This article was written by Zachary Michael Jack
In February 1919 the recently proclaimed principal owner of the Chicago Cubs, William Wrigley, Jr; his wife, Ada; and a real-estate broker, Captain David Blankenhorn, boarded the good ship Hermosa and set off across the San Pedro Channel for an hours-long reconnaissance in search of a California island Wrigley had purchased sight unseen for several million dollars.
“My goodness. It is a mountain, I thought it was flat,” the chewing gum magnate opined, as the fog lifted and he beheld for the first time the rocky shores of Santa Catalina in all their Mediterranean-esque splendor.[fn]Ernest Windle, Windle’s History of Santa Catalina Island (Avalon, California: Catalina Islander Newspaper, 1931), 19.[/fn] After a night of deep and dreamy sleep induced by the lullaby of the deep blue Pacific outside their suite at the St. Catherine Hotel, the Wrigleys awoke even more sold on their impulse buy. Unable to contain his enthusiasm, the Cubs owner gathered reporters around him that first morning to report that wife Ada had gone to the window and declared that she would like one day to make this remote place her home. “I had never seen a more beautiful spot,” Wrigley gushed. “Right then and there I determined that the island should never pass out of my hands.”[fn]William Zimmerman, William Wrigley Jr.: the Man and His Business (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley and Sons Co., 1935), 238.[/fn]
A mere two years later, in a bold, synergistic move that would become his hallmark, Wrigley married the twin passions of his late middle age, the Chicago Cubs and Santa Catalina Island, in a union that would last some 30 years, decreeing that his Cubs should use his temperate island as their perennial spring-training grounds. And yet the quiet announcement of the marriage in a February 1921 issue of the Catalina Islander hardly belied the future importance of Wrigley’s bold move in team branding. Cubs manager Johnny Evers, the hometown newspaper reported, had agreed to let his team take on a team of islanders calling themselves the Catalina Cubs in Avalon. “That the game will be an interesting one for the island fans is the general opinion,” the nondescript newspaper article read.[fn]“Catalina Cubs vs. Chicago Cubs,” Catalina Islander, February 1921.[/fn] Wrigley, though, had far bigger plans for the Cubs/Catalina merger, plans that would bear fruit in a World Series appearance in 1929.
In the spring of 1921, when the Cubs played their first spring-training game in Catalina’s principal city of Avalon, America’s great philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, had been dead for nearly two years. William Wrigley, Jr. was mere months from turning 60 and had begun, predictably, to reflect on his legacy. He had achieved worldwide renown in turning a reported $32 in pocket change into a confectionery and chewing-gum empire worth tens of millions; he had broken ground on an architectural landmark, the Wrigley Building, on Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue; and he had purchased, expanded, and refurbished what would come to be called the Wrigley Mansion in Pasadena — one of six residences the Wrigleys maintained around the country. He had made many of his shareholders wealthy many times over, and had more than secured the financial future of Ada and their two children, Dorothy and Philip, but he had not necessarily made the world a better place in the humanitarian sense, unless one considered his Juicy Fruit and Doublemint gums a balm to life’s slings and arrows.
A black cloud hung over baseball in 1921, and it was Wrigley who was said to have recommended to his fellow owners the appointment of tough-as-nails Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as a commissioner with enough power to put baseball’s house in order after the Black Sox scandal. Baseball, Wrigley felt, ought to be America’s great democratic game, and running a club ought to be as much a public service as a money-making proposition. A good, clean game well-played, he firmly believed, would help America regain its confidence in itself and its institutions and heroes; it would help American women, in particular, find a pastime they could share with their families and feel good about supporting with their hard-won dollars. Baseball, he fervently hoped, would give hundreds of thousands of workaday residents in places like Chicago something to get behind and feel patriotic about. It was a “whale of a business,” Wrigley enthused, claiming to draw from the diamond “larger dividends in fun and personal satisfaction than … in money.”[fn]Zimmerman, 221.[/fn] Likewise, Catalina Island was intended to be a feel-good rather than strictly profit-generating enterprise. Predicting that the development of Catalina would be “one of the greatest pleasures of my life,” Wrigley hastened to add, “While my motive in purchasing the island is largely a romantic one, I am going to leave no stone unturned to make it a refuge from worry and work for rich and poor.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
In his statement, Wrigley might have swapped out “rich” and “poor” for life’s “winners” and “losers,” as he intended the island to be accessible to both. However, in 1920 his Cubs were neither winners nor losers, but were instead Mr. In-Betweens, middling in the National League in 1919 with a winning percentage barely over .500 despite a World Series appearance in 1918. Players had begun to grumble about the mediocre facilities in Pasadena, where the Cubs had trained since 1917, prompting Wrigley to take a detachment of his boys on a brief reconnaissance mission “26 miles across the sea,” as the Four Preps would later croon it, to check out spring-training prospects on Santa Catalina Island. There, on March 16, 1920, the team climbed aboard an open-air bus locals fondly referred to as the Catalina Goat, no doubt for its resemblance to a cattle truck, and rode along the bay waving at the adoring fans who had plastered a “Chicago Cubs Welcome to Our Island” sign on the Goat’s rear end.
