While looking for something else, I came across a story in the May 30, 1988 issue of Sports Illustrated, titled “The Sunshine Sox.”
For many of you, the story of the White Sox nearly moving to the Bay Area is well-known. However, younger fans may not be familiar with the turbulent time in the 1980s when several teams used the Tampa-St. Pete area as leverage to blackmail their own cities into building new stadiums.
It’s ironic in a sense. Many fans of teams like the White Sox, Mariners, and Giants make fun of The Trop. And yet, if St. Pete didn’t agree to build a stadium on the cheap in an effort to lure those teams, they may not have their own new beautiful ballparks.
As for me, I was young and remember getting excited every time it seemed like another team was moving to the area. I even owned a Florida White Sox cap at one point
If I remember correctly, it was the White Sox that came the closest to moving*, striking an 11th hour deal in June, 1988 to keep the team in Chicago. And this article in Sports Illustrated shows just how close the White Sox came to leaving Chicago’s south side.
In fact, the column is written with a tone that makes the move sound like it was inevitable.
Here are a few of the more telling comments in the article:
- E.M. Swift calls Florida “an attractive baseball market” noting that it is expected to be the third largest population among states by the 1990s (It is still 4th). He also points to the 35 million annual tourists.
- The Sox were planning to play the 1989 season at Al Lang Stadium in St. Pete which was to be enlarged from 7,500 to 20,000 seats.
- The father-in-law for then-White Sox pitcher Bobby Thigpen was planning to give the White Sox a $10 million loan to cover the costs of moving.
- The proposed lease for The Trop was “not as favorable” as the lease to remain in Chicago but the team believed the TV and radio money would be a lot better. The White Sox were making just $9 million in broadcast rights in Chicago and St. Pete told the team they could make $10 million per year in Florida.
- In addition to wanting a new stadium, the White Sox wanted to get away from the Cubs who had only recently taken over as the most popular team in town.
- At the time, White Sox games were on cable TV and only 34% of Chicagoans had cable.
- And there was this ironic statement from a White Sox official: “Draw a circle around Comiskey Park with a 30-mile radius…You’ll find that 40 percent of that area is in Lake Michigan. Twenty percent is poor. The other 40 percent is inhabited by Cub fans.” Substitute “Tampa Bay” for Lake Michigan and “Yankees and Red Sox fans” for Cubs fans and you’ve got the Trop.
- Or this statement about the White Sox wanting a stadium in the Chicago suburbs: “Einhorn and Reinsdorf wanted a ballpark that was accessible to the guy, and the family, who wouldn’t put up with the hassles of an urban commute.”
- The widow of former White Sox owner Bill Veeck closed the story with this statement: “I’m convinced they’re going to leave…The real movers and shakers of this town don’t care if they go or not. There’s no one to spearhead a drive to keep them. Chicago is totally happy with the Bears, the Cubs and Michael Jordan.”
Of course, the White Sox did not leave. They got their new stadium and eventually the Trop got the Devil Rays. But it is fun to look back and wonder “what if?”
* Several people have pointed out that the Giants came closer to moving noting that the Giants had an agreement in place to be sold. This is all fuzzy and maybe somebody else can chime in, but my recollection was that there was always a concern that the owners would not approve the Giants move to St. Pete. On the other hand, it was considered a foregone conclusion that the White Sox move would be approved. Either way, both came very, very close.