THE TIME WHEN PIGEONS CARRIED THE NEWS TO NEWSPAPERS--SORT OF

CHICAGO / AUGUST 1977


In these days of lightning-fast communications, the date May 17, 1939, probably won't go down in Chicago journalistic history-but it should.

That afternoon, in Wrigley Field, where the Cubs were playing the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gabby Hartnett hit a long fly to right field, and the ball was miraculously snatched out of the air.

A Chicago Times photographer, who had taken a picture of the event with a small 2 1/4-by-3 1/4-inch Speed Graphic, unloaded his photo plate in a light-tight cloth bag. Feeling carefully, he removed the negative, rolled it into a tight cylinder, and sealed it in a small aluminum canister that looked like a miniature version of the containers that hold good cigars.

Then the photographer reached into a crate holding ten anxious carrier pigeons, brought out one of the birds, and attached the container to a back harness it was wearing. Tossing the bird into the air, he watched the pigeon circle the field once and then speed away at 60 mph toward the old Times Building at 211 West Wacker Drive.

The fast-flying pigeon, a blue and white bird named "Wacky Jack," took only 5 1/2 minutes to reach the 8-by-10-foot loft on the nineteen-story building's roof. Eagerly, he popped through a trap door that set off a buzzer in the fourth floor newsroom.

The Times "flight superintendent," a Crane High School senior named George Kotalik, had alerted a copyboy to rush up to the roof. The copyboy carefully removed the canister, attached it to a wire that ran down 150 feet to the fourth floor fire escape, and slid the film down to another waiting copyboy.

Minutes later, a wet print of the historic event was on its way to the engraving department. An hour later, as the Cub fans were leaving Wrigley Field, they could buy a Times that displayed pictures of the game they had just watched.

The credit for inaugurating The Times Pix-a-Back Service, as it was called, goes to the imaginative and pixyish city editor, Bruce Grant, now a writer of children's books in Wilmette. Grant, who once rigged up a Morse telegraph line to the managing editor's office 50 feet away, was intrigued when a racing pigeon fancier suggested the idea of using feathered messengers. Grant hired young Kotalik for $9 a week (soon raised to $15), to carry out the venture.

Kotalik, now the prosperous owner of a bar across from the North Western station in Crystal Lake, grew up in a family of pigeon lovers. His father, Joseph, a commercial printer, kept as many as 400 racing pigeons in his loft at 1325 South Keeler.

These elegant birds, with such aristocratic blood lines as Stassart, Elang Miller, English Bezkie, Gurnay, Black Diamond, and Blue Check, were as different from the dusty pigeons that live in the Loop as race horses were from the old nags pulling junkwagons.

The senior Kotalik donated twenty young birds to the Times, and young George began acclimating them to their new location by clapping his hands and forcing them to fly over the building. Then he took them to various locations around the city--longer and longer trips each day--and made them fly back to Wacker Drive.

Finally, they were ready to go to work-at both ball parks, at the Criminal Court Building, and on spot news assignments. As a young Times reporter, I remember covering suburban murders with photographers and taking pigeons along.

There are some secrets to running an efficient pigeon messenger service, and the ASPCA might not approve. George Kotalik now confesses that the fastest birds were those he removed from the coop when they had eggs to sit on or young to feed. (He only removed the mother or the father bird, not both, as they took turns caring for the young.) He also held back their feed for a day so they would hunger to get back from an assignment. The slowest birds were disposed of so that they could not breed more slow birds. Kotalik had a taste for roast squab and pigeon soup.

The pigeons were as much a public relations gimmick as they were messengers. Times photographers would visit schools around the city, explain the Pix-a-Back Service, and take group pictures of the children. Then they would send the pictures back with the pigeons.

But the pigeons had their limitations. Ten pigeons taken along on the 333-mile annual yacht race to Mackinac Island never came back. ("Pigeons can fly 1,000 miles, but not over water," says Kotalik ruefully.) A pigeon named "Air Cadet" was released in Springfield on January 13, 1941, with pictures of the inauguration of Governor Dwight H. Green. He didn't show up in Chicago until 23 days later. On February 5, the Times ran a first-person (or should I say first-bird?) story by "Air Cadet" explaining that fog and icing conditions had forced him down and that he had to walk most of the 200 miles back. The Times printed his picture as well as the delayed inaugural picture.

At Comiskey Park, a photographer from the Chicago American discovered that he could sabotage the pigeons by simply feeding the hungry birds while the Times photographer was busy taking pictures. Then, when the sated birds were released, they would fly up to the roof atop the stands and linger to watch the game instead of hurrying home.

The outbreak of World War II marked the beginning of the end for the Times' birds. Some of the 44 pigeons were donated to the Army Signal Corps, which used them, the newspaper bragged, to carry messages on Bataan and in the Solomons. And "they were taken to Europe with the commandos and released to carry back messages which could not be sent by radio."

By now I was in the army, myself, and, whenever I came home on furlough, I couldn't help but notice that fewer and fewer pigeons were working at the Times.

When I returned to the Times as night picture editor at war's end, the pigeon coop was empty. Now, instead of using feathered messengers, we had to rely on taxi drivers to rush the photo plates in from the ball park. They weren't as romantic, but at least they could not be corrupted with chickenfeed.