Locals liked what they saw in the spring of 1920, and so did Wrigley, and as the president of the Wrigley Company began to make a winner of the Cubs, his aspirations for both his team and his far-flung island predictably increased. Still, the remoteness of the island inevitably tempered the innate ambition of Wrigley’s building program. As late as 1922, the Cubs were still doing much of their training on the isle’s sandy beaches, while Wrigley and his team of engineers scouted for a level location suitable for a ballfield on the rugged, steeply sloped terrain. At 34, Cubs manager Reindeer Bill Killefer was just one year removed from his playing days in 1922, and still young enough to throw the hardball on the beach with the pitchers and the catchers who arrived early every year in hopes of rinsing off the rust.
Eventually Wrigley’s scouts found their field in Avalon Canyon, adjacent to the oldest continuously operating golf course west of the Mississippi River, a nine-holer built by the island’s original developers, the Bannon Brothers. By the middle of the 1920s the field itself and the boys of spring who played there had become the island’s principal winter tourist attraction, and the third-known Wrigley Field, behind the Cubs home base back in Chicago and Wrigley Field in Pasadena, the headquarters of the Wrigley-owned Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League.
Early blueprints of the field demonstrated that the Chicago businessman intended to spare no expense in his twin desire to turn Catalina, and the Cubs, into bonafide winners. The “Plan for Training Grounds for the Chicago Cubs at Avalon” showed an irrigated, sodded field romantically set at the base of Avalon Canyon and laid out to reproduce exactly the dimensions of Wrigley Field in Chicago.[fn]“Plan for Training Grounds for the Chicago Cubs at Avalon,” collection of the Catalina Island Museum, Avalon, California.[/fn] Bulkhead lattice would be used for the fence and a clubhouse would be located along the first-base line with first-class amenities such as a massage and rubbing room, and a dedicated area behind home plate for the increasing number of newsmen accompanying the team on their annual island frolic. Along the third-base line, next to a row of eucalyptus trees planted for shade and protection from errant golf balls from the adjacent course, architects included a dedicated spectators’ entrance to grandstands projected to seat 1,000. Beyond the right-field fence, prescient planners drafted into their blueprints a series of bungalows or “casitas” designed for players and staff with families in tow. About 1,500 feet beyond the bungalows, directly down an extrapolated first-base line, Wrigley built a spring training bungalow for himself and his family on top of a 350-foot hill he dubbed Mount Ada in honor of his wife. While Wrigley claimed that he sited his mansion thusly because it would receive the best of both the morning and the afternoon sun, observers noted that the owner’s perch afforded him direct sightlines to the field where, with a telescope, the paternalistic leader could oversee the action from his hilltop office. Players he deemed underperforming would receive a summons to run up the precipitous zigzag of terraced trails leading to Wrigley Road and upward to the mansion, where, breathless and itchy in their woolen uniforms, they would be asked to bid Mr. Wrigley a penitential good night.
