“South Side baseball… White Sox fans welcome”
Not only had the watering hole served the Bridgeport neighborhood that surrounds it for over 136 years, but Schaller’s Pump also represented two fundamental American traditions: baseball and politics.
Being only a few blocks away from both the Old and New Comiskey, Schaller’s was a haven for White Sox fans especially during their championship 2005 season. It wasn’t just rowdy Sox fans with thick accents, though. With the district’s democratic headquarters across the street, Schaller’s had long served as a “second office” for no less than five of Chicago’s mayors that all hail from Bridgeport.
Add to that its signature dish of butt steak, accordion concerts on the weekends, and a character built over the course of a century, and Schaller’s Pump was a true Chicago classic, especially before and after Sox games, after Democratic election victories, and for celebrating days that end in “y.”
Chicago’s Oldest Tavern: 1881-2017
Schaller’s Pump was Chicago’s oldest continuously running tavern. Having originally opened in 1881, the saloon operated under a different name until George “Harvey” Schaller purchased it at the end of Prohibition, following its days when the joint was run as a speakeasy. The third and forth generation Schallers (Jack, who lived upstairs from the bar, and his son and four daughters) were always happy to point out the peephole in the door in the south wall that is no longer used and is kept covered with beer paraphernalia. According to Newcity Chicago’s David Witter, the bar’s name stems from its neighbor: “The Ambrosia Brewery, one of dozens of neighborhood beer makers of the era, was located in what is now the parking lot next door. Beer was supposedly pumped in straight from the brewer’s giant casks, giving the room its moniker, ‘Schaller’s Pump.'” Back in those days there were more than 30 post-Prohibition breweries in the neighborhood. Now that’s Bridgeport!
Getting There and In
Schaller’s Pump was located at the T-intersection formed by 37th and Halsted and was easy to spot with the beer advertising taking up the whole north wall of this brick two-flat. The impressive, arched wooden door remained firmly bolted shut at all times and a modest neon sign hung above it, advertising “Schaller’s Original Pump” and “Fine Food.”
The main entrance at Schaller’s was instead located on the north side via the establishment’s aluminum-sided addition and adjacent parking lot, the latter of which made Schaller’s Pump a very popular spot before and after Sox games. It was much easier to park there, walk to the game and get out afterwards as the White Sox parking lots tend to create one of the world’s biggest bottlenecks after games.
Bleeding Black & White
Once you’re inside, you’d step down a few carpeted stairs and you’ll find yourself at another T-intersection: to your right were the restrooms and the rec-like backroom with drop ceiling, and to the left was the main bar and crux of the action. Step through this doorway and you’d find a classic old taproom with a high tin ceilings, a nicely ceramic-tiled floor of beige with patterned borders, and a bevy of neon Sox paraphernalia, including a photo of the owner with an unidentified White Sox player holding the ’05 World Series trophy. Even the paint job was Sox black & white. The black-painted archways, framed by bullwhips taken from the now-defunct Union Stock Yard nearby, looked like they may have offered windows at some distant point.
“Jack Schaller told me that the room in which we were sitting had been a horse bookmaking operation until well into the 1960s. ‘My father died in ’62. He was still booking. Then I took it over. But I didn’t like it. I liked betting more than booking,’ Jack said with a grin.”– Excerpt from Mark Brown’s Sun Times article, “Latest ‘oldest restaurant’ winner knew it all along” (April 6, 2006)
A wooden bar ran most of the length of the northern wall and offered seating on backless barstools. To quench your thirst, three domestics were found on tap, with the rest available in cans (including PBR), but the whiskey here went down almost as copiously as the beer. Across from the bar, was a smattering of low-slung tables, topped with Formica and complimented with banquet hall chairs. The place settings and napkins were paper, but the Schallers took pride in their presentation for lunch and dinner, every day of the week.
The Butt Steak
I once came in on a Wednesday night and, after hacking through 18 holes on the Jackson Park Golf Course, they were just about to close down the kitchen. Fortunately, they were still willing to grill up their signature dish: the “butt steak sandwich.” It consisted of a rather nice filet placed upon a piece of toasted bread. I opted for the “hash browns” on the side, instead of the more customary mashed potatoes. Both were superb and a most pleasant surprise, as I wasn’t expecting that much out of this mom and pop place. The meal was also served accompanied by a bread basket with rolls individually wrapped in plastic, along with crackers.
The daily specials, illustrated on the board next to the kitchen, included a rotating selection of such comfort food options as corned beef and cabbage, meatloaf, pork chops, chicken, ribs, seafood (ranging from orange roughy to shrimp), liver sausage, and hamburgers. Schaller’s Pump didn’t offer appetizers but you could wrap up a meal with a nice dollop of rice pudding.
“Not for dates unless you’re so South Side it hurts.”– K.M. on Yelp (June 7, 2007)
Entertainment, South Side Style
As for entertainment, a few old televisions with nuevo-flatscreen fronts broadcasted all Sox games and even the Cubs because Bridgeport fans have two teams to root for: the White Sox and whoever plays the Cubs. Otherwise you’d see WGN on and, like its North Side cousins Old Town Ale House and L&L Tavern, Jeopardy! takes center stage every weekday at 3:30pm where the regulars tangled for trivia knowledge bragging rights with Jay Schaller behind the bar. The real entertainment, aside from drunken Sox fans, was had from the live accordion player on Friday and Saturday nights.
Chicago has been a blue city for a long time, and five of its Democratic mayors grew up in Bridgeport: two Daleys, Kelly, Kennelly, and Bilandic. Each of them have spent a lot of time at Schaller’s Pump as the 11th District Democratic headquarters is located across the street. Former mayor, Richard J. Daley who grew up a few blocks away at 3536 S. Lowe Ave., once took 1,000 Bridgeport fans to a World Series game when the Sox won the pennant in 1959. The Sox lost, but Daley won and served as mayor for 21 years in total, until he died in 1976. A portrait of current mayor and son of the original, Richard M. Daley, hung above the bar.
Everything about Schaller’s was old-school: the place (since the 19th Century), the neighborhood (Bridgeport), the staff (middle-aged and prone to sitting and drinking on their shift), the clientele (South Side), and the food (of the comfort variety). Though clearly not from the area (and a Cubs fan to boot), I found Schaller’s Pump to have a very friendly and welcoming vibe and would not hesitate to drop in before or after a Sox game. Dennis McCarthy may have put it best in The Great Chicago Bar & Saloon Guide (1985): “If you’re Irish and from the South Side of Chicago, this is the kind of place your grandfather would have gone to. In the men’s room I found a curiously touching bit of graffiti that sums up, perhaps, Schaller’s Bridgeport and Daley. It said, simply, ‘love your mother.'”
If you liked Schaller’s, check out nearby Shinnick’s Pub at 37th and Union, which dates back to the late 1890s and owned by the Shinnick Family since 1938.