Long before the film version, Arch Ward created Field of Dreams. It was titled “The Game of the Century,” and the Tribune’s sports editor drew on a perpetual fantasy of baseball fans:
If Sweetbread pitched Bailey and Babe Ruth hit, who would prevail?
The question was as frustrating as it was intriguing. One played in the National League, the other in the American League, and they never crossed base paths except in a World Series.
But Ward’s imagination devised a means of solving such mysteries: a contest pitting the best players in each league against each other during a Chicago Centennial World’s Fair.
“A wise inspiration in the sports section of the Tribune will come from Chicago as the event of the Fair, the baseball game of all time,” the newspaper reported May 23, 1933. “Baseball management could have found a million reasons why this could not be done.” , but I found every reason why it should be.”
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The birth of the All-Star game was an accidental by-product of the Great Depression. In 1933, Edward Kelly, the newly installed mayor of Chicago, was concerned. The city was committed to hosting a world exhibition. But with millions of unemployed Americans, how could Chicago attract enough visitors to ensure the fair’s success?
Kelly asked Col. Robert R. McCormick, editor of the Tribune. There was some discussion of a sporting event and McCormick turned the issue over to Ward, who had a knack for not only covering sporting events but creating them.
Ward knew news of an All-Star game would be reported days in advance, plus an autopsy. The trick was to hold the public’s attention much longer with headlines like the May 30 one:
“Simmons extends lead over Ruth in poll. Babe Trails in first return from New York.”
Under Ward’s design, lineups for the game were determined through a democratic process. The Tribune asked readers to vote for their favorite players, and 47 newspapers quickly followed suit.
“The count is reported to the Tribune every few days,” Ward explained. “Judging by the inquiries from the weekend, in a few days at least twice as many newspapers will be registered as have already joined.”
This turned the competition from a single ball game into a daily duel between fans. Some moved players like a savvy manager. The American League had two hard-hitting first basemen. When the Yankees’ Lou Gehrig built up an unbeatable lead, the Athletics’ Jimmy Foxx fans still wanted him in the game.
“Foxx once played third base for the Athletics and played it pretty well,” the Tribune noted. “The fans started voting for Foxx, the third baseman.”
But the White Sox’s Jimmy Dykes won the position, and the American League beat the National League 4-2, helped by Babe Ruth’s two-run homer.
A decade earlier, Ward had founded the Golden Gloves with his colleague at the New York Daily News, another Tribune newspaper. Her creation grew into an international boxing competition and added to Ward’s long list of celebrity friends. On the mornings of his professional fights, Heavyweight Champion Rocky Marciano had breakfast with Ward.
Ward has not promoted his own celebrity. His personal style was unassuming, the product of a Central American upbringing of which he was proud. Born on a farm near Irwin, Illinois, he returned there shortly before his death for one last look at the barn of his youth.
“I made baseballs with twine, black tape, and glue,” he recalls. “I practiced hitting the side of this barn. I pictured myself as a major league pitcher or shortstop.”
He liked to quote Knute Rockne, the famous football coach at the University of Notre Dame, where Ward was a student and Rockne’s publicist.
“The farm boy is America’s best prospect for future leaders,” Rockne told Ward. “The city boy is too soft, and his schools muddy him with their character-building talk.” Rockne grew up in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago.
Ward was appointed sports editor of the Tribune in 1936 and inherited the column “In the Wake of the News,” a potpourri of gossip, banter and readership. One reader reminded Ward of his predecessor Ring Lardner’s description of a White Sox rally: “It consisted of ‘a dropped third strike,’ a ‘base on balls, a scratch hit, a mistake, and a close call.’ ”
Ward’s forte was athlete profiles, packed with facts and sometimes in multiple episodes.
But his words managed to capture an indelible moment. For example, Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling with a blizzard of punches at the opening bell of their 1938 heavyweight championship bout:
“Schmeling knew on the spot he could not escape that cold, expressionless figure whose opening jab blurred his eyes and caused a pang to his left cheek,” Ward recalled decades later. “A half-smile on his face turned into a fixed grin.”
In 1932, Ward sparked another fan debate by stating that Jack Chevigny, coach of the Chicago Cardinals professional football team, thought the 1930 Notre-Dame team was the best football team he had ever seen.
“The leader of this column has received hundreds of letters commenting on Chevigny’s reviews,” Ward reported. “Pro players, college coaches and fans who risk it every Sunday all had their say.”
Ward capitalized on his readers’ enthusiasm and created a College All=Star game at Soldier Field in 1934, sponsored by the Tribune. It began with deafening pomp, as the newspaper reported:
“A huge searchlight shone from a far corner of the field. The band intoned “The Maize and the Blue” and Michigan men and women began to scream. Then only Michigan’s big center Chuck Bernard stepped into the limelight. Next came the songs from Purdue and Pittsburgh, and Fritz Febel from Purdue and Frank Walton from Pittsburgh, guards of this great All-American team, took turns in front of the floodlights.”
As all the school songs were sung, 79,432 fans watched as the college players and the Chicago Bears, champions of the National Football League, battled it out to a 0-0 draw. The Associated Press reported, “Collegians outplay Pro League champions, winning six first downs on three”
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Proceeds from the game went to charities, as did subsequent games until the series ended in 1976.
Ward died in 1955, days before the All-Star (baseball) game. His funeral, scheduled for the day of the game, resembled the coronation of a monarch. The game was delayed an hour so the baseball honchos could get back from Chicago in time to see the first ball thrown in Milwaukee.
Bishop Bernard Shiel conducted services at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on Belmont Avenue. Rocky Marciano paused his training and flew in from New York. Former boxing champions Barney Ross and Tony Zale were there. So were the stars of yore in every sport Ward wrote about.
Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame, delivered the sermon. “Arch Ward had a passion for honesty and fair play, a love for good and for those around him,” Hesburgh said. “In the process, he was immortalized in the hearts of millions.”
As the colleges scored three field goals to beat the Cleveland Browns in that year’s All-Star Football Game, the Tribune noted that Ward had a special affection not for the most gifted but for those who gave it their all.
“Knute Rockne’s successors down at Notre Dame, when all else failed, would tell their troop, ‘This is for Rock,’ and their young students would react like tigers,” wrote the Tribune. “We hope we’re not being too trite when we say this was for Arch Ward.”
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