By Ben Joravsky
Mark Weinberg's long, strange battle with Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz took another odd twist last month, when two United Center security guards wrestled Weinberg to the ground and had him hauled off to jail. "They say I took a swing at them," says Weinberg. "That's so absurd I'm almost amazed they're even saying it."
The feud between Wirtz and Weinberg, which has been going on for almost a decade now, certainly seems like a colossal mismatch. Wirtz is a 70-year-old multimillionaire who oversees an enormous liquor-distribution and real estate empire. Weinberg is a 38-year-old freelance writer and lawyer, whose only clients are too poor to pay him. His latest venture is a self-published paperback book called Career Misconduct: The Story of Bill Wirtz's Greed, Corruption and the Betrayal of Blackhawks' Fans.
"People ask me, 'When did you first become obsessed with Bill Wirtz?'" says Weinberg, who usually can't resist an opportunity to wisecrack, even when he's trying to be serious. "Well, it was when I saw him play a 12-year-old hooker in Taxi Driver. Oops, wait--that was Jodie Foster. Sorry. That's a joke. OK, so it's not a great joke. Listen, I think there are important issues here about public corruption. This is not about me lashing back. This is not about my ego. This is not about me selling books. By the way, did I mention you can buy my book on my Web site, www.careermisconduct.com?"
Weinberg says he never planned to get into a battle with Wirtz--it just sort of happened. It all started in the winter of 1991, when Weinberg and another hockey fanatic created the "Blue Line," an alternative program for Blackhawks games. Their idea was to fill at least 4 pages--it grew to 20--with obscure statistics, offbeat facts, and gossipy tidbits about hockey players, and then peddle the program to the fans streaming into the Chicago Stadium. Weinberg says, "I often wonder how things would have worked out had the Blackhawks been a little less hostile."
Weinberg was arrested just one week after publishing the first issue. "Two undercover Chicago police officers approached me as I stood outside the stadium selling the program," he says. "They said I was obstructing pedestrian traffic, and they took me to jail."
Eventually the city dropped all charges, and Weinberg never had to go to trial. But, he says, "I learned a lesson about power in Chicago. I always thought the Blackhawks were behind that arrest. The police who arrested me knew my name. They were coming after me. It was a trumped-up charge--I wasn't blocking anyone. They just wanted me off the street. We weren't even hostile to the Blackhawks--not yet anyway. We were just competitors. They were sending a message about what they do to competitors."
Instead of backing off, Weinberg fought back, using humor--most of it adolescent sex gags and bathroom jokes--as his weapon. He published more programs, but now they included parodies and cartoons that depicted Wirtz as a greedy old drunk who used his power and influence to make himself richer. Blackhawks fans ate it up, buying about a thousand of the programs at each game.
Then Weinberg moved his fight to the courts, filing suits that pitted him against numerous well-paid Blackhawks lawyers, whose strategy, he believes, was to bury him in paper. In 1992 he sued to gain access to the games and the locker room, after the Blackhawks denied the "Blue Line" writers press credentials. Some observers thought that suit was fairly brazen--why should the Blackhawks provide access to a man who's so rude to them? But Weinberg responds, "They can't decide who is and isn't worthy of access. It was a classic violation of antitrust law. They used their competitive power in one market, control of press credentials, to get an advantage in another market, sales of day-of-game programs."
In 1995 he sued the United Center on behalf of 17 peanut vendors, most of them black west-siders, who lost their livelihood after Wirtz and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf used their clout to get the City Council to ban the sale of peanuts within 1,000 feet of the stadium. That same year he sued a security company employed by the United Center, after one of its guards had him arrested on disorderly conduct charges, which were subsequently dropped.
Weinberg says that in 1997 he won $15,000 from the security company in an out-of-court settlement. But he lost the two antitrust cases, though neither went to trial. "In each case they asked for dismissal, and after tons of briefs were filed, the judges ruled against me--though I'm still appealing the press-credential case," he says. "The peanut vendors got totally screwed. The judge held that the peanut vendors could sell their peanuts elsewhere in Chicago, so it wasn't as though they were being denied a way to make a living. I completely disagree with that ruling. The whole point is that they should be allowed to sell to people going to the United Center--that's their market. I spent five years on that case. I appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. I wrote what they call a writ of certiorari--a 67-page brief explaining why the court should hear the case. They denied my writ."
The "Blue Line" went out of business in December 1997. "It had a great run," Weinberg says, "but I got tired of putting it out." In 1999 he finally met Wirtz. "It took six months of work to get him to be deposed for our press-credentials case," he says. "His lawyers said, 'Mr. Wirtz is sick. He's not in any condition to give a deposition.' Then I brought in an article from Crain's Chicago Business, where Wirtz says he works 16 hours a day. So they backed off that argument. The deposition occurred in my lawyer's office. Wirtz couldn't have been more delightful--he didn't seem to hold any grudges."
The only tense moment seemed to be when Weinberg's lawyer asked Wirtz if he was offended by a cartoon depicting him sodomizing a generic fan. According to the deposition, Wirtz replied, "All you guys here, you've got something with sodomization and bungholing and all this stuff.... You know, I always felt one who tries to characterize faults of another often has the same faults. I'm looking at you guys, and I don't think I want to bend down and get the soap."
Last June a judge dismissed the press-credentials case, and Weinberg promptly appealed. By then he was well into writing his book. "I realized that the antitrust case was hard to win because I was fighting on his [Wirtz's] turf, where he has the lawyers and money to run me in circles," he says. "I decided that the forum of public opinion was the best place for me to make my case."
