Friday, May 10, 2013

A beautiful day for a ball game...

Well actually it was cold and the wind was gusting from the north, chilling us, me especially to the bone. You can tell from the sparse crowd at Wrigley Field that conditions weren't perfect the other day. They said the attendance was over 32,000 but I'd guess half of those were no shows, that is unless 16,000 fans spent the game under the stands in the concourse area.

And yet it's special any time you get to experience Wrigley Field. There is nothing like it anymore, anywhere -- well OK, except maybe the old ballpark in Boston. Today Fenway Park and Wrigley are celebrated for their intimacy, for their beauty, and their history. Back in the fifties, you could have said the same for virtually every ballpark, Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, Griffiths Stadium in Washington, Crosley Field in Cincinnati, Comiskey Park here in Chicago -- in all twelve major league ballparks (both St. Louis and Philadelphia had two teams that played in the same park), and many more minor league ones that shared features with Wrigley and Fenway, some even surpassing them. Forbes was more beautiful, Ebbets and Tiger Stadium more intimate, and it would be hard to match the compendium of baseball history made at Yankee Stadium.

One by one all those palaces of baseball disappeared; only Fenway and Wrigley survive. Plans surfaced several years ago to build a new Fenway across the street from the old one, keeping some of the signature features like the Green Monster and the idiosyncratic dimensions, while introducing 21st century comforts into the joint. But it turned out that old Fenway was as important in the hearts and minds of New Englanders as Wrigley is to Chicagoans, perhaps more so. The plans were scrapped and old Fenway was fixed up and updated, heck they even put up a Jumbotron scoreboard in left field.

Now it's Wrigley Field's turn and things are heating up. The current owners of the Cubs have agreed to raise 300 million dollars of private capital to renovate the 99 year old park. In return they want more night games, more parking, and are asking the city to roll back landmark ordinances that would prevent them from making changes such as, you guessed it, installing a Jumbotron in left field. If they don't get these things, the owners say, they may have to find another place to play ball.

I used to believe that the two entities, Wrigley Field and the Cubs were inseparable, you simply could not have one without the other. I believed the groundswell of public sentiment for the place would be like a title wave, that no owner of the club with half a brain would dare suggest moving the team elsewhere. But I was wrong. From an unscientific survey based upon listening to others in person, and through the media, I'd say sentiment among Cubs fans for keeping the team at Wrigley is maybe 50-50 at best. Besides the obvious lack of modern conveniences, for many fans, Wrigley Field represents 99 years of failure for the team. The last time the Cubs won a World Series was in 1908, when they played at the West Side Grounds, which stood on the current site the College of Medicine of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Not that there weren't great years for the team in Wrigley Field on the north side; the Cubs were perennial contenders in the teens, and between 1929 and 1938, they won the National League Pennant four times like clockwork, every third year. The last time the Cubs won the National League pennant was in 1945; they've been wandering around the desert ever since, 28 years longer than the Israelites under Moses.

Many die hard Cubs fans would have no problem exchanging the Friendly Confines for a championship. Some go so far as to blame the team's one hundred years of ineptitude on the ballpark, others on a curse. But it's not difficult to rationally explain the Cubs' lack of success on the field since 1945.

Wrigley Field was not built for the Cubs but for the Chicago Whales of the short lived Federal League. The park built in 1914 was originally known as Weeghman Field, named after one of the founders of the breakaway league and the owner of the Whales, Charles Weeghman. When the league folded in 1916, Weeghman formed a consortium of investors who bought the Cubs for $500,000. Upon buying the team, he moved them into his new north side park. One of Weeghman's investors was chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. who bought controlling interest in the club in 1918. The park would be known as Cubs Park until 1926 when it officially became Wrigley Field. William died in 1932 and left the team in the hands of his son, Phillip Knight Wrigley.

P.K. Wrigley as his Wikipedia biography states, presided over the "family hobby", the Cubs, until his death in 1977. Where other baseball owners developed money making, game-changing innovations, P.K. preferred to do things his own way. Wrigley the Younger was particularly fond of his namesake ballpark. Unlike every other baseball owner, he steadfastly refused to allow advertising inside the park. The outfield ivy, the bleacher section, and the famous hand operated scoreboard were installed under P.K.'s tenure (all carried out by the way by Bill Veeck under Wrigley's employ). Lights, particularly the standards that supported them were particularly offensive to P.K.; he thought they detracted from the beauty of Wrigley Field. As far as developing major league talent through minor league affiliate teams, the practice known as the "farm system", Wrigley believed that minor league organizations had the right to develop their own talent, free from the influence of major league "masters". Charming and noble as his intransigence may have been, Wrigley's refusal to change with the times worked to the detriment of his team. Some trace the demise the beloved also-ran 1969 Cubs to their erratic schedule, having to play all their home games during the day while most road games were played at night. Others site the lack of depth on the team that forced the starters to play virtually every game that season.

