Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The History of Thillens Stadium, a Little League Baseball Park in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.

The "North Town Currency Stadium" at 6404 North Kedzie Avenue, was founded in 1938 by Mel Thillens, Sr., owner of the Thillens Checashers business at 2351 West Devon Avenue, just east of Western Avenue. Thillens' idea was to have a baseball park that anyone can use, rent-free. It cost Thillens a total of $6 million to build the park to his satisfaction.
Thillens Stadium was originally named North Town Currency Stadium.






Thillens Stadium was just north of the Lincolnwood diner. The north of the diner was a CTA bus terminus turn-around for the 155 bus route. Next came the parking lot for the stadium was small, perhaps only 20 cars and another 20 cars along the eastern fence on Kedzie Avenue..
On the EAST side of the North Shore Canal, at the northwest corner of Devon and Kedzie Avenues was the 'Lincolnwood Dairy" sandwich and homemade ice cream shop. Then came the 'Lincolnwood Coffee Grill and Fountain Shop.'

Tessville, Illinois was renamed "The Village of Lincolnwood” in 1936. The border of Lincolnwood was moved from the westside of Kedzie Avenue to the westside of McCormick Boulevard after 1940.

In 1940 the ballpark erected lights for night use. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s both Little League games and men's 16-inch softball games were televised from the park by WGN-TV, with Jack Brickhouse announcing.
Entrance to the over-flow parking lot on Kedzie Avenue, north of the stadium.


North of the 2nd baseball diamond, was a large, free, gravel parking lot on the east side of the North Shore Canal. 

It was during a Little League telecast in the 1950s that the centerfield camera, now a staple of all baseball telecasts, was first used. According to Brickhouse, "One of our cameramen, Chuck Seatsema, told me that the center-field scoreboard was only a couple hundred feet away. He had a feeling that if he put a camera out there, we'd get a nice shot of the little catcher giving signs and the little batter's face over the pitcher's shoulder."
"The Bases Are Loaded."
Thillens Stadium, Devon & Kedzie, Chicago, Illinois. 1953 
[runtime: 00:27:09]








An area landmark was the giant baseball with the name Thillens on a large pole in the front of the ballpark. Originally, the ball spun on the pole. The Thillens baseball sign began life as a globe that was spinning on top of the "Boys' World" clothing store at  2516 West Devon Avenue, at Maplewood, which used to be the Cine Theatre from 1937 to 1953. Mel Thillens bought the globe when Boys' World closed in the 1950s, and Mel had a parade moving the globe west on Devon Avenue to Kedzie Avenue. 

The Thillens family took great pride in the spit-and-polish glamour associated with Thillens Stadium. The landscaping. The cleaning. The painting. It all contributed to the sense that you were in something of a shrine. They spent $100,000 a season for expenses and over $100,000 for maintenance a year to keep the place up.
Mel Thillens Sr. and Jr. in front of their currency exchange on Devon Avenue, 1977.


The centerfield scoreboard contained a 6-by-8-foot picture of the Thillens armored truck. Starting in 1974, if any player hit the truck on the sign, they would win a $5,000 savings bond. Only three talented little leaguers hit the armored truck at the top of the scoreboard, hitting a baseball 300 feet.

Amazingly, all three batters have accomplished the feat on the same date; September 2nd. Al Pulikowski of Villa Park and Art Eggert of Elk Grove each hit it in 1984, only 52 batters apart. Five years later, Patrick Patterson of Des Plaines became the third winner, hitting the truck on September 2, 1989.
Mel Thillens, Sr. died on December 20, 1993, but his family continued to operate the field and a non-profit charitable foundation supported it. Over time, the foundation could not afford expenses and, in March 2005, Thillens Stadium closed. 

The city of Chicago and the Chicago Cubs combined to invest $1.5 million in repairs and the stadium reopened its doors in June 2006. The larger of the two diamonds, the one on the south side of the park, was named "Cubs Field." The park has since been renamed "The Stadium at Devon and Kedzie."
The Stadium at Devon and Kedzie Entrance.


In 2013, the Thillens family requested that their family name be removed from the field. Mel Thillens, Jr. was quoted as saying the field wasn't being maintained and the Thillens family and business no longer wanted to be associated with it. The Chicago Park District claims to have maintained Thillens so it can “continue as a place of historical significance” that “thousands of children enjoy” each year. They obliged Mr. Thillens' request, removing the name from the field. In June of 2013, the 60+-year-old giant baseball, estimated at 12 feet in diameter, was removed because it was deemed unsafe.

ON A PERSONAL NOTE
I met Mel Thillens at his business office of the "Thillens Armored Car Check Cashing Company" on Devon Avenue just east of Western Avenue. I just walked in and asked to speak with Mr. Thillens in the spring of 1968; I was 8 years old. Mel Thillins stepped out of his office to greet me. He took me into his office. 

I asked him if I could work at Thillens Stadium for the season. Mel asked me a few questions, apparently to find out what my interest was to work at the Stadium. Mel gave me a day and time to meet him at the stadium. He introduced me to the staff, telling them that I'd be helping them out.