Star second baseman Rogers Hornsby didn’t have to make many punitive jogging trips up Mount Ada, if any, as he shared his boss’s insistence on excellence. Hornsby later recalled of his hard-driven but fair-minded boss, “Like most successful men Mr. Wrigley was a man of strong likes and dislikes. If you showed him you were on the level he was for you right down the line. But if you ever did anything to show that your heart was not in your work, or that you would not help to make his the best rowboat, or the best steamship, or the best island, or the best ball club, he had no time for you, and did not want to see you in the picture any longer.”[fn]Zimmerman, 235.[/fn]
In typical Wrigley fashion, the clubhouse originally designed for the first-base line was soon scrapped in favor of a more spacious and picturesque locale on the hillside across Avalon Canyon Road, beyond center field. Finished in time for the 1928 camp, it was lavish, designed in the mission style with red tiled roof and inset Catalina clay tiles. True to Wrigley’s philanthropic ideal, while the Cubs were away the whole complex was to be used by the semipro Catalina Cubs, whose manager, Harry D. Diffin, exercised his islanders on what was likely the finest and most picturesque stadium enjoyed by a semipro team anywhere in the land. Diffin’s family ran the local grocery store, which sponsored scorecards advertising Wrigley Field as the home of the Catalina Cubs, while promising “food products with personality.” Indeed, Catalina and the Chicago Cubs were both strong on the personality front, owing in part to the larger-than-life persona of their shared owner. “If this is part of the Cub ball club treatment to players then a pennant should be forthcoming ere long,” Cubs coach Bobby Wallace told the Chicago Tribune in 1923.[fn]Jim Vitti. The Cubs on Catalina Island: A Scrapbook of Memories About a 30-year Love Affair Between One of Baseball’s Classic Teams and California’s Most Fanciful Island (Darien, Connecticut: Settefrati Press, 2003), 14.[/fn] Wallace had been in the big leagues for 24 seasons, he went on to say, and “had never seen the equal of the spring training Bill Wrigley had resolved to provide his players.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, as the Cubs began a period of dramatic improvement subsequent to a last-place finish in 1925, Wrigley saw to it that the island kept pace, further joining the fates of his two most beloved civic enterprises. In his development of the island as a spring retreat, Wrigley, a believer in good, clean fun, walked a fine line. On the one hand, economic development of his paradise depended on the offering of all the allures Roaring Twenties socialites expected of their vacation haunts. On the other hand, Wrigley wanted neither his island nor his team tarnished by crass commercialism and corruption in an era when ballplayers increasingly mingled with, and lived like, fast-living celebrities.
“There is to be nothing of the Coney Island flavor about Santa Catalina,” Wrigley warned. “It would be unthinkable to mar the beauty of such a spot with roller coasters and the like.”[fn]Zimmerman, 241.[/fn] Wrigley, however, allowed that the Cubs and their boosters must have high-quality music and dancing, even though he himself did not care to dance, and they must likewise have access to what he termed “adequate theaters.” Even these he regarded as potential distractions, preferring instead to market the island’s simpler pleasures, including glass-bottomed boats from which tourists could view “marine gardens” unequaled anywhere else in the world. “There are hills to climb and flowers to pluck,” Catalina’s patron insisted, implying that racier diversions were best left to the mainland.[fn]Zimmerman, 242.[/fn]
Wrigley and his marketing team aimed to create a world of health, fitness, naturalness, and curative restfulness — all fixtures of spring training dating back to before Wrigley’s tenure, when the Cubs would travel to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to “boil out” — literally killing off what Chicago Colts (forerunner to the Cubs, 1890-1897) manager Cap Anson and his trainers dubbed the “alcoholic microbes” built up in boozy offseasons. While Catalina didn’t offer out-of-shape Cubs the balm of geothermal waters, it did offer isolation from distraction, plenty of sunshine, a paucity of femmes fatales, the absence of racetracks and gambling halls, and, coupled with an 11 P.M. curfew, relatively little chance to get into trouble steeper than barroom fisticuffs.
A growing number of fans back in wintry Chicago were encouraged to partake in the rest and relaxation that, by 1926, had helped turn the Cubs back into winners. Ads from the era showed animated suns smiling down atop cavorting bear cubs happily playing ball against the backdrop of Catalina’s sun-kissed climes. “The Cubs Are Here!” one ad read. “Why don’t you come, too?”[fn]Jim Vitti, Chicago Cubs Baseball on Catalina Island (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2010), 17.[/fn] Other ads in the local Catalina Islander urged residents and ballplayers alike to “Keep trim with the ballplayers at Santa Catalina Island.”[fn]Collection of the Catalina Island Museum, Avalon.[/fn] Newsreels that came along several years later documented the perennial rejuvenation that happened on what Wrigley’s admen branded a “magical isle.”
