There are a number of things we Chicagoans love. Bratwursts. Deep dish. The view across the lake. And yet, there’s nothing that compares to a Chicagoan’s love for sports.
It’s no wonder Chicago has become the epicenter of sports analytics and other technologies. According to Crain’s Chicago Business, Stats, a sports statistics gathering company, pulled in $100 million in 2015, in part based on its on-court athlete tracking technology currently used in the NBA. Another Chicago company, Sportvision, is responsible for that now-ubiquitous yellow line that marks the first down in NFL telecasts. They also developed Pitch f/x, which is a technology that allows baseball telecasts to display precise pitch locations within the strike zone. Crain’s reports that Sportvision also brought in $100 million in profits in 2015.
As equally devoted Chicagoans, all of us here at Giordano’s thought we would put together an exhaustive guide to Chicago sports teams. Whether talking about amateur college sports, semi-pro ball, the minor leagues or the professional sports teams in Chicago that dominate the air time on ESPN, we’re proud to have such a rich sports history. And we want to share it with the world.
So join us as we explore the vast sports landscape here in the Second City by discussing minor league sports, college sports, major league teams and semi-pro sports teams in Chicago.
The Monsters of Midway. Soldier Field. Dick Butkus, “Refrigerator” Perry and Walter “Sweetness” Payton. When it comes to professional football, only a few teams rival the storied history of da’ Bears.
But the gridiron landscape in Chicago extends beyond the city’s NFL presence. So we’re going to look at the big picture by exploring how the sport of football established itself in Chicago, along with the teams of different levels that compete here.
Considering how huge the NFL is in the United States, we sometimes forget that, when the sport was first gaining popularity, the biggest draws were college teams.
In fact, one of the first college football powerhouses was the University of Chicago. They helped found the Big Ten Conference, and their halfback, Jay Berwanger, received the first Heisman Trophy award. However, in the 1930s, the university decided that football was a distraction for the institution’s commitment to academic rigor and disbanded the team. Although varsity football returned to the University of Chicago in 1969, they now compete in Division III.
The Northwestern University Wildcats are the only other major football team in the Chicago metro area. They’re also in the Big Ten. However, their on-field success often lags behind the University of Illinois. Although the Illini compete two hours south of Chicago, they’re a huge draw within the city. Furthermore, one of the most famous and historically successful universities, Notre Dame, is only a short distance away in Indiana and also has a strong draw in the city.
The Chicago Bears are one of only two original NFL teams still competing. Originally founded in Decatur as the Decatur Staleys in 1919, they moved to Chicago in 1921. They changed their name officially to the Bears in 1922 and began to compete at Wrigley Field, sharing the space with the Chicago Cubs baseball team.
In fact, the name Bears was chosen to reflect the team’s relationship with the Cubs. As the story goes, since football players are bigger than baseball players, the team should be called the Bears, which are bigger than cubs.
However, it should be noted that the Bears weren’t actually the first football team to play in Chicago. The other charter NFL team still in existence was also from the Second City. The Chicago Cardinals played in the city until 1960, when they moved to St. Louis. The team continues to play today, now relocated to Arizona.
One of the first big names to play for the Bears was Red Grange. Because of his immense popularity as a University of Illinois player, he was drafted in an attempt to transfer his draw to the still-fledgling professional football league.
In the 1940s, the Bears came to be known as the Monsters of Midway — a nickname originally applied to the University of Chicago — and saw some of their greatest and most consistent success. In fact, they were responsible for the most lopsided championship victory in NFL history, beating Washington 73-0 in the 1940 NFL Championship.
The Bears once again ascended to the height of NFL success in 1963, beating the New York Giants in the NFL Championship game. In 1965, Dick Butkus joined the Bears and became one of the most intimidating linebackers in the league. Walter “Sweetness” Payton joined the team in 1975, and is still considered one of the greatest running backs to ever play the game.
One of the most famous Bears teams was the 1985 Super Bowl winning team. Coached by the large personality of “Iron” Mike Ditka, this team featured one of the greatest team defenses of all time and only lost one game the whole season. The team is also famous for recording the “Super Bowl Shuffle,” a novelty rap song featuring many of the players.
The Bears would not return to the Super Bowl until 2006, where they were defeated by the Indianapolis Colts. Although they have remained competitive since that time, they are still in search of their second Super Bowl championship.
