A Review of Career Misconduct
As the Chicago Blackhawks will miss the Stanley Cup playoffs yet again, as the National Hockey League (NHL) slowly recovers from the black eye of a strike that caused it to be the first professional sport to cancel an entire season, and as I’m watching a Hawks game on TV right now (a road game, of course, but more on that later), the time is right to review this 2001 book.
This 100-plus-page book by Mark Weinberg is subtitled The Story of Bill Wirtz’s Greed, Corruption, and the Betrayal of the Blackhawks’ Fans. It contains savage indictments of Bill and his late father, Arthur Wirtz, owners of the Chicago Blackhawks NHL hockey franchise, among many other businesses. It also contains plenty of wicked humor from the creator of the alternative game-day publication The Blue Line.
I really enjoyed this book but found it flawed on many counts. It’s quite short, but is still occasionally profound in a muckraking style. I can’t bring myself to call it “required reading.” But for die-hard hockey fans—and the few remaining ’Hawks fans out there—the incriminating information about the franchise’s owner and acidic satire will be richly rewarding.
Chicago has been home to its fair share of awful sports franchise owners. Chicago Bears owner Mike McCaskey was woefully ill-prepared to deal with free agency in the NFL a decade ago, and the once-formidable Monsters of the Midway became league laughing stocks. They’ve won only three playoff games since their Super Bowl XX victory 20 years ago, and none in the last 10 years. Meanwhile, the Tribune Company, owners of the Chicago Cubs (and the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, etc.), have watched the team wallow in mediocrity while drooling over its profitability. The Chicago White Sox won the World Series last year, but before that, they hadn’t won a playoff series in ages, and many fans blamed owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
Many fans, even loyal ones, moan about Bill Wirtz, but this book details his offenses more thoroughly than anything I’ve ever encountered before. The extensive footnotes are a worthwhile read, especially given how short the book is. From abusing the family’s monopolies in decades past, to influence peddling in order to pass laws favoring his enormous liquor distributorships, the reader discovers Wirtz’s trail of insatiable greed. Weinberg makes a strong case for downright criminality in several chapters. But as the creator of The Blue Line, distributed around the United Center (until he and all other vendors were banned, as discussed in Chapter 4), he has a bias that can’t be ignored.
Weinberg is a Chicago attorney. He communicates the legal aspects of the story skillfully throughout; furthermore, I have never before encountered a book solely about the Blackhawks owner. This is one that has substance to match its style, and is accessible to readers of all ages and walks of life.
The author succeeds in making this a relentless, albeit quick, read. What allows the author to pull it off is his use of his own cartoons, which creatively attack his targets but also provide some comic relief from the weight of the subject matter. Exemplifying this is the cartoon opening Chapter 7, which shows Bill Wirtz alone at a bar in front of numerous empty shot glasses, telling the bartender: “I’m fed up with people attacking my integrity. It’s an outrage! How dare they imply I have integrity!” Equally funny are the manipulated photos featured in the middle of the book. One shows Bill holding up a clenched fist, captioned: “Wirtz triumphantly flashed the number of Stanley Cups the Hawks have won since he took control of the team in 1967.” One minor criticism I have concerns the sixth page of photos: one caption suggests Bill Wirtz being honored by Scotch Aficionado magazine, yet the (doctored) photo shows him in a car holding a bottle of Jim Beam (which is bourbon, from Kentucky, not Scotch).
The book would be far the worse without this heavy dose of humor—it would prove too dry and damning for all but the harshest of Wirtz critics. Even the author seems to understand this, since he included a chapter entitled “A Note on Satire.” Humorously biting pieces culled from The Blue Line fill the last pages of the book.
As much as I myself despise Bill Wirtz for the long-term damage he’s done to the Blackhawks, a team once as feared as it was revered, I will offer something in his defense. In 2003, a fan favorite of the 1970s Hawks teams, Keith Magnuson, a brawler and team captain, died tragically as a passenger in a car crash. Wirtz covered the expenses of the funeral. While it may seem like chump change on the surface, beyond dollars there’s a principle. To write this review and not mention this would have been unfair. (For the record, this book was published before that sad event.)
Unfortunately, the book chronicles a life and career of far less noble deeds by Bill Wirtz. Chapter 3, “Stealing from His ‘Niece’s’ Trust Fund,” reveals the depths of Wirtz’s greedy ruthlessness. The kernel of it, for which Wirtz was found guilty and fined, concerned his selling of Susan Norris’s stock at bargain prices for his own benefit. He was her trust fund’s custodian, and had been designated by her father, Jim Norris Jr., a longtime Wirtz family business partner, to manage the fund in her best interests. It makes one wonder: How much is enough? How low will Wirtz go for the sake of a profit? The straightforward yet slimy details I leave to the reader. The story demonstrates Wirtz’s insatiable greed, total lack of morals, and criminal actions. The author’s ability to translate legalese into layman’s language is on display here.
Chapter 4, “Bribing Public Officials,” should hit game-going fans in the gut. It’s also classic Windy City politics, with big business and politicians conspiring and the common fan getting screwed. The author includes “Exhibits” (very lawyerly, in a good sense) as evidence, and implicates Chicago Bulls and White Sox owner Reinsdorf. I’m not sure I agree with the math in the last paragraph, but the chapter still contributes to the theme of Wirtz’s shamelessness.