Newspaper dispatches of the time likewise portrayed the frolicsome Cubs involved in wholesome, manly pursuits that didn’t involve late-night skulduggery or shadowy bookies. The Chicago American delighted in reporting, for example, how coach Oscar Dugey and trainer Andy Lotshaw had hooked a giant eel and devilfish from the pier outside the Cubs’ beach-side locker room. With much ado, Wrigley’s boys went on an annual mountaingoat hunting expedition, and the subsequent struggles of the players’ wives to prepare goat meat would be enthusiastically documented. The Chicago Daily News detailed harrowing backcountry horseback rides undertaken by pitcher Tony Kaufmann and infielder Howard Freigau that made them “so stiff … they can’t climb into the saddle.”[fn]Vitti, The Cubs on Catalina Island, 94.[/fn] Photographers captured pitchers Pat Malone and Lon Warneke with rifles over their shoulders and dead goats pinned beneath their cleats. At night Charlie Grimm provided entertainment on the banjo and piano, leading sing-alongs of feel-good country songs, while the Chicago Herald and Examiner reported that, in the absence of the usual glut of music halls and tin pan alleys, a handful of Cubs had stepped up to form their own band.
The success of the Catalina spring training, coupled with judicious trades, a growing fan base, and an owner determined to pay the asking rate for the league’s best talent, created winners of both the island and the club. By 1929, when Wrigley opened a 12-story dance hall and movie theater on the island that boasted the world’s largest uninterrupted dance floor and space aplenty for 1,800 simultaneously whirling couples, Catalina had been put firmly on the map as a place of pilgrimage for the recreation-hungry and winter-weary.
That same year all signs pointed to an especially auspicious spring training for the Cubs and the regular season to follow. Manager Joe McCarthy had led his team to fourthand third-place finishes respectively in 1927 and 1928, and his front office had made a blockbuster offseason trade, by obtaining and signing the previous year’s league-leading hitter from the Boston Braves, Rogers Hornsby, for $40,000. Hornsby would join heavy hitters Hack Wilson, Kiki Cuyler, and Riggs Stephenson in a home-run-hitting foursome the Associated Press dubbed “The Four Bludgeoneers.”[fn]Associated Press, “Cub Bludgeoneers Gird for Flag Fight,” Carbondale (Pennsylvania) Daily Free Press, March 8, 1929, 8.[/fn] More promising still, as the Cubs prepared to leave Chicago for Catalina in the second week of February, Cubs president William Veeck, Sr. gleefully reported that there would be no spring-training holdouts.
At exactly 1:35 P.M. the train carrying McCarthy and Cubs pitchers and catchers pulled out of Chicago Union Station to crowds the Associated Press reported were larger and more enthusiastic than ever before. “With Rogers Hornsby batting and fielding for us, it looks like we are going to win the flag at last,” the Cubs’ usually reticent manager crowed.[fn]Associated Press, “Cubs’ Advance Guard Leaves for Catalina,” Alton (Illinois) Evening Telegraph, February 14, 1929, 8.[/fn] No less than Babe Ruth agreed, predicting that the Cubs and the Yankees would take their respective pennants.
