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The McCuddy's Mess: Big Jim opens big mouth, tavern owners get big shaft



When word first broke three years ago that the state was going to build the White Sox a new stadium, Pat and Pudi (pronounced "Puddy") Senese cheered. Never once did they imagine the project meant trouble for them.

Sure, their saloon--McCuddy's Tavern, operated by Pudi's family and located across the street from the old Comiskey Park since 1910--would be demolished to make way for the new ballpark. But the state would build the Seneses a new McCuddy's; in fact, the state would literally transplant McCuddy's on the other side of 35th Street, right across the street from the new park. The Seneses knew this was going to happen because former governor Jim Thompson had promised them it would.

"I never thought McCuddy's wasn't going to be saved," says Pudi Senese. "We closed in 1988, but we figured to be in business in time for opening day in the new ballpark."

Well, opening day came and went on April 18, and there's still no McCuddy's. The Seneses say the state paid them $235,000 for their property, and it has offered to lease them an abandoned tavern in a ramshackle three-flat a few blocks from the new park. But the Seneses rejected that site as impractical and too costly, and they've counterattacked with a lawsuit and a spunky public relations campaign. They went so far as to hire a plane to fly over the Sox opener trailing a banner that read: "Big Jim! Where's McCuddy's?"

"We're not looking for money; we don't think the taxpayers should subsidize our bar," says Pudi Senese. "We only want the state to rent us two lots across the street from the park, like we were promised. We'll rebuild McCuddy's with our own money."

It's a demand state officials--a bit perturbed by the ruckus--say they cannot accommodate.

"The stadium opened up on time and we came in under budget, but the media has to be on us for something, so McCuddy's is it," says Peter Bynoe, executive director of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, which oversaw construction of the new park. "We bent over backwards for McCuddy's. We spent a lot of time walking that neighborhood looking for a site for them. They were paid for their property like everyone else, but they want more. They want to be on-site, and in my opinion that's not legally possible."

The conflict might have been avoided if it hadn't been for the giddy reaction a certain public official had to the Illinois General Assembly's surprising last-minute decision to finance a new Sox stadium, a decision that would keep the team in Chicago and out of Florida. The General Assembly vote took place June 30, 1988. One week later, just before a legislation-signing ceremony at the old park, Thompson marched into McCuddy's for a celebration brew. Greeted by dozens of cheering fans, Thompson doffed a green McCuddy's baseball cap and made the pledge that has haunted him ever since. "McCuddy's will be moved across the street to preserve it as a historic structure," he told Pudi Senese. (Thompson would not return phone calls.)

"A big roar went up from the bar when he said that," Pudi recalls. "I thanked him; I liked him. I appreciated what he did for keeping the Sox from going to Florida."

Thompson's reasons for wanting to save McCuddy's were sound. Over the years it had become a hallowed gathering spot for baseball fans. Babe Ruth once drank there (legend has it that he occasionally dashed across the street for a brew between innings). In later years Bill Veeck, the late Sox owner, was a regular patron. Actor George Wendt and former Bears lineman Dan Hampton had frequented the place too.

Saving it, however, would not be easy. The new ballpark was to be constructed directly across the street from the old one, on 35th Street just west of the Dan Ryan expressway. Before construction, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority would have to use its power of eminent domain to condemn and clear away a lot of the surrounding property--a laborious project affecting hundreds of property owners, most of them working-class blacks who had lived in the area for years.

During the summer months of 1988, the authority dispatched appraisers, and the residents began to organize. But the Seneses, who don't live in the neighborhood, pretty much kept to themselves. "We were told by a lot of different people to be quiet, to keep our mouths shut and don't get involved with the black people in the neighborhood, and on opening day 1991 you'll have McCuddy's across the street," says Pat Senese. "They didn't say it was a back-room deal. They said it was a complicated deal that had never been done before."

They hired Jack George of the law firm Daley & George (Mayor Daley's brother Michael is the Daley). It was through George that the authority offered the Seneses $140,000 for their property, which consisted of McCuddy's, a brick house next door, and two lots in the back. The Seneses rejected that offer, but when it was upped to $235,000 ($73,000 of which was for McCuddy's), they relented.

"In retrospect, I realize we could have gotten more money, and that other people got more for less valuable property," says Pat Senese. "But at the time, we figured we were also going to get the right to operate a tavern across from the park."

The Seneses say that in August 1988 they met with Bynoe and that Bynoe offered them a site between 35th and 36th just west of where the new stadium would be. "Bynoe got his map of the new Comiskey Park and we picked our site," says Pat Senese. "We said 'Thank you,' and that was it."

