Wrigley Field (Chicago)
This article was written by Scott Ferkovich
It was built on the site of a former theological seminary (of all places). It is one of the most renowned addresses in baseball history, nestled in a vibrant urban neighborhood that takes on the atmosphere of a block party on game days. It has seen the Babe’s called shot, Gabby’s Homer in the Gloamin’, and the curse of the billygoat. It was the stamping grounds of High Pockets and Kiki, of Jolly Cholly and Hack, of the Mad Russian and Mad Dog, of Mr. Cub, Ryno, and the Hawk. It is as well-known for its famous foliage and its Bleacher Bums as it is for some of the heartbreak and incompetency that it has seen on the field. For decades, it stubbornly refused to evolve, becoming a symbol of “baseball as it was meant to be played.” To many, it is a kind of pastoral palace, a living fossil where folks can cling to their own rose-colored versions of the past. It has been a lovable dinosaur where progress died faster than the fleeting hopes of April and May. It is the unexpected answer to one of the more intriguing trivia questions you are likely to hear: What sporting venue has hosted the most NFL games ever? It has been immortalized in songs, in movies, in television commercials, and in its own cottage industry of coffee-table books and tributary tomes. It remains a must-see tourist attraction in a city full of them. It is the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field.
Rewind way, way back, to a time when the Woodrow Wilson family resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, when Charlie Chaplin starred in his first film, and when the Ford Motor Company announced an eight-hour workday and a minimum wage of $5 a day. Back to 1914. The ballpark that sprouted up at 1060 West Addison Street in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood was initially the home of the Chicago entry in the Federal League. The team was known as the Federals (Chi-Feds for short) and was owned by Charles Weeghman, who named the park after himself. The Federal League, then in its first year of existence, was an upstart circuit in direct competition with the established National and American Leagues. The Chi-Feds were able to lure such established stars as the Cincinnati Reds’ shortstop Joe Tinker (of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame), and pitcher Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown of the Chicago Cubs. The Chi-Feds finished second in 1914, then changed their name to the Whales for 1915, a season in which they finished tied with the St. Louis Terriers for first place. The Federal League was gone by 1916. Weeghman, however, bought the National League’s crosstown Chicago Cubs, who played at old West Side Park, and immediately moved them into Weeghman Park. The Cubs played their first game in their new home on April 20, 1916. The home team beat the Cincinnati Reds in 11 innings.
At this time, the park at Clark and Addison was a single-decked structure of steel and concrete. Weeghman had hired Zachary Taylor Davis (the architect of Comiskey Park, on the South Side of Chicago) to design the ballpark. The grandstand on the Clark Street (third base) side extended halfway to left field. The grandstand on the Addison Street (first base) side extended all the way to the right-field corner. One of the old seminary buildings loomed beyond the left-field fence, until it was demolished after the 1914 season, to be replaced by a bleacher section. The houses on Waveland Avenue (beyond the left-field wall) and Sheffield Avenue (beyond the right-field wall) have for the most part remained strikingly unchanged. In 1915 the scoreboard, which had originally been in left field, next to the seminary building, was moved to center. During these early years, only a brick wall extended from the right-field corner to center field. In 1916, while the Cubs cavorted on the field inside the park, a genuine cub bear frolicked in a cage stationed directly outside the park on Addison Street.
Weeghman earned the favor of the fans during this period, as he made it a policy to allow spectators to keep any ball hit into the stands. This was an especially novel idea for a time when fans were required to return any balls hit their way.
One of the more remarkable games in baseball history took place at the park on May 2, 1917. Hippo Vaughn of the Cubs and Fred Toney of the Cincinnati Reds both threw no-hit ball for nine innings. Vaughn retired the first Red in the top of the tenth, then gave up two consecutive hits, resulting in a run. Toney set the Cubs down in order in their half of the inning, getting the win and the no-hitter. At the time the game was considered a “double no-hitter,” but under current rules only Toney is credited with a no-no. It remains the only game in which neither team got a hit in regulation.
