Joliet was a happening place nearly a century ago.
With burgeoning local businesses and a strong sense of civic pride, plus the bonus of being a short train ride to Chicago, “J-Town” was the place to be in a growing suburbia.
Social pastimes also were wildly popular as The Roaring Twenties began, with baseball featured prominently. As is still the case today, Joliet and the surrounding areas were a hotbed of baseball talent.
The Joliet Rivals Club, founded in 1907, was no stranger to baseball, having fielded local teams dating back to the club’s early years. Even the Chicago Cubs paid a visit in the fall of 1920 to play against the Joliet Rivals, a semi-pro team named after the very park where they played. Sources also refer to the team by their former name, the Rivneas, a combined name of the Rivals and Northeastern A.C.’s of Joliet, with a World War I-era roster that was composed of several former major and minor leaguers.
That the Rivals-Cubs game was played was not surprising, as in those days most major league clubs scheduled exhibitions against local semi-pro or college teams on their days off. These unofficial games were a means for the teams to have real game action instead of a practice and to give local teams and their fans a chance to see big-league stars in action up close.
One such contest took place in Joliet on Thursday, Sept. 30, 1920. The circumstances that surrounded this game, however, have made it a rather infamous, if forgotten, episode of Joliet folklore.
With the Cubs en route, the buildup to the game was strongly publicized, with multiple articles appearing the week of the game in the Joliet Evening Herald News. An overflow crowd of more than 5,000 paid spectators (roughly 13 percent of Joliet’s population at the time), turned out on game day, more than twice filling the 2,000-seat capacity of Rivals Park (formerly Theiler’s Park before the Rivals Club purchased the property in 1919) on the corner of Broadway and Russell streets.
Hundreds more crowded along the streets beyond the outfield, battling for the slightest vantage point. A parade to the ballpark from the downtown Elks Club, where the Cubs were staying, got the festivities underway, and once at the park fans shelled out 25 cents for a grandstand ticket, while the big spenders handed over a whopping $1 for a reserved box seat. Joliet mayor William Barber added to the fanfare by tossing the ceremonial first pitch on that autumn afternoon.
Joliet native Abraham Lincoln “Sweetbreads” Bailey took the mound for the Cubs in what was one of his six career starts. Bailey, primarily a relief pitcher in his three-year major league career, held a 4-1 lead in the fifth inning when the Rivneas mounted a furious comeback that the Cubs couldn’t answer. Much to the delight of the overflow crowd, the Joliet club emerged victorious by a final score of 5-4. This, of course, was a tremendous triumph for the hometown team to knock off the Cubs, exhibition game or not. But the excitement didn’t end there.
Immediately after the game, a fan emerged from the grandstand and waylaid Cubs third baseman Buck Herzog as he was getting into his cab, igniting a fierce fight. During the scuffle, a friend of the instigating Jolietan brandished a knife and slashed Herzog across the hand and leg. Seeing the brawl unfold, two Joliet players, Frank Murphy and Nick Carter, stepped in to subdue the attackers, ending the melee. Herzog returned to his hotel, no worse for wear except for a few superficial cuts.
The fan had accused Herzog of being “… one of those crooked Chicago ball players” before launching his assault. This is significant when considering the motive behind the attack. It’s a longshot, but there is the possibility that the fan, if only a casual one, got his Chicago teams confused and was mistakenly referring to Buck Herzog as Buck Weaver, who just that very week was suspended along with seven of his teammates by Charles Comiskey amid accusations of throwing the 1919 World Series.
This misidentified burst of violence then would be doubly ignorant if so, since Weaver’s banishment was highly unjust itself (though that’s another story altogether). But in an era long before the internet or even player names and numbers on their jerseys, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the attacker assumed this third baseman nicknamed Buck from Chicago was in fact the other third baseman nicknamed Buck from Chicago.
On the contrary, it is much more likely that the attacker was in fact referring to the well-known, open accusations Buck Herzog received just a few weeks earlier for conspiring to throw a game Aug. 31 against the Phillies at Wrigley Field.
“I’m sorry it occurred,” Herzog said, “but I couldn’t resist punching that fellow when he called me a crook.”
Although gambling on, and even throwing games, had been secretly occurring for decades, the breaking news of the Black Sox scandal forced the game of baseball at all levels to take a long, hard look at itself as it faced an uncertain future. If an outside force such as gambling could infiltrate baseball, heralded as the cleanest of games, then anyone accused of conspiring against the game was met with a multitude of harsh reactions. We likely will never know the full truth of the reason behind the attack on Herzog at Rivals Park that day, but it is interesting to speculate on both possibilities nonetheless.
Baseball continued as usual at Rivals Park until 1934, when the ballpark was redesigned to accommodate professional softball and later Little League baseball on the site. In doing so, Joliet’s first illuminated softball diamond was conceived. In recent decades, the Rivals Club has shifted focus away from organized sports and now shares the lot with Haunted Trails amusement park. Yet the historic club remains an important, active participant in an ever-changing but still baseball-rich Joliet, much as it did in 1907.
And certainly as it did when the Cubs came to town.