The Building of Chicago’s Wrigley Field

This article was written by Raymond D. Kush

This article was published in 1981 Baseball Research Journal

The 1981 baseball season marked the 66th straight year that the Chicago Cubs have played their games at what is today known as Wrigley Field. Only three other teams, the White Sox, Red Sox and Tigers, have played in their respective parks for more consecutive years. But the story behind the construction of Wrigley Field does not center around the National League’s Cubs, but rather the Federal League’s “Chifeds,” and not William or Philip Wrigley, but one Charles Henry “Lucky Charlie” Weeghman.

The Federal League had begun as a minor league in 1912 and, the following year, moved a franchise into Chicago, where the team played its home games on De Paul University’s athletic field. The Chicago team, like others in the circuit, was made up largely of unknowns and former major leaguers who had long ago seen their best years, and it was in no way able to compete with the Cubs or White Sox for the baseball fan’s dollar. But at the close of the 1913 season, the League elected coal magnate James A. Gilmore as its president and began an earnest drive to sign major league stars and establish a genuine third major league. For the 1914 season, Gilmore was successful in enticing a number of prosperous businessmen throughout the country to field teams in their respective cities, including Charles Weeghman in Chicago.

Gilmore could not have found a more natural choice to buy the Chicago Federal League club than “Lucky Charlie.” Rising to the top in Horatio Alger fashion, Weeghman enjoyed a place in the elite circle of nouveaux riches Chicagoans. He had begun inauspiciously enough as a coffee boy in Charlie King’s famous Loop restaurant on 5th Avenue (now Wells Street) during the 1890s. He soon became head waiter there and, with $2,800 he had saved, eventually opened his own lunchroom at Wells and Adams. Weeghman was the first to popularize the “one arm chair dairy lunch” and it quickly brought him a fortune. At one time he owned 15 lunchrooms in Chicago and he had plans to open scores around the country. So, lured by the possibilities of financial profit and of further publicizing his restaurant ventures, Weeghman took over the new “Chifeds” ball club with boyish eagerness and enthusiasm.

One of Weeghman’s priorities was, of course, to find a suitable place for his new team to play, and so, without hesitating, he decided to build a brand new park of his own. Hurriedly he leased a vacant lot at Clark and Addison Streets in the midst of one of north-side Chicago’s large residential areas and enlisted the services of local architect Zachary Taylor Davis to design the ballpark.

Mr. Davis himself was no stranger to Chicago baseball interests. Four years earlier he had been asked by Charles A. Comiskey to draw up blueprints for a massive new park for his south-side White Sox. Davis’s design, which carried a $500,000 price tag, called for the construction of America’s first kite-shaped park — a type which was to become commonplace in the years ahead. When Comiskey Park opened midway through the 1910 season, it was billed as “the world’s greatest baseball palace,” containing “the largest field devoted to baseball in the United States.”

Architect Davis, however, was not asked to design an equally massive and expensive structure for Weeghman’s “rebel” north-side club. Instead, he designed a park which he felt would fit both the needs of the yet untried Chicago Federal League franchise and the wallet of Charlie Weeghman. Weeghman, obviously satisfied with the architect’s work, quickly approved the park’s design and the $250,000 estimate by the contractor, the Blome-Sinek Company.

When pressed by newsmen early in 1914 to give them some of the particulars of his ballpark, Weeghman’s only response was that it would be “more like the stand in the Polo Grounds in New York than like any other grand stand in the country.” In truth, though, the park was to lack at least three striking features of the New York structure: it would not originally extend far down the left field side; it would have no second deck; and it would be devoid of any detailed ornamentation on its interior facade. But as the application for a building permit shows, the construction of Weeghman’s park was far from a skimpy project. The proposed length of the curved stand was to be 800 feet, its breadth 100 feet, and its height 56 feet. Likewise, it was projected that 160,000 bricks and 45,200 cubic feet of concrete were to be used, in addition to 1900 cubic feet of hollow tile and 1700 yards of plastering.

Naturally, “Lucky Charlie” made sure that the ground-breaking ceremony at Clark and Addison Streets on March 4, 1914, was a glamorous affair. “Moving picture men” and a dozen photographers were there, a band came to play patriotic tunes, two or three public officials gave speeches, a bottle of wine was smashed over a spade, and Building Commissioner Ericcson turned over the first shovel of dirt. Between two and four thousand spectators attended the event and Weeghman promised that the ball park would be an “edifice of beauty” ready for baseball by April 18, or at the latest, April 25 — only seven weeks away!

The construction workers, as might be expected, immediately began laboring at a furious pace to make their April deadline. By March 19, the workers were erecting the steel and laying the brick for the right field bleacher stand; four days later, they had laid all of the foundations; and, by March 30, the structural iron inspector, P. J. Dalton, noted that the laying of the concrete slab for the grandstand seats was in progress. The laborers were completing the steel work by April 4 and were building the brick fence for part of the outfield by April 9. Finally, by April 14, the concrete runways and seat slabs were being finished and within six days the seats were being installed.

The workmen encountered only a few minor problems along the way and these did little to slow down the rapid rate of construction. The inspectors overlooked the fact that the beams of the stands had not been riveted with “standard connections” because they appeared to be safe enough. However, certain sections of “poor work” were taken out and redone at the inspectors’ request and two bolts were riveted at the two ends of all the seat sections after a complaint was filed with the architect that about six sections had only one bolt. Also, Weeghman, architect Davis, and the contractor were able to overcome two other obstacles that could have impeded progress on the park. In building an eight-foot brick fence, they had violated a city ordinance; but the inspectors, while reporting the violation, apparently did not insist upon the fence’s removal. And a strike by union teamsters, which began on April 3, lasted only a few days and did not produce any significant delay.

