Monday, May 14, 2012

Kansas City Athletics

Excluding the Seattle Pilots, who entered the American League in 1969 and left for Milwaukee one year later, the Kansas City Athletics had the shortest tenure in one city during the modern baseball era. An odd amalgam of names and an autographed baseball piqued my interest in this mostly forgotten team.

The Athletics – known colloquially as the A’s – were an original American League franchise in 1901. Owner Connie Mack would manage the team through 1950, dressed in a suit, tie and hat, for a record that certainly will never be broken. The A’s moved into Shibe Park, the first concrete-and-steel ballpark, in 1909. They shared the park with the Phillies beginning in 1938. The ballpark was renamed Connie Mack Stadium in 1953.

Connie Mack (center)

After the A’s loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1931 World Series, the team would never come close to contending for an American League pennant. In fact, quite often both Philadelphia teams finished in last place. The Phillies played in one World Series between 1915 and 1980. The A’s woeful record translated into dwindling attendance; from a record high of 954,076 in 1948, only 309,805 fans made it out to the ballpark on Lehigh Avenue two years later. Less than 400,000 showed up during the team’s last two years in Philadelphia.

Shibe Park, circa 1920

With baseball looking west – most particularly Los Angeles – Chicago investor and hotel magnate Arnold Johnson stepped up to purchase the A’s in late 1953. Disagreements within the Mack family (Connie would pass away in 1956) and high debt forced the sale to Johnson the following year. Johnson, who at the time owned Yankee Stadium and Blues Stadium, the home park for the Yankees’ Triple A Kansas City franchise, was a good friend of Yankee owners Del Webb and Dan Topping. After getting the Macks’ approval, he acquired the team and announced its move to Kansas City (after selling Yankee Stadium). Some thought Kansas City would be a brief stop until the team moved to Los Angeles, but the Dodgers’ relocation from Brooklyn after the 1957 season ended that.

Arnold Johnson and President Harry Truman

The 1955 Kansas City A’s had nowhere to go but up. The 1954 Philadelphia A’s finished 51–103, in last place under manager Eddie Joost. No pitcher won more than 10 games and the staff ERA of 5.18 was a full run higher than the next worst team. The hitters fared just as poorly, with a league-worst batting average of .236, 10 points lower than the 7th place team. The home-run and RBI leaders had 15 and 62, respectively.

 1954 Philadelphia Athletics

Lou Boudreau, a University of Illinois contemporary of my father and player-manager for the World Series-winning Cleveland Indians in 1948, took over the reins at the newly minted Kansas City A’s for the 1955 season. His roster included these unique names, colorful nicknames and other notables.

  • Art Ceccarelli
  • Arnold Portocarrero
  • Ozzie Van Brabart (0-2 in 11 games over 2 seasons)
  • Gus Keriazakos (5 career games)
  • Bob Trice (A’s first black player, September 1953)
  • Marion Fricano (previous year almost killed White Sox infielder Cass Michaels with beanball)
  • Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell (two outs away from pitching two consecutive no-hitters in 1947)
  • Art Ditmar (pitched the last game at Shibe Park and would become one of many in the Yankees-K.C. exchange)

Arnold Portocarrero and Bob Trice 

  • Forrest “Spook” Jacobs (a nickname we will never see again)
  • Joe DeMaestri
  • Jerry Schypinski (22 career games, .217 batting average)
  • Harry “Suitcase” Simpson (nickname was not from being traded frequently)
  • Enos Slaughter (at the tail-end of his career, going from the Yankees to the A’s and back to the Yankees in a span of 15 months)
  • Elmer Valo (the greatest player born in Czechoslovakia)
  • Gus “Ozark Ike” Zernial (the team leader in ’55 with 30 home runs and 84 RBI)
  • Vic Power (second in the American League in ’55 with a .319 batting average)

 Forrest "Spook" Jacobs and Elmer Valo

Zernial and Power both became known for incidents involving the Yankees.

During spring training in California, Zernial, then with the White Sox, was asked by Twentieth Century Fox to take part in a publicity photo shoot with Marilyn Monroe. Recently retired Joe DiMaggio saw the photo and, considering Zernial a bush league player who had played in only one full season, the Yankee Clipper eventually got a date with Monroe and later married her. DiMaggio held a grudge against Zernial until the day he died for allegedly taking credit for arranging the date, which Zernial adamantly denied.