In addition to on-field success, the Bears have become an important part of the Chicago identity. One of the most iconic representations of intense Chicago fandom is the Saturday Night Live skit “Bill Swerski’s Super Fans.” Combining a hunger for pork chops, brats and strip steak with an equal love for “Da’ Bears,” these thickly accented caricatures of Chicagoans have nonetheless been embraced as the embodiment of what it means to be a Chicago football fan.
The Bears play their home games at the famed Soldier Field, an iconic landmark within Chicago that has hosted many important sporting events. It was initially the home of the Chicago Cardinals, and has also hosted games for the 1994 FIFA World Cup and the 1999 Women’s World Cup. Although the stadium has undergone significant changes over the years, the original Neo-classical design of portions of the exterior have been retained.
Moving into winter, Chicago is home to one of the greatest dynasties in basketball history. But, like football, basketball has a larger presence in Chicago beyond the NBA. With that in mind, we’re going to take some time and explore the various basketball teams that compete in the Second City.
Men’s college basketball in Chicago was at its height in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The DePaul Blue Demons were perhaps the best of the city’s teams, although the Loyola Ramblers, the University of Illinois, Chicago Flames and even the Chicago State Cougars were all nipping at DePaul’s heels.
In 1979, DePaul made it to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament, a feat they have yet to repeat. In 1985, Loyola made it into the Sweet Sixteen, where they lost to Georgetown.
Unfortunately, men’s college basketball has fallen on hard times since those successes. According to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago schools have a combined four NCAA appearances since 1991, and none since 2004.
However, long memories by many Chicago residents have motivated Chicago colleges to push towards more relevance. DePaul, for one, is investing in a new arena to be opened in 2017.
Additionally, whereas the men have struggled of late, DePaul’s women’s team continues to find consistent success, making it to the Sweet Sixteen in both 2014 and 2016. Unfortunately, the women’s team at Loyola has lately been marred by controversy due to the alleged mistreatment of players by coach Sheryl Swoopes, one of the most successful women’s basketball players of all time, who has since been fired.
Despite being one of the newest teams in the equally new WNBA, the Chicago Sky have immediately established themselves as a formidable squad. Formed in 2006, they appeared in the WNBA finals in 2014 for the first time. Although they have yet to win a championship, they’ve been impressive of late and are poised to be a contender for years to come.
One of the Sky’s current standouts is 2015 league MVP Elena Delle Donne. After a successful collegiate career in both basketball and volleyball at the University of Delaware, she was drafted second overall in the 2013 WNBA draft. It’s no coincidence that the addition of Delle Donne corresponds with the Sky’s first franchise trip to the playoffs. She also contributed heavily in Team USA’s gold medal run at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Anyone who even has a casual interest in basketball knows most experts agree: the greatest basketball player of all time is Michael Jordan. A North Carolina native, he joined the Chicago Bulls in 1984. He immediately became a super star and earned Rookie of the Year honors. As his success grew, so did the Bulls’. The team became increasingly competitive and started to make deep runs into the playoffs.
Unfortunately, another dominant team of the late ‘80s consistently stood in their way. In three straight playoffs, the Bulls were defeated by the Detroit Pistons. However, that all changed in 1991. Meeting the Pistons once again in the Eastern Conference finals, the Bulls prevailed in a four-game sweep. Famously, the Pistons walked off the court and into the locker room before the final game had even officially ended, not even shaking hands with the Bulls.
Upon winning, the Bulls advanced to their first NBA championship series in franchise history. There they met the Los Angeles Lakers, led by all-time great Magic Johnson. The Bulls prevailed and won the series four games to one.
But the Bulls weren’t done there. They returned to the Finals the following year, defeating the Portland Trail Blazers, led by Clyde Drexler, and again the year after that, defeating the Charles Barkley-led Phoenix Suns.
Jordan then abruptly retired, although he returned to the Bulls in 1995 mid-season. Although Jordan could not lead the Bulls to a championship in the season of his return, they kicked off their second three-peat in the ‘95-‘96 season, Jordan’s first full season since he unretired. After beating the Utah Jazz to complete his second three-peat, Jordan retired again, although he made a brief comeback to play for the Washington Wizards.
Since Jordan’s departure, the Bulls have remained competitive, although they have never achieved the level of success that Jordan brought to the city. Standouts like Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and especially league MVP Derrick Rose all helped the Bulls return to playoff form. However, with the recent departure of Rose to the New York Knicks, the future of the team is uncertain.
