A Richmond, Indiana blacksmith’s son, tiring of the dreariness of small-town living and his clerk’s job in the local jewelry emporium, ventured to Chicago in 1893 to visit the World’s Columbian Exposition and ride the Ferris wheel never knowing to what it might lead. Freed from the shackles of rural Hoosier conformity, the drudgery of shoeing horses in his pop’s stable, and selling charm bracelets to the banker’s daughters in Haner’s Jewelry Store, the young man caught a case of “Chicago fever.” He returned home just long enough to kiss Mother goodbye before boarding his Chicago-bound Pullman back to “dreamland.”
Charles Henry Weeghman. He was a man of heart and humor, born in the age of Horatio Alger positivity. LaSalle Street bankers remembered him as the “luckiest man in Chicago,” until he wasn’t. Glib, unfailingly persuasive, and charming, Charlie was a habitué of the nightlife: a movie aficionado, professional baseball promoter, and horse-racing enthusiast, who loved beautiful women not so wisely, but perhaps too well.
His speedy rise to prominence began with his first lucky break: a ten-dollar-a-week job offer as a coffee boy in restaurateur Charley King’s place. King owned and operated a Fifth Avenue (now Wells Street) bistro favored by the overnight reporters writing their copy along “newspaper row.” There, Weeghman chatted up the third-shift workers, business and theatre luminaries, and the “sports” of State Street’s “Whiskey Row,” harvesting many important business and social contacts he would use to his advantage.
Charley King’s mantra was good home cooking, from kitchen to table served in less than ten minutes. Vincent Starrett, legendary Chicago reporter and noted literary maven, credited Charley King and his mother, Mary King, with inventing chicken a la King, a contribution to Western civilization that became the dinner staple of generations of working-class Americans.
Charles Weeghman, King’s youthful white-jacketed protégé, advanced to floor manager in this way-station for Chicago bon vivants. For eight years, Weeghman supervised the “midnight rush” while salting away a portion of his monthly earnings in anticipation of the day when he severed the visceral bonds of friendship and loyalty with his boss to strike out on his own.
That day arrived in January 1901 when Charley King died. With his three-hundred-dollar savings and twenty-five hundred of borrowed capital from three influential acquaintances, Weeghman opened his own place: a lunchroom counter at Fifth Avenue and Adams Street. The venture proved to be a hit with the public. With his financial backer William Walker, a wholesale fish merchant and supplier, Weeghman opened six other prototypical downtown diners.
The business was a stunning success; although, after just six years Weeghman divested his holdings to his partners for fifty thousand dollars. He wanted to reach for much more and had in mind a round-the-clock restaurant in the heart of the Central Loop near the theatres at Dearborn and Madison. The one hundred eight chairs filling the interior space of the new Weeghman’s accommodated five thousand persons daily. Borrowing a page from Charley King’s good-food-served-fast playbook, Weeghman’s promoted speed and efficient service in a new setup that came to be known as “the one-armed dairy lunch.”
Patrons seated themselves in individual chairs resembling an old-fashioned school desk. They ate their meals on a flat wooden surface bolted to the one-armed chair. Weeghman’s eatery became an early forerunner of the modern-day McDonald’s, a fast, affordable dining alternative to white-table-cloth restaurants with food served from a predictable menu that rarely, if ever, changed.
Lucky Charlie’s downtown fast-food emporiums clicked with the public. He made a fortune and elevated his social ranking from ambitious coffee boy to tycoon in less than five years. He bought a billiard parlor, played the ponies, and invested in several motion picture theatres; however, baseball was in his blood from his Indiana youth.
In the professional baseball season of 1911, two things happened. First, ever the flashy showman, Weeghman mounted an ordinary-sized dinner plate on a pole above the right field bleachers in the Cubs West Side park, a distance of three hundred eighty-five feet from home plate. He challenged the hometown hitters to aim for the dinner plate, and should one of their home-run balls strike it, he promised the lucky batsman the gift of a restaurant free and clear. One afternoon, the league’s top home-run hitter, Frank “Wildfire” Schulte, hit a deep drive that banged off the scoreboard, a mere five feet from the dinner plate. Weeghman sheepishly withdrew the generous offer and removed the plate the next day. But he was far from being done with baseball.
Then, the St. Louis Cardinals were up for sale. Weeghman, his appetite whetted, offered three hundred fifty thousand dollars for the team and the ballpark. Despite Weeghman having money in hand, the league turned away the Chicago restaurateur. Their snub only fueled Weeghman’s burning desire to become a baseball magnate. Without another team in the National and American leagues available for purchase, Weeghman, for the moment, was stymied in his attempt to join the exclusive club of sportsmen. Then, in 1913, local businessman and perennial baseball promoter John T. Powers established the Federal League from the tatters of the old Columbian League, a failed Class D Midwestern minor league circuit. The Chicago team floundered in competitive play at the DePaul Athletic Field in its maiden season, and the league was in disarray. Coal tycoon “Long Jim” Gilmore stepped in to oust Powers and take over league management. He settled a twelve-thousand-dollar debt load and drew up an ambitious plan.
