Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Happy Birthday Wrigley Field

The morning ride to work on the southbound Red Line becomes really interesting as our train approaches Lawrence Avenue in the heart of Uptown. The faded glory of the commercial district in the vicinity of that stop is most apparent in the enormous Uptown Theater, closed decades ago but still magnificent, awaiting a fate yet to be determined, hopefully in the form of a benefactor with a check in the eight figures. One bright light that shown in the neighborhood until a few years back, the Borders store that occupied the ornate Goldblatts department store building, closed when the company that owned the chain of bookstores went bankrupt in 2011. At this writing the retail space in that building is shuttered but there is still plenty of life in the district. The venerable Green Mill, a former speakeasy often frequented by Al Capone back in the day, is very much alive as an elegant jazz club. The old Aragon Ballroom to our left, and the Riviera Theater to the right, are still in operation as concert venues. Catty-corner to the Green Mill and the Uptown Theater is a beautiful twelve story neo-classical building, now the home of the Bridgeview Bank, which stands in contrast to its neighboring buildings in an area dominated by neo-baroque and renaissance architecture. The new anchor business in the neighborhood is a huge Target store that opened a few blocks south, just beyond the next stop on our commute, Wilson Avenue. Between the Target store and Lawrence Avenue on Broadway, the main business thoroughfare of the district, sit a wide variety of businesses, from discount clothing stores and wig shops to an urban bike store and trendy restaurants, all catering to the varied population of the neighborhood, a testimony to the diversity of a remarkable community.

And so it goes in big cities that are alive and well, people move in, people move out, neighborhoods change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Sometimes it's a tossup. One thing is certain in Uptown: the beautiful buildings, despite their current lack of activity remain standing, remind us of a glorious past, and the potential of a bright future.

One Chicago neighborhood guaranteed not to change for a very long time comes next on our brief tour of the north side. Two blocks south of Wilson Avenue, Graceland Cemetery is the city's best known burial ground, the final resting place for the city's famous and infamous movers and shakers. Like the rest of the city, the cemetery is segregated between the haves and the have-lesses. Graceland's "high rent" district surrounds a lagoon where you will find the magnificent tombs of the Palmers, the Ryersons, and many more of Chicago's prominent citizens of the past. Strolling through this remarkable place, especially on a guided tour or accompanied by a good guidebook, you will find one of the best history lessons on this city available anywhere.

Next we approach the Sheridan Station and here the train makes a short eastbound jog. Looking above the rooftops of the two-flats common to the area, this is when the rider catches the first view of the light standards of Wrigley Field, the exact moment in my morning commute when my heart skips a beat. Wrigley Field was built during the era of the "classic ballparks"; a period of less than a decade when all of the temporary, wooden big league ballparks that were prone to fire and other calamities, were replaced by permanent structures built of steel, brick, and concrete. When Wrigley was built exactly 100 years ago, it was like every other big league ballpark at the time, stuck smack dab in the middle of a city neighborhood upon whatever land was available for purchase by the owners of the team.

In 1914, the year Wrigley Field opened, fans got to the game either on foot, by streetcar, or elevated railway. Nobody thought of parking spaces as land was at too much of a premium to be devoted for the relatively few lucky souls to who owned their own vehicle. That would all change in a few years. By the early twenties as sales of automobiles were measured in the millions for the first time, baseball owners had to take notice. When the Yankees were forced out of the Polo Grounds which they shared with their landlords the New York Giants, they found an available site for their new ballpark about a half mile away, across the Harlem River in the Bronx. That site of a former lumber yard was large enough to accommodate not only a huge ballpark, but also parking for about 1,000 vehicles, still small potatoes considering the stadium could hold nearly 60,000 people.

The original Yankee Stadium, opened in 1923, could be classified as either the last of the classic ballparks, or the paradigm of the modern ballpark. In addition to the parking, it was the first baseball venue to bear the name "stadium." The original plan was to completely enclose the ballpark, much like the Roman Colisseum. Built as such, it could have accommodated about 100,000 fans. However those plans never materialized, the triple deck grandstand seats never made it much beyond the foul poles, leaving most of the fair territory beyond the fences open, giving the fans a view of the world outside, much like Wrigley Field.

The era of the modern ballpark began in earnest with the building of Municipal Stadium in Cleveland in the thirties. With few exceptions, no longer would private capital alone build ballparks. Cleveland's massive ballpark on the shores of Lake Erie was the first stadium to be built by its city to host not only baseball, but other large public events including football. Despite that, no one would ever mistake Municipal Stadium as anything other than a baseball park. Cleveland set the standard for major league ballparks for the next thirty years, that is to say, large, publicly funded multi-purpose sports venues surrounded by highways and parking lots. County Stadium in Milwaukee, Shea Stadium in New York, and Candlestick Park in San Francisco all followed its example. The general consensus among baseball fans was that with the exception of County Stadium, the "modern" ballparks lacked the intimacy of the classic ballparks.

