Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Chicago's famed Loop was created by the lovable scoundrel, Charles Tyson Yerkes, who was described by historians as a robber baron. That was one of the nicer things said about him. But like most movers and shakers, he gets mixed reviews.

Born into an old Philadelphia Quaker family in 1837, Yerkes is believed to have practiced non-violence. His forte, instead, was white collar crime. Yerkes started out using his bank president father's connections, but soon established a strong reputation of his own in local financial and social circles. He opened a brokerage firm at age 22 and joined the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. Within a few years, he specialized in selling municipal, state and government bonds. He invested money for a major client, the City of Philadelphia, but got carried away with unauthorized speculation which collapsed when the Chicago Fire of 1871 sparked a financial panic. When he couldn't cover the losses, Yerkes was arrested and sentenced to 33 months in the pen, the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary which was known and feared for its system of solitary confinement.  Remember, prisons didn't have cable TV, golf and air conditioning in those days, and prisoners didn't sue for better food.

The clever Yerkes, attempting to forestall his prison sentence, attempted to blackmail two influential politicians, but the scheme didn't work. However, President U.S. Grant, no choirboy himself, feared that Yerkes' disclosures might hurt the party's chances in the next election, and agreed to pardon him if he would deny those accusations. Yerkes did so and was released after 7 months in jail.

He then returned to banking and rebuilt his fortune over the next few years. In 1880 he took a trip to Chicago where he became interested in the Northwest Land Company, headquartered in Fargo, (North) Dakota. He moved on to Fargo where he posed as a colonel and was able to obtain a quickie divorce from his wife of 22 years so that he could marry his 24 year old girl friend. After doing so, he relocated to Chicago where he planned to open a bank. To build up his bankroll, he assembled syndicates of investors for highly leveraged, high risk ventures which by and large collapsed with adverse results for the investors though not generally for Yerkes.

Eventually, he became attracted to the lure of street railways as profit making ventures. People didn't have cars in those days, and most traveled by public transportation or on foot. His first acquisition was the North Chicago City Reilway Company in 1886. With two business partners, he concocted a scheme to buy a bare majority of the stock for $1.503 million; then form a holding company called the North Chicago Street Railway Company which issued $1.5 million in bonds to pay for the stock purchase and then lease all the property of the former to the holding company for 999 years. Without going into too much detail, the net effect was to acquire a street railway producing $250,000 per year in dividends without investing any money. He found a formula that worked so well that he would repeat it the following year on Chicago's West Side. Because the businesses were highly leveraged, they were unprofitable from an accounting standpoint, although they gave Yerkes a fine living.

Before too long, he came to own more than half the private elevated railway companies in Chicago as well as most of the streetcar system. He built a downtown terminal connecting the elevated lines, which circle the main business district, Chicago's Loop. Through his direction and perhaps self serving vision, he modernized and expanded Chicago's transportation systems and helped make Chicago the world class city that it is today.

To many, the problem was in the details. To keep the competition at bay, Yerkes routinely bribed aldermen to obtain franchises from the City Council. If that didn't work, he hired working girls to seduce and then blackmail the lawmakers. As a last resort, he would buy out his competitors and either dismantle them or integrate them into his syndicate. Yerkes' companies were a maze of frontmen which included business associates, his wife and even his clerical staff so that his name didn't appear on anything--nothing could be attributed to him. But everyone knew who was really in charge, and Yerkes made many powerful enemies in the City Council, especially Mayor Carter Harrison Jr. who, in published articles, essentially called him a crook.

According to his biographer, John Franch, Yerkes didn't invent corruption in Chicago. He merely perfected it, "bringing order to what had been a chaotic system of bribery....After Yerkes' emergence on the scene, corruption in Chicago moved to another level."