A new era was ushered in at the corner of Addison and Clark in 1918. That was when Weeghman sold his interest in the Cubs to minority shareholder William Wrigley, Jr., the magnate who had made his money in the production of chewing gum. By 1921, Wrigley had bought out the other shareholders and taken complete control of the club. The ballpark, which had been known at various times (in addition to Weeghman Park) as the North Side Ball Park, the Federal League Ball Park, and Whales Park, was by now going by the name of Cubs Park.
Baseball wasn’t the only game in town on the North Side. In 1921, George Halas’s Chicago Staleys, a team in the fledgling American Professional Football Association (which became the National Football League in 1922), played their first game at 1060 West Addison. By the next season, they would change their nickname to the Bears. The blue and orange, “the pride and joy of Illinois,” would be a gridiron fixture in Lake View for the next half-century. The first NFL Championship game ever was held on December 17, 1933, at Wrigley Field. The Bears defeated the New York Giants, 23-21. That team, coached by Halas, featured NFL greats halfback Red Grange and fullback Bronko Nagurski.
To William Wrigley’s credit, he was never hesitant to spend money on expansion and upkeep of his ballpark. The grandstand was double-decked in time for the 1928 season, and new bleachers were added from the right-field corner to center field, increasing the capacity from 18,000 to 32,000. However, a perennial problem during Wrigley’s early tenure as owner was the disorganized appearance and surly attitude of ushers at the ballpark. Incredibly (to modern practice), ushers were simply recruited the day of the game from random men (or kids) off the street. They often were derelict in their duties, keeping the best seats for themselves and their friends, and taking bribes from folks looking for better seats. Then one afternoon, Andy Frain approached Wrigley’s box seat and told him that he could do a better job of organizing men to work the aisles. Frain had had some success doing the same thing at Chicago Stadium, for Blackhawks hockey games. Wrigley agreed to Frain’s proposal, and he was immediately put in charge of hiring and organizing the Wrigley Field ushers. Through Wrigley’s capital investment, Frain outfitted his employees with their traditional blue and gold uniforms, and instructed them in how to act politely and professionally. Andy Frain later expanded his business to ballparks and stadiums around the country. The company that bears his name still flourishes.
The Cubs had gone to the World Series in 1918 (losing to the Red Sox in six games), but the team finished in the second division for half of their seasons during the 1920s. Despite lackluster play on the field, the Cubs were developing a growing legion of fans, thanks to William Wrigley’s marketing savvy. The Cubs became one of the first teams in baseball history to fully take advantage of the new phenomenon called radio. Most team owners feared that game broadcasts would reduce attendance, as fans would stay at home and listen for free. But Wrigley had the foresight to see that games on radio were the ideal marketing tool. Also, since all games were played in the daytime, many of the fans listening to Cubs broadcasts were housewives. Wrigley took advantage of this emerging demographic through the promotion of Ladies Day games, which frequently drew packed houses to the ballpark and became a staple for years. By the summer of 1927, Cubs Park had been renamed Wrigley Field. That year, the Cubs drew over one million paying customers, becoming the first National League team to top the million mark. They continued to do so through 1931. The crowds that came out to Wrigley Field during these years got a firsthand look at some of the best Cubs teams ever assembled.
The team that Wrigley and team president William Veeck put together was a colorful, talented group of players who were a perfect fit for the Roaring Twenties. In 1929 manager Joe McCarthy’s club won 98 games to take the National League pennant. The team’s outfield that year was exceptional, with Kiki Cuyler, Riggs Stephenson, and Lewis “Hack” Wilson hitting a combined .355 and each driving in over 100 runs. Thirty-three-year-old Rogers Hornsby, in his last great year as a player, hit 39 home runs with 149 RBIs, while hitting .380. First baseman Charlie Grimm knocked in 91 runs to complement a .298 average. The pitching staff featured 19-game-winner Charlie Root, 18-game-winner Guy Bush, and Pat Malone, who topped the National League with 22 wins.