In their predeparture meetings with local newsmen, the crowing North Siders were in such “superb voice,” noted the Tribune’s somewhat sanguine Edward Burns, that it seemed as if they had would win their first 20 games by the time they reached Catalina. Overconfidence aside, Burns wrote, Wrigley’s boys began the training season “under auspices remarkably favorable to Cub success.”[fn]Edward Burns, “Cub Pitchers Start for Catalina Today,” Chicago Tribune, February 14 1929,[/fn] This year, sensed Burns and the other correspondents traveling with the team, Catalina could prove definitive. “Spring training trips do not always produce news for the fans,” he observed, “… but Catalina should be different, perhaps to a greater degree than any training camp of recent years.” Burns went on to claim that “many pertinent hints” as to the ball club’s pennant chances would be uncovered “right off that big Pacific rock which is entitled Catalina Island.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
All along the Cubs’ route, high expectations were apparent, as swarms of fans greeted the hopefuls at each successive depot heading west. At the sight of so many fanatics, the typically reserved Burns declared, “The extent of these demonstrations set a precedent in the matter of off-season baseball interest.”[fn]Edward Burns, “Cubs Spin West; Reach Catalina,” Chicago Tribune, February 15, 1929, 25.[/fn] The 1929 Cubs enjoyed an unprecedented experience upon their arrival in California, too, prompting Burns to observe, “Cub getaways, like the patronage during the regular seasons, grow bigger and better. There were only ten [Cubs] to make up the second squad that set sail yesterday for the Catalina camp, but those ten were enough to draw into the Santa Fe train shed about five hundred frostbitten bugs who literally climbed over one another to get autographs, handshakes, or close-ups of the diamond notables.”[fn]Edward Burns, “Cub Batteries Anticipate Arrival of Swat Squad,” Chicago Tribune, February 24, 1929, A2.[/fn]
Adoring fans weren’t the only welcome sight greeting the team as they disembarked from the Sante Fe terminus to the worst cold snap in Southern California in 40 years. As was the fashion on the long trip out West, the Cubs caravan would be joined by players and coaches who had scattered across the country during the offseason. At Los Angeles the Cubs were joined by left-hander Art Nehf, the pilot-pitcher who had flown himself in from Phoenix; fellow hurler Pat Malone, who had been working in a Southern California stone quarry in the offseason; and Cubs ace Charlie Root, who had likewise wintered on the Coast and showed up at the railyard with what Edward Burns described as a comeback glint in his eye and in “high spirits and the best of health.”[fn]Edward Burns, “Cubs Pitch Camp at Avalon,” Chicago Tribune, February 18, 1929, 21.[/fn] Veteran catcher Gabby Hartnett and his new bride were serenaded dockside by the faithful before boarding the early-morning steamship to Catalina, where camp kicked off with a rigorous afternoon hike.
Dispatches on February 22 came as a relief to winter-weary fans back in the Midwest: “The Chicago Cubs Have Played Their First Game of the Season.” A day earlier McCarthy had surprised his boys by announcing that the day’s workout would conclude with a scrimmage, the stated goal being to “harden the Cub pitchers and catchers.” [fn]Associated Press, “The Chicago Cubs Have Played Their First Game of the Season,” Alton (Illinois) Evening Telegraph, February 22, 1929, 6.[/fn] Per the custom for such intrasquad games, the Cubs would be split into two teams, each with distinctive calling cards. As training camp that spring of 1929 wore on, the rival sides would typically suit up as the Avalons versus the Catalinas, but for this first game, McCarthy and Co. took the field as the Regulars, led by Hartnett, versus the Hooligans, headlined by pitcher Pat Malone.
As the Hooligans upset the Regulars beneath the shade of Wrigley’s eucalyptus trees in Avalon Canyon, half a continent away the Associated Press reported that the second detachment of Cubs, this one made up of infielders and outfielders, had left Chicago to join their mates. This particular platoon was be led by Danny Cahill, arguably the Cubs’ first true superfan. A pint-sized retired firefighter, Cahill demonstrated a devotion to the North Siders so great that Wrigley and the rest of the Cubs invited him to sit front and center in many of the official spring-training photos taken on the island.