Gus Zernial (catching), Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dobson

Vic Power was the second black Puerto Rican in Major League Baseball (after pitcher Ruben Gomez) and was slated to be the first black player for the Yankees. He played in the Yankees’ farm system, including with the Kansas City Blues, from 1951 to 1953, registering impressive numbers along the way. The team, however, found Power too flamboyant for the very staid ownership and shipped him to the A’s in an 11-player deal before the 1954 season. Elston Howard broke the Yankees’ color line in 1955.

Vic Power

During the six years of Arnold Johnson’s ownership (he died suddenly in March 1960), the A’s and Yankees made 15 trades, some of them involving large numbers of players. The cozy relationship between ownerships is credited for this pipeline. In fact, the A’s were seen as an ersatz Yankees farm team, providing them with such players as Roger Maris, Art Ditmar, Clete Boyer and Ralph Terry. Also notable was the Yankees trading Billy Martin to the A’s in June 1957 after the infamous Copacabana incident. Martin has written on the heartbreak of the experience, which further cemented his desire to first and foremost be a Yankee.

Municipal Stadium

After Johnson’s death, Charles O. Finley, another Chicagoan, purchased the A’s and set forth to turn baseball upside down by its ears. Team attendance never exceeded 1 million after the second season in Kansas City, so it made sense to move the A’s to Oakland after the 1967 season. By then, the A’s had built a solid nucleus with Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, Joe Rudi, Catfish Hunter and Blue Moon Odom, and the former also-rans eventually won three consecutive World Series in the early 1970s.

Kansas City A's 1964 uniforms

My father’s cousin Rosalie traveled from New York to Chicago for a family function some time in the early 1960s. She was bringing an autographed baseball for my brother and me. Great anticipation and excitement awaited her visit, only to be disappointed as the red, white and blue Reach box contained a ball from the 1960 Kansas City Athletics. Much later I figured out that it had come from Johnson, who had been in a complex transaction with her husband and Arnold Kirkeby for the Warwick Hotel in New York. The now barely legible signatures for the last-place 58–95 A’s include Don Larsen, “Marvelous Marv” Throneberry, Hank Bauer and Dick Williams. It sits in a drawer next to a baseball personally autographed by Ernie Banks and four others retrieved before, during and after leaving a game (fouled off into the parking lot of Comiskey Park).

1960 Kansas City A's autographed baseball

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Movie Theaters of Lubliner & Trinz

The chain most synonymous with the great Chicago movie palaces, Balaban & Katz, expanded its holdings with the 1929 acquisition of another theater group, Lubliner & Trinz. Robert Lubliner and Bruce Trinz, Phi Epsilon Pi fraternity brothers of my father at the University of Illinois, would later enter the theater business, owning such notables as the Edens Theatres in Northbrook and the Clark Theater in downtown Chicago. Both passed away in their 90s in recent years.

Phi Epsilon Pi, 1938
Trinz and Lubliner are 2nd and 3rd from left, 3rd row
My father is 1st from left, 1st row

Lubliner & Trinz began as a florist business at the end of the 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, various members of the two families began operating vaudeville and stage venues and later movies. The principals were Harry Lubliner and brothers Joseph (who bought the Franks family home in Kenwood shortly after Bobby Franks was murdered by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb) and Samuel Trinz. The company eventually had almost thirty locations in Chicago and Milwaukee before selling out to Balaban & Katz in 1929. Balaban & Katz, which in turn had been sold to Famous Players-Lasky Corp. in 1925, was founded in 1916.

Only two theaters are now showing films, and two others are concert/stage venues. Most of the others – most notably those on the formerly Jewish West Side – have long since been demolished, while a few have found adaptive reuses. Here’s a review of its notable theaters.

Ironically, there’s very little information on Lubliner & Trinz’ ownership of its most famous location, the Biograph Theater. What is known is the architect for the 1914 theater at 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. was Samuel N. Crowen, Birth of a Nation was shown there, and it once featured a Wurlitzer organ. The Biograph, now the home of the Victory Gardens Theater, was owned by Essaness Theatres when John Dillinger was killed outside by FBI men in 1934.