The 1929 World Series was the first one played at Wrigley Field. (Their home games for the 1918 Series had been moved to Comiskey Park, which had a higher seating capacity.) Their 1929 opponents were Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, a team featuring future Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Lefty Grove. The Mack Men trounced the Cubs, winning in five games.
The team finished a close second in 1930. In a year when offense exploded around professional baseball, Hack Wilson put on one of the most stunning displays of hitting ever seen. He slugged 56 homers, setting what was the National League record at the time, while batting .356. He batted in 191 runs, a record that stands as of 2014. But his career sank like a stone after that. In 1931 he managed only 13 homers, 61 RBIs, and a .261 average. Before the next season, Wilson was sent packing, initially to the St. Louis Cardinals and then to the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was out of baseball by 1934.
During an exhibition game at Wrigley Field in 1931, Cubs catcher (and future Hall of Famer) Gabby Hartnett got his picture taken in a rather compromising position. The famous photo shows a smiling Hartnett casually leaning over a low wall in front of the first-row box seats. Occupying the seats are none other than gangster Al Capone and his young son Sonny, for whom Hartnett appears to be autographing a baseball. Capone is looking gleefully back at Hartnett. The photo, which was printed in newspapers throughout the country, eventually reached the desk of baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Landis immediately wired Hartnett, telling him, in so many words, to refrain from such fraternization in the future. As the story goes, Hartnett wired him back, “OK, but if you don’t want me to have my picture taken with Al Capone, you tell him.”1
With the passing of William Wrigley, Jr. in January of 1932, his son, Philip K. Wrigley, took over the ownership reins of the team. “P.K.,” as he was affectionately called, would always consider the Cubs, and Wrigley Field especially, among his most cherished possessions. One of the reasons Wrigley Field has lasted so long is that both Wrigleys, father and son (as well as Charles Weeghman before them), always took such good care of the park. Whatever Philip Wrigley’s shortcomings as a baseball owner, it cannot be denied that he was a clever marketer. He clearly understood that by beautifying Wrigley Field, and keeping it clean and well-manicured, he could draw paying crowds to an afternoon of baseball in the sunshine, even if the team on the field was only ordinary. Every year, the ballpark got a fresh coat of paint. During the season, the place was kept in immaculate condition.
The Cubs made it back to the fall classic in 1932, taking on the New York Yankees. This was the Series that featured the most debated and dissected event in Wrigley Field history. It was Babe Ruth’s “Called Shot.” The seemingly endless dispute about whether Ruth did or did not point to the center-field bleachers before slamming his second home run off Charlie Root in Game Three is one of those questions that keep baseball historians up at night. According to the story, the Cubs bench jockeys had been riding The Babe during the first two games of the Series. When he stepped up to the plate, he supposedly made a gesture in the general direction of center field. Some witnesses claim he was merely pointing toward the Cubs dugout. Whatever the case, Ruth hit a shot that carried to the right of the center-field scoreboard, sailing past the temporary bleachers that had been built just beyond the park’s outer wall. Estimates had the ball traveling 490 feet. It was Ruth’s last World Series home run. New York, led by former Cubs manager Joe McCarthy, swept the Cubs in four games.
Today, the prevailing sentiment among most Wrigley Field patrons is that baseball (and the Cubs in particular) goes better with a cold beer or two. Or three. It wasn’t until the 1933 season, however, that beer was first sold at Wrigley Field. Even then, it was only on tap, and it was only 3.2 percent alcohol. When Prohibition was finally repealed in December of that year, a bevy of bars and restaurants opened up around the ballpark.
The main entrance at the corner of Addison and Clark is noted for its neon Art Deco marquee with the words “Wrigley Field Home of Chicago Cubs.” It was designed by the Federated Sign Company. For decades, it was blue with white lettering, but in 1965 it was repainted the red and white color scheme that still existed in 2014.
In 1937 a significant remodeling of Wrigley’s outfield bleachers took place. A new brick wall now ringed the entire outfield. The bleachers were expanded, and, most importantly, raised. They had been at field level, but would now be elevated to their present height of just above the brick fence. While Wrigley claimed this was done in order to give fans in that section a better view, in truth the change was as much a product of necessity as anything else: the grounds crew needed the space created beneath the new bleachers to store their mowers, rollers, and chalkers. Hence the metal doors in the brick wall (which for years were maroon-colored, unlike the green of later years).
