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When Feds sought to evict Cubs from park, Part 1

During the 152 years since their creation in 1869, the Cubs have been no stranger to lawsuits.

They have sued, been sued, or both, by players, fans, neighbors, stockholders, the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois.

But only once were they sued by the federal government, over the team's right play in its home park.

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In the first 2 seasons of their existence, the Cubs, then known as the White Stockings played at 2 parks called by similar names, the Union Base-ball Grounds and the Union Grounds.

They were among the estimated 17,000 structures destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire, which raged for 3 days, engulfing 3.3 square miles of the city.

The fire began on the night of Sunday, Oct. 8. That day, the "Whites" had played an exhibition game against a local amateur team. Despite having only 8 players, the Whites won, 38-7.

The team did not play again until Oct. 21, at Troy, N.Y. They won that game, lost a rematch the next day, then were idle until they played a final game on Oct. 30.

In a showdown for the National Association pennant, the Whites lost, 4-1. Records show it as a home game, but it was played far from home: in New York.

After that defeat, the Whites suspended operation for 2 seasons, resuming play only in 1874.

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'COMFORTABLE SETTEES, NUMBERED'

Fittingly, their first game back was against the Athletics. This time, they won, 4-0, and this time it truly was a home game -- and a new home, at that: 23rd Street Park.

The date was May 13, 1874. Back on April 5, the Chicago Tribune had described progress on the park's construction:

...

Work the on the Twenty-second [sic] street grounds is rapidly pushed forward, the plans for the stands having been drawn up by Mr. Roberts, a well-known architect. The grand stand will contain 1,388 sittings, and will be furnished comfortable settees, numbered.

Three hundred season seats in this stand will be sold at $10 each, or at the rate of about 25 cents for each game. These seats will be ready for sale this week.

Then there will be the complimentary stand for the stockholders and other persons on the free-list. This will be an exclusive affair, containing 300 seats.

The total seating-capacity of the grounds will be not far from 7,000.

A side-track will be laid from State street to the entrance of the grounds, so that spectators can ride directly to the gates.

All games will commence promptly at 3:45 p.m.

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'GAY WITH BRIGHT COLORS'

In its May 14 edition, the Tribune called the Whites' debut at the park "a most extraordinary contest from beginning to end."

More than 5,000 spectators had turned out, maybe as many as 6,000, and "a large number of the most prominent men in the city, accompanied by their families were observed in the grand stand, which was gay with the bright colors and other finery of the fair sex, and the outside seats were filled with as respectable and orderly an assemblage as was ever gathered together."

...

The Whites played a total of 120 games at the park during 5 seasons, through 1877.

Then they returned to a familiar location.

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'VERY DESIRABLE BALL-FIELD'

"William Hulbert and the other directors had secured a lease on the same property that the White Stockings had played on in 1871 -- until the entire area's untimely destruction during the Great Chicago Fire," Jake Bales writes in "Before They Were the Cubs."

"Club officials realized that the site's central location between Michigan Avenue and the Illinois Central Railroad tracks (south of Randolph Street) would make the new grounds easily accessible to the city's many baseball fans.

"The New York Clipper heartily approved of the change, noting that the 'very desirable ball-field' would attract 'a paying audience at every match.' "

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'ENOUGH MANURE'

On March 24, the Tribune assessed how the park was shaping up:

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Work on the new ground is being pushed as fast as possible, a large force of men being employed. The grading is being done with loam and a mixture of street-dirt, the latter giving enough manure to the composition to insure the rapid growth of the grass which will be sown in the outfield.

The diamond and a little space outside it will be covered with sod brought from outside the city. This is the same plan adopted with the Lake-Front ground in 1871, and it was eminently successful in procuring a handsome and even field.

The diamond has been laid out in the southwest corner of the inclosure [sic], so that a line from home to second base runs in a northeasterly by north direction.

It will take a very long hit to get the ball over [the] left-field fence in fair ground, but it will not be impossible to hit over [the] right-field fence. These cases can be easily covered by a ground rule that will be equally just to both sides -- say two bases for a hit over the fence.

The fence around the ground will be of planed and matched boards and painted. It will no doubt have to be hued to prevent the small boy from cutting a peep-hole, as he would be sure to do if left to his own devices.

The grand stand will be in the southwest corner, just behind the catcher, and it will run part way down to the east. There will not be room for so many seats back of third base as before, and the bulk of the seating will be from the grand stand along the south line to the southeast corner, and thence along the east line to the foul line.

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SEAL OF APPROVAL

The playing area's dimensions truly were tiny: 186 feet down the left field line, 196 to right and 300 to straightaway center. A fly ball over the fences was, indeed, deemed a double.

