’t want the Sox to leave and bought Arthur’s shares out and saved the Sox for Chicago. Selig, meanwhile, got his team when the Seattle Pilots declared bankruptcy, buying them and moving them to Milwaukee.

The Sox nearly left Chicago again in 1975. The city of Seattle had filed lawsuits against MLB after they allowed the Pilots to leave and the Allyns flirted with moving there. If that had happened, there were rumors that Charlie Finley, a Chicago resident, would have moved his Athletics to Comiskey Park. Bill Veeck, who had owned the Sox in the late 1950s before selling to the Allyns in 1961, rescued the Sox for Chicago again. By 1979, though, Veeck was having financial difficulties and before the 1980 season there were reports that wealthy Denver oilman Marvin Davis, who had tried to buy the A’s and move them to Denver a couple of years earlier, was going to buy the Sox and move them to Colorado. Veeck managed to hang on to the team for another year before selling to the group headed by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn.

Reinsdorf and Einhorn acquired not just the White Sox in 1981, but also the 70-year-old Comiskey Park. Almost from Day 1 they thought it inadequate and lobbied hard for public money to build a new stadium for their team. In 1986 the city of St. Petersburg, Florida built the Florida Suncoast Dom, a stadium without a team, constructed to try to lure a MLB club there. The Sox came very, very close to being lured. There were even logos created:

sportslogos.net

At the last minute in June 1988, just moments before the Illinois spring legislative session was to end, Gov. Jim Thompson and House Speaker Michael Madigan literally stopped the clock and pushed through funding so that the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority could build the stadium now called Guaranteed Rate Field, now nearly 30 years old itself.

Four times in a 20-year period the Cubs nearly became the only major-league team in Chicago. What would baseball fandom have been like in Chicago with the Cubs as the only team?

I figured the best way to find out what displaced Sox fans would have done was to ask a Sox fan. So I went to Brett Ballantini, who runs our SB Nation White Sox site South Side Sox. Here’s what he told me:

There are quite a few ways to look at this. But overall, at least temporarily, baseball in Chicago would have been a lot less fun without the White Sox. Our two-team dynamic is very special, something at that point even New York didn’t have as a two-team town. We’re an L ride away from one another; L.A. can’t come close to saying that, and New York isn’t the same, at all (when the Giants and Dodgers were both in town, wow, though). Whether you buy into the rivalry or want to act above it, there is natural competition between the two teams and fan bases, one that existed long before interleague play. Losing that would be terrible, and I say that as a Sox fan having the Cubs move to Iowa or wherever; yes, I would like all of you run out of town, but deep down I’d miss you.

Surely MLB would never allow just one team in the Chicago market, so if the White Sox had flown for Seattle or St. Pete pastures, who replaces them? The A’s, as rumored in the 1970s, bringing a possible three-peat to the South Side? The Giants, who St. Pete tried to snatch from San Francisco after Mike Madigan stopped time and cheated the taxpayers? Seattle (weren’t they the next team on the hit list for St. Pete)?

So I don’t think “fandom” per se would have been affected for long. No matter what you north siders think about your team (and I know the meter runs from humble to I-would-like-to-suffocate-you hubris), the entire city would not gravitate to the Cubs. Not everyone likes the team or admires its heritage (at least at the time of possible White Sox moves) of lovable loserdom. The park is not charming to all of us.

White Sox fans, true White Sox fans, would not sidle to the Cubs. Milwaukee or St. Louis would be viable alternatives. But in reality, it would be the replacement team that would fill the void. I would not have rooted for the St. Pete White Sox, or Solar Surfers, or Snowbirds. I can’t imagine many White Sox fans would have. But the Chicago Giants? Chicago A’s? Chicago Mariners, with a young Ken Griffey Jr.? Yup.

Cubs? NOPE. But then, you guys wouldn’t want me, anyway!

That’s a reasonable scenario based on the idea that MLB would have wanted to fill the void in Chicago with a second team. Whatever group did that — either by move or expansion — would have had to do what Reinsdorf did, get money for a new park, or spend their own money in renovating old Comiskey. Many think the latter could have been done, too, and Chicago would have had two vintage parks restored.

But the question remains: What if there were no second team? If the Sox had moved to Milwaukee it would have been fairly easy for Chicago-area fans to continue to support them. But Brett’s almost certainly right that many of the existing Sox fans wouldn’t have gravitated to the Cubs even if no other team was there to root for. However, once the old Sox fans had moved away or died off, their kids would likely have picked up Cubs fandom — since they were the only game in town.

It’s just a thought exercise, of course, because Chicago still does have two teams and in fact, with the White Sox seemingly having built a strong potential contender in the next couple of years, the prospect of an all-Chicago World Series beckons. Now that would be something to see, more than a century after the only such Fall Classic. Personally, I’m glad both Chicago teams broke their World Series droughts against clubs from other towns — now that City Series matchup can happen. I actually look forward to it.

During our conversation, Brett and I did agree on one thing: We both hate the Packers.