As part of the refurbishment, the hand-operated scoreboard was built above the center-field bleachers. Fluttering atop the scoreboard are colorful flags, one for each National League team, showing the order of that day’s standings from top to bottom. Another enduring scoreboard tradition at Wrigley was the raising of a white flag sporting a blue “W” for a Cubs win or a blue flag with a white “L” for a loss. The flags were made easily visible to neighborhood residents strolling along Sheffield or Waveland Avenue, or commuters passing by on the nearby elevated train. A crossbar was attached to the top of the scoreboard, with a green light on one end, for a victory, and a red light on the other end, for a loss. This was for the benefit of train riders passing by late at night. The rear of the scoreboard, as seen from outside above the bleacher entrance, also became iconic, with the words “Chicago Cubs” in white block lettering on the image of a waving blue flag. At night, the letters light up in bright neon red.
Not only do the scoreboard team flags indicate the order of the NL standings, they also reveal which way the wind is blowing. This is of vital importance at Wrigley Field, which can be either a hitter’s haven or a pitcher’s paradise on any given day, depending on whether the Lake Michigan breezes are blowing out or in.
By the end of 1937, the world’s best-known example of parthenocissus tricuspidata, or Boston Ivy, had been planted around the entire base of the brick wall. Bill Veeck (son of William Veeck, who died in 1933), claimed in his autobiography that he, along with a couple of groundskeepers, planted the mix of bittersweet and Boston Ivy one night by the light of incandescent bulbs strung along the outfield wall for that very purpose. The veracity of Veeck’s version of events is open to question. Whoever planted it and when, the Boston Ivy soon overtook the bittersweet, and the rest is horticultural history. Outfielders patrolling Wrigley Field are duly instructed to throw both arms up as a signal to the umpires when a struck baseball is hidden within the ivy, rather than search for the sphere; thus keeping the play alive.
Everybody loves a good walk-off home run, and Gabby Hartnett’s Homer in the Gloamin’ at Wrigley Field remains one of the most legendary. To set the scene: The Cubs and Pirates went into their game of September 28, 1938, with Chicago trailing Pittsburgh by a half-game in the standings. The contest entered the ninth inning tied at five runs apiece. As the late-afternoon gloom descended at the corner of Addison and Clark, the umpires made the announcement that if the game remained tied after regulation, it would be called on account of darkness. According to the rule in place at the time, the game would have to be replayed in its entirety the next day, necessitating a doubleheader. The Cubs came to bat in the bottom of the ninth. On the hill for the Pirates was hard-throwing reliever Mace Brown. After Brown got the first two batters out, Gabby Hartnett stepped up to the dish. He quickly found himself in an 0-and-2 hole. Then, in a classic example of fact trumping fiction, Hartnett stroked a home run that landed in the left-center-field bleachers. The darkening ballpark exploded in bedlam, with players and fans running onto the field. The Cubs won the game, 6-5, and took over first place by a half-game. They beat the Pirates the next day as well, to sweep the three-game series. They eventually took the National League pennant by two lengths over Pittsburgh.
Baseball history is full of what-ifs. What if Ted Williams had played in Yankee Stadium with its short right-field porch? What if Joe DiMaggio had played in Fenway Park with its Green Monster? What if the Mets had drafted Reggie Jackson instead of Steve Chilcott? Then there is the question, “What would have happened if the Japanese hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor?” The answer to that one is easy. Wrigley Field would have had lights installed for the 1942 season. Philip Wrigley was never a fan of baseball under the stars, but in order to boost attendance he reluctantly decided to give it a try. The club had even obtained light towers, which were sitting under the stands at Wrigley Field, waiting to be erected. With the tragic events of December 7, 1941, however, America was thrust into World War II. Wrigley chose to donate the lights and the metal towers to the war effort. Soon after, Wrigley proclaimed that as long as he was alive, night baseball would never happen at the park that bore his name. He turned out to be a prophet.
