On September 26 Bill Wirtz–beer baron, Blackhawks owner, and real estate magnate–died of cancer, and the papers were filled with glowing tributes from his fellow millionaires and big shots. “He was a man of great principle and he could be firm in wanting you to live up to those principles,” Bulls owner and United Center co-owner Jerry Reinsdorf told the Tribune. “Illinois has lost a true sports and business icon,” said Governor Rod Blagojevich. “The legacy of Bill Wirtz will live on through the numerous businesses he built,” said former governor Jim Thompson. “He comes from a great family,” said Mayor Daley.
The many people who’d despised Wirtz for turning a onetime contender into a perennial doormat spoke up too. Long-suffering Blackhawks fans called sports radio shows to say amen. “His funeral will not be televised in this market, as the late Mr. Wirtz considered it unfair to potential ‘home’ mourners,” cracked a post on the blog Lake Effect (lakeeffects.blogspot.com), alluding to “Dollar Bill’s” infamous refusal to telecast Blackhawks games on the grounds that it was unfair to season ticket holders. On the blog Kill Bill Wirtz (killbillwirtz.blogspot.com) a subtitle was added to the name of the site: “His ghost still looms.”
What few mentioned was Wirtz’s considerable influence on the public sphere. For better or worse, Wirtz was one of the great plutocrats of his time, a master at using influence to curry favor with state and city leaders in order to expand and protect the fortune he inherited from his father, Arthur Wirtz.
Perhaps his most notorious achievement came in 1999 with the passage of the so-called Illinois Wine and Spirits Industry Fair Dealing Act, better known as the Wirtz bill. Showering about $300,000 in campaign contributions on state legislators from both parties as well as Governor George Ryan, and leading an army of 28 lobbyists, including Thompson, Wirtz rammed through a law that gave his liquor distribution company, Judge & Dolph, a virtual monopoly in Illinois. The courts later overturned the bill, but hey, give him credit for trying.
Closer to home, he teamed up with Reinsdorf to drive a few dozen peanut vendors out of business. Back in the days of the Wirtz-family-owned Chicago Stadium, a group of west-siders, most of them black, used to stand outside hawking peanuts to people streaming in to watch the Bulls or Blackhawks. In 1994, when Wirtz and Reinsdorf opened the United Center on the site of the old stadium, they issued a new rule: no peanuts in the arena. If the guards saw you carrying a bag they confiscated it.
Attorney Mark Weinberg used to hang out outside the arena as well, selling the “Blue Line,” an alternative program filled with obscure facts and statistics, player notes, and plenty of Wirtz bashing, including cartoons depicting him as a greedy old drunk. Backed by Weinberg, who got his law degree at the U. of C., the vendors filed a lawsuit charging that the peanut ban violated antitrust law. The peanut vendors argued that Wirtz and Reinsdorf wanted to force spectators to buy food from the concession stands. Not at all, Wirtz and Reinsdorf protested: they were motivated by concerns for the safety of the public. Peanuts, they said, were a health hazard because the shells, wedged into the cracks and the crevices of the United Center, would become, as one of Wirtz’s lawyers put it, “a food fest for insects.”
While the matter was being litigated, Wirtz and Reinsdorf attacked the vendors on a second front, convincing 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett to introduce an antipeddling ordinance prohibiting vendors from standing within 1,000 feet of the United Center without the “prior written permission of the property owners.” Their livelihood at stake, the vendors pleaded with Burnett to withdraw it.
Born and raised in Cabrini-Green, Burnett said this was one of the hardest dilemmas he’d ever faced. But forced to choose between a couple of multimillionaires–and generous campaign contributors–and a bunch of guys not unlike his old friends and neighbors, he sided with the multimillionaires, citing public safety. The peanut vendors, he argued, were blocking the sidewalks.
Not surprisingly, the rest of the council followed his lead, and the ban was passed. Harassed by the police if they moved too close to the arena, the antitrust suit moot, the peanut vendors gave up. I think of them every time I see the long lines at the concession stands.
Weinberg himself wasn’t bullied so easily. In 2001, after he was arrested for violating the ban by standing outside the arena selling copies of his self-published biography, Career Misconduct: The Story of Bill Wirtz’ Greed, Corruption and the Betrayal of Blackhawks’ Fans, he filed a suit in federal court charging that the ordinance violated his First Amendment rights. The city won the first round, but in 2003 an appellate court overturned the decision. Insisting the ban was a “valuable tool” in policing sidewalk peddlers and rounding up supporting briefs from the NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB, the city’s lawyers took the argument all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. All told, the city spent three years and several hundred thousand dollars on the suit, and it wound up having to pay Weinberg an additional $15,000 in damages and $360,000 in attorney fees.
“I don’t know why the city persevered so vigorously,” says Weinberg. “I didn’t think Bill Wirtz cared about me. I think his underlings cared, and underlings do things to protect their boss.” Wirtz seems to have had a lot of people who were willing to do his dirty work for him.
A Job Half Done
Last Friday’s Lane Tech-Whitney Young showdown was a great football game. Young won 22-14 in overtime, but it easily could have gone the other way.
I was there to watch two local powerhouses slug it out, but also to see the new football field the city and the Bears, who helped pay for it, have been bragging about. The new turf did look impressive. But the rest of the stadium is still a rickety dump. Worse, somehow or other no one’s figured out yet how drive an ambulance into it. That turned out to be a big deal when D.J. Purnell, Young’s sensational junior quarterback, took a hard hit in overtime. He lay on the field for about 20 minutes with a neck injury before paramedics strode through a side entrance and carted him off on a gurney. In the suburbs, almost every high school football team has an ambulance crew on the field from the start. (Purnell is OK.)
On September 7, when Lane played the first game on the on the new turf, officials from the Bears, the city, the Park District, and the CPS wore themselves out congratulating one another on the new field. Only in Chicago, where our public-school children are treated like second-class citizens, would leaders pat themselves on the back for a job half done.
For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bill Wert photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images.