Ultimately, in 1899, when his political capital ran out and the City Council defeated the renewal of his franchise, he sold out and moved to New York. Ironically, the swing votes to defeat Yerkes' interests were cast by that unholy aldermanic duo--the notorious Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna. (See kensuskinreport,Dec. 25, 2007)

Unlike some of the so-called Robber Barons of the era like John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, who tried to justify their sometimes ruthless actions, Yerkes freely admitted his dishonesty and admitted that self-satisfaction was his primary aim in life. He lived a lavish life style, building a fabulous mansion on New York's Fifth Avenue, complete with a marble staircase, a conservatory with live birds and decorated with fine art by old master painters like the three R's, Rembrandt, Rubens and Raphael. He then built a comparable mansion nearby on Park Avenue for his mistress, the much younger but sophisticated Emilie Grigsby, the daughter of a Kentucky slaveholding father and a Cincinnati brothel-running mother.

Everybody wants to be liked, and to bolster his image and leave a favorable legacy, Yerkes allowed himself to be talked into building the world's largest telescope. In 1892, the 24 year old astronomer George Ellery Hale accepted a professorship at the new University of Chicago with the condition that it build a new observatory costing at least $250,000. Hale and U of C President William Rainey Harper visited Yerkes at his office on Clark Street and cleverly appealed to his considerable ego to obtain his financial support for the project. Since Yerkes wanted the biggest and best of everything, this was right up his alley. While Yerkes had no objection to financing a telescope, he didn't realize he was bankrolling the entire observatory and had some second thoughts. However, Hale leaked the story to the press about Yerkes great generosity, which made it very difficult to back out. The project was dedicated in 1897 with Yerkes delivering the widely acclaimed address presenting the observatory to the University of Chicago.

His other claim to fame was as the inspiration for Theodore Dreiser's novels, The Financier, The Titan and The Stoic (the Cowperwood trilogy) which were based on the life of Charles Yerkes.

Yerkes died in New York in 1905 at age 68, leaving a $4 million estate. The will left $100,000 to the observatory provided that it be officially designated the Yerkes Observatory. It still stands proudly today in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Geneva. Its 40 inch telescope is today dwarfed by modern telescopes around the world and in space, but it still serves a purpose in research and training for the University. And, of course, Yerkes' other legacy, Chicago's Loop has expanded far beyond the boundaries of the elevated lines which gave the Loop its name.

Postscript: The successor to Yerkes' empire eventually consolidated all the elevated railway and other transportation companies to create the system which later became the Chicago Transit Authority (the CTA). His name was Samuel Insull, another colorful character who will probably be the subject of a later article.



Sunday, January 20, 2008


One of the funniest men of our time was Jay Ward. Perhaps his name doesn't ring a bell, but his cartoon characters do--Rocky & Bullwinkle, George of the Jungle, Super Chicken, even Cap'n Crunch (as in cereal). His colorful characters and memorable punch lines bring a smile and a hearty laugh to most people.

Although you'd never know it from his wacky humor, Ward was actually a smart guy. Born in Berkeley, California, he graduated from California-Berkeley with a BA and went on to Harvard Business School where he received an MBA. He started his career as a real estate broker and continued to operate the firm as a fallback business even after he had some early success with Crusader Rabbit--a joint effort with his boyhood buddy Alex Anderson. Anderson was a nephew of Terrytoons creator Paul Terry (remember Mighty Mouse). Crusader Rabbit ran from 1949 to 1952, and was a precursor to Ward's later success with Rocky & Bullwinkle. In a 1956 court battle, Ward lost the rights to Crusader Rabbit, but some of the character themes re-appeared in his later, more familiar (to us) works.

In 1959, he partnered with Bill Scott to create Rocky & his Friends. Eventually, the pair created 326 episodes of 3 1/2 minutes each. They assembled a first class team of voice-over actors including:

Bill Scott: Bullwinkle, Fearless Leader, Super Chicken, Tom Slick, George, Dudley DoRight
June Foray: Rocky, Natasha Fatale, Marigold (Tom Slick's girlfriend), Ursula (George's girlfriend), old lady
Paul Frees: Boris Badenov, Fred the Lion, Baron Otto Matic, Ape
Bill Conrad: Frenetic narrator

The appeal of Ward's cartoons was that they could be viewed on two levels. Small children enjoyed the animated characters and slapstick antics, while adults appreciated the satire which went over the heads of children.