Wrigley Field’s other tenant, the Chicago Bears, had one of their most successful decades in the 1940s. Known as the Monsters of the Midway and led by quarterback Sid Luckman, they appeared in five NFL Championship games from 1940 to 1946, winning four of them.
One of the more legendary subtexts in Wrigley Field history is the Curse of the Billygoat. In 1945 the Cubs faced off against the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. A Chicago tavern owner, Billy Sianis, tried to enter the park with his pet goat. After all, he had a ticket for the goat, so why not? Sianis and the billygoat were let in, and made their way down to their box seats. As the story goes, some of their immediate neighbors were put off by the odor emanating from the goat. The goat and his escort were swiftly shown the exit doors. Later, Sianis supposedly put a curse on the Cubs for insulting his goat. They lost that Series to the Tigers in seven games. Of course, curses don’t mean a thing. And of course, the Cubs haven’t made it back to the fall classic since. (Sianis’s nephew, Sam Sianis, ventured down down to Wrigley Field in 1973, again with a goat, and was again asked to make tracks. Sam was invited onto the field in 1994, along with a goat, in order to remove the curse.)
Looking back on the years 1929 to 1945, one can easily make the argument that they were a kind of Golden Age for the Cubs at Wrigley Field. During that 17-year period, the team went to the World Series five times (1929, ’32, ’35, ’38, and ’45), although they didn’t win any of them. From 1926 to 1938 they led the National League in attendance eight times, while five times they drew the second-most at the gate. The 1938 season was the last in which the Cubs led the league in attendance. After their final World Series appearance, in 1945, the club finished third in 1946 with a record of 82-71, 14½ games off the pace. They would not have a season over .500 for the next 16 years.
If 1929 to 1945 was indeed a Golden Age, then the decades of the 1950s and 1960s were a nadir at Wrigley Field. Attendance was annually near the bottom of the league, and an aging Philip Wrigley was no longer as vigilant about keeping his ballpark in pristine condition. The surrounding neighborhood, while not exactly deteriorating, was getting a bit rough around the edges. Most importantly, the Cubs were becoming irrelevant in Chicago, as team owner Bill Veeck and his White Sox were growing in popularity, buoyed by their 1959 “Go-Go Sox” team that went to the World Series. From 1951 to 1965, Comiskey Park drew over one million fans every year but one, while the Cubs topped the million mark only once (1952). In 1962 the Cubs lost 103 games to finish ninth behind the expansion Houston Colt .45s, and were led by Philip Wrigley’s “College of Coaches,” an eight-man committee in lieu of a full-time manager.
Perhaps the low point of the organization was the 1966 season, when the team again lost 103 and finished tenth, which allowed the New York Mets to escape last place for the first time as a franchise. Only 635,891 fans passed through the turnstiles that year. (On September 21 a small get-together of only 530 fans bothered to show up.) But in the midst of these quiet days at Wrigley, a small group of young fans, who regularly sat in the sparsely populated bleachers, decided to form a loose club. They were extremely vocal in their encouragement of their favorite Cubs (and equally strident in their discouragement of the opposition). They showed up to games wearing yellow hard hats, ready to yell, sing, and drink beer (they were even known to drink with the players at local watering holes after the games.). As their numbers grew, so did their legend, and the Bleacher Bums were born. By the early 1970s, many of the original members had drifted away, to be replaced by new blood. The nickname endured, however, and over time the Wrigley Field bleachers took on more and more of a party atmosphere, which carries on.
After nearly two decades of mediocre baseball, 1969 saw the first pennant race on the North Side since 1945. Suddenly the fans began to pack Wrigley Field, to the tune of 1,674,993, at the time a club attendance record. What they witnessed was a talented team managed by Leo Durocher, with four future Hall of Famers (Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Ferguson Jenkins, and Ernie Banks). Banks was the feel-good story of the year. Having forged a brilliant career at the Friendly Confines since joining the Cubs in 1953, and seemingly doomed to endure one dismal season after another, it looked as though Mr. Cub, at age 38, would have his best chance to reach the postseason.