Things were about to get much worse. By the 1960s, professional football rivaled baseball as the nation's most popular spectator sport. The classic ballparks at 50 years of age, were nearing the end of their life expectancy. Most were in bad shape and located in neighborhoods that many fans felt were dangerous. In the sixties, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington all replaced their Wrigley Field era ballparks with Astro-turf clad, multi-purpose stadiums that served baseball and football equally poorly.

With the exception of two highly regarded baseball-only parks, Dodger Stadium, built in the sixties, and Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City from the seventies, the mid-twentieth century was the era of the "cookie-cutter stadium", completely enclosed (Colisseum style) venues that were virtually indistinguishable from one another. At least a dozen major league teams played in them at one time or other. As it turned out, few of these buildings were still standing much beyond their thirtieth birthday.

In the nineties, a new revenue source was discovered for sporting events, the luxury skybox. This new innovation set into motion the largest boom in construction of new ballparks since the era of the classic ballpark. The skybox era brought back parks built exclusively for baseball that would be distinctive and intimate. The new ballparks used as their inspiration the ballparks of old, but ironically their construction spelled the doom of the last of the classic ballparks, that is with the exception of Fenway Park in Boston and of course, Wrigley Field.

There are many reasons why those two ballparks alone lived to celebrate their respective centennials, (Fenway opened in 1912). In Wrigley's case, its longevity can be traced directly to Phillip K. Wrigley, owner of the Cubs from his father's death in 1932, until his own demise in 1977. In a previous post I listed why those of us who love the place have old PK to thank. Conversely, those who want to see the place blown to bits, and there are many of them, have him to blame. In a nutshell, PK Wrigley knew he couldn't always have a good team to draw fans, but he could always make sure his ballpark was a place worth coming to. Much of the effort that should have gone into building up the team some people argue, went into building up and promoting the ballpark instead. Consequently, Cubs fans who blame Wrigley Field on their team's lack of success, (the Cubs haven't won a World Series since they played there), may actually have a point.

Passersby paying homage to the ancient cathedral of baseball
Some call it a baseball cathedral, others call it a dump; both opinions are correct. There's no getting around the fact that Wrigley Field needs a lot of work if its going to be around much longer. Simply put, the building has been around at least fifty years longer than it was originally intended. Its structural integrity is suspect, the training facilities for today's pampered athletes are woefully inadequate, many (not me) believe that the facilities for the fans are also lacking. There are those who wonder why the Cubs just don't build a new ballpark. They site Wrigley's lack of parking, its bad food, the lack of bells and whistles found at new ballparks, uncomfortable seats, unattractive restrooms, the list goes on and on. Several Chicago suburbs have offered sweet deals for the team to move their operations away from Chicago.

Through it all, the Ricketts family who owns the Cubs, remain adamant about keeping their team in WrigleyField despite the fact that they have been getting the runaround with their plans for the renovation of the ballpark from the neighborhood, namely the owners of the rooftop bleachers on the tops of buildings across the street on Waveland and Sheffield Avenues, and the alderman who is in their pocket, a chap by the name of Tom Tunney. I've gone into these issues elsewhere, so I won't bother you with them here.

Some wonder why the family, annoyed by the obstructionism they face, don't just throw up their hands and move to Shaumburg, Rosemont, or a number of other suburbs more than willing to cut them significant tax breaks and other perks to entice the team to pull up stakes and move out to the hinterlands. Could it be a sense of nostalgia that prevents them from building a new state-of-the-art facility?

I hardly think so. The Family Ricketts didn't get to be among the Fortune 400 because of their sentimentality. Tom Ricketts and his family no doubt understand the connection between the financial success of the Cubs, and Wrigley Field. There are people who come to Chicago and who go to Cubs games just to see Wrigley Field. Millions of people around the country became Cubs fans as a result of the local TV station that broadcast their games going national. Now what on earth could be the attraction to the Cubs when people around the country have the option of watching just about any other team? It's certainly unlikely that it is the scintillating baseball played by the men in blue. It could be argued that "The Friendly Confines" is more responsible for the value of the organization, than the team that plays in it. That may be a bitter pill to swallow for many Cub fans who would gladly trade the ballpark for a World Series Championship, but I have no doubt that it is true.

If you don't believe me, consider the case of Chicago's other big league ballpark, US Cellular Field, the home of the Chicago White Sox.