Biograph Theater

 Its most opulent current location is the Congress Theater at 2117 N. Milwaukee Avenue. The movie and vaudeville theater when it opened in 1926 was built by Fridstein and Company (the Fridsteins lived on the bottom floor of the two-flat my grandparents owned on S. Bennett Avenue in South Shore). It seated almost 2,900 people. The Congress was part of the Balaban & Katz acquisition and later became the Teatro Azteca in the 1970s. The venue featured Spanish-language films, boxing matches and films. It was threatened with demolition in 2000 but since has been renovated into a 3,500-seat concert hall.

Congress Theater

The Davis Theater in Lincoln Square opened as the Pershing Theater in 1918. During the 1930s, the Davis began screening German-language films, which continued at the 4614 N. Lincoln location into the 1970s. It was divided into four screens at that time and still shows a combination of art and first-run films.

Davis Theater

The other current movie house, the Logan Theatre, reopened in March 2012 after an extensive renovation. The former Paramount Theater, designed by Walter W. Ahlschlager, is located in Logan Square at 2646 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Seating has been reduced from 975 to 595.

Logan Theatre

Former Lubliner & Trinz theaters that avoided the wrecking ball have various new uses.

The Lakeside Theatre was acquired from Ascher Brothers in 1917, two years after its opening. The theater at 4730 N. Sheridan Road in Uptown closed in late 1966 or early 1967 and was occupied by the Dance Center of Columbia College from 1970 to 2000. It now houses Alternatives, a child and family services center.

Former Lakeside Theatre
Only the fa├žade remains from the Belmont Theater, which formerly seated 3,265 for stage shows and films. Also designed by Walter W. Ahlschlager, the Belmont opened in 1925 at 1635 W. Belmont Avenue. It was converted into a bowling alley in the mid-1960s, which closed about 20 years later. The Belmont is now the Cinema Lofts, a retail/condominium complex constructed in 1996.


Former Belmont Theatre

The Belpark Theatre on Chicago’s Northwest Side opened in 1927. Its capacity was about 2,000. Its movie-theater days ended in the mid-1950s, becoming a warehouse and banquet hall. The Golden Tiara, a bingo hall, is the present occupant at 3261 N. Cicero Ave.


Former Belpark Theatre

Robert Lubliner and Bruce Trinz were both 12 years old when the namesake theater chain was sold to Balaban & Katz. After graduating from the University of Illinois and serving in the armed forces during World War II, each made their marks on the local cinema scene.

Bob Lubliner owned a number of area movie theaters, including the McClurg Court, Edens I and II (Trinz was a co-owner) and the Willow Creek. The original Edens Theatre in Northbrook was an architectural and aesthetic masterpiece. Built for $500,000 with top-of-the-line finishes and designed by Perkins & Will, the Edens featured the world’s largest “hyperbolic paraboloid” structure in the world when it opened in 1963. Because of its unique design, expansion was not possible, and the Edens II was constructed in 1967. Although my father had left his public-accounting firm to enter private industry at the time, he still served as the Edens’ auditor (a number of Phi Eps were investors in the theater), for which we received a free family pass.

Edens Theatre

Bob Lubliner sold his interests in the theaters and moved into a houseboat in Florida until passing away at age 91 in 2009. The Edens’ last owner, Cineplex Odeon, let the theaters deteriorate and, unable to be retrofitted for multi-screens, the complex was sold and razed in 1994, ironically by Speedway Wrecking, my father’s former client that also demolished Comiskey Park. A strip mall took their place.

Bruce Trinz is best known for his ownership of the legendary Clark Theater at 11 N. Clark Street. Opened as the Columbia Theater in 1911 and renamed the Adelphi Theater in 1923, it did not begin showing films until 1931, when it was renamed the Clark. Under the ownership of Bruce Trinz, Samuel’s son, the Clark became one of the first repertory movie theaters in the United States, showing double features 22 hours daily. During the late 1960s, he opened a balcony as the “Little Gal-lery for Gals Only,” helping ensure women felt safe there. The theater was immortalized by Warren Zevon in his song, “Excitable Boy”:

“He took in the four a.m. show at the Clark,
Excitable boy, they all said.
And he bit the usherette's leg in the dark,
Excitable boy, they all said.”

 Clark Theater

The Clark Theater closed in 1969. The 57-story 3 First National Plaza was constructed on the site. Trinz later went into the film-distribution business on the east coast before his death at age 93 in 2011. His Chicago Sun-Times obituary was written by Roger Ebert, whose friendship with Trinz spanned several decades.