14-02-1982 Chicago Sting 10 Tampa Bay Rowdies 9 (NASL Indoor) Chicago Stadium, Chicago, Illinois
I have many fond memories of watching professional sports in Chicago and grew quite attached to three of the cities main sports venues, namely Wrigley Field, Comiskey Park and the Chicago Stadium while I was living in Illinois. Of those three only Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, remains. Comiskey Park, built in 1910 and the home of the Chicago White Sox for the next eighty years, was replaced by the less jauntily named US Cellular Field in 1991, and the Chicago Stadium, home of the Chicago Blackhawks (ice hockey) and the Chicago Bulls (basketball) was bulldozed in 1995 – to make way for the United Centre – after sixty-five years of service.
The Chicago Sting played their outdoors games at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park but for the indoor campaigns the “Madhouse on Madison” was the place it called home and what a pleasure it was to watch them in action there. My first visit to the Stadium was shortly after I moved to the Windy City in the autumn of 1981 to take in an ELO concert. The thing that you couldn’t help but notice was the surrounding area – this is the ‘hood make no mistake, located on 1800 West Madison Street on the city’s near west side. At an English ground I always look for street parking, if I can find it, rather than going for a potholed car park and paying a fiver for the privilege. At the Stadium you always played it safe and headed for the ‘secure’ parking lots adjacent to the entrances. This was not an area to went off to explore before the match.
At the time of its construction it was the largest indoor arena in the world and although built as the home for the NHL expansion team the Chicago Blackhawks it would host political conventions, boxing matches (both Sugar Ray Leonard and Cassius Clay – later Mohammed Ali – fought under its roof), cycling, American Football, basketball, civic funerals, concerts (rock, pop, country, jazz) and, in its latter years, indoor soccer. Getting tickets for a Blackhawks game was nigh on impossible in the early 80’s, but basketball in Chicago at the time was very much in the doldrums so much so that the Chicago Sting out averaged the Bulls attendance wise for a couple of seasons until, that is, a certain Michael Jordan came along in 1984.
One of the games that helped push those attendance averages upwards was the final 1980-81 indoor season game between the Sting and the Tampa Bay Rowdies – that both teams needed to win to advance to the playoffs – that drew an incredible 19,398 fans. Incredible in many ways not least of which was the official seated capacity at the time was around 17,000, meaning that the extra 2,398 paying customers had to squeeze in where ever they could. At the time this was the largest ever crowd to watch an indoor game in the USA (and quite possibly the world too), but more on the game in a paragraph or two.
The exterior of the stadium – although essentially just a very large concrete box – was quite imposing. Under the eaves of the roof on the west and east facades were great limestone bas-relief sculptures showing athletes in classical poses, and on the north and south sides large electric signs that blazed out the name ‘Chicago Stadium’. The stadium’s original seating capacity was around 19,500, but could be increased by a further 6,800 during boxing matches and concerts when the arena floor could be used for temporary seating.
Unlike many British stadiums built during the same era the Stadium had no posts to obstruct spectators view, the huge roof supported by a system of girders in the outer walls. These spectators were accommodated in three balconies, the centre balcony being half the width of the first and third balconies, with just under twenty rows of seats (I had season tickets on this level for three seasons). Entry to each balcony was by separate turnstiles at street level to prevent fans moving between levels during a game, and those with tickets for the cheaper upper tier gaining access to the more expensive lower tier.
As you would expect for what was primarily an ice hockey arena, the main arena floor was a sheet of ice, which would be covered over by a wooden floor when the Chicago Bulls were at home, and by a green baize when the Chicago Sting were playing. Quite often an over zealous sliding tackle would result in the baize being peeled back from the ice and a ‘timeout’ would be required while the arena staff repaired the damage. This was just one of the quirks of watching a game here.
As well as being the first major arena to be equipped with an air conditioning system the Stadium also boasted a built-in 3,663-pipe Barton Organ. The organ had a multi-tiered keyboard and an awesome cathedral-like sound that boomed out during games. Much of its pipe work was actually built into the framework of the Stadium roof. When the stadium was demolished the organ and as much pipe work that could be salvaged was shipped off to the home of millionaire Phil Maloof, a one time New Mexico state senator, in Las Vegas. If memory serves me correctly I think the name of the in-house organist at the time was Nancy Faust. Football purists may be shocked to hear that every minute of an indoor game was accompanied by music but Nancy had a way with those keys that would most certainly have had the most ardent among them clapping along.
Nancy Faust would be tickling the ivories too when Wayne Messmer, another Chicago sporting legend, sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” before each home game, along with “Oh, Canada”, if the opposition were one of the NASL’s Canadian franchises. These were moving experiences. Messmer would also sing at White Sox and Cubs games too. The Stadium also had a horn that would be sounded whenever a goal was scored. This was even louder that the organ at full blast and I would imagine many an unsuspecting spectator would have dropped his beer and hotdog when a Sting player hit the back of the net.
Back to the Sting v Rowdies game and fast forward to the fourth quarter. As the game entered the final 15 minute quarter the Sting were losing by 8 goals to 4 and a seventeen winning streak at the Stadium was in jeopardy as well as the aforementioned playoff berth. Five different home players – Karl Heinz Granitza, Pato Margetic, Tasso Koutsoukos, Greg Ryan and Mark Simanton – all scored to put the Sting ahead for the first time in the game, before the visitors levelled to send the game into sudden death overtime (this was years before FIFA and UEFA dreamt up the concept of the golden goal) with just 73 seconds remaining. Charlie Fajkus hit the winner 3 minutes and 26 seconds into overtime to bring the crowd noise to an ear-splitting crescendo. I don’t think I’ve ever heard noise like that when a goal has been scored (even at a full Wembley or Nou Camp). Electric stuff.
This truly was the “Madhouse on Madison”.
[Footnote: Exterior Stadium photos from here and here.]