The 1969 Cubs never spent a day in second place the first five months of the season. On August 16 they had a nine-game lead over the surprising second-place New York Mets. From that point, it was a disaster of epic proportions. The Mets seemingly refused to lose, carving out two big winning streaks of nine and ten games while the Cubs won just eight of 25 games in September. When the dust settled, a season that had begun with so much promise for Chicago ended up in bitter defeat. And it wasn’t even close. The Mets took the NL East division by eight games over the Cubs.
For Banks, it proved to be his last productive season. His final moment of glory at Wrigley came on May 12, 1970, when he hit his 500th career home run. He retired as a player in 1971. His infectious love for the game, and for Wrigley Field, made him a favorite of Cub fans, and his familiar “Let’s play two!” has become one of the game’s enduring catch-phrases.
After an infamous 1970 Opening Day in which several rowdy bleacher fans leaped over the ivy-covered brick wall, the Cubs decided to make a change. They installed a wire screen along the top of the wall, which angled 42 inches out over the playing surface. To modern bleacher patrons, it is a well-known feature, also serving to help prevent littering onto the field.
Ever since the late 1950s, professional football was becoming increasingly popular. But it was also becoming increasingly clear that Wrigley Field was inadequate as a football facility. The beginning of the end came with the merger of the National Football League and American Football League in 1966. In order to accommodate more paying customers, the new NFL dictated that all stadiums were to have a minimum capacity of 50,000. Cozy Wrigley Field obviously did not. The Bears played their final game at Addison and Clark on December 13, 1970, a victory over their archrival Green Bay Packers.
To generations of Wrigley Field patrons, the voice of public address announcer Pat Pieper was a familiar part of the game-day experience. Pieper, a former popcorn and peanut vendor at old West Side Park, served as the announcer at Clark and Addison from 1916 until his death in 1974. His signature call at the beginning of every contest was “Attention! … Attention please! … Have your pencil … and scorecards ready … and I’ll give you … the correct lineup … for today’s ballgame!”
The decades of the 1960s and 1970s saw baseball undergo seismic shifts, and the ballpark landscape was not immune to this change. Teams were abandoning their classic old ballparks and moving into modern stadiums. The vast majority were multipurpose facilities surrounded by parking lots rather than neighborhoods. Many of them featured that bane of ’70s baseball, artificial turf. They were better suited to football than baseball, and were totally lacking in charm or distinctiveness. They were derisively called “cookie cutters,” or “concrete doughnuts” because of their circular sameness. Richie Hebner once said of them, “I stand at the plate in the Vet (Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia) and I don’t honestly know whether I’m in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, or Philly. They all look alike.”2
In the midst of this progress, Wrigley Field remained as familiar as always. (Incredibly, however, Philip Wrigley had seriously considered installing artificial turf at the park in the late ’60s.) On the field, the Cubs endured some lean years in the ’70s. Nevertheless, the fans continued to come out to the old ballpark, as the club annually topped the million mark in attendance. That the Cubs were able to draw this well despite the mediocre team on the field, is amazing when one considers the team’s philosophy regarding ticket sales. According to Stuart Shea in his book, Wrigley Field: The Unauthorized Biography, “The Cubs had a long-standing practice of selling all 3,250 bleacher seats, as well as all lower- and upper-deck grandstand tickets, only on the day of the game.”3 Shea added, “P.K. Wrigley believed that fans should have the walk-up option, and all grandstand and bleacher seats were day-of-game sales only while he continued to own the club.”4 Philip Wrigley died in 1977, and four years later the Wrigley family sold the team to the Chicago Tribune Co. By the late ’80s, no more “day-of-game” tickets were sold at Wrigley.