The Bulls currently play at the United Center, which they share with the NHL’s Blackhawks. Outside of the United Center is one of Chicago’s most famous landmarks, a bronze statue of Jordan titled “The Spirit,” depicting him in his now-iconic dunking pose.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, hockey also has a storied history in Chicago. With its cold winters, Chicago is a perfect place to establish Canada’s favorite pastime on American soil.
And while the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks are one of the sport’s premier franchises, there are plenty of other hockey teams cultivating elite talent in the Chicago area.
Minor League and Junior Hockey
Unlike football and basketball, where the best players are predominately developed on varsity college teams, hockey leans heavily on minor league and junior teams to develop the next starts of the NHL. The IceHogs, which play in nearby Rockford, are members of the American Hockey League and serve as a feeder team for Chicago’s NHL Blackhawks. The franchise began as the Baltimore Bandits before moving to Cincinnati to become the Mighty Ducks. They moved to Rockford in 2007. In watching the IceHogs, fans get a chance to see the future stars of the Blackhawks.
Chicago is also home to the Wolves, who, ironically, are the minor league affiliate of the Blackhawks’ most hated rival, the St. Louis Blues. They also compete in the same division as the IceHogs. The Wolves formed in 1994 as part of the International Hockey League. However, when the IHL folded, the Wolves joined the AHL in 2001.
In their 22-year history, the Wolves have appeared in six league championships, winning two Turner Cups as members of the IHL and two Calder Cups as members of the AHL. They have also bounced around NHL affiliates, starting with the since-relocated Atlanta Thrashers before becoming affiliated with the Vancouver Canucks. The Wolves only began their association with the Blues in 2013.
Finally, the Chicago Steel, who play in the United States Hockey League, are a junior team. They were formerly located in Fargo, North Dakota, and moved to Chicago in 2000. It’s a strictly amateur team, and all players must be 20-years-old or younger. Many junior players go on to play college hockey before starting their professional careers.
Longtime fans of the NHL will often refer to certain teams as the “Original Six.” That’s because, for a long time, the NHL consisted of six teams: the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Boston Bruins, the New York Rangers, the Montreal Canadiens, the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks — then known as the Black Hawks. Within NHL lore, these six teams hold a special place as the founding franchises. They also have some of the largest fanbases and longest histories of consistent success with countless Stanley Cups — the NHL’s highest honor — to their names.
The Blackhawks are no exception. Founded in 1926, the Blackhawks would advance to their first Stanley Cup finals series in 1931, losing to the Montreal Canadiens. However, they wouldn’t have to wait long to raise their first Cup, as they defeated the Red Wings in 1934. They won the Cup again in 1938, defeating Toronto.
This was followed by leaner years. However, they were able to make it to the finals again in 1944 and finally reached the pinnacle for the third time in 1961, once again defeating the Red Wings.
They once again experienced off and on success following their 1961 Cup, but shortly after the turn of the 21st century, the Blackhawks came to be known as one of the most dominant teams in the NHL. They have added their names to the Cup three times in the last ten years, beating Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, the Boston Bruins in 2013 and the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015.
The 1961 Cup is significant, because it represents the only championship for one of the greatest Blackhawks of all time, Bobby Hull. Known as “the Golden Jet” for his blonde hair and incredible on-ice speed, Hull entered the league in 1957. He is famous for being the first player to score more than 50 goals in an NHL season, accomplishing the feat in 1966. He would hit the half-century mark four more times during his career.
Perhaps even more remarkably, according to Time Magazine, his slap shot was clocked at 118.3 mph, and he once reached a skating speed of 29.7 mph.
Bobby wasn’t the only Hull to wear a ‘Hawks sweater, as his younger brother, Dennis, lovingly known as “the Silver Jet,” in reference to his relationship to Bobby, also scored over 300 goals while playing alongside his brother. Although he spent most of his career with the hated Blues, Bobby’s son, Brett, known as “the Golden Brett,” had a career that rivaled his father’s.
The 2010s have seen a number of stars join the Blackhawks who will surely be known as all-time greats once their careers end. Captain Jonathan Toews joined the team in 2007 and has been cited as one of the main reasons for their recent success. Joining him is another star, Patrick Kane, who entered the league the same year. The ‘Hawks defense is held together by Duncan Keith.