There was one innovation that P.K. Wrigley embraced as far as baseball was concerned. Despite the presumption that televising home games was akin to "giving away the product", Wrigley alone among his peers was steadfast in bringing every Cubs game into people's homes. It could be argued that TV was at least partly responsible for the decrease in attendance at Major League ballparks in the fifties and early sixties. With the combination of night baseball and TV, people stayed home to watch rather than go to the ballpark, especially during work nights. Of course the Cubs playing only in daylight, didn't have that problem. That's why the overwhelming number of fans at Cubs games during my childhood in the sixties and seventies were children and out of work adults. Manager Lee Elia pointed that out in his famous rant (warning, not for the fainthearted). That was back when a couple dollars could get you into the ballpark on the day of the game no less. Kids paid even less.

In the sixties and early seventies, other teams, especially in the National League left their old parks in favor of spiffy new downtown digs built for them by their cities. P.K. was unfazed; for him, it was Wrigley Field that drew the fans, especially when the product on the field could not.

Things began to drastically change for the Cubs in 1978, one year after P.K. Wrigley's death, when WGN, the Chicago television station that broadcast the Cubs went national, and viewers all over the country could pick up Cub games on cable. The team now had fans coast to coast, drawn by the lovable losers who played in that strange, lovely old ivy-covered ballpark on the north side of Chicago.

Harry Caray as pitchman for a beer and
a new lifestyle on the north side of Chicago.
The Wrigley Era officially ended in 1981 when the family sold the Cubs to the Tribune Company, the parent company of both their eponymous newspaper and WGN, (the call letters standing for "World's Greatest Newspaper"). That year, the TV voice of the team for a generation or two, the avuncular Jack Brickhouse retired. Brickhouse's lullaby style of broadcasting, long a staple in Cubs nation, was replaced in the booth by his diametric opposite, Harry Caray. Caray's voice was Big Ben, compared to Brickhouse's dinner bell, a fog horn opposed to a finger snap. Caray was already well known across the States, and was a perfect fit for the team that was now nation-wide. While Brickhouse spent much of his on-air time reading his mail, often silently to himself, Caray was forever engaging his listeners, having fun with them and himself, and especially the team. An inveterate lover of life, as well as baseball, he called it like he saw it, unlike his predecessor who would never make a disparaging remark about the home team, much to the pleasure of his boss, P.K. Wrigley. Caray's demeanor filtered down to the fans in the stands who became a rambunctious, beer guzzling lot, just like Harry, and just like fans of the White Sox, Caray's previous employer. The copy in the ad at the right became more than a catchy advertising slogan. Every year, tickets became harder to come by and every year, the streets around the ballpark became packed with more revelers in a drunken stupor, before, during and after the games. Even though the team had some on-field success in the eighties with two playoff appearances, one in 1984, the other in 1989, the Tribune Company received the same rap as the Wrigley family, they just didn't seem to care about putting a good team on the field as long as they put fans in the stands, and reaped the huge revenue that was now available though TV broadcasting.

The Lakeview neighborhood where Wrigley Field resides, went from being a sleepy residential community, to Partytown, USA, Rush Street north, the bar-hopping area now known as "Wrigleyville." If Caray's joining the Cubs was a catalyst for the change, the coup de gras took place on the evening of August 8, 1988, when the last vestige of day-only baseball fell by the wayside; it was the evening the lights were finally turned on in the old ballpark.

Night baseball had been a long time coming, the neighbors who resisted it must have felt at least a little vindicated when after a few innings, the skies opened up and the first night game at Wrigley Field was rained out. If the baseball gods were displeased, it would be only for one evening. Night baseball became a reality in Wrigleyville.

Wrigley Field was not always held in the highest esteem in the baseball world. The term "Friendly Confines" that is used to describe the place, was coined by the most beloved Cub of all, Ernie Banks. He spent his entire career and the years since espousing the glories of his team and its ballpark. But even Mr. Cub was less than impressed the first time he set foot in the joint. On a recent local radio program, Banks admitted his first impression of Wrigley Field after coming to Chicago from the premier team of the old Negro Leagues, the Kansas City Monarchs, was less than spectacular. He compared the experience to the old Peggy Lee song: "Is That All There Is?" Clearly it grew on him over time as it does for most.

Because the Cubs went so long without playing home games after dark, that first night game was a milestone, an event that drew tremendous national attention to the ballpark. Beautiful as she is at daytime, the old girl is a sight to see as the waning rays of the sun bathe the scoreboard, the ivy, and the buildings to the east in golden light. As day fades into night, the effect is magical, an emerald gem in a sea of indigo sprinkled with flickering lights. I'd say the night they turned on the lights for the first time, Wrigley Field ceased being a dumpy old ballpark and became a national icon.

Four years later, Camden Yards opened in Baltimore. It would be the first of many so called "retro" ballparks, new ballparks built to look like old ballparks, that is, built specifically to look like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. Today it would be inconceivable to build a major league ballpark that doesn't have eccentric dimensions like Fenway, and a spectacular view of the city, like Wrigley.

