When WC was attending law school in Chicago, he didn’t make it to many Chicago White Sox games. Wrigley Field was a lot closer, the Northside neighborhood was a lot safer and there was less risk of being gassed. Not a metaphor. Really.
But when the Cubs were on the road, if you wanted to watch live baseball it was the Sox or nothing.1 So on April 28, 1974, WC boarded the “L” for the long, noisy rattle down to Comiskey Field.2 The White Sox were playing the Tigers, and future Hall of Farmer Mickey Lolich was starting for Detroit with Wilbur “Big Boy” Wood on the mound for the Sox.. Bleacher seats were $2.50. It wasn’t that crowded.
It turned out that from the bleachers, with Wilbur Wood pitching, you couldn’t see the batter, the catcher or the home plate ump for the Wilbur. “Big Boy,” indeed. And Lolich didn’t pitch; the Tigers used Joe Coleman instead. In the third inning, he gave up a home run to the Sox’s Dick Allen that is still the longest home run WC has ever seen. The ball was still rising when it struck the underside of the second deck in right field.
In the sixth inning, though, fog started to spill over the right field wall. It was an unusual direction for fog. Usually, it comes in off Lake Michigan, from the other direction. And this fog was strongly acrid, burned the back of your throat and made your eyes water. Before long, WC and everyone around him was coughing. WC watched the rest of the game with his handkerchief, soaked in beer, tied across his mouth and nose.
It turned out that at a company called Bulk Terminal Storage Company on the Chicago’s far South Side had a tank of silicon tetrachloride that leaked. When silicon tetrachloride is exposed to water, it creates hydrochloric acid and silicon dichloride. And it was that hydrochloric acid that was rolling in a cloud over the right field wall.
We had no idea what was going on at the time. There were no public address announcements. They played out the game, although you could see some of the outfielders coughing and wiping their eyes.
The effort to control the spill was a farce. The fire department wouldn’t do anything because “there wasn’t a fire.” The terminal operator refused to allow the containment specialists on to the property. Control efforts aggravated the spill. The hydrochloric acid corroded power lines, shutting down cleanup efforts. In the end, one person was killed, 160 hospitalised and 16,000 people were evacuated during this incident.
Oh, and the Sox lost, 6-4.
The incident is nearly forgotten today. It was part of the reason for enactment of Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976. Information on the event is scant. But WC’s memory is strong. Acid-etched, as it were.
No, WC isn’t a White Sox fan. Why do you ask?
- Strictly speaking, there was always softball. Chicago in the 1970s was softball-obsessed. The game there, however, is played bare-handed with a softball approximately the size of a beachball. The Chicago version of softball is also called mushball. For good reason. ↩
- This was the old Comiskey Park, demolished in 1991. Not the new Comiskey Park, renamed U.S. Cellular Field in 2003 and renamed again Guaranteed Rate Field in 2016. ↩