The author opens Chapter 5 by quoting himself—which I thought was inexcusable. In contrast, the H. L. Mencken quote in the introduction successfully baited me. This otherwise excellent chapter is marred by this one flaw. The evidence, footnotes, and flow of the chapter make it perhaps the book’s best.
The chapter deals with the “Wine and Spirits Fair Dealings Act,” a decidedly ironic name. The act, otherwise known as the Wirtz Law, prohibited a supplier from canceling, failing to renew, or changing its agreement with a distributor without “good cause.” In essence, it became nearly impossible for beverage makers (wineries and distilleries) to change distributorships, no matter how dissatisfied the supplier had become. It has since been found unconstitutional.
I worked at a wine store at the time the “Wirtz Law” was news. That position gave me definite perspective, and also an opportunity to learn the enormous extent of Wirtz’s family liquor empire. The author did a great job on this topic and I’ll leave it to the reader to learn more about the sordid matter. He cites the Chicago Tribune often, which had solid coverage at the time. I remember the Tribune’s articles well. For instance, I remember how struck I was when I learned that Bill Wirtz’s Judge and Dolph Illinois distributorship and his liquor wholesalers in four other states had gross revenues of three quarters of a billion dollars in 1999! The other notable dirt they reported was how Wirtz never really anted in to politicians’ coffers—that is, until right before the law was being considered, at which time he and his family and businesses began seriously making up for lost time
Outside of the articles, I remember a Judge and Dolph employee telling me they were being bussed en masse downstate to “show support” for the law in Springfield, Illinois. The author shows how this fit into Wirtz’s spin on the legislation as protection for local jobs. It was, without question, absurd that the government would meddle in the marketplace to protect the interests of an industry giant. Clearly this chapter was a highlight for me, but beyond that the author did a commendable job showing that Wirtz’s liquor distributorships and the Blackhawks are run in the same way: for the bottom line with little concern for ethics or quality.
Chapter 6 is essential reading for hockey fans, and perhaps the most damning chapter. It’s a sordid affair that boggles the mind. The reader gets acquainted with Alan Eagleson, once head of the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA). He colluded with Bill Wirtz, head of the NHL Board of Governors, to keep player salaries down, among other despicable activities. This meant he was stabbing the NHL players—the very people he was supposed to be fighting for as head of the NHLPA—in the back for many years. This was all news to me, and the information constitutes an outstanding encore to Chapter 5.
Eagleson’s legal difficulties are frequently married to Wirtz’s—the former can’t conspire without the latter. For his crimes, Eagleson was “drop-kicked out of the Hockey Hall of Fame, disbarred from practicing law in Canada, and stripped of the prestigious Order of Canada,” according to Weinberg. The author once again skillfully handles the legal issues. Another thing to remember when reading this chapter is that the sky-high salaries of today’s pro sports didn’t exist in the NHL back then, so every dollar that the players weren’t receiving as a result of Eagleson’s and Wirtz’s collusion meant more to the players than the average person today might at first realize.
Chapter 7 details Wirtz’s neglectful ownership of the Blackhawks. An “Original Six” team, the Chicago Blackhawks (along with the Montreal Canadians, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Boston Bruins, the New York Rangers, and the Detroit Red Wings) date back to the earliest years of the NHL. Since then 26 teams have joined the league, inhabiting such un-hockey-like locations as Phoenix (hockey in the desert!) and Tampa Bay. There’s a reverence for the old franchises in hockey that’s not matched in other sports. With the league greatly diluted due to expansion, and with the Blackhawk franchise’s superior profitability, their recent lack of competitiveness (and a championship drought that’s now the longest in the league) has been that much more frustrating to fans.
On top of this recent on-ice futility, it’s the arrogance of Wirtz’s stewardship that grates on fans. Epitomizing this is his refusal to televise home games. In the 1970s his refusal to re-sign Bobby Hull was considered a blunder. In the last 15 years the list of players the team has traded or let go is impressive. During a more recent stretch, they traded team captains in midseason several times (including Chris Chelios, Doug Gilmour, Tony Amonte, and Alex Zhamnov). Other top players that the team once had include Dominick Hasek, Eddie Belfour, and Jeremy Roenick. Shuttling away such talent, largely the result of penny-pinching, has left the team on life support. This, to many, is Wirtz’s most serious offense.
Chapter 8, regarding Bill Wirtz’s actions in light of his father’s business acumen and character, are perhaps important to the book. But this material isn’t as compelling as the engrossing previous chapters.
Chapter 9, “A Note on Satire,” starts with several pages of text, but its real worth is the collection of the author’s own works from The Blue Line.
Beyond the diehard ’Hawks fans—who really should read this book—any Chicago sports fan or hockey enthusiast would enjoy this material. Its few flaws only slightly detract from its overall worth: it’s an in-depth, well-written, humor-laden, muckraking exposé about one of the most powerful people in Chicago and the professional sports world.
Copyright 2006, Al Dereu
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