For example, Boris & Natasha, the spies, spoke with mock-Russian accents. Boris Badenov's name was a play on that of 16th century Russian Tsar Boris Gudunov and the Mussorgsky opera of the same name. Probably most adults weren't aware of that either. Badenov claimed to go to college. The shapely Natasha, a former Miss Transylvania, queried him, "Penn State?" "No," Boris replied, "State Pen." But in another episode he claimed to have attended USC--University of Safe Cracking. The unholy two came from the fictional country Pottsylvania which was led by the ruthless Fearless Leader who bore a resemblance to a Russian commissar. "Badenov, you nombskull, you must keel moose and sqvurrel." Boris was proud that the nicest thing Fearless Leader ever did for him was sending a picture of himself to Boris inscribed, "Drop dead" (signed) Fearless Leader. He did award Boris the highest honor of his country, the Pottsylvanian Double Cross.

The hapless duo, Rocky and Bullwinkle lived in snow covered Frostbite Falls, Minnesota where Bullwinkle was the football star from the local college, Whassomatta U. There they were tormented by the aforementioned masters of disguises, Boris and Natasha. Some of their better disguises included Swami Ben Boris; Mohave Max; Movie Director Alfred Hitchhike; Mayor Avaricious J. Wardheeler; and Top Salesman of Dancer, Prancer, Blitzen & Fink Advertising Agency.

In one serial, our two heroes were in charge of protecting the Kerward Derby, a hat that if one puts it on his head, he becomes the smartest person in the world. The dimwitted Bullwinkle put the hat on and began reciting the Pythagoran Theorem. TV personality Durward Kirby threatened to sue Ward, and Ward replied that he wanted Kirby to sue (for the free publicity), and he would even pay Kirby's legal expenses if he did so. No suit was forthcoming.

At the end of each episode, usually with our heroes Rocky & Bullwinkle in serious peril, the announcer would urge you to stay tuned for the next adventure with titles like "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Gory" or "Moose's in the Cold, Cold Ground."

Another Ward character, Super Chicken (secret identity: the wealthy Henry Cabot Henhouse III) got his degree from Harvard School of Watchmaking (Tick Tock Tech). Super Chicken had a faithful butler/sidekick, Fred, a lion with a New York Jewish accent. The cartoon was a parody of Batman & Robin. When the emergency call came in, Super Chicken would gulp down the "super sauce" from a martini glass and don his "Super Suit" which was a plumed cavalier's hat, cape, boots, mask and sword. When Super Chicken would suggest a dangerous plan to stop the bad guys, he would say to the reluctant Fred, "You knew this job was dangerous when you took it Fred." Fred would ask Super Chicken why he didn't use his "super vision" to spot the bad guys, and S.C. would respond, "If I had any supervision, do you think I'd be running around dressed like this?" Or, in another episode, "Fat Man, you're under arrest." "How'd you know it was me Super Chicken?" "Well I found 52 candy bar wrappers at the scene of the crime, so I knew it wasn't the Thin Man."

Ward created Tom Slick, the all-American boy hot rodder driving his Thunderbolt Grease Slapper in hotly contested races like the almost famous Muncie to Pittsburgh road race. His formidable adversary, the evil Baron Otto Matic ("Cheating is my favorite sport.") and his small brained henchman Crutcher cooked up schemes to defeat the clean living Tom Slick and his clean scrubbed girlfriend Marigold.

Then there was the world's smartest talking dog, Peabody, with his pet boy Sherman, driving the wayback machine to various periods in history, meeting famous historical figures. For example, consider William Shakespeare's feud with "that darned Francis Bacon." Upon being conked on the head with a flowerpot from Bacon, he cried out, "Bacon, you'll fry for this!"

And of course, who could forget George of the Jungle, a Tarzan parody, with his faithful pooch, Shep (an elephant) and his intelligent Ape friend (voice of Paul Frees) who spoke with an upper class British accent.

In recent years, Hollywood has capitalized on Ward's appeal and has made feature films (partially animated) of George of the Jungle and Rocky & Bullwinkle . Boris and Natasha were played by Jason Alexander and Rene Russo respectively. Fearless Leader was played by Robert DiNiro. Incidentally, the film bombed, both financially and critically.