All indications early in 1929 pointed to a pitching and catching staff in unusually good shape. Hartnett and Malone, it was noted, both came in slightly above their ideal fighting weight, but physically the Cubs were starting well ahead of where they had been at the start of camp the previous year. Watching the early practices on the island from the press box, Burns noted that the pitchers were “in excellent condition” and that the fans who were accustomed to “viewing training camps as congresses of sore-armed gents” would be shocked to learn that the services of trainer Andy Lotshaw were hardly in demand.[fn]Edward Burns, “Wrigley Tells Cubs How Fans Await April 16,” Chicago Tribune, February 25, 1929, 25.[/fn]
That very morning at the Hotel St. Catherine, reported the Tribune, William Wrigley, Jr. had come galloping up on horseback with good news: advance sales for the Cubs’ season opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 16 were already greater than they had been the eve of the Cubs’ first game the previous year — and his squad was still nearly two months away from their first official at-bats of the season. “The King of Catalina” also reported that the exhibition games the Cubs had scheduled with the minor-league Los Angeles Angels and the Detroit Tigers on the mainland appeared set to break all spring exhibition-game records for attendance. “I’m getting a whalekick out of the situation,” Wrigley enthused, “because I know the fans can’t be disappointed with the gang McCarthy is going to put in the field this year.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
The one lingering doubt coming out of the Catalina camp in the February of 1929 was the state of the Cubs’ pitching. Starting pitcher Root had been up and down in previous seasons, including posting a league-leading 17 losses in 1926, only to win a major-league-leading 26 games in 1927, before returning to his losing ways in 1928 with 18 losses to 14 wins. In a dispatch dated February 19, the AP’s Thomas L. Gard wrote, “As the first detachment of the Chicago Cubs speed their way to Mr. Wrigley’s personal island of Catalina for the start of the spring-training grind (the Cubs will be) endeavoring to find some magical fluid that will restore Charlie Root’s pitching arm to its 1927 cunning.”[fn]Thomas Gard, Associated Press, “First Chicago Cub Detachment to Catalina,” Carbondale (Illinois) Daily Free Press, February 19, 1929, 2.[/fn] Indeed Gard went so far as to claim that the Cubs’ pennant chances hinged on whether or not Root regained his earlier form.
For his part, “Boss Joe” McCarthy resolved to crack the whip once his unusually promising squad of swatters arrived in Avalon, and at his urging, his stable of pitchers “bore down heavier than ever … in contemplation of the arrival of the Cub powerhouse squad.”[fn]Edward Burns, “Cub Batteries Anticipate Arrival of Swat Squad, Chicago Tribune, February 24, 1929, A2.[/fn] Several days in advance of the arrival of his hitters, McCarthy curtailed visits to the Catalina’s major attractions — the golf course, the world-class aviary Wrigley had recently built, and the mountain-goat hunting grounds themselves — in favor of two-a-day practices to replace the two-hour, morning-only practice sessions he had broken in his team with.
On February 26 the city of Avalon awoke to anticipation of the landing of Rogers Hornsby and rest of the Cub contingent. William Wrigley’s steamship Catalina, Burns reported, was scheduled to dock at noon “amidst the tooting of a band, the notes of the Avalon carillon, the roar of hydroplanes, and the insolent slapping of trainer Andy Lotshaw’s flock of trained sea gulls.”[fn]Edward Burns, “Second Group of Cubs Reaches Avalon Today,” Chicago Tribune, February 26, 1929, 23.[/fn] Big Ben, Catalina’s giant seal,” Burns added, tongue firmly in cheek, “…is the only prominent resident who will not be at the dock, according to current plans.” Joining the squad on special request of manager McCarthy were two first-string pitchers from the Los Angeles Angels to join the 15 pitchers McCarthy had already retained for his Catalina camp in hope of testing and sharpening his brigade of bludgeoneers, perhaps most especially Hack Wilson, the cantankerous, heavy-set, and occasionally brilliant hitter the Tribune’s Irving Vaughn had described that preseason as “round enough to roll up without effort” and with “at least fifteen pounds of excess beef clinging to his frame.”[fn]Irving Vaughn, “Second Cubs Squad Off for Avalon Today,” Chicago Tribune, February 23, 1929, 17.[/fn]
The real headliner in February 1929, though, and the man projected to replace Wilson as the Cubs’ cleanup hitter, was Rogers Hornsby, the sweet-swinging if not somewhat taciturn second basemen known for his ability to knock the leather off the ball. “California never has seen the great Rajah in a baseball uniform, except during the winter league season, the young man having always done his spring training in Florida,” noted the Tribune’s man in Avalon.[fn]Edward Burns, “Second Group of Cubs Reaches Avalon Today,” Chicago Tribune, February 26, 1929, 23.[/fn] By March 1 even the AP writers stuck in still-wintry Chicago were abuzz with secondhand news of the Rajah’s exploits, noting, “Reports drifting back from Catalina Island so far are unanimous that Rogers Hornsby and his big stick have already made a hit with manager Joe McCarthy and his ambitious Cubs.”[fn]Associated Press, “Hornsby Makes Big Hit With Cubs,” Sterling (Illinois) Daily Gazette, March 1, 1929, 13.[/fn]