Gilmore inveigled the fish dealer William Walker and “Lucky Charlie” to buy in to a bold scheme to reorganize the Federals as a third major league, anchored by the Chicago team. “We may have to buy more experienced [players], before the turning point is reached, but the Federal League is composed of game fellows who think they have the right to be in baseball and they will stick,” Gilmore boasted. The Federals had knowingly opened an un-winnable trade war on the American and National leagues. Amused skeptics dismissed the Feds as “the league of major pretensions.”
Weeghman and Walker had other ideas, though, and eagerly took over the reins of the Chicago club. They invested heavily in the acquisition of star players from Major League rosters by coaxing their wealthy chums from the Chicago Athletic Association to sweeten the pot. Joe Tinker of the Cubs signed on as manager. “I was riding the crest in those days,” Weeghman reminisced years later. “My string of restaurants were paying big, and to the best of my figuring, I was worth between eight and ten million dollars.”
On that memorable day, December 27th, 1913, Weeghman’s fellow investors introduced him to the public as the team president and organizational front man. There were handshakes all around as the proud and beaming owner took a bow and promised the fans an exciting, championship team playing in a gleaming new ballpark of which all of Chicago could be proud. He soon delivered.
Weeghman and Walker, both shrewd and cunning real-estate speculators, turned their attention to a land parcel at Clark and Addison streets up on the North Side, virgin territory for professional baseball. Several years prior, Charles Havenor, of Milwaukee, and Joseph Cantillon, a Minneapolis baseball promoter, secured control of the grounds from the Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary (vacating their building by 1910), with the intention of staking a claim by moving an American Association team to the Addison Street location. They planned a small, wooden arena to house a minor league A.A. team; however, their ploy fizzled after the Cubs and White Sox successfully blocked them under the terms of baseball’s governing National Agreement. Weeghman spied an opportunity and picked up the option. He signed a ninety-nine-year lease in January 1914. The Federals were an “outlaw” league and, therefore, beyond the normal rules of baseball governance.
Informed of this alarming development, both the Cubs and White Sox sought an immediate injunction to prevent the Feds from “invading” Chicago and building this new park so close to their home operations. White Sox owner Charles Comiskey relented after Weeghman threatened to take out a lease on the 39th Street Grounds, the former White Sox home up to 1910.
Architect Zachary Taylor Davis, designer of Comiskey Park, was hired to draw up plans for the new “Weeghman Park,” future home of the “Chi-Feds.” That was the team’s formal nickname until 1915, when a lucky fan submitted “Chicago Whales” as the winning bid in a newspaper contest to give the Chi-Feds a colorful new moniker.
Five thousand people turned out to witness the historic groundbreaking on March 4th, 1914. North-Siders were abuzz. They defied police and pushed forward to shake Weeghman’s hand, solicit his autograph, or simply pat him on the back for the gift of a baseball team. “Lucky Charlie” tipped his hat to the admiring throng. Like all good showmen, he thrived on public attention and actively courted the press.
The Blome & Sinek construction company went to work, promising delivery of the stadium in six weeks. It was a testament to the audacity, nerve, and energy of Weeghman that a concrete-and-steel ballpark of this size could be built on such an impossibly short deadline. Before the six-week construction schedule expired and the new park delivered, Weeghman quietly picked up the final tab of two hundred fifty thousand dollars—in cash.
Under fair skies before an overflow crowd on April 23rd, 1914, the Chi-Feds trounced Kansas City 9-1 in their inaugural tilt. Sports writer Sam Weller observed: “Chicago took the Federal League to the bosom yesterday and claimed it as a mother would claim a lost son.” People were turned away at the gate as an estimated twenty-one thousand shoe-horned their way into a stadium designed to comfortably seat fourteen thousand.
After an early flourish of success, fan enthusiasm waned. Crowds dwindled, forcing Weeghman to reduce ticket prices from the customary fifty cents to a quarter. The Chi-Feds played well and finished in second place. Although the owner announced a twenty-thousand-dollar profit at season’s end, he had in fact borrowed heavily against his restaurant receipts.
Playing under their rather curious nickname, the Chicago Whales, the North-Siders captured the 1915 Federal League pennant on the last day of the season in a dramatic doubleheader showdown with the Pittsburgh Rebels, splitting one of the two games before thirty-four thousand fans. Many thought the Federal League had finally arrived after such an exciting climax, but those in the know predicted the circuit couldn’t last. It was a house of cards. The success of the Chicago team failed to obviate the financial strife of the other ballclubs. The league, under water and bleeding red ink, in a desperate gambit, sought judicial relief in order to survive into the 1916 season and beyond.