In one of my favorite episodes, the World Economic Council determined that the world economy was based on box tops and Bullwinkle kept the largest collection of boxtops on the planet. Of course, the notorious Boris and Natasha devised a fiendish plan to make counterfeit box tops and soon scooped up all the premiums offered and destroyed the world economy, making everyone's box tops worthless. The cereal company sponsor of the show was not amused.

During the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 1960's, Ward championed the admission of Moosylvania as the 52nd state (so all the states could appear comfortably on a deck of cards, and Bullwinkle owned the Ajax playing card company), and he actually went to the White House in Washington with a camera crew and knocked at the door. He was escorted away at gunpoint.

Jay Ward died on Columbus Day, 1989, at age 69, leaving a rich legacy of animated cartoonage plus the trademark characters for Cap'n Crunch and other cereals.

We'll leave you with the words to the Super Chicken theme song:

When you find yourself in danger,
When you're threatened by a stranger,
When it looks like you will take a lickin"
Puk, puk, puk, puk
There is someone waiting
Who will hurry up and rescue you
Just call for Super Chicken
Puk, ack!
Fred if you're afraid you'll have to overlook it,
Besides you knew the job was dangerous when you took it
Puk ack!
He will drink his super sauce,
And throw the bad guys for a loss
And he will bring them in alive and kickin'
Puk, puk, puk, puk
There is one thing you should learn
When there is no one else to turn to
Call for Super Chicken
Puk, puk, puk, puk
Call for Super Chicken!
Puk ack!



Saturday, January 5, 2008


Bert Shepard walked slowly out of the bullpen to the pitcher's mound on a sunny August 4, 1945 to make his first appearance for the old Washington Nationals against the Boston Red Sox. It was the fourth inning, the bases were loaded, two outs, and veteran center fielder George "Catfish" Metkovich stood in the batter's box. He worked the count to 3 and 2 and, with all 3 runners on the move, Shepard threw a high inside fastball, and Metkovich swung and missed, striking out. Shepard, a southpaw, went on to pitch 5 more innings, giving up 3 hits and 1 run, a decent but unremarkable performance--except for the fact that Shepard had only one leg.

Here's the story, much of which is detailed in the 1998 book by Richard Tellis, "Once Around the Bases."

Robert Earl Shepard, 25 years old at the time, from Dana, Indiana, had pitched for a couple of years in the minor leagues, developed a sore arm, and appeared headed for baseball oblivion. It was 1942, World War II had started, and Shepard was drafted into the military. Although he had never seen an airplane up close, he applied for pilot training and was accepted. At flight school in Augusta, Georgia, he learned to fly P-38 fighter planes and eventually flew 34 combat missions in Germany. At the base, he agreed to manage the baseball team. On the morning of the first game, May 21, 1944, a mission was scheduled to bomb Berlin, Germany. Although he was not scheduled to fly until the following day, he volunteered for the mission because he expected to be back in time for the ball game. He didn't make it.

Shepard's plane was hit by a German shell, and crash landed. He lost his right leg and fractured his skull. The German civilians who found him were going to kill him, but a German doctor intervened and saved his life. He recovered and spent 8 months in a prisoner-of-war camp where a fellow POW crafted a crude artificial leg for him. He found that he could get around quite well and started playing catch with the other POW's and getting into shape. In February, 1945, he was released in a prisoner exchange and sailed back to the U.S.

Shepard went to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington to be fitted for a new artificial leg. There he met Secretary of War Robert Patterson who asked him what he wanted to do with his life. Shepard replied that if he couldn't fly in combat, he wanted to play professional baseball. Patterson then called his friend, Washington Nationals owner Clark Griffith and said, "We have a prisoner of war that just came back from Germany and lost his leg. He says he can play pro ball." Griffith, realizing an opportunity for good p.r. for his team said, "Sure, send him over."

On March 14th, soon after receiving his new leg, Shepard reported to the Nats spring training complex, and until he got undressed, nobody realized that he was an amputee. He pitched well and fielded his position flawlessly. The news media picked up on the story, and he was soon followed by a parade of reporters, photographers and newsreel cameramen.

As a war hero, he was an inspiration to the American public. He pitched in several exhibition games against service teams which were usually better than the wartime major leaguers. In one game against the New London Naval Base, which included future Hall of Famer, Yogi Berra, Shepard pitched 5 innings allowing only one run.

