An unexpected basketball pioneer, a history-making race, and other surprises from Unknown Chicago Tales.
“Chicago is the known city,” novelist Richard Wright famously wrote.
But the midland metropolis still holds a lot of secrets, according to a new book by historian John R. Schmidt, PhD’83. “It’s the history you didn’t learn,” he declares in the introduction to Unknown Chicago Tales (The History Press, 2021), a collection of more than 50 lesser-known stories and figures from the city’s past. A retired Chicago Public Schools teacher and college history instructor, Schmidt is also a fifth-generation Chicagoan. Here is a glimpse of the Chicago he wants us to know.<
1: America’s first auto race started and ended in Jackson Park.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1895, the Chicago Times-Herald sponsored a widely publicized contest of “motocycles” (the paper’s preferred term for horseless carriages) that sent drivers on a route from Chicago’s Jackson Park to Evanston, Illinois, and back. Inclement weather kept the race to just six vehicles, but 2,000 spectators were there at 8:55 a.m. as the drivers took off westward from the Midway at Stony Island Avenue. Once the grueling race had cleared the turnabout at Evanston, only three cars remained. Frank Duryea’s motor wagon made it back to Jackson Park at 7:18 p.m. and took the $2,000 grand prize.
2: Before he became a silent cinema star, Milton Sills studied and taught at the University of Chicago.
Sills, AB 1903, EX’04, grew up in a well-to-do family on Chicago’s South Side, attending what was then Hyde Park High School. At the University he studied philosophy and psychology and acted in the Dramatic Club. His screen debut came in 1914 with The Pit, an adaptation of the Frank Norris novel. Perhaps best known for the hit swashbuckler The Sea Hawk (1924), he helped found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and wrote Values: A Philosophy of Human Needs (University of Chicago Press, 1932).
3: The precursor to Mister Rogers was a University of Chicago alumna.
Frances Rappaport Horwich, PhB’29, was chair of the education department at what is now Roosevelt University when Chicago station WMAQ-TV hired her to host its new half-hour children’s show in 1952. An immediate success, Ding Dong School was picked up for national broadcast by NBC later that year and ran until 1956. “The show began with Miss Frances ringing a school bell while singing her theme song,” Schmidt writes. “She talked to the children at their level. But she didn’t talk down to them.”
4: Football legend Amos Alonzo Stagg might have also helped basketball become the sport it is today.
After graduating from Yale University, where he played on the first College Football All-America Team in 1889, Stagg coached football for two years at the International YMCA Training School (now Springfield College) in Massachusetts. He was there when physical education instructor James Naismith invented basketball as an indoor game to occupy students in the winter off-season. According to some sources, as Schmidt writes, Stagg was more than just a fly on the wall when it came to the new sport’s development. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, calling Stagg “instrumental” to the game’s development, notes that he brought basketball with him when he joined the University of Chicago in 1892 and popularized the five-player form of the sport as coach of the Maroons.