Lake Front Park opened on schedule, on May 14, 1878. Cold weather limited the crowd to about 2,500, and the Whites lost to Indianapolis, 5-3.

The Tribune had nothing but praise for the facility, including:

"The change which has been wrought in the dusty and unpleasant Lake Front by the fencing, sodding, and seeding is one which every business man in the neighborhood highly approves. There remain only one or two things to be done to make the entertainments at the park as attractive as those in any other place of amusement in the city."

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NEW AND IMPROVED

The Whites won only 17 of their 35 games in their new home in 1878.

Over the next 4 seasons, they won nearly 100 more games there than they lost, going 133-38. In each of the last 3 years, 1880-82, they won the National League pennant.

During the off season after 1882, the Whites' management doubled the seating capacity at the park. It also built 18 private boxes on top of the grand stand and erected a 6-foot-high fence around the field.

Total cost of the improvements was reported to be about $10,000, equivalent to $271,594 in 2021, according to the Department of Labor's online inflation calculator.

...

Harper's Weekly, in its edition of May 12, 1883, declared:

"The grounds of the Chicago Base Ball Club, indisputably the finest in the world in respect of seating accommodations and conveniences, are located on what is known as the Lake Front property, the title to which is in the city of Chicago."

...

The title to which that sentence refers is the legal title -- ownership of the property.

And that would become the central issue in the legal wrangle over the Whites' continued stay at the site.

...

The Whites' 3-year run as champions ended in 1883, as they finished 4 games behind Boston.

They played 49 games at home and won 36 of them, raising their record at the park to 186-69 in 255 games.

For a while, it seemed like there would not be a 256th.

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HISTORY LESSON

The land on which the park stood originally had been part of Fort Dearborn, a military installation built on the banks of the Chicago River in 1803, destroyed during the War of 1812 and rebuilt in 1816. The fort was decommissioned in 1837.

In 1839, the federal government ordered that "the south fraction of the section" of land be divided into lots and blocks, to be sold at auction.

A sizable tract of land in the southeast corner of the fraction was designated as "public grounds forever to remain vacant of buildings."

...

When the auction of the other land was held, "the lots brought a much larger price than they would if the dedication [of the public land] had not been made," according to the federal government, since the owners of the lots would "forever have from their lots an open and uninterrupted view . . . of Lake Michigan, and the benefit of the fresh, pure, and invigorating breezes therefrom."

...

Those quotations are part of a long article in the Tribune of Tuesday, May 27, 1884 -- 2 days before the Whites were to make their season debut at home, following a 20-game road trip.

Here is how that story began:

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THE LAKE FRONT.

THE UNITED STATES WANTS THE BALL CLUB

TO CLEAR OFF -- THE MATTER COMES UP TO-

DAY.

The Chicago Base-Ball Club, it is announced, will play its first home game Thursday next, but it is just likely that if it does it will be on grounds other than the Lake Front.

Efforts have been made from time to time to secure the ground for the purposes for which it was turned over to the care of the city -- namely: an open space.

Mr. John F. Stafford, representing the owners of properly fronting on the Lake Front, notified the club people that if they did not give up the place an effort would be made to oust them.

Then the matter was laid before the Council, but as all the Aldermen had passes and so many free tickets as they wanted no attention was paid to the remonstrance.

As a last resort the United States authorities were officially notified of the action of the city and the club, and yesterday the matter took shape by the Government filing a bill of complaint in the United States District Court.

Subpoenas were issued for the city authorities and Mr. A. G. Spalding, the President of the club.

The case will come up this morning before Judge Blodgett.

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Henry Williams Blodgett, 62 years old, had been born in Amherst, Mass. He opened a private legal practice in Waukegan, about 40 miles north of Chicago, in 1845.

Blodgett served in the Illinois House of Representatives in 1852-54, then in the state Senate in 1858-62.

President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Blodgett to be the judge in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Illinois on Jan. 10, 1870. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate the next day and immediately sworn in.

He would continue to serve in the same court until he retired in 1892. He died, in Waukegan, in 1905.

In his later years, Blodgett owned Crab Tree Farm, in Lake Bluff. The farm still was operating as of Nov. 1, 2021.

One 12.9-acre section of the farm, sold in 1994, includes a mansion and 700 feet of private beach. It was offered for sale in 2018 for $13.9 million.

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'MERE CUSTODIAN'

In May of 1884, the federal government asked Blodgett to issue an injunction, ordering the Whites to vacate their ballpark and that all structures on the land be demolished.