When the season started, the Nats hired him to pitch daily batting practice where he developed better control of his pitches. The team was in the midst of a pennant race, rare for the Washington franchise, and Manager Ossie Bluege was hesitant to put Shepard on the active roster. In July, the All-Star Game was cancelled because of wartime travel restrictions, and Washington scheduled an exhibition game for July 10th against the Brooklyn Dodgers, managed by Leo Durocher. The game was played to benefit the sale of War Bonds, and a huge crowd was expected. Two days before the game, Manager Bluege told Shepard that he would be the starting pitcher.

After the couple of sleepless nights, Shepard was nervous at the beginning of the game, and he walked the first two batters on 8 pitches. He then settled down and retired the side and went on to pitch 4 innings, giving up 2 runs and 5 hits. Washington won the game 4-3 and Shepard was declared the winning pitcher. After that performance, Shepard was placed on the active roster but didn't get a chance to pitch in a game until early August when the team, because of rain postponed games and travel restrictions, had 5 doubleheaders (10 games) scheduled in a 5 day period. Every pitcher on the team would be called upon to contribute.

He got his opportunity in the second game after rookie pitcher Joe Cleary got rocked by the Red Sox for 12 runs in the 4th inning, and Manager Bluege didn't want to use a starting pitcher in a hopeless cause. Boston won the game 15-4. Shepard didn't pitch in any more games the rest of the season because the team was locked in a tight pennant race, and Bluege went with his veteran pitchers, to no avail--they finished in second place behind the Detroit Tigers.

On August 31, 1945, on the field, between games of a New York doubleheader, Shepard was presented the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal by General Omar Bradley.

When the 1946 season began, most major leaguers had returned from the War; and Shepard, although he played in exhibition games, knew he didn't have a chance to make the team. He agreed to go to the minor leagues to get an opportunity to play regularly. He went on to play minor league baseball until the early 1950's, both as a pitcher and a first baseman. A versatile player, he won quite a few games as a pitcher, and he even hit several home runs. On the field, he was faster than most two legged players and stole many bases.

After he retired from baseball, Shepard became a safety engineer in California and made motivational films for the Army. He bacame an outstanding golfer and won the 1968 and 1971 National Amputees Golf titles.

In 1993, he received a call from Dr. Ladislaus Loidl, the kindly German doctor who rescued him during the War. Later, accompanied by sportscaster Mel Allen and a television crew, Shepard flew to Austria for a tearful reunion with the good doctor.

Shepard, now in his late 80's, lives in Southern California and fondly remembers his brief stint in the big leagues during a time when most able bodied athletes were serving in the Armed Forces. This man had cojones; despite his handicap, he expected no sympathy from other players and received none. After crashing a plane and being a POW, he wasn't afraid of anything on the baseball diamond. He gave his best efforts on the field and was respected as a player.



Tuesday, January 1, 2008


As we celebrate the start of Winter here in frozen Chicago, the old timers can recall the extremes of winters past.

The Great Blizzard of February 1899 swept through the East and the Deep South with unprecedented cold and snow. While it was cold in the North, the cold in the South was especially remarkable and also damaging because they grow crops there in the winter. Several states recorded their lowest temperatures in recorded history, including sunny Florida where on February 14th, Tallahassee recorded a low of -2, which, to this day is the only sub-zero reading in Florida history. Two days earlier, blizzard conditions were reported North of Tampa along the West coast of Florida.

Some of the other notable lows in the South that week included (all Fahrenheit temperatures) -10 in Birmingham, AL, -9 in Atlanta, GA., -1 in Mobile, AL, +7 in New Orleans, -12 in Little Rock, AR., -8 in Dallas, TX, and +4 in San Antonio, TX. In Mobile, AL, the high was only 21, the lowest high temperature in its history. Other all-time lows in that cold snap included Washington D.C. with -15(and 21 inches of snow), and Pittsburgh, PA, with -20. Even Miami, FL. posted a rare freeze with a low of 29 on Valentine's Day, and snow was reported as far South as Fort Myers.

