By Bill Pearch
Like many others over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I devoured Peter Jackson’s three-part, nearly eight-hour documentary re-examining the tumultuous last days of the Fab Four. Created from approximately sixty hours of previously unavailable footage from the 1970 film Let it Be, Jackson produced The Beatles: Get Back.
The academy award-winning Lord of the Rings director rediscovered moments of heartfelt collaboration between the four musicians and recast the January 1969 recording sessions with a less somber tone than the originally depicted. The documentary captured a desperate band wondering if any magic remained. While watching the multipart special, I could not help remembering that my mom and aunt, two girls from Northlake, Illinois, saw them play live—for a total of 30 minutes on Friday, August 20, 1965—at Comiskey Park, the home of the American League’s Chicago White Sox.
The young band who walked across the South Side infield dirt with guitars in hand were not yet anointed as the cultural icons known as Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr. They were simply John, Paul, George and Ringo. Their albums did not spin yarns about Maxwell’s tools or colorful underwater vehicles. They were four young men playing in the eye of the storm called Beatlemania.
With Help! their latest album and feature film in record stores and on the silver screen, The Beatles organized a tour of the United States and Canada. During that two-week stretch from August 15-31, the band arranged 16 performances in 10 cities which included four major-league venues. Those stops included Shea Stadium (New York Mets), Atlanta Stadium (Milwaukee Braves would relocate there after the 1965 season), and Metropolitan Stadium (Minnesota Twins). With the second-place White Sox on an 11-game road trip in late August against the Boston Red Sox, Washington Senators and Kansas City Athletics, Comiskey Park provided a perfect forum for a musical doubleheader.
Nearly 60,000 shrieking fans packed the Junior Circuit ballpark (25,000 for the matinee; 35,000 for the evening concert). A majority, some estimates claim 90 percent, were teenage girls who generated the frenzy. The Beatles stood atop a plywood stage supported by scaffolding where on a regular gameday Don Buford, Ron Hansen and Ken Berry would converge to chase down shallow bloopers. Aided with 10 microphones, they ripped through a dozen songs while the teenagers posed a formidable front. “They pay good prices to get in,” John Lennon said when asked about the incessant noise. “Who are we to say whether or not they should scream?”
“You could hear their guitars and drums,” said Mary ann Pearch, a 20-year-old Illinois State University student at the time. “But we couldn’t hear any singing.” Her sister agreed. “I remember a group of girls singing,” said Gail McPike, an 11-year-old at the time. “But we couldn’t hear what they were actually singing. You couldn’t see them either. Second base seemed so far away.”
With the matinee complete, the band returned to the White Sox clubhouse. Sherman Wolf, the press relations handler for The Beatles’ Chicago experience, stated that the band’s management threw a curveball and insisted the musicians remain inside Comiskey Park between performances. After a thorough inspection of the White Sox clubhouse, the band’s representative confirmed it would be adequate for the Fab Four. “Imagine trying to bring The Beatles any place for people to meet them?” Wolf said, venting frustration. “I’d as soon walk down the street with King Kong.”
Between the two performances, The Beatles faced a throng of reporters at a press conference in Comiskey Park’s Bards Room. Betty Flynn, a Chicago Daily News reporter, noted that McCartney fielded most of the questions. “We write what we feel like at the moment like Cole Porter did,” he said. “People will like us a lot more when we’re older, you just watch.” When asked what would happen when the band’s fame fades, the group’s southpaw bassist responded, “We’ve no idea ... it doesn’t matter though.”
Perhaps years later, McCartney recalled that answer. With the camera fixed upon him, he provided a poignant moment during the documentary. Harrison already announced his departure from the band, and there was a significant possibility that Lennon followed suit. “And then there are two,” McCartney said, holding back tears. Perhaps it did matter.
On Saturday, August 21, 1965, newspapers landed on doorsteps with reviews of the two performances (along with Moose Skowron’s two-run homer that gave the White Sox a 3-1 win over the Athletics). Reports suggested that the screaming teens produced more noise than Bill Veeck’s exploding scoreboard, which was still a baseball novelty.
Chicago Tribune sportswriter David Condon provided sarcastic jabs the next morning in his column, “In the Wake of the News.” He tapped baseball sentimentality by drawing comparisons between Beatles fanatics who lined 35th Street to White Sox rooters who attended the 1959 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Condon noted that a young Arlington Heights girl confessed that “they’re cute” as her rationale for liking the band. He countered with, “But cuter than Art Shires and Zeke Bonura, who made Comiskey Park the shrine that it is?” For good measure, Condon continued the old-timers day parade by invoking the names of Jim Rivera and Frank Lane.
“When people ask what was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done,” McPike said, “I say my sister and I saw The Beatles.” For a concert that started and ended in the blink of an eye, my mom and aunt still reminisce after all of the years about seeing—but not really hearing—the band that started the British Invasion. “It was like seeing a no-hitter, or watching a team turn a triple play,” Pearch said. “I wish we saved our tickets. It was an incredible day.”
Bill Pearch, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, serves as newsletter editor for SABR’s Emil Rothe Chapter (Chicago). He has contributed to SABR’s publications about old Comiskey Park and the 1995 Atlanta Braves. His first Paul McCartney concert was at Milwaukee County Stadium in 1993, home of the Milwaukee Brewers. Follow him on Twitter: @billpearch.