Career Misconduct, which depicts Wirtz as a petty tyrant who abuses his power, was published in mid-December. It's structured as a compendium of some of the suits filed against Wirtz over the years. The chapter headlined "Stealing From His 'Niece's' Trust Fund" gives an account of Norris v. Wirtz. In 1985 a jury found Wirtz guilty of defrauding the 18-year-old daughter of a very close friend who'd just died; Wirtz was the trustee overseeing the daughter's trust fund and had sold off some of the assets for his own benefit. The cartoon that accompanies the chapter shows Wirtz, scotch in hand, crying to a bartender, "My only crime was loving her too much. Well, that and stealing from her trust fund." (Wirtz appealed, and the court reversed the jury verdict, though on the grounds that the statute of limitations had run out by the time Norris filed her suit.)
To sell the book, at $13 a pop, Weinberg created a Web site and returned to the streets. "On December 27 I got to the United Center at about 6:15," he says. "It was no secret that I'd be there that night, because there had been an article in the Sun-Times. Almost right away these two security guards came up and said, 'You can't sell here. There's an ordinance that bans all merchandise selling within 1,000 feet of the United Center.' I said to the guard, 'I'm well aware of that ordinance, but it doesn't apply to this, because it's a First Amendment-protected activity--this is no different than selling the "Blue Line."' He said, 'A book's different than a hockey program. A book's for profit.' I shrugged. What could I say? I'm not dealing with a rational argument here. The matter of profit--and the "Blue Line" was for profit--has no bearing on the First Amendment. I asked to speak to his supervisor, and he says, 'Our supervisor doesn't come out in the cold.'
"I said, 'This is ridiculous.' And I backed away. He reached for my hands to cuff them, and I backed away some more. And the next thing you know, both of those guys were on me. They headlocked me and threw me to the ground--and lay on top of me and cuffed my hands behind my back and took me into the United Center."
Weinberg was taken to a holding room inside the stadium. "I sat there with my right hand handcuffed to the wall," he says. "I asked them why I was there, and they said for peddling illegally. But then they changed their story and charged me with battery. When they wrote up their complaint they said I threw a punch at them. That's ridiculous--I don't throw punches."
His account is corroborated by two men who say they saw the incident. "They threw him in a headlock and knocked him to the ground," says Pete Milliet, a longtime Blackhawks and "Blue Line" fan who happened to be there when Weinberg was hauled away. "He never threw a punch--he didn't have a chance."
After about an hour a policeman came and took Weinberg to the lockup at Madison and Racine. "They put me in a cell with two black guys," he says. "I said, 'What are you in for?' They said they were pinched for trying to purchase crack cocaine. They asked me what I was in for. I said, 'Selling books at the United Center.' They started laughing. They said they never heard anything like that."
For the next few minutes he and his cell mates sat in silence. "There really wasn't much to do," Weinberg says. "I started thinking about how Natan Sharansky passed his years in Soviet prisons playing chess in his head. Too bad I don't know how to play chess. I thought about how Martin Luther King spent his time in the Birmingham jail writing a great plea for justice. I wondered what great thoughts I could produce. But I was cold and tired and couldn't think of anything.
"Finally I had an idea. I said, 'Let's play 20 questions.' We played until we got tired of it. I said, 'I got another. I'm going on a trip, and I'm taking something that starts with the letter A--an alligator.' The next guy said, 'I'm taking a bell.' The third guy said, 'I'm taking crack cocaine,' which got a big laugh. We were all the way to S when they were let out. So I just sat there some more and thought about my life and how ten years have passed and I'm still fighting Wirtz. And I've made no progress because I'm right back where I started--in jail. I thought, what's the point of fighting? The system's so screwed up--the big and the mighty just bully everyone around. Then I thought, 'Hell no, I can't let those assholes get away with this.'"
After four hours he was released. He has a hearing on the battery charges on January 19.
Blackhawks officials refused to discuss Weinberg, the "Blue Line," or his book. "We have no comment of any kind," team spokesman Jim De Maria told me. "You'll just have to run with that." Asked whether Wirtz himself might want to comment, De Maria said, "The comments I've made are on behalf of the organization."
Last Wednesday Weinberg drove his battered old car back to the United Center. This time he brought his sister, Jill, and her teenage daughters, Perri and Julia Kramer, with him. "I figure they won't beat me up if they're here," he said, laughing. He also brought me. Together we walked to Madison Street, just north of the Michael Jordan statue. Two security guards approached. "Those are the guys who arrested me," said Weinberg. He turned to his sister and cracked, "If they arrest me, don't bail me out until you've sold your books."
The guards came within a few feet of Weinberg.
"You're not going to harass me tonight," he told them.
"Not if you're not on our property," one of them responded.
"That wasn't the issue last time," he said.
"Yes, it was."
"That's not what you told me," he said.
They eyed him for a moment, then moved away. I walked over and asked if they were allowed to comment about the case.
"Uh-uh," said one of the guards.
"Can you at least tell me if you were the guys who arrested Weinberg?"
"Uh-uh," he said.
On and off for the next hour they huddled near a United Center entrance and sullenly stared at Weinberg as he paraded about--always on the sidewalk, the public right-of-way. He barked, "Read all about Bill Wirtz's greed and corruption--a new book by the publisher of the 'Blue Line.'"
By the time the game had started, he, his sister, and his nieces had sold 37 copies, which he thought was pretty good given how cold it was.
"This looks great," a fan who was late for the game told him. "I'd buy one, but I don't have any cash on me."
"Don't worry," said Weinberg, blowing on his hands, which were red from the cold. "We'll be back for the next game."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.