Brownsville, TX, down on the Mexican border reported a low of +16 the first night and +12 the following night. Other record lowest temperatures by state that week still standing today are Minden, LA., with -16, Milligan, OH. with -39, and Monterey, VA. with -29. Even Cuba, then part of the U.S., reported hard frosts which severely damaged crops.

The Siberian cold snap caused widespread damage to cattle and citrus crops throughout the South, despite accurate forecasting several days in advance. In New Orleans, for example, the Weather Bureau issued a special bulletin on the 12th, warning of still colder weather. The early vegetable and orange crops were total losses. The freeze benefited the rice land because there was an inch of snow on the ground and ice 2 inches in thickness.

The Atlanta, GA. Weather Bureau found a silver lining, despite the loss of much of the peach crop: "The freezing and thawing will improve the condition of the soil and kill insects injurious to plant life." The Jacksonville, FL. Weather Bureau telegraphed freeze warnings to 118 stations to apprise the public of the severe cold. "Railroads notified fruit and vegetable growers along their lines, cold wave and frost signals were sounded by locomotives and river steamers, and along the 400 miles of the Florida Coast Line every section was promptly served." As a result, farmers were able to take steps to protect their crops, which included wrapping, banking and even covering orange trees, and building fires. Despite these steps, many cattle, sheep and horses died from exposure, as the unofficial temperatures dropped as low as -4 in the Western district of Florida.


The coldest temperature in the U.S. was, to nobody's surprise, in northern Alaska, in 1971, when the mercury dipped to -80. (actually, it wasn't mercury, which freezes at -39.) In the continental U.S., Rogers Pass, Montana reported a low of -70 on January 20, 1954. It is located in mountainous and heavily forested terrain near the Continental Divide at 5470 feet elevation.

Every state except Hawaii has experienced sub-zero temperatures. The coldest in Hawail was +12 at Mauna Kea Observatory in May, 1979. But that was measured at almost 14,000 feet elevation where snow is frequent. Illinois' coldest occurred in January, 1999 in Congerville, where the temperature dropped to -36. Other notable state extremes include Wisconsin, with -55 at Couderay, in February, 1996; Utah with -69 at Peter's Sink (8092 elevation) in February, 1985; and Indiana, with -36 at New Whiteland in January, 1994.

Chicago's coldest was -27 back in 1984, I remember it well because a builder friend of mine called me that morning and asked if I would visit a vacant solar envelope house he had recently built. Because that style of house relies on passive solar energy, and double walls separated by a foot of insulation space, it didn't contain a furnace. Anyway, he wanted me to report the inside temperature in the house. I went to the house with the kids, and although it had a Franklin stove in the living room, it wasn't lit. The inside temperature was 62, perhaps a little uncomfortable, but no freezing pipes.

In some other unusual weather extremes, if you're in Rapid City, S.D., and you don't like the weather, wait a few minutes. On January 10, 1911, the temperature there was 55 at 7 A.M. and dropped to 8 by 7:15 A.M. Then it warmed up and two days later on January 12th, the mercury dropped from 49 at 6 A.M. to -13 by 8 A.M. It can go the other way also. In nearby Spearfish, S.D., on January 22, 1943, the Chinook winds came through and the temperature rose from -4 to +45 in 2 minutes.

The lowest recorded temperature in the world was -129 at Vostok, Antarctica, in July 1983. In all fairness that temperature was recorded at an elevation of 11,220 feet on top of the ice sheet. Incidentally, the warmest recorded temperature in Antarctica, was +59 on the coast in January, 1974. The coldest recorded temperature in the Northern hemisphere was -90 in two Siberian towns in 1982 and 1933. Extreme cold is very common there. In Verkhoyansk, Siberia, the average January temperature is -59.

The wettest place in the world is Lloro, Colombia, where the average annual precipitation is 523 inches, over a 29 year period. Essentially, it pretty much rains all the time there, as it does in some places in Hawaii. The driest place is also in South America, in Arica, Chile, in the Atacama Desert which receives 0.03 inches of rain per year, over a period of 59 years. Arica actually goes without rain for years at a time.

So next time you complain about the weather, remember, it can always be worse.