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Firefighter Pens Book Linking Three Famous Chicago Characters

By Howard Ludwig | October 4, 2013 6:20am
 Chicago Firefighter Matthew Drew's new book ties the lives of three famous Chicago characters together through a sandlot baseball game.
Shadows of Chicago
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MORGAN PARK — Imagine the owner of the Chicago White Sox, the mayor of Chicago and the city's fire commissioner all on the same Little League baseball team.

That's exactly what happened in 1871, according to Matthew Drew, a Chicago firefighter who published "Shadows of Chicago" in August. The nonfiction book took eight years to complete and details the lives of former Sox owner Charles Comiskey, Chicago Mayor Fred Busse and James Horan, the city's first fire marshal.

"I went to the oldest archives I could find," said Drew, a Morgan Park resident.

After playing on the sandlot in the 100 block of West 18th Street on Oct. 8, 1871, the three boys went to bed only to be awakened by smoke and flames. They watched as the Great Chicago Fire ravaged the city.

The tragedy launches Drew's account of the lives of three men forever linked by history.

Of the three main characters in the book, Charles "The Old Roman" Comiskey is the best-known. Comiskey was the top baseball player on the sandlot that fateful day. His family of bricklayers benefited greatly from the fire, as demand for wooden structures plummeted.

Comiskey had little interest in the family business. He turned his attention to baseball, becoming an exciting player and rousing manager. He later helped to launch the American League and brought the White Sox to Chicago.

The stingy owner will forever be linked to the Black Sox scandal, when Sox players were paid by gamblers to intentionally lose the World Series. Drew, a White Sox fan, believes Comiskey is unfairly vilified for the incident that stained baseball.

"He never took a bribe," Drew said.

James "Big Jim" Horan was also on the sandlot that day and witnessed the Great Chicago Fire. This led to a career in firefighting. His legend grew after several heroic rescues, and Horan eventually was named Chicago's first fire marshal.

Horan warned City Council members of the dangers at the Union Stockyards and pushed them to install large water mains to prevent a catastrophe.

As fate would have it, tragedy struck on Dec. 22, 1910, when a massive fire ravaged a huge building in the Stockyards.

Horan was first on the scene, and was directing the efforts to fight the fire when the building collapsed.

The dangerous conditions and inadequate water supply that Horan had warned about proved fatal, as 21 firemen — including Horan — and three civilians were killed in the blaze.

Fred Busse likely sat out the sandlot game, watching Comiskey, Horan and the other older boys from the sideline, Drew said. Little is known about his early life, but Busse eventually became postmaster under President Theodore Roosevelt and later mayor of Chicago almost by default.

Busse's political and personal life fell apart when he took on prostitution in the vice-laden section of Chicago known as the Levee. His policies laid the groundwork for modern laws against human trafficking. But the city's organized crime bosses quickly ousted Busse from office, and he died penniless.

"He eventually becomes a victim of crime," Drew said.

There's not much evidence to suggest Comiskey, Horan and Busse ever had much of a relationship as adults, though Drew believes it's likely that the three men attended White Sox games together.

Drew said sales of his debut book have been brisk. He hopes to get a boost as copies of "Shadows of Chicago" begin appearing in bookstores around the holidays.

As for the title of the book, he said there's more than just a pick-up baseball game tying the three men together.

"Every character in the book has a shadowy presence around them," Drew said.