The complaint maintained that the land was federal property, and always had been. It stated that:

"[S]oon after said sale and dedication the public grounds were taken possession of by the Town of Chicago for the general public and the individuals to whose use the same was dedicated, and from thence it and its successor -- the City of Chicago -- have kept and maintained such possession.

"But your orator [i.e., the government] expressly charges that neither the Town or City of Chicago has ever had any right or authority to limit, abridge, qualify, or impair any of the rights of the general public in the grounds, or any of the right and privileges of any of the purchasers of lots, it being the mere custodian."

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'WITHOUT ANY POWER TO DO SO'

The complaint continued:

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"In January 1878, prior to which the above-described ground had never been used for any purpose except as a public park, the Common Council of Chicago, without any power to do so and in violation of the rights of your orator and of adjacent property-owners, passed the ordinance to allow the Chicago Base-Ball Club to occupy the ground.

"The club entered upon possession in pursuance of the ordinance, inclosed the ground with board fence at least ten feet high in such manner as to shut out completely the ground from public view or access, erected thereon buildings for offices, and a grand stand for the accommodation of spectators; and altho[ugh] by the terms of the ordinance the privilege therein granted was limited to one year, and no new ordinance has been passed, yet the club has continued to exclusively occupy the grounds without any right or authority under a pretended permit or lease, and for which it has paid Theodore T. Gurney, City Controller, the sum of $1,000, and has continued to exclude the public from access to or the enjoyment of said grounds except on the payment of an admission fee for the benefit of the City of Chicago and the club, all of which is greatly to the injury of your orator, and of the public, and of the owners of property fronting on the grounds."

...

It concluded:

"Therefore it is prayed that the City of Chicago and the Chicago Base-Ball Club be summoned to answer, and that a writ of injunction be issued enjoining the city from executing to the club, or any other person or corporation, a license to use or occupy any portion of the ground, and enjoining the club from occupying the same for any purpose whatever, and that they be commanded to remove at once all fences and buildings from the same."

...

In summary, the federal government wanted the Whites gone, immediately.

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POSTPONEMENT

Richard Stanley Tuthill, the U.S. District Attorney, represented the United States, in front of Judge Blodgett at the May 27 hearing.

Tuthill, 43, had been born in Vegennes, Ill, about 85 miles southeast of St. Louis.

He was Tennessee's Attorney General in 1867-70, then resigned and moved to Chicago to become its District Attorney. He would serve until 1887, when he was appointed to the Illinois Circuit Court.

The attorney for the Whites was nowhere to be seen.

A representative of his law firm told Blodgett that the attorney had learned of the hearing only after leaving the city on business, and that he would not return to Chicago until Saturday. He asked the judge to postpone the hearing for a week.

Tuthill said he would accept a postponement, provided that the team agreed not to play any games in the interim.

Blodgett declined to invoke that condition, paving the way for the Whites to hold their home opener as scheduled 2 days later.

They defeated the Detroit Wolverines, 15-5, hitting 2 home runs in doing so.

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MORE DELAYS

The hearing set for June 2 did not take place. Neither the Tribune nor the Chicago Inter Ocean offered any explanation.

This appeared in the Tribune on Tuesday, June 10:

...

The application of the United States for an injunction to prevent the Base-Ball Club from occupying the Lake-Front grounds came up before Judge Blodgett yesterday morning, but the arguments were deferred for another week.

It seems that the lawyers for the club had written to the Attorney-General offering to enter into a stipulation to vacate at the end of the season, and the Attorney-General, in view of the club's engagements, was inclined to assent to this, but referred the matter to District-Attorney Tuthill for decision.

The latter wanted to consult the property-owners about it, so the case was put over.

Judge Blodgett remarked a week ago that the club had not been interfered with for years, and therefore he didn't think they were doing much harm. From this it was inferred that he would decline to issue a preliminary injunction.

...

That "Attorney-General" was Benjamin Harris Brewster, a Princeton-educated jurist who had Pennsylvania's top law officer from 1867 until 1881, when he was made Attorney General of the United States by President Chester Arthur. He would resign in 1885, when Grover Cleveland became president, and die in 1888, at age 68.

...

When, where and to whom Blodgett had said that he did not think the Whites were "doing much harm" must remain a mystery.

...

Another week went by with no hearing. From the Tribune of Tuesday, June 17:

"The base-ball case when over again yesterday, Judge Blodgett saying that he would not hear any contested motions until the jury-trails were ended. This will not be until Tuesday or Wednesday, and as notice will have to be given it is not likely that the application for an injunction will come up before Thursday or Friday."

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TOMORROW: The hearing and the verdict



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