By Scott A. Rowan
It is probably impossible for twenty-first century fans to fully comprehend what life was like in Chicago during the 1920s. The Cubs were one of the nation’s most exciting baseball teams and Prohibition was in place. Thanks to the “Chicago Outfit,” which ran illegal bathtub gin bars throughout the city, there was no better place in the nation to get a drink.
One particular anecdote offers a glimpse into the overlapping worlds of baseball and crime during this time. The story was told by Bill Veeck about his dying father, William, and public enemy No. 1, Capone.
Commissioner Landis had made keeping gambling out of the game one of the primary missions of his tenure in baseball management. In his book Veeck as in Wreck, Veeck revealed that the commissioner’s concern was warranted, at least in Chicago.
In September 1933, doctors told Bill Veeck that his father, William, the former president of the Chicago Cubs during the roaring ’20s, had leukemia and did not have long to live. The doctors also said that often, the one thing a dying man can hold down in his stomach is wine. But where could Veeck the younger get it? Prohibition was still enforced at that time, though it was on its last legs (it would be repealed in December 1933).
In Chicago, if you had a problem—especially if you were a Cubs insider—there was always one person who could help. “There was one man in Chicago, I knew, who would know where the best champagne was to be had. Al Capone,” Veeck wrote:
I hurried to Al Capone’s headquarters at the Hotel Metropole and told him what I wanted and why.
“Kid,” he said, “I’ll send a case of champagne right over.”
The case was there when I got back. Every morning during those last few days of my father’s life, a case of imported champagne was delivered to the door.
The last nourishment that passed between my daddy’s lips on this earth was Al Capone’s champagne.
Though colorful and entertaining, Veeck’s story must be taken with a grain of salt. Capone was convicted of tax evasion in October 1931, at which time he was housed in the Cook County jail. After months of appeals, he was transferred to a penitentiary in Atlanta, which is where he was living in the fall of 1933. Though Veeck likely dealt with the outfit to get champagne for his father, it’s highly doubtful that he spoke with Capone directly. His tale does, however, further underscore the connection between Capone and the Cubs, even if parts of it are likely exaggerated.
Landis’ campaign to end the connection between underworld figures and baseball almost seems laughable when you realize just how close Capone was to the Cubs. And this connection would only get deeper, as we learn in our next chapter.
Bill Veeck and Ed Linn, Veeck as in Wreck (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).
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