That rendition of events is absolutely untrue, says Bynoe, who is vexed that so much attention has focused on what he calls "a little bar." He discreetly avoids criticizing Thompson, but it's easy to see that Thompson's pledge to save McCuddy's saddled Bynoe with a burdensome chore. "I met with [the Seneses] and their attorneys a number of times, but I made no promises," says Bynoe. "I never specified a site."

At a Sports Facilities Authority meeting in October 1988, Bynoe publicly expressed his displeasure with the Seneses' demands. Within a few hours, Thompson was on the phone with reporters, reiterating his pledge.

"I walked in [McCuddy's] in July and made a promise to those people, and they've got my word that there will be a McCuddy's when White Sox baseball is played in Chicago," Thompson told reporters. By then Thompson had backed away from his initial promise to relocate the entire bar. Instead, he promised to "take the interior out of the current McCuddy's and install it in a new building across the street from the ballpark . . . I am a traditionalist. I feel strongly about our past and our tradition on keeping the best of the old. McCuddy's is part of that . . . [When McCuddy's reopens in April 1991] I plan on drinking the first beer; I hope it's cold."

On March 27, 1989, McCuddy's was demolished, and until the summer of 1990 there was almost no contact between the Seneses and the state. "Our lawyer, George, arranged another meeting with Bynoe and [Bynoe] says, 'We have two possible sites,'" says Pat Senese. "Pudi says 'Where?' Bynoe says, 'We can't tell you yet. We're in the process of acquiring them.' Right then and there I knew we were in trouble. I could feel the hair rising on the back of my neck. Until then, we thought they had already acquired the site."

At a later meeting in George's office, Bynoe unveiled the authority's offer. The state would lease a tavern rent-free to the Seneses in a building at 33rd and Wells, roughly three blocks from the new stadium.

The Seneses were outraged by the offer. The tavern had been closed for seven years and required at least $150,000 worth of renovation. In addition, it didn't have a liquor license, and there was no guarantee the Seneses could get one to operate it.

"Pudi got out of her seat and said, 'What do I need you people for? I could have done this myself,'" says Pat Senese. "We could have bought the building and remodeled it and been ready to go two years ago. Not that we would want to. It's totally inappropriate. You've got people living upstairs. There's no parking. There's no beer garden in the back. It's no substitution for McCuddy's. It's a joke."

They felt duped and humiliated. So many big shots had frequented McCuddy's. The Seneses' box seats at the old stadium had been right next to the Daleys'. The governor called them his friends. And now they realized that none of these celebrities could, or would, help them. So what if the Babe quaffed a few beers in McCuddy's? The fact was this: the White Sox wanted exclusive rights to sell food and liquor in the stadium and on the land immediately around it. Thompson, who had shot off his mouth on McCuddy's behalf, wasn't the one who had to work out the complicated details of building a stadium. That was Bynoe's job. And there was no way he was going to let a little old tavern get in the way of a $140 million deal.

"The bottom line is that the state legislature did not intend for us to condemn property--taking away businesses and homes--to build a bar," says Bynoe. "That's my opinion anyway."

In late December, George arranged one last meeting with Thompson. It was a week before Christmas, less than a month before Thompson would step down as governor. "Thompson said, 'Pudi, that's a terrible place. I'm going down and personally find you a location,'" Pat Senese says. "I said, 'Governor, you made my Christmas.'"

But on January 10 they received a letter from Thompson, backing away from that promise and explaining why the Wells Street site was the best he could offer. "The new stadium and the surrounding parking lots are leased exclusively to the Chicago White Sox for at least the next 20 years," Thompson wrote. "Second, the enabling legislation for the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority permits limited flexibility in providing relocation assistance to taverns and other commercial property."

The letter only increased the Seneses' ire. "Thompson promised to move McCuddy's across the street before he signed the agreement with the White Sox, so he should have made sure that we were taken care of or he shouldn't have made any promises he couldn't keep," says Pat Senese. "Anyway, I read the authority's agreement with the Sox and there's nothing in there that would prevent us from operating across the street. I think the Sox don't want us near the park because they don't want competition against that Stadium Club they're operating in Comiskey. And Thompson and Bynoe don't want to say no to the Sox."

In March the Seneses hired new lawyers, and on April 16 they filed suit, asking that the court force the authority to use its power of eminent domain to acquire a site for a new McCuddy's "directly across the street from the new Comiskey Park."

For the moment, there's no sign of compromise. "I met with their new lawyer and he tried to intimidate me," says Bynoe. "He said, 'Aren't you afraid of the publicity?' And I said, 'No, I have never been afraid of bad publicity.' I expect it; it comes with the turf. I guess we'll just have to see them in court."

The Seneses are equally adamant. "I know this is a multimillion-dollar deal and I'm just a little fly, but I won't give up," says Pudi Senese. "I learned to walk in that bar. It's part of my family. I can't give up. My late grandfather would disown me."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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