Documentary on White Sox’ near move to Florida in the works

Scott Diener, who directed the Derrick Rose documentary, has been researching the story since last summer and has spoken with several key figures. But it still has to be pitched for distribution.

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An aerial view of old and new Comiskey Park circa 1990.

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When I came up with ideas for Chicago sports documentaries during the sports shutdown, I thought I was ahead of the game. One of them was about the White Sox’ near move to Florida, which hinged on a vote for a new stadium in the Illinois Legislature on June 30, 1988.

But recently I was told that such a documentary was in the early stages of development and that it was being produced by Scott Diener, who directed “Pooh: The Derrick Rose Story.’’

And that he had been researching since last summer.

Who knew?

I was stoked when I found out. That vote — whether it finished June 30 or July 1, as the story goes — was a seminal moment in not just Chicago sports history, but baseball history. And Diener, whose Rose documentary was well-received, is digging deep into the story.

“I don’t think there’s ever been an episode in sports like this when you’ve had this looming threat of a historic franchise leaving a city that all came down to one moment in this legislation,” said Diener, 43. “And the reality is that the deal didn’t make the deadline. There were these machinations behind the scenes of this maneuvering to whether they stopped the clock or just made up the time.”

Diener wasn’t struck by the story because he’s a Sox fan who nearly lost his childhood team. He was a 12-year-old growing up in Fort Lauderdale when the Sox nearly left for St. Petersburg. He’d heard stories about the potential move while visiting various spring-training sites around Florida that March.

Decades later, he read John Helyar’s “Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball,” which reacquainted him with those stories and told him new ones. They fascinated him, and he went into research mode. Since then, he has talked to politicians, media members, fans and South Side residents who watched the story unfold firsthand.

Diener sees the story as having three principal figures: Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, then-Gov. James Thompson and Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. Diener’s interview with Madigan is already in the can.

“He was really candid about all the debates in the Legislature in trying to secure the financing through the new hotel tax they were creating, through the sports authority [the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority] that was going to manage new Comiskey,” Diener said. “He walked me through the entire night of the legislative process in the House.

“He was really coy about whether or not it was past midnight. But I think enough time has passed where everyone knows it was past midnight, but no one’s ever talked about allowing the votes to go past midnight and claiming it was 11:59. I think there’s going to be a number of revelations in that sequence of events.”

Diener talked to Thompson but wasn’t able to interview him on camera before he died last week. There was the potential for a gaping hole in the film, but through his exhaustive research, Diener found an audio interview the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum conducted with Thompson in 2015 that covered his efforts to keep the Sox in Chicago.

But Diener knows the most important character in the story is Reinsdorf. Diener talked to the Sox about an interview, but he expects the team to address the film after the season.

“The more interviews we do now and the more we’re able to show them the structure of the film that we’re creating, I think it will go a long way to try to secure Reinsdorf’s time,” Diener said. “I tried to stress to them that it’s not about painting him as a bad guy or this hatchet job with the White Sox. It’s a guy that worked his ass off to get this new stadium and protect the future of the franchise.”

Diener plans to cover several ancillary stories, too, including the fate of McCuddy’s tavern, which was demolished to make way for new Comiskey Park but wasn’t rebuilt, despite the McCuddy family’s claim of a handshake agreement for land nearby. There also are the residents who were displaced from their homes because of the new stadium.

There’s then-WMAQ Radio’s live coverage of the vote. The station sent stringer Charles McBarron to Springfield to cover what turned into a chaotic scene. McBarron gave play-by-play of the voting and the time that remained amid people shouting and singing “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”

And, to make sure the film has a broader audience, there’s the fallout in Florida, where residents fully expected the Sox to land.

“You start realizing there is this intersection of sports and politics that played such a significant role,” Diener said. “Once all of that started to materialize, that’s when you knew you really had something. There was definitely a feature documentary there to be told.”

The timeline for the film is fluid. Diener still needs to create a “sizzle reel,” a short promotional video, to entice prospective networks, and the process of pitching the film could take months. An independent filmmaker, Diener is working with Media Process Group in Chicago to produce the film.

In the meantime, Diener will keep interviewing and researching with his typical thoroughness, and he hopes those efforts will continue to open doors.

“The more people you make connections with and the more you’re able to get their trust that you’re telling the story in an authentic way, they become a little bit more revealing,” Diener said. “That’s what’s happened over the last few weeks. I feel good about being able to introduce new discoveries as part of the story while at the same time continuing to talk to people.”

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