The Blackhawks play in the United Center, sharing the building with the Bulls. In fact, the famed statue of Jordan outside the United Center will often don a Blackhawks sweater during playoff time. And considering how consistently good the Blackhawks have been of late, that red sweater can be seen just about every year.
Chicago has not one but two major league baseball teams, and both have long histories. Chicago is perhaps most famous for its baseball championship futility, with the Cubs boasting one of the longest championship curses in the history of sport – at least until this year!
However, that doesn’t dampen Chicago’s enthusiasm for America’s pastime, and Chicago is also home to minor league teams as well.
Minor League Teams
The minor leagues are an important part of the sport as baseball, as many of the world’s best baseball players take a while to develop. By playing in the minor leagues, these players get the opportunity to play every day while harnessing their talent.
The Kane County Cougars are one Chicagoland team, playing in the Midwest League. They are an affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, although they have been affiliated with a number of different major league teams over the years. The team was founded in 1991, and they won their league title in both 2001 and 2014.
The Joliet Slammers are an independent minor league team, meaning they do not have an affiliation with any major league teams. They play in the Frontier League and were founded in 2010. They won their league championship the following year in 2011.
The Windy City ThunderBolts are another independent team, also playing in the Frontier League. They were founded in 1995 and have won three championships: in 1998, 2007 and 2008.
The final Frontier League team in the greater Chicago area is the Schaumburg Boomers. They are the youngest of the Chicago-based Frontier teams, throwing out their first pitch in 2011. However, they have quickly found success, winning their league championship two years in a row in 2013 and 2014.
The Gary SouthShore RailCats are in another independent league, the American Association. They were established in 2001 and have three league championships to their name, coming in 2005, 2007 and 2013.
Minor league baseball has grown in popularity, as it’s far more affordable to attend games and fans are freer to move around the stadium. Kids can find plenty to do, with many opportunities to get close to players, oftentimes giving them the chance to meet future stars.
Chicago is also home to successful professional women’s softball. The Chicago Bandits were founded in 2005, when they joined the National Pro Fastpitch league, the highest level of women’s softball.
Since joining the league, they have won the Cowles Cup, the league’s championship trophy, four times. Their first championship came in 2008 when they beat the Washington Glory. They beat the USSSA Pride in their following three championships, winning it all in 2011, 2015 and 2016.
One of the keys to Chicago’s success was the presence of Jennie Finch, arguably the most dominant pitcher of all time. She led the American Olympic team to gold in 2004 and silver in 2008. She retired in 2010 and her number 27 was quickly retired by the Bandits.
For well over 100 years, the Cubs have been one of the most important residents of Chicago’s North Side. The Cubs were one of the charter members of the National League, although they originally competed under the team name White Stockings. They played their first game in 1876 at the West Side Grounds and would go on to win the first National League Pennant, the highest honor at the time.
The team transitioned through other nicknames, such as the Colts and the Orphans, before settling on the name Cubs in 1902. At this point, the World Series had begun to be played between the winners of the National League and the younger American League. The Cubs would go on to win back to back World Series in 1907 and 1908. However, these championships would be the last for the Cubs, as they had yet to win another World Series in over 100 years.
In 1916, the Cubs moved into Weeghman Park, which now bears its much more famous name, Wrigley Field. This is the second-oldest park still in use in the major leagues — the oldest being Boston’s Fenway Park. The stadium retains many of its older charms, including outfield walls covered with ivy rather than the typical foam, rooftop seats on the tops of buildings across the street, a hand-turned scoreboard and the infamous bleachers in the outfield.
While the Cubs have had plenty of on-field success, they are perhaps most famous for their formerly continued failure. They held the longest championship drought in all of baseball, and many superstitious fans point to the “Curse of the Billy Goat” as the cause. According to Cubs faithful, the mistreatment of a fan resulted in the Cubs’ World Series woes.
In 1945, the Cubs were playing the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. They had already beaten the Tigers twice in Detroit and many felt they were well on their way to their first World Series win since 1908. At game four, a local tavern owner named Billy Sianis brought a billy goat into the stadium, having purchased a seat for the animal. However, ushers thought it unwise to allow an animal into the stands, so they kicked the goat and its owner out of the game. According to Cubs lore, as he was leaving, Sianis proclaimed “the Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” The Cubs eventually lost the series and they have not returned to the World Series since.
