We know that this nation apparently places great store in just what plays in Peoria, but what about the things that didn't play here? That's what Peorians Greg Wahl and Charles Bobbitt sought to find out in their new book, "It Didn't Play in Peoria: Missed Chances of a Middle American Town." The result is a folksy approach to Peoria history, cruising through a lot of information that we've heard before but also coming up with a number of items we haven't.
We know that this nation apparently places great store in just what plays in Peoria, but what about the things that didn't play here?
That's what Peorians Greg Wahl and Charles Bobbitt sought to find out in their new book, "It Didn't Play in Peoria: Missed Chances of a Middle American Town."
The result is a folksy approach to Peoria history, cruising through a lot of information that we've heard before but also coming up with a number of items we haven't.
Understand that the authors are not maligning the River City through this dissertation. One need only read the introduction to understand their respect for Peoria as they tick off some of the city's credits: The oldest settlement in Illinois; a distillery/brewery center; a center for entertainment and a symbol of strength during hard economic times.
But the focus here is not the city's whiskey barons or the long association with earthmoving giant Caterpillar Inc. Instead we find out - in anecdotal format - what didn't come the city's way.
"Unlike other everyday cities, Peoria came close to greatness on more than one occasion, only to settle for less time and time again," note the authors.
Behind this investigation into Peoria's past potential is an appreciation for "One of the most misunderstood cities in America - unappreciated for anything other than the role as the quintessential bland and boring backwater."
What fascinates Wahl and Bobbitt are this backwater's near misses - detailed in a lighthearted manner that makes for an easy read.
We learn that Peoria:
- Almost landed Illinois State University but lost out to Bloomington and a horse.
- Could have been the home for another university if the family of Washington Corrington, a successful 19th-century farmer, hadn't contested his will and diverted the $10 million Corrington had earmarked for the project.
- Could have been been the home for the Krispy Kreme doughnut empire.
But perhaps the biggest loss of all is Peoria's lack of "Spirit." Gracing the cover of "Didn't Play" is Charles Lindbergh, the pioneer aviator with a Peoria connection. Lindbergh, who bailed out over central Illinois on several occasions while shuttling mail between Chicago and St. Louis, knew Peoria as one of his regular stops.
"History shows that there was in fact a close association (between Lindbergh and Peoria), one that could have been world-famous had the city not missed its chance by the slimmest of margins," note the authors, referring to the fact that Lindbergh may have asked Peoria city fathers for backing for his solo flight across the Atlantic before winding up in St. Louis.
History shows? Perhaps. "The idea that Lindbergh went to Peoria first with his transatlantic proposal works even with the lack of a paper trail and the silence of the people involved," write Wahl and Bobbitt.
Had the backing for Lindbergh's proposed flight (estimated at around $20,000 - big money for 1927) come from central Illinois backers it might have been the Spirit of Peoria - not Spirit of St. Louis - that received worldwide acclaim.
"To be fair, the business elite of Peoria had every reason to turn him down. It was a classic case of great idea, wrong guy," wrote the authors, adding: "The Peoria men must have known about (Lindbergh's) airmail-route crashes on Sept. 16 and Nov. 3 outside of town. If he couldn't fly between Peoria and Chicago without crashing, they could be excused for wondering how could he possibly fly across the Atlantic without dunking himself - and their money - into the ocean?"
The book also provides insight into one of the great mysteries of our time: Why would the Boston Red Sox ever trade budding superstar Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920? Peorian Harry Frazee was evidently at the heart of the whole thing.
I like the irreverent style that Wahl and Bobbitt demonstrate in this book but their focus wanders off theme into some much-traveled territory: That is, what has played here, recounting the exploits of favorite sons like Richard Pryor and Philip Jose Farmer.
Before rehashing Peoria's familiar past, there might have been some other missed chances to speculate on. Such as how Peoria missed out on being the state capitol - and the part Abe Lincoln played in favoring Springfield. Then there's the No. 1 NBA draft pick that never played a minute of pro ball. That would be Bradley's "Squeaky" Melchiorre, involved in a 1951 gambling scandal.
Uneven at times, "It Didn't Play in Peoria" is nevertheless an entertaining read. Even when delving into what might have been, the book relates how history can always be a source of fresh ideas.
Steve Tarter can be reached at (309) 686-3260 or firstname.lastname@example.org.