WGN was the local Chicago television station (Channel 9) which aired every Cubs game. In 1978 it began broadcasting nationally via the emerging medium of cable TV. Not many American TV sets were cable-ready at this time, but within a few years the number of subscribers had grown astronomically. WGN, along with Atlanta’s WTBS, which (at the time) broadcast all Atlanta Braves games, became what were known as “superstations.” Fans from all over the country could tune in to WGN in the summertime and catch a Cubs game. The Cubs, and Wrigley Field, were getting more national television exposure than they ever had before.
Harry Christopher Carabina, born in 1914, and better known as Harry Caray, was the longtime radio and TV broadcaster, at various times, for the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Browns, Oakland Athletics, and crosstown White Sox. He joined WGN in 1981, eventually pairing with former Cub and White Sox pitcher Steve Stone in 1983. The dry-witted, tell-it-like-it-is Stone was the perfect foil for Caray in the broadcast booth. As an announcer, Caray was an unrepentant homer. From his over-the-top glee at every Chicago victory (“Cubs win!! Cubs win!! Cubs win!!), to his frustration at their frequent failures (“Heee popppped it upp!”), he made it sound as if you were listening to your lovable old uncle broadcast the game. Still, Caray was an astute observer of the game who knew when the Cubs deserved criticism. He was notorious for butchering player names; Bret Barberie, Heathcliff Slocumb, and Mark Grudzielanek were always an adventure. But Caray was most famous for his ritual of belting out “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on the Wrigley Field public address system during the seventh-inning stretch, and getting the crowd to sing along with him. It was a tradition he had actually started back in his Comiskey Park days after a suggestion from Bill Veeck during his second tenure as the White Sox owner. (After Caray’s death in 1998, the team began a new Wrigley Field tradition of having a different celebrity sing the song at every game.)
In 1984 the Cubs, led by MVP second baseman Ryne Sandberg, came out of nowhere and won the NL East Division with a record of 96-65. That season also marked the first year of the Cubs drawing over two million fans to Wrigley Field. In the best-of-five National League Championship Series, against the San Diego Padres, Chicago won the first two games at Wrigley Field. The television networks salivated at the prospect of a Cubs-Tigers World Series, but it wasn’t to be. The Cubs lost the next three in San Diego, and it was the Padres who would advance to the World Series against Detroit (and lose). A glorious season for Chicago had ended in heartbreak.
To many baseball purists during these years, Wrigley Field had become the perfect antidote to the modern cookie-cutter stadium. In a baseball world that had grown weary of artificial turf, sterile domes, and concrete doughnuts surrounded by parking lots, Wrigley (along with Boston’s Fenway Park) came to symbolize baseball played on grass, in an intimate setting, where you were closer to the players. A game at Wrigley had a neighborhood feel, where people on rooftops across the street could set up a few lawn chairs and a grill, and make an afternoon of it. And the most wonderful thing of all, for Cubs fans, was that Wrigley Field remained the last major-league ballpark without lights. Games were played in glorious sunshine. You could take the afternoon off from work, hop on the El train, buy a cheap bleacher ticket, take your shirt off, and enjoy the festive atmosphere. As Bill Veeck once said, “An afternoon in the bleachers is the greatest buy in the country. Drinking a few beers and telling a few lies, you can’t beat the entertainment.”5
After the 1984 season, mounting pressure had been put on the Cubs, from both the National League and the major television networks, to install light towers. A heated debate grew among Wrigleyville residents. Many felt that the introduction of night games would result in an increase in noise and rowdiness, while others, particularly bar and restaurant owners, welcomed the change, feeling it would bring in more business. A compromise was reached. Lights would be installed, but there would be a limit of 18 night games per season, an average of less than one per week. The first night game was scheduled for August 8, 1988, versus the Philadelphia Phillies. However, by the fourth inning, rain began to fall hard, and after a two-hour delay, the contest was finally called. The first official night game, therefore, was August 9. The Cubs beat the Mets, 6-4, in front of 36,399 fans. Wrigley Field had been the last major-league ballpark without lights, a distinction it held for 40 years, ever since Briggs Stadium (later renamed Tiger Stadium) installed lights in 1948.