I was allowed to attend any and all games I wanted to for free. When working, I was allowed to eat, drink, and snack for free. As a matter of fact, I don't remember there being any limit to food and drink. Sounds good, right? Although I didn't get any money, I meet some local celebrities, like Ray Rayner, Eddie Feigner and his team, the King and his Court, the Queen and her Court, the Donkey Baseball teams, etc., etc.

I met Ray Rayner at Thillens Stadium in 1968. Rayner was on a WGN 16" softball team playing the Playboy Bunnies. The evening game was for a charity. It was standing room only. 

If you know anything about Thillens Stadium, one kid worked the manual scoreboard placing the number of runs per inning and a total runs count. The Strikes, Balls, and Outs scoreboard lights were worked from an elevated platform, with the game announcer, from behind the home plate. I worked the strikes and outs from the announcer's booth.

When the WGN vs.Playboy Bunnies game was over, Rayner sat up in the announcer's booth. We talked for quite some time. Ray told me he was going to talk about the charity softball game on his show on Monday. I jokingly brought up the fact that I never heard my name called on the Romper Room. Rayner told me he'd mention me on his TV show the next day, and I could count on him. 

Sure enough... Ray talked about the charity softball game and how much money was raised, then he said he met a great kid who worked at Thillens Stadium, Neil Gale. I was floored. It's too bad there were no recording devices to capture that, but it's one of my life's "claim to fame" moments.

Mel Thillens had my name put up on the sign that same day. I freaked out when I saw it.



Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

NOTE: In 1932, Mel Thillens owned and operated a currency exchange at 2351 West Devon Avenue in Chicago. His clientele consisted mostly of factory workers and government employees in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program from 1935-1943. To eliminate customers from tracking mud over his new office carpet, he conceived the idea of bringing money to the worker to cash their paychecks. It was the first mobile armored car check cashing service in the U.S.
An Early Thillens Checashers Armored Truck.




8 comments:

  1. I do remember us driving past the Boys World globe when I was a child in the 1950's. In later years both of my sons played ball at Thillens from Little League. Nice memories.

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  2. LIVING JUST A FEW BLOCKS FROM THILLENS STADIUM, I PLAYED LITTLE LEAGUE BASEBALL THERE AT THE AGE OF 13, IN 1965.
    OUR TEAM WAS THE CLEVELAND INDIANS.

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  3. I grew up 1/2 block north of Thillens, on Kedzie. I, too, got to work there as a kid. I worked the scoreboard, announcing, ticket taking, concession, even cleanup under the stands. While I got free admission and concessions, everyone on our block got season passes so the families wouldn't complain about the parking and noise issues. Best maintained field outside of the major leagues, thanks to "Ferdie", the head groundskeeper!

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    Replies
    1. I grew up across the street from Thillens
      6427 N. Kedzie

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    2. To the one who mentioned Ferdy as the “Head Groundskeeper” at THILLENS STADIUM, my Uncle Ferdy was the sole person who handled the care of the
      Stadium in it’s entirety, until his final years of Life. As for my Uncle Mel, it was his dream to create the entire THILLENS empire (Mobile Check-Cashing Armored Trucks + the Little League Baseball Stadium @ Devon & Kedzie, plus the Monday thru Saturday THILLENS Currency Exchange on Devon Ave, just 2 doors east of Western Avenue)!! In fact, the THILLENS brothers all worked for Mel Thillens: John & Ferdy first worked as Armored Truck Guards, responsible for handling the check-cashing needs for Lincolnwood’s Bell & Howell’s employees, plus countless other businesses in the Chicago area. My dad,
      Al Thillens worked in the Devon Ave. Currency Exchange. He & another employee,(Ed Krebecke) handled your check-cashing needs from behind the Safety-Glass windows, while Mel, Sr, the President, maintained business operations in his office, just steps away from the Cashier Windows. The baby of the THILLENS Family was my uncle, “Ferdy” who ultimately, took over the handling of the ballpark, after stepping down from being a Guard on the mobile trucks! Uncle John, who originally worked as a Guard on the trucks w/Ferdy, passed away @ a young age, leaving behind my Aunt Wynne & their 3 children.

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  4. Seriously envied the kids who got to wear those cool MLB-facsimile uniforms. (We lived not far from the stadium, but it never occurred to me I'd be good enough to play there. I was right.) My dad took me to see The King and His Court one night at Thillens -- and I was dazzled by, well, everything. The place ranks with Riverview as a memory of a different, sweeter age and time.

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  5. I played in a 16 inch summer league at Mather in 1975. And we had our playoffs and championship game at Thillens. It was so cool.

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  6. My Friends and I attended a few games at Thillens, I remember the story about hitting the armored car on the scoreboard for prize money. We attended Solomon Grammer school, one night our science teacher Mr. Smith umpired a game there we attended. We had great times growing up at Lincoln village, Kiddyland and shopping up and down Devon Ave. Thanks for sharing the great memories Neil Gayle.

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