The "Cell" is everything that critics of Wrigley Field want in a ballpark. All the bells and whistles are there, instant replay and stats on the Jumbotron scoreboard, easy in and out access, comfortable seats, a huge selection of good food and drink, an endless array of distractions for those who don't find a baseball game enough of an attraction. The Cell has cleaner, if less efficient bathrooms, I've also gone into that before, you can look it up. And you would be hard pressed to find a sports venue in the United States that is more accessible. Located adjacent to a major Interstate highway, US Cellular Field sits in the middle of acres of parking lots. But not everyone drives to the Cell. In addition to city bus lines, the ballpark is served by two elevated lines, and now is also served by a commuter rail line. While the Cell is the same distance from the Loop as Wrigley Field, the commute from Downtown Chicago is half the time as there are fewer stops in between.

Despite their ballpark being more convenient and comfortable in every aspect, the White Sox draw fewer fans to their home games than do the Cubs, by a longshot.  The introduction to this interactive map proving what we already know, that there are more Cubs fans than Sox fans, says this: "Helped by the charm of their field and by WGN’s national broadcast reach, the Cubs have always been the better-loved of Chicago’s two teams." The first part of that statement is certainly true, but historically, the Cubs have not always been Chicago's better-loved team. As you might expect in a normal world, relative success at the gate is usually reflected by success on the field. For example, in the period between 1951 and 1965 when the Sox were a very good team often contending for the pennant which they actually won in 1959, the team drew well over one million fans every year with the exception of one (1958). In that same period when the Cubs were perpetual doormats, they drew over one million only once (1952). The direct relationship between the two teams' relative success and the number of people in the seats remained fairly predictable until the eighties when several things changed in the Cubs' favor:
  •  In 1981, the popular broadcaster Harry Caray jumped from the White Sox to the Cubs. 
  • While the Sox decided to televise most of their games on pay TV, the Cubs, besides going national, continued locally to broadcast all their games for free.
  •  In 1984 the perennial losers the Cubs made their first appearance in post-season baseball since 1945. In that year the Cubs drew over two million for the first time in their history. 
  • And of course in 1988 the first night game was played in Wrigley Field. 

During that time, the neighborhood surrounding Wrigley Field, once a sleepy residential/industrial neighborhood, later edgy and gang ridden, became the Wrigleyville we know today with its frat-like atmosphere helped along by the dozens of bars steps away from the ballpark. When I was a kid in the sixties and seventies, you could walk up to Wrigley Field, buy a ticket for that day, and have your pick of seats anywhere in the stands. Since the eighties, despite the quality of the team at the time, Wrigley Field is almost always a full house.

By contrast "Cell City" (a term I just invented to describe the immediate vicinity of US Cellular Field), is a sea of parking lots, bisected by an expressway and railroad tracks. You can still go there on game day and buy a row of seats just about anywhere in the park. In a series played yesterday and today against Detroit, it was obvious from the crowd's reaction that there were more Tiger fans in the stands than Sox fans.

While die-hard Cubs and Sox fans would disagree, there is nothing inherently different between the two that would merit one team more worthy than the other of our attention. Contrary to conventional wisdom, both teams have had in their histories some taste of success. The Cubs in fact, (back when they were known as the White Stockings among other things) were a bona fide dynasty. That was in the nineteenth century. Some consider the 1906 Cubs one of the greatest baseball teams of all time, but they lost the World Series that year to the White Sox. The Cubs (who at the time played on the west side),  won the Fall Classic the following two years, the first team to win consecutive World Series. From 1929 until 1945, the Cubs were perpetual contenders appearing in five World Series, losing them all.  As for the White Sox, until eight members of the team helped throw the World Series in 1919, the team flirted with becoming a dynasty. Those eight players including the great Joe Jackson, were banned from baseball for life and the team would not appear in another World Series until 1959 when they lost to the Dodgers. US Cellular Field does have one distinction that Wrigley Field does not: it was the home of a World Series champion. That happened in 2005. In that championship year, the White Sox drew 2,342,834 fans to their home games while the fourth place Cubs drew 3,099,992.

So what gives? Could it be that the parks and their settings have something to do with it? Consider this, while it may or may not exactly be your cup of tea, Wrigleyville is a vital community where there are lots of things to do while Cell City is a place to get into your car or train after the game and go someplace else.

That wasn't always the case. On the north side of 35th Street, old Comiskey Park, the Cell's predecessor, was once like Wrigley, in the middle of a neighborhood. Unlike PK Wrigley, the owners of the White Sox bought up much of the property around the ballpark and converted the land to parking. In the mid-fifties, the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway decimated the community and created a formidable boundary between the park and all points east. Still there was a small strip of businesses on the south side of 35th Street across the park which included the legendary McCuddy's, the bar where Babe Ruth would allegedly sneak into between innings for a quick hot dog and beer. When the owners of the Sox built the Cell on the block where McCuddy's stood, they promised the owners that a site would be provided where they could re-build. Unfortunately they reneged on the deal and McCuddy's, like the rest of the neighborhood surrounding the park is no more.