Photograph by Anthony Rodriguez
While the fan base and the atmosphere have been drastically altered, physically, Wrigley Field hasn't changed much since I was a kid. Other than the expanded bleacher section and a few discretely placed advertisements, the view of the ballpark above (made by my friend last week), if not the neighborhood behind it, looks exactly as it did fifty years ago. Some of that will change if the Ricketts Family, the owners of the Cubs renovate the ballpark. A huge electronic scoreboard will be built that would obscure view of the building with the blue roof beyond left field, and there will be more ads. From a purist's perspective, Wrigley Field is fine just as it is. But simply put, the ballpark was not built to last one hundred years. Just like the Wells Street Bridge that was recently rebuilt truss by truss, section by section, serious work needs to be done on the old lady at Clark and Addison. Things have gotten so bad, if you look up you can see nets retaining the concrete that supports the upper deck, preventing it from crumbling and falling on the heads of the people below.

Revenue generated from the new bells and whistles will help pay for the restoration. Not everyone mind you is in favor of the restoration, each has his or her own reason. Ironically, the folks who one would think, have the most to lose if the Cubs were to pull up stakes, seem to be the most vociferous in their objections. I've written in this space about the owners of the buildings across the street from the ballpark who object to the team's putting anything up that would block the free view of the field from their rooftop bleacher seats which they sell for a very steep price. It is they, and the alderman they have in their pocket who are at the moment the major roadblocks for the project to move forward.

My hunch is that by hook or by crook, the project will go ahead with or without everyone being on board. As we've seen in the past, the Mayor of Chicago generally gets what he wants in the end and this particular mayor, a Cubs fan, wants it to happen. The talk about building a stadium in the suburbs that would recreate the feeling one gets at Wrigley, is just plain silly. As you can see from Tony Rodriguez's photograph above, you would have to recreate the entire north side of Chicago and throw in the lake to boot to accomplish that. I laughed when I heard the proposal to put a new ballpark in Rosemont, a suburb near the airport, imagining the already ridiculous traffic conditions being exacerbated by the addition of 30,000 or so more cars  in the middle of rush hour carrying fans going to a weekday game with a 7PM start. Then there's the spectacular view of the airport, the Allstate Arena and the Target parking lot. It would make for a dazzling poster.

No, Chicago is not going to let go of the Cubs and probably not Wrigley Field either. The team and the ballpark are significant engines in this city's economy. In addition to the plans for the ballpark, there are additional plans to build a hotel and other amenities outside the park for visitors. It's a deal too good to pass up for the city, especially if it doesn't have to foot the bill, and here I'll say it again, that's something unheard of these days.

Not only is the Ricketts family willing to put their money where their mouth is to keep Wrigley Field around for another 50 or 100 years, they seem equally committed to the success of the team. They have hired a proven management team that finally gets the idea of the importance of developing a farm system, and recognizes the fact that building a winning team does not happen overnight. In my mind, it's a pretty good time to be a Cubs fan, sometimes in fact, I wish I were one, (I am an avowed Cubs liker).

Everyone who like me appreciates the tradition of the Cubs in Wrigley Field has one man to thank for the likelihood of several more years of that tradition. Had old Phil Wrigley not followed the beat of his own drummer back in the thirties, Wrigley Field would not have its most distinctive features, the ivy, the bleachers and the scoreboard. Had he followed the crowd back in the forties and fifties by not taking advantage of the new medium of television and forging the relationship with WGN, the team may never have reaped the benefits of national exposure years later. Had he put lights in the park, there would not have been the transformation (with truly beautiful light standards by the way), and the celebration that went along with it in 1988. Had P.K. Wrigley been in lockstep with his peers in the sixties and seventies, he would have threatened to leave town unless the city built him a new multi-purpose, astroturf clad "cookie cutter" stadium downtown. Of course it's possible that stadium might have had at least a few World Series flags flying in the outfield, but that is merely conjecture.

Yes it's a good time to be a Cubs fan because despite their current record, the organization seems hellbent on having a championship caliber team in a few years. And they seem to be equally committed to keeping the team in Wrigley Field by bringing the park up to current safety standards while throwing in some bells and whistles that please the fans and bring in revenue to pay for it all.

In other words, almost everybody wins. For those of us, yes I'm including myself, who say nothing should change, that Wrigley Field is a historic landmark and it should remain just as it was back when we were kids, please remember this: two dollar admission, ladies days, no ads in the park, day only baseball, and many other perks we took for granted in the good old days, simply are not sustainable today. For those of us who long for the way things used to be, I have three simple words:

The Rosemont Cubs.


Anonymous said...

Nicely spun, Jim. Thanks for all the work this must have taken, and making it read like no work at all.

James Iska said...

It's not work, it's baseball!

T said...

Nevermind the rooftop owners concerns, the Jumbotron and all of the additional advertising signage inside the park is a big ugly greedy mistake by an unproven ownership. The most profitable team in baseball needs to make the place ugly to fix the toilets. Yeah right.