Despite so many years of desperation, the Cubs have some of the most loyal fans in the game. And while they haven’t won a World Series in over a century, they have had a number of memorable players. Ryne Sandberg came to be one of the greatest defensive players of all time, and pitcher Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game is often cited as the single greatest pitching performance in the history of the sport.
These days, the Cubs have once again found on-field success, and rallied to win the 2016 World Series, finally breaking the Curse of the Billy Goat.
Chicago White Sox
Although they’re the younger of the two major league teams in Chicago, the White Sox are still one of the oldest franchises in baseball. Founded in 1900, they were one of the charter franchises of the American League, often called the “Junior Circuit” due to its relative youth when compared with the National League. While the Cubs play on the North Side of the city, the Sox play on the South Side, earning them the nickname the South Siders.
Like the Cubs, the White Sox found a lot of success in the early part of the 20th century. They won their first World Series in 1906 and won it again in 1917. However, their appearance in the 1919 World Series is something that fans of the team would like to forget.
Although the White Sox were favored to win the 1919 World Series handedly, there were many reports that White Sox players were taking money to throw the series to the Cincinnati Reds. Although the investigation did not take place until after the series was over, the Reds did win and the league eventually determined that the White Sox had intentionally lost the series, leading to the lifetime ban of eight players. The team came to be known as the Black Sox for the black mark they left on the game.
Following this scandal, the White Sox experienced a drought that rivaled their neighbors to the North. The White Sox won the American League Pennant in 1959, but were defeated in the World Series by the Dodgers. However, in 2005, their luck changed. Perhaps inspired by the Boston Red Sox, who had ended their famous drought just the year before, the White Sox made it to the World Series and swept the Houston Astros. For the first time since 1917, a World Series Championship had returned to Chicago.
While their ballpark is not quite as wrapped in tradition as the Cubs, the White Sox play in the beautiful U.S. Cellular Field, which they have called home since 1991.
Although professional soccer has only recently come to rival the other four major sports in America, the growth of this sport has been rapid.
Following the success of the 1994 FIFA World Cup, which included games played at Soldier Field, the MLS was formed. The Fire entered the league in its first wave of expansion in 1998. They jumped off to an incredible start and won both of the most prestigious championships in American soccer: the MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup. The former is the championship for the MLS, America’s top league. The latter is a tournament that is open to all teams, from every soccer league in the country. This feat is known as “the double,” and winning it in a team’s first year in existence is an even more incredible achievement. While the Fire have yet to win another MLS Cup, they have won three more U.S. Open Cups, tied for most with the Seattle Sounders among MLS teams.
The Fire currently play at Toyota Park, where they began playing in 2006. Since settling into their new home, Chicago has become an increasingly intimidating place for opposing teams to play. “Section 8,” where the Fire’s most ardent supporters stand, has become known for red flares and intense chants.
While we may not be athletes here at Giordano’s, we are, like all Chicagoans, passionate about the wide variety of Chicago sports. Our hearts leapt with every Jordan buzzer beater. We shed tears as we watched Lord Stanley’s Cup lifted. We danced along with the Super Bowl Shuffle. We chant with all the fanatics packed into Section 8. And we anxiously await the opportunity to tell the world that we were there when the Curse of the Billy Goat was finally lifted.
And part of why we love Chicago sports is because it brings the city together. We like to think that our deep dish pizza does much of the same thing. Since Mama Giordano developed her recipe for tomato pie in Torino, Italy, our deep dish has given people the opportunity to sit around the table and share good food while swapping their favorite stories. Here in Chicago, many of those stories have been about the great moments in Chicago sports history. We love the idea of our pizza playing a small part in that camaraderie.
With so many locations across this fine city, whether you’re going to Toyota Park, Wrigley Field, Soldier Field, U.S. Cellular Field or the United Center, you’re sure to find a great place to relax after the game and grab a slice or two.
And for all the Chicago fans across the country, why not bring a taste of your sports fandom home with you? With our innovative “Ship a Pizza” program, you can have deep dish no matter where you live. So, if you’re a Cubs fan stuck on the West Coast while your beloved team finally breaks the curse, make sure you have a pizza to go with your celebration over 100 years in the making.
Thanks for joining us as we explored the wonderful world of Chicago sports. We love this city’s passion and we hope you will join us soon for a pie while we root, root, root for the home team!