Friday, October 1, 2010

The Wild West at West Side Park

From the mid-1890s to 1915, the Chicago Cubs (known as the White Stockings during much of the 19th century) played their home games at West Side Park, located at the corner of Polk and Lincoln (now Wolcott) Streets. This was the park of the famed Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance Cubs; the park of the dominant Cubs squad that won an astonishing 116 games in 1906 (they lost just 36); the park that hosted three out of four straight World Series (1906-1908 and 1910), with the Cubbies winning two of those championships.

But beginning in 1916, the Cubs moved to a different home: Weeghman Field (now known as Wrigley Field). With the departure of the Cubs, West Side Park dropped from the major league scene, becoming a venue for semi-pro baseball, amateur games, and (as we shall see) other events.

Thankfully for the baseball researcher, the park is well-documented online, with many hundreds of photos available at the Library of Congress's Photographs from the Chicago Daily News web site. A few of these images follow.

Here's a shot of the park in 1908:

SDN-007231, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

And here is a photograph taken in 1907 at West Side Park showing Giants catcher Roger Bresnahan donning the innovative shinguards he first introduced at the beginning of the season:

SDN-053191, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

And check out this great photo of Pirates legend Honus Wagner at West Side Park. Note that Honus is wearing his cap backwards, a common practice today, but very rarely done a century ago.

SDN-054782, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

As a brief aside, for what it's worth, the earliest example I've found of a baseball player wearing his cap backwards is this 1879 photo of the University of Pennsylvania baseball team:

University of Pennsylvania Photograph Collection Record ID 20050308013

Check out the player standing third from right, one Gustavus Remak:

But let us return to West Side Park in the 20th century.
One of the most intriguing Chicago Daily News photographs taken at the park is this image:

DN-0066934, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

Sure, some great games were played at West Side Park over the years. But none could match the game seen here. Horses, cows and bulls are all over the field and in front of the outfield walls are enormous pieces of scenery, painted to look like mountains. What's the story?

An easy clue is found at the top of the photo: a date stamp seen in reverse. That date is August 23, 1916. What happened that day at West Side Park? Well, take a look at this advertisement from the Chicago Daily Tribune of August 19, 1916:

From August 19 to 27, 1916, West Side Park was the site of a round-up and "Shan-Kive" (purportedly an Indian word for "good time") with "88,000 square feet of scenery": the giant murals in the outfield.

The advertisement noted that there will be "2 complete exhibitions daily at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m." with "15,000,000 candle power illumination." Take another look at the photo above. Could those be small light standards mounted atop the grandstand roof down what once was the left field line?

Additionally, the advertisement states that "all contests [will be] supervised by Col. W.F. Cody (Buffalo Bill)." The 70-year-old Cody was a fixture at the event, one of the last appearances of his illustrious career, as he passed away less than half a year later. Indeed, two other photos from the Chicago Daily News captured the colorful showman seated on the field at West Side Park. Take a look at this wonderful pair of portraits of the famed "Buffalo Bill" taken on August 23, 1916 (and be sure to take note of the stunning mountain scenes in the background):

DN-0066931, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

DN-0066930, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

A promotional description of the event was published in the Chicago Daily Tribune of August 14, 1916. It reads:

Arena Being Transformed Into Miniature Wyoming Ranch with Background of Mountains

The cowboys, the cowgirls, and all the other ranch people who are coming to Chicago to contribute to the strenuous incitements of the big Shan-Kive and Roundup, which opens next Saturday afternoon, will find themselves in a familiar scenic atmosphere at the old Cubs' west side ball park.

The work of transforming the arena into a miniature Wyoming ranch, with its panoramic background of hills and mountains, has been rapidly progressing. The scenic effects at the ball park are expected to prove a revelation.

The money prizes, which will be awarded by a board of judges led by Col. William F.Cody, the famous scout and Indian fighter, will range from $1,000 in gold for the "best all round cowboy or cowgirl" to $500 for the winner in a wild horse race. Every day will have its own special contests. Interspersed will be arenic performances by Indians, Siberian Cossacks, Bedouin Arabs, Japanese, and Mexican Vaqueros.
The Cubs may have left months before, but in August of 1916, Buffalo Bill and the Wild West came to West Side Park.


  1. In the Wagner photo it looks like he's got a rope or strap in his right hand...also looks like the same might be attached to the bat (this is visible in the shadow as well.) Any idea what it might be?

  2. I wouldn't like to be the person who had to pick up all of those cowpats before the next baseball game!