By the end of a first week in which his pitching staff had comported themselves well against the gifted battery of Cubs long-ballers, McCarthy declared his team fit to begin play against Mr. Wrigley’s other team, the Angels of the Pacific Coast League. On March 7 Burns filed the following dispatch post-departure: “The Cubs this afternoon gave Catalina Island back to Mr. Wrigley and this evening are lolling about in the plush divans at their mainland headquarters in the city.”[fn]Edward Burns, “Mr. Wrigley’s Boys Quit Island For the Big Town,”Chicago Tribune, March 8, 1929, 23.[/fn] Though the Cubs would return to the island for a four-day stint after their weekend tilt with the Angels, 1929’s auspicious sojourn on the magical isle began to seem a distant memory, as Cub thoughts turned to the coming season. While Wrigley had built his island to wholesomely entertain, the mountain goats and paucity of girls and glam didn’t sit well with some of the city boys on the squad and a few of the more urbane reporters, all of whom relished the return to the mainland. Those in the know tacitly agreed with Burns’s prediction that the remaining few days of camp on the island wouldn’t be the same after the Cubs had re-experienced “the thrill of the electric signs, the big movie palaces, the orange huts, and one thing and another racing through their veins.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Once back in the City of Angels, the Cubs would spend an evening at the Mayfair Hotel receiving detachments of loyal fans who couldn’t stomach, literally or figuratively, the 30-mile steamship trip to Catalina. Manager McCarthy declared to reporters that he intended to win every one of the 32 exhibition games Wrigley’s front office had scheduled for his club on its five-week journey back to Chicago. The hard-driven manager warned that “midseason procedures”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] would be followed even in these warmup tilts, and pitchers would be unceremoniously yanked if they found themselves in trouble early on.
“I want the players to get into the habit of winning ball games,” the skipper told reporters. “The ‘it-doesn’t-mean-anything’ attitude toward exhibition games is bunk with me. I’m a tough loser and I don’t care who knows it.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
“Boss Joe” could talk the talk and back it up both in the spring of 1929 as the pennant bees were buzzing more loudly than ever when the Cubs pummeled the Angels, 11-6, in their first exhibition game of the season, delighting the reported 8,000 fans on hand for the novelty of a match between two teams owned by William Wrigley. Hornsby, the man the Tribune estimated 7,500 of the 8,000 fans had turned out to see, didn’t disappoint, socking his first home run in a Cubs uniform against a professional team, while clouting two doubles for good measure. At first base Charlie Grimm kept the basepaths hopping, going 4-for-4 while playing errorless ball in the field.
Like his manager, William Wrigley, Jr. didn’t much like a loser, either in business or in baseball, and both his fantasy island, Catalina, and his Cubs paid impressive dividends. In the ten years from 1919 to 1929, the exploits of Wrigley and his team had increased the number of visitors to the island from 90,000 to 750,000. And even in down years like 1925, when the Cubs finished at the bottom of the pack, the organization finished second in the league in attendance. By the end of a fairy-tale 1929 season that culminated in an appearance in the World Series, the Cubs had drawn an estimated 1.5 million fans to Wrigley Field — 500,000 more than had visited the chewing-gum magnate’s increasingly popular island.
The Cubs and Catalina — the arranged marriage between them would be both affectionate and prolific in a 30-year run lasting until 1951. During that time Avalon served as a training ground for several hundred players, including 16 future Hall of Famers with names like Grover Cleveland Alexander, Dizzy Dean, and Rogers Hornsby, whose collective glamour and glory would help turn Catalina into an enclave for Hollywood stars and starlets in the 1930s and beyond. “I am putting more than $1,000,000 a year into Catalina,” Wrigley reminded still-dubious reporters as he neared his death in the early 1930s. “I may be foolish in doing this. I do not think so. I love the island, and before I pass on I hope to have a larger portion of my fortune invested there. I feel that I am doing something definite and useful for humanity in developing it.”[fn]Zimmerman, 238.[/fn] Indeed, the King of Catalina loved his island home sufficiently to be interred there after his death in January 1932, taking up what all assumed would be his perpetual residence in a custom-built sarcophagus at the base of a reinforced concrete and Catalina tile mausoleum said to be 80 feet tall and 180 feet deep, though in World War II the family moved body to Pasadena, citing increased security concerns.
