WEST RIDGE — For 75 years, Chicago baseball and softball players traveled from all over the city to play all-star and championship games under the bright lights at Thillens Stadium near Devon and Kedzie avenues.
The stadium made even the littlest Little Leaguers believe they were playing at Wrigley Field or Comiskey Park with its electronic scoreboard, loudspeaker and immaculately kept grounds.
But the Chicago Park District on June 13 tore down the huge spinning baseball-shaped sign along Devon Avenue that made the stadium a Chicago landmark and with it the last remnant of the Thillens name.
It was no accident.
Mel J. Thillens said his family demanded that the park district remove their name from the stadium because park district officials allowed the ballpark to slide into disrepair and become an embarrassment.
"We were constantly pleading with them to maintain the stadium," said Thillens, who ran the baseball park for 20 years. "It was terrible how it looked."
Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a spokeswoman for the park district, said the iconic baseball-shaped sign was torn down "for safety reasons." The park, which is still operating, is now known as the Stadium at Devon and Kedzie, she said.
Although Maxey-Faulkner acknowledged the Thillens name was removed at the request of the Thillens family, she did not respond to questions about maintenance at the park or the Thillens family's concerns.
The stadium — designed to be a replica of a Major League Baseball park — is strewn with trash, the benches are in disrepair and the outfield grass badly needs to be fertilized, Thillens said. The iconic sign was rusted and falling apart, he added.
"When we ran it, we kept it looking like a golf course," Thillens said. "When you have your name on something you want to be proud of it."
Thillens said the company had no choice but to ask the park district to remove its name from the stadium after getting no response to its letters and phone calls asking that something be done to clean up the stadium.
"We received many angry calls from people upset with us about the condition of the stadium," Thillens said. "It was very difficult to see what happened."
In fact, the stadium and the sign were in such bad shape many people thought the family's firm, Thillens Cagistics, a financial services company that specializes in armored car check cashing and courier deliveries as well as ATMs, had gone out of business, Thillens said.
"It was detrimental to our business," said Thillens, who is president of the company, which was founded in 1932. "We are very much still in business. We are doing just fine."
In addition to the baseball-shaped sign, the stadium was known for the now-removed armored car on the scoreboard. If a player could hit the car — 300 feet from home plate — he or she would win a cash prize.
Thillens' father, Mel G. Thillens, built the stadium in 1938. In the 1950s, Little League baseball was so popular, WGN-TV aired games from Thillens and Hall of Fame announcer Jack Brickhouse handled the play-by-play calls.
"It was a little baby for me," Mel J. Thillens said. "It was very tough giving it up. I thought the city and park district were going to keep it up."
Mel G. Thillens died in 1993, and the family established a $3 million foundation to operate and maintain the stadium. But by 2005, the foundation was broke and the stadium went dark.
The Thillens family donated the stadium to the Chicago Park District, which spent $2 million, including $500,000 from the Chicago Cubs, to renovate the ballpark, which was renamed Cubs Field at Thillens Stadium in 2006.
"I guess I understand that you can't spend $250,000 a year on a baseball stadium when you are shutting down schools," Thillens said. "It didn't work out the way we wanted."