As you may have guessed by now, this post is as much about cities and their design as it is about baseball and ballparks. On numerous occasions I have sited the urbanologist Jane Jacobs whose book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, went against the grain of its time, arguing that cities as they had been realized for centuries: complicated, idiosyncratic and chaotic as they were, functioned better than the new cities rationally designed around the separation of functions and the dominance of the automobile. Jacobs contended that the new theories on urban planning at the time, however well-intentioned, created dull, lifeless neighborhoods. Her views were discounted at a time when people were leaving American cities in droves for the suburbs. City planners countered that trend by creating cities that resembled suburbs.

Guess what? Fifty years later, we now realize that Jacobs was right after all, suburbs built around the automobile are indeed dull and the cities that were inspired by them are dull as well. People are moving back to traditional cities as this article claims and the suburbs, at least the ones that were designed around the automobile rather than around people, are in trouble. Could it be a coincidence that so many suburban mayors are offering the Rickettses all those concessions? I don't think so.

The story of ballpark construction throughout the twentieth century parallels the history of urban planning. Like most cities, baseball has a long history; by nature the game is complicated, unpredictable and idiosyncratic. The cookie cutter stadiums of the sixties and the seventies turned their backs on the glorious histories written in their respective cities. They were built rationally for comfort, practicality and convenience, everything that baseball isn't. That in my opinion is why they failed.

Wrigley Field by contrast has 100 years of history within its ivy-coved walls. Where else can you go to a ballpark where baseball immortals Honus Wagner patrolled the infield and Christy Mathewson once pitched? One of the most famous legends of the game took place there when Babe Ruth allegedly "called" a home run in the 1932 World Series. You can read about it here. Then there was the 1938 pennant race which culminated in perhaps the most famous single event in Chicago baseball history, Gabby Hartnett's "Homer in the Gloamin'". This year much of that history can be found in the form of murals painted on the wall of the Waveland Avenue side of the ballpark.

But there is so much more to Wrigley Field. In my mind there is simply no better place to watch a ballgame. There is no bad seat in the house. The "unobstructed views" that newer ballparks claim come at the price of being close to the game. While foul pop ups often clear the roof behind home plate at Wrigley Field, some seats at the Cell are so high that you are still looking down at even the highest popup. Unencumbered by the distractions of blaring music and incessant ads over the loudspeakers found at other ballparks, Wrigley Field is a baseball purist's dream. The future of that welcome attraction is in doubt with the proposed addition of a Jumbotron scoreboard in left field. I'm not at all happy about that, however it's a concession I'm willing to except in return for keeping the ballpark otherwise intact.

Perhaps the best part of Wrigley Field is the connection it has with its neighborhood. Whether is was a stroke of genius or merely dumb luck, I'm convinced that PK Wrigley's reticence to build parking has contributed greatly to the success of both the park and the neighborhood. No matter how you get to the ballpark, you are forced to walk through the neighborhood. Of course there are the dozens of bars to explore, but if that's not your bag and you are patient enough to brave through the obligatory gauntlet of drunken post-game louts, you'll find fascinating neighborhoods in every direction, including one of the most charming and beautiful blocks in Chicago, Alta Vista Terrace, just a few blocks north of the ballpark. Wrigley Field is woven seamlessly into its neighborhood, were it not for the light standards, themselves a beautiful work of design, you wouldn't even notice the ballpark until you were right on top of it. That neighborhood is constantly alive, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

By contrast, US Cellular Field resembles a far off castle set off from the rest of city by means of the parking lots, expressway, and massive railroad viaducts. There are indeed interesting neighborhoods to be discovered beyond those formidable barriers, but alas there is little enticement to do so and few take the opportunity. With the exception of 81 regularly scheduled game days per year, there is no life in Cell City, just acre upon acre of concrete, and an empty stadium.

A local radio host in expressing his opinion that the Cubs should move out to the suburbs, unwittingly added fodder to my argument on the day of the 100th anniversary of  Wrigley Field by saying: "This is the 21st Century, we deserve a 21st Century stadium." The irony of his comment is that the idea of tearing down a beloved landmark in the city and relocating to the suburbs is a very 1960s concept. The last time I checked, 1960 was 54 years ago.

The 21st Century concept is that cities are made vibrant through dynamic change along with holding on to the best of the past. History in a great city exists seamlessly with the present and the future. Once you lose a treasure like Wrigley Field, it's gone forever; try as they may, none of the new "retro" ballparks could ever come close to replicating the look, the feel, and the spirit of the old ballpark.

Tear it down and rebuild is a concept whose time came and went.
Build it in the suburbs and they may come, for a while at least, then they'll move on to something else. Wrigley Field as we have seen, has staying power, I wouldn't be surprised if it were around for another hundred years.

My words to the radio guy would be this:

Get with the times dude.

No comments: