Ray Schalk has one of the most impressive baseball resumes one can find when combing through the annals of the game. The catcher had a distinguished 18-year playing career and was a “Clean Sox” on the infamous 1919 Chicago Black Sox before moving on to a career in coaching. He was ultimately inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955 but nearly didn’t live to see that moment because of the time he was taken hostage by armed robbers at his bowling alley.
Schalk, a native of Illinois, played all but his final season (1929) with the Chicago White Sox. Although he hit just a combined .253 with 11 home runs in his career, he was considered a superb defensive player and a strong team leader. He was considered so unimpeachable that he was known as one of the Clean Sox; unable to be corrupted by the dishonesty of his 1919 teammates. Once he hung up his catching equipment, he held coaching jobs around professional baseball but maintained a home base in Chicago. His career allowed him the capital to invest in business ventures; one of them being Ray Schalk’s Evergreen Towers, a Windy City bowling alley.
Evidently, the alley enjoyed some success—to the point it became a target for a gang of thieves. In early June, 1948, Schalk was in his office at the premises when six gunmen (one held a machine gun while the others were armed with pistols) masked by handkerchiefs forced their way in and ordered him open his safe. The former ballplayer told the intruders that the only person with the combination and key to access the vault was Lou Barbour, the former secretary of the White Sox and then manager of the bowling alley. Believing a big score was nigh, the robbers decided to wait.
In an effort to make their scheme go as smoothly as possible, the robbers marched Schalk, his wife Lavinia, a coat check girl, a few customers and approximately two dozen pin setters downstairs and locked them in various rooms in the basement. In total, 36 people were held during the wait for the man with the combination and key. Chivalry was not bypassed altogether, as one of the gunmen provided Mrs. Schalk with a moist towel after she complained of a headache.
Ironically, Barbour, who was walking to work that day, was picked up and given a ride by Lou Riddering, the Evergreen Park police chief. An appreciative Barbour invited his benefactor in for a drink but was rebuffed. Little did he know how much he would soon wish his offer had been accepted.
When Barbour walked into the building, it must have seemed eerily quiet at first but that feeling would have likely been quickly replaced by great alarm, as two robbers with drawn guns quickly cornered him and demanded money. Under duress, the safe was opened and ne’er-do-wells extracted nearly $2,000, and then with the use of a crowbar, proceeded to make off with an additional $800 from the adjacent bar that was owned by Schalk’s business partner. Adding insult to injury, the six men helped themselves to the keys to the old catcher’s 1947 Buick and roared off with their ill-gotten gains.
Schalk and the hostages were held for a couple of hours. Shortly after the robbers fled, some of the pin boys broke down the door. Their situation had been more dire than the rest, as they were confined in an airtight liquor storage room and a couple had passed out from the lack of air. The brave souls who broke out carefully surveyed the premises and after ascertaining that their tormentors were gone, they freed the rest of their companions.
A thorough investigation ensued but the culprits were never caught. In a city not far removed from Al Capone and gangland hysteria, this crime may not have registered as high on the scale as it might have in other communities in terms of shock value. However, it was a close call for the Chicago icon, who survived the ordeal and ended up living until 1970 when he passed away sat the age of 77.
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