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  • Soldier Field: A Stadium and Its City
  • Gerald R. Gems
Ford, Liam T.A. Soldier Field: A Stadium and Its City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Pp. xiv+364. Illustrations, index, and notes. $30.00 hb.

Ford, a Chicago Tribune journalist, has crafted a worthy historical monograph in his first book. Aptly subtitled A Stadium and Its City, Ford’s account of the Chicago icon covers not only the architectural renderings but the historical, sociological, political, and religious meanings of the stadium as a civic symbol. The author utilized a plethora of primary sources, most notably the records of the Chicago Park District, as well as the works of several sport historians in his research and analysis. The text is enhanced by a wealth of illustrations throughout.

Soldier Field as a concept grew out of the Burnham Plan, a Progressive Era urban planning document commissioned by the Commercial Club in 1909. World War I precipitated the quest for a memorial as a place of remembrance dedicated to the victims of the conflict. Other cities embarked on the building of similar memorials in their locale, but in Chicago politicians soon co-opted the movement and the construction process for personal gain and the possibilities for political patronage. Built on lakefront landfill and requiring copious amounts of remedial work, the edifice provided generations of politicians with opportunities to engage in graft and corruption as cost overruns became commonplace.

Groundbreaking occurred on July 19, 1922, and the first event, a police athletic meet on September 5, 1924, served as the first of many fund-raising activities at the stadium. Originally named Grant Park Stadium, it was rededicated as Soldier Field in 1925. Over the next half century the stadium served as the site for boxing matches, track and field meets, softball games, rugby matches, rodeo, ski jumping, ice skating, dog sledding, soccer and tennis contests, marbles and horseshoe championships, auto and motorcycle races, circuses, military demonstrations, political and religious rallies, and ethnic festivals as well as musical concerts.

From the beginning, the stadium was meant to lure the Olympic games to Chicago in a quest to gain world class status for the metropolitan area. Despite continual rebuffed applications throughout the twentieth century, Chicago pursues that ongoing dream. Soldier Field did serve as the site for the 1959 Pan American Games, and hosted the Special Olympics in 1968. Although Eunice Kennedy Shriver is generally credited as the benefactor of the organization, Ford clearly elucidates the role of local judge Anne Mc Glone Burke as the originator of the concept and program.

Other than the Olympics, the stadium drew national and international events to the city shortly after its opening. The Catholic Eucharistic Congress of 1926 drew an estimated 325,000 patrons, marking the importance of European ethnics to the city and the Catholic Church during that era. The overtly Catholic power of Chicago was once again demonstrated when the Marian Year celebration of 1954 brought more than 250,000 to the Soldier Field gathering. Billy Graham’s Protestant rallies and the speeches of Martin Luther King at the venue during the 1960s accounted for considerably fewer attendees. [End Page 301]

The Army-Navy football game of 1926 brought 110,000 fans to Soldier Field and established its legacy as a site for celebrated athletic events. The following year the still contested heavyweight championship bout between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, known as the Long Count, resurrected Chicago as a fight town as an estimated 150,000 viewed the contest. Ford carefully describes the political machinations and money that changed hands in the negotiations over the Chicago site. Knute Rockne began bringing his famed Notre Dame football teams to Soldier Field for its big games in the 1920s, and Soldier Field served as the site for the College Football All-Star game that pitted collegians against the National Football League champion from 1934 to 1976. The grandest football spectacle in Chicago, however, remained the city high school championship, known as the Prep Bowl, that pitted the Catholic League champion against the Public League title holder annually for religious and civic bragging rights. The 1937 affair attracted 120,000 fans, the greatest crowd...


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