Gilmore, Walker, Weeghman, and their cohorts labored under the naïve assumption that the federal court would grant them “eleven prayers for relief” through strict adherence to the language of the Sherman Anti-Trust Law outlawing monopolies. The American League and National League monopoly would be broken, the reserve clause contractually binding a player to a team ended, and formal recognition of their right to exist with competitive equality among all teams would be granted—or so they reasoned. Baseball’s future commissioner, Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, adjudicated the matter but in the end deferred his decision and made no ruling. He feared that if he handed down an outcome favorable to the Federal League it would destroy the shaky underpinnings on which organized baseball rested, namely the reserve clause. “Any blows at the thing called baseball could be regarded by this court as a blow to a national institution!” Landis thundered, adding an exclamation point to the entire proceeding.
With that, the war was lost and the hope of peaceful coexistence for the Federal League shattered. The final settlement between the litigants allowed several league owners, including Weeghman, to purchase Major League teams. With little aforethought given to his precarious finances, “Lucky Charlie” submitted a bid for the Cubbies, then owned by Charles Taft, brother of the former president of the United States. Taft demanded a jaw-dropping sum of five hundred thousand in cold, hard cash. There were other interested buyers, Taft curtly informed Weeghman. The option had to be acted upon quickly.
Minutes before Taft’s hard-and-fast deadline was set to expire, Weeghman handed over his check to the cashier at the Corn Exchange Bank. It was 2:31 p.m., January 20th, 1916. Surrounded by William Walker and new investors, J. Ogden Armour and the pragmatic chewing gum manufacturer William Wrigley, Jr., a beaming Weeghman declared that he had been a Cub fan all along. Next, he announced his intention to move the Cubs from the West Side digs over to Weeghman Park, where they would commence their fabled one-hundred-one-year residency. Before the Cubs took the field to kick off the 1916 season, Weeghman hoisted the championship flag of the defunct Whales up the pole as a sentimental reminder of a lofty dream only partially realized. True, “the man behind the bun” had built a baseball palace for the ages and rode the crest of the wave to instant public acclaim, but in the end he lost the things in his life most precious to him.
Bessie Webb, Charley King’s former head cashier, married Weeghman in 1899 and filed for divorce in February 1920. She charged her husband with repeated infidelities and won custody of their seven-year-old daughter following a contentious and bitter courtroom battle.
Years of robbing from Peter to pay Paul (his baseball adventure mostly), cost Weeghman his team and his livelihood. Citing “pressing business concerns,” he divested his ill-fated Cub holdings to William Wrigley, Jr., on December 7th, 1918, just three months after taking the Cubs to the World Series.
After woefully neglecting his restaurant business, angry food-industry suppliers demanded immediate payment from the Weeghman Company. Unlucky Charlie admitted he did not have anything left in reserve to settle his overdue accounts, thus forcing creditors to file an involuntary petition of bankruptcy in U.S. District Court. William Wrigley, Jr., rushed in at the eleventh hour to shore up Weeghman’s shaky cash reserves by enjoining the creditors to exercise patience before throwing the chain into receivership. A full reorganization occurred in 1923, by which time Weeghman, his star in eclipse, severed all connections to the operation. Two years earlier, in 1921, a desperate Weeghman reportedly welcomed to his family farm an advancing extremist group seeking Chicago expansion—the Ku Klux Klan. Some say that he wasn’t the only businessman to play nice with the anti-union Klan in hopes of slowing union efforts for better wages and conditions. “Had Weeghman stuck to the dairy lunch business he would still be a wealthy man,” Wrigley sighed. “That should have been sufficient warning, but the next thing he did was attempt to make a success of motion pictures. Weeghman wasn’t a theater man and he didn’t understand the theater game.”
Before departing Chicago, Weeghman operated two failing Chicago nightclubs, paying little heed to Wrigley’s admonishments. He moved east in the early nineteen thirties to manage the Riviera, a glitzy “dine and dance” hall atop the Palisades in Fort Lee, New Jersey. As usual, he was in his element, table-hopping with the celebrity patrons, sipping their Champagne cocktails in the nightclub.
In a strange and final twist of fate, Weeghman came back to die in the same city where he had once dazzled ever so brightly. He suffered a fatal stroke inside his Drake Hotel suite on November 1st, 1938.
While Wrigley, Jr.’s reputation, fame, and fortune endured, Weeghman’s did not. His achievements (and idiosyncrasies) are mostly erased from public memory. Perhaps the un-kindest cut to Weeghman’s fading legacy came in 1926 when his former business partner renamed Weeghman Park to Wrigley Field.