Naysayers and boo-birds called Wrigley a fool for pouring his assets into a desert island and an apparently accursed team that would go more than a century without a World Series title, but the numbers suggest that Wrigley’s may have been the last laugh. Each year Catalina draws an estimated 1 million visitors to its far-off shores, while the Cubs themselves, despite a record of middling seasons and dubious trades, top the Forbes list of most profitable teams in baseball.
This article appears in “Winning on the North Side: The 1929 Chicago Cubs” (SABR, 2015), edited by Gregory H. Wolf.
Associated Press, “Cub Battery Men on Their Way to Camp,” Sterling (Illinois) Daily Gazette, February 14, 1929, 9.
Associated Press, “Cubs Back to Catalina For More Training,” Alton (Illinois) Evening Telegraph, March 11, 1929, 10.
Associated Press, “Cubs Leave Catalina to Tackle Angels.” Alton (Illinois) Evening Telegraph, March 14, 1929, 10.
“Boys in Blue: Chicago Cubs and Spring Training on Catalina Island,” exhibit curated by John Boraggina, Catalina Island Museum, Avalon, California.
Burns, Edward, “McCarthy’s Men Limber up Wings in Catalina Camp,” Chicago Tribune, February 20, 1929, 19.
Burns, Edward, “Mr. Burns Gives The Rajah 100 in Deportment,” Chicago Tribune, March 6, 1929, 23.
Burns, Edward, “Cubs Moundsmen Spike Cub Siege Guns; Cubs Win,” Chicago Tribune, March 7, 1929, 19.
Burns, Edward, “Hornsby Hits Homer as Cubs Beat Angels,” Chicago Tribune, March 9, 1929, 21.
Burns, Edward, “Angels Beat Cubs, 11-8, in Riotous Battle,” Chicago Tribune, March 10, 1929, A1.
Burns, Edward, “Bounding Main Fails to Agree with Our Cubs,” Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1929, 27.
Burns, Edward, “Bush, Malone Fail in Cubs’ Training Test,” Chicago Tribune, March 13, 1929, 2.
Burns, Edward, “Cubs Cut Loose in Final Island Game; Avalons Win,” Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1929, 21.
Burns, Edward, “Cubs Bid Avalon Adieu, Aim to Clip Wings of Angels, Chicago Tribune, March 15, 1929, 25.
Catalina Islander Newspaper Collection, Collection of the Catalina Island Museum, Avalon, California.
Chicago Tribune Press Service, “Best Clubs of N.L. Training on Coast, It Seems,” Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1929, A8.
“Cubs See Action at Catalina,” Chicago Tribune, February 22, 1929.
Gard, Thomas L. (Associated Press), “McCarthy, Cubs Manager, Is Real Diplomat,” Carbondale (Illinois) Daily Free Press, March 26, 1929, 3.
“Greetings from Catalina Island: Spring Training Home of the Clubs from 1921-1951,” Spring Training. (1977). springtrainingmagazine.com/history2.html
Howser, Huell, “California’s Gold #6004: Catalina Cubs,” DVD, Huell Howser Productions, Los Angeles.
Snell, Roger, Root for the Cubs: Charlie Root and the 1929 Cubs. (Nicholasville, Kentucky: Wind Publications, 2009).
Vaughn, Irving, “Cubs’ Big Parade Ready for March to Training Grounds,” Chicago Tribune, February 12, 1929.
Vitti, Jim, The Cubs on Catalina Island: A Scrapbook of Memories about a 30-year Love Affair between One of Baseball’s Classic Teams and California’s Most Fanciful Island (Darien, Connecticut: Settefrati Press, 2003).
Vitti, Jim, Chicago Cubs Baseball on Catalina Island (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2010).
Windle, Ernest, Windle’s History of Santa Catalina Island (Avalon, California: Catalina Islander Newspaper Press, 1931).
Zimmerman, William, William Wrigley Jr.: the Man and his Business (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley and Sons Co., 1935).