Sports history afoot at the handiest place in Chicago

This weekend’s Wisch List newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

By Dave Wischnowsky


July 7, 2012

From Chicago’s South Side (U.S. Cellular Field) to its North (Wrigley Field), and from its West Side (United Center) to the lakeshore (Soldier Field), it’s easy to find the fingerprints of the city’s sports legends at the ballparks and stadiums across the map.

But finding their handprints can be a little more difficult.

Although, that’s only the case if you don’t know where to look. Because, the best place to find the prints of Michael Jordan, Jim McMahon, Harry Caray and the like is at the corner of La Salle and Ontario streets.

Hands down.

At 620 N. La Salle in the heart of the city’s River North neighborhood stands the Sports Authority building, once known as Mages Sporting Goods and once billed as the world’s largest sporting goods store. These days, its six stories (and a basement) are still filled with ball caps, bicycles, scuba gear and every sporting good in between.

But it’s the century-old structure’s exterior walls that are its most interesting feature, and why you might as well call the place “The Palms.” Sports Authority’s “Chicago Sports Wall of Fame” is home to city’s most eclectic collection of sports celebrity handprints, including those of luminaries such as Ray Meyer, Ron Santo, Minnie Minoso and, well, many more.

But the career of Morrie Mages, who came up with the idea of having athletes and broadcasters leave their mark on his building, began well before the eras of even those old-timers.

As a 12-year-old back 1928, Mages began working with his father in a small sporting goods store on Maxwell Street in Chicago along with his three older brothers. Over time, the family business grew and by the early ’50s, five Mages sporting goods stores could be found throughout the city and suburbs.

Also during that decade, Morrie became a well-known figure in Chicago when the sporting goods chain sponsored “Mages Playhouse,” a late-night movie shown on WGN-TV Ch. 9. Morrie hosted the show along with Chicago Cubs broadcaster Jack Brickhouse, who delivered the eulogy at Mages’ funeral in 1988.

Family squabbles eventually forced the original chain of Mages stores to close. But in 1960, Morrie bought the building at Ontario and La Salle from a coffee processor and opened his new flagship. At the store, Mages became known for his antics with the public address system, issuing announcements such as “Attention, skiers! I got a report from the weatherman. It’s going to snow July 6!” and “Customers! If you aren’t buying, do some stock work!”

Mages had his handprints cast in concrete and placed next to the entrance of the store. He then added those of whatever Chicago sports figures he could get to do the same.
Today, that list includes the greats (Walter Payton Mike Singletary, Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, Bobby Hull and John Kerr), the good (Sid Luckman, Doug Collins, Randy Hundley, Jim Covert and John Paxson) and the average (Mike Tomczak).

You’ll also find the prints of the tragically deceased (Bears star Dave Duerson) and the very much alive (85-year-old White Sox legend Billy Pierce). Also featured are the hands of men known for their mouths (Brickhouse, Caray and Irv Kupcinet) as well as individuals whose fame has faded (1948 Olympic figure skating champ Barbara Ann Scott King, Chicago Sting soccer star Karl Heinz-Granitza and 1988 Olympic gymnast Phoebe Mills).

Inside are four more sets of prints – those of Jordan, Frank Thomas, Sammy Sosa and Mike Ditka – that the store considers too precious for outdoors but still allows you press your own palms against.

And to get the feel of Chicago’s sports history, nothing is handier than that.