Another economically necessary upgrade, but one that received less sentimental fanfare, was the construction in 1989 of 67 luxury suites directly below the upper-deck stands, from foul line to foul line. A new press box was also built.
In 1990 Wrigley Field hosted its first All-Star Game in nearly 30 years, a 2-0 American League victory. It was only the third All-Star Game ever played in the Friendly Confines. The first was in in 1947, when the American League bested the National League, 2-1. In 1962 the AL trounced the NL, 9-4, during the second All-Star contest played that season.
As the final decade of the 20th century approached, the cookie-cutter stadiums, which had been universally panned almost from the beginning, were now increasingly obsolete. Fans in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and other baseball towns waxed nostalgic about their long-lost fields of dreams. After the 1990 season, Comiskey Park on Chicago’s South Side would succumb to the wrecking ball. Of the classic ballparks, only three remained: Wrigley, along with Fenway Park in Boston and Tiger Stadium in Detroit. (Four, if one were to include a rebuilt Yankee Stadium in the list.) But a new era of ballpark design was about to emerge. In 1992 Oriole Park at Camden Yards in downtown Baltimore opened its doors. Groundbreaking in design, it harkened back architecturally and esthetically to the grand old ballparks, while giving fans all the modern amenities. The Retro Park movement had begun in earnest. Planners and designers of these new ballparks would look to the Friendly Confines and the other classic yards for inspiration.
The Cubs, meanwhile, continued to come up short in their quest for a world championship. In their last six playoff appearances (1984, 1989, 1998, 2003, 2007, and 2008), they have been swept three times. With the exception of the 2003 NLDS against the Atlanta Braves, as of 2014 the Cubs have not won any other postseason series, let alone a championship, since 1908.
And so Wrigley Field endures. In the 2004 season, the Cubs drew over three million fans to Wrigley Field for the first time. Its place in the American sporting consciousness is secure, yet the ballpark is on the cusp of major changes. Current Cubs owner Tom Ricketts understandably wanted to tap new revenue sources from the aging park, and one of those ways was with more and more advertising signage. Newer luxury suites were also proposed. There were plans for renovated concourses, able to accommodate fancier concession stands and souvenir shops. Also proposed was a controversial high-definition Jumbotron above the left-center-field bleachers. Purists may howl, but the metamorphosis of Wrigley Field was well under way. Once a haven for daytime baseball, the 2014 Cubs schedule included more than 40 home night games. Ricketts insisted that in order for the Cubs to win a World Series, Wrigley Field would have to be transformed into a thoroughly modern venue. Regardless of what the future held for this classic park as it celebrated its 100th birthday in 2014, it would still remain the Friendly Confines to legions of baseball fans.
Benson, Michael, Ballparks of North America: A Comprehensive Historical Reference to Baseball Grounds, Yards and Stadiums, 1845 to Present (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2009).
Dickson, Paul, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick (London: Bloomsbury Publishing,2012).
Ehrgott, Roberts, Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club: Chicago and the Cubs During the Jazz Age (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2013).
Gillette, Gary, and Eric Enders, Big League Ballparks: The Complete Illustrated History (New York: Metro Books, 2009).
Jacob, Mark, and Stephen Green, Wrigley Field: A Celebration of the Friendly Confines (New York: McGraw Hill, 2003).
McNeil, William, Gabby Hartnett: The Life and Times of the Cubs’ Greatest Catcher (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2004).
Shea, Stuart, Wrigley Field: The Unauthorized Biography (Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2004).
Smith, Ron, The Ballpark Book: A Journey Through the Fields of Baseball Magic (St. Louis: The Sporting News, 2000).
Stout, Glenn, The Cubs: The Complete Story of Chicago Cubs Baseball (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).
1 William McNeil, Gabby Hartnett: The Life and Times of the Cubs’ Greatest Catcher (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishing, 2004), 147.
2 Charles A. Santo, Sport and Public Policy: Social, Political, and Economic Perspectives (Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics), 73.
3 Stuart Shea, Wrigley Field: The Unauthorized Biography (Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, Inc., 2004), 266.
5 Paul Dickson, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012), 329.