When Daley was not at school or working, he spent much of his free time at the Hamburg Athletic Club, which met in a nondescript clubhouse at 37th and Emerald, just a few blocks from his home. Hamburg was one of many such clubs in Chicago at the time others had names like "Ragen's Colts," "the Aylwards," and "Our Flag" that were part social circle, part political organization, and part street gang. The athletic clubs placed a premium on toughness and loyalty. The Ragen's Colts' motto could have belonged to any of them: "Hit me and you hit two thousand." Young men like Daley often ended up on the wrong end of the local policeman's billy club.
"All they wanted to do was just beat you over the head," Daley would later say, revealingly, about the policemen of his youth. When they were not testing the limits of the law, Hamburg Athletic Club members actually engaged in a few athletic activities. The clubs organized their own competitive sports leagues, sponsored outings to professional sporting events, and even held picnics and dances. Daley excelled in the Hamburg Athletic Club's sports program not as a participant but as a manager of others. "Dick often came to practice carrying his books," recalled a union official who was once the mascot of the Hamburg Athletic Club baseball team. "He was a very busy guy, but he took his job as a manager seriously. He made line-ups, booked the games, and ran the team on the field during games."
Clubs like Hamburg also served as the first rung of the Democratic machine. Most were sponsored by machine politicians, who contributed to their treasuries and took a personal interest in their members. The clubs, for their part, did political work in the neighborhood during election season. The "Ragen" of Ragen's Colts was Cook County commissioner Frank Ragen, who paid the rent on the clubhouse and underwrote many of the club's other expenses. Hamburg's patron was Alderman Joseph McDonough, a rising star in the Democratic machine.
Hamburg had a long history as a training ground for machine politicians. Among its alumni was Tommy Doyle, president of the club in 1914, who challenged Bridgeport's twenty-year-incumbent alderman and won. The club had served as a powerful political base for Doyle, providing him with an army of 350 campaign workers. Four years later, when Doyle moved on to higher office, McDonough inherited his aldermanic seat. Clubs like Hamburg were also valuable because their members were willing and able to apply force on behalf of their sponsors. It was a useful service, since Chicago political campaigns had a way of getting rough. A fierce battle for ward committeeman in the "Bloody 20th" Ward in 1928 ended with one candidate killed gangland-style and his opponent put on trial for the killing. It was common for election judges to be beaten up on election day, or kidnapped and not released until the voting and the vote stealing was completed. "Politics ain't bean-bag," Mr. Dooley said in one of his most famous pronouncements.
"'Tis a man's game, an' women, childer, cripples an' prohybitionists 'd do well to keep out iv it." For a young man in Bridgeport with political ambitions, the Hamburg Athletic Club was a good place to start out. Daley was elected president of the club in 1924, at age twenty-two, a post he held for the next fifteen years.
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