When Charlie Weeghman proudly took a group of newspapermen on a tour of the ball park in the first week of April, the sports pages the next day were filled with glowing comments. Tribune reporter Handy Andy wrote that

The stands, so far as the spectator is concerned, will be as fit as any in these parts. . . . seats will be afforded nearly 20,000 fans, 18,000 being in the grandstand. Only one bleacher has been erected, and this will seat nearly 2,000 “two-bit” fans. The president is planning an addition to his grandstand next year so that it will sweep far into left field.

The sportswriter further noted that the distance from home plate to the left field fence was 310 feet, and from the plate to right field 345 feet, giving the park a larger area than the local National League grounds where the Cubs played. In concluding, Handy Andy mentioned a detail that ironically was to represent one of the park’s few modern-day problems: “An enormous space also has been set aside for automobiles, but some of the extra room will be occupied by store buildings next season.”

For the next two and a half weeks, Charlie Weeghman worked to prepare Chicagoans for the formal opening of his park, scheduled to occur on Thursday, April 23. On April 7 he increased the number of men working on the structure to 350 and on April 13 gave his new manager, former Cub star Joe Tinker, an inspection tour of the park. In that same week he hired the George Wittbold Company to start the landscaping. 140 men, including landscape architects, engineers, and gardeners, were used on the project which called for 4123 cubic yards of soil to be hauled and four acres of blue grass sod to be laid.

Always keenly aware of the tremendous impact good publicity schemes could have, Weeghman wrote a personal message to Chicago baseball fans which appeared in the city’s newspapers the morning of the home opener. In it he humbly thanked Chicagoans for the support that had always been given him and appealed to their sense of duty in backing his new civic venture:

I have devoted my time, my energy and my money to help bring this project to the point where it stands today. What success I have attained in a business way I owe to the loyal patronage of the general Chicago public, and in this effort to further clean sport and to bring a large section of this city an opportunity to enjoy the national pastime. I am doing no more than my natural loyalty to this community demands.

Emphasizing that the “great park” he had built was not his, but rather the fans’, he implored them to have a record-breaking crowd on hand.

With that, the stage was set for the opening of Weeghman Park. The owner anticipated an overflow crowd of up to 25,000, and since the park’s bleacher, grandstand, and two pavilions (located at each end of the stands) could hold no more than 20,000, Weeghman had temporary “circus seats” installed on the field. An additional arrangement had to be handled. Since the park was located in a residential area, a strange city ordinance had to be met:

It was reported last night that the consent of nearly 1,000 more property owners of the neighborhood must be obtained before the Feds will be secure in their new park. Apparently every one within 1000 feet, or nearly three blocks of the park must have his say in the matter . . . . It was said Chifed agents were convassing the district last night for the needed signatures. A permit for today’s game has been secured from the city officials, but the necessary consent of two-thirds of the neighbors must be obtained before Monday, so the rumor goes.

Rumor or not, Charlie Weeghman didn’t need a signature-filled petition for the first game anyway, so nothing was allowed to stop the gala pre-game festivities he had planned. After a parade, some band playing, and a presentation of roses, over 21 ,000 fans in the park watched the G.A.R. Ladies Auxiliary raise the flag and Corporation Counsel Sexton, filling in for Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr., throw out the first ball. In addition, hundreds of others looked on from the windows and roofs of the two- and three-story flats across the street from the park and from the elevated train platform a half block away. Fittingly, the Chifeds then took the field and, to the delight of the partisan crowd, beat Kansas City handily, 9-1.

Apparently Weeghman obtained the necessary signatures on the petition because the Chicago team was able to continue its weekend series and play before an even larger crowd the following Sunday. By then the opening-day “circus seats” had been removed, so the fans were allowed to spill out of the stands and either watch from a ringed-off area around the perimeter of the field or climb atop the left field fence.

Interestingly, already in the first week of play an alteration was to be made which would change the face of Weeghman Park. In their first game, the Chicago Federals had hit two home runs over the 310-foot left field fence, and there were immediate cries that they were nothing more than “cheap-shots.” Weeghman himself admitted that he thought that left field was too short and he resolved to change it while the team was on its first Eastern trip. True to his word, Weeghman soon hired workers who took down the left field fence and pushed it back to a three-story house whose front porch had to be demolished in the process. The new fence, which now had a screen atop it, made the left field foul line nearly 25 feet deeper and the fence in left-center almost 50 feet farther away. As a result, the scoreboard, situated in left field, likewise had to be relocated.

Despite occasional large crowds that first season, Charlie Weeghman was to discover that operating a big-time team in an “outlaw league” was not going to be a great money-making venture. And when the Chifeds lost the league championship by a narrow margin to Indianapolis in 1914, he seemed hesitant to pour much more money into his park. In preparation for the 1915 season, he didn’t follow up on plans to extend the grandstand all the way down the left field foul line and to construct an additional bleacher in left field. Instead, he directed Zachary Davis and the Blome-Sinek Company to remove the existing bleacher in right field and construct one twice as large in left. So, at a cost of $17,000, two brick houses at the north end of the park were razed and a new brick and wooden bleacher was erected.

Weeghman was able to fill the dime-seats in his new bleachers most of the time that season and his team, now renamed the Whales, won the 1915 Federal League pennant. But a number of the League’s teams continued to lose money and, during the winter, Fed officials were persuaded to disband their league and consolidate it with the stronger, more established National and American Leagues. In their negotiations, the Feds asked that all “rebel players” be accepted back unpunished and that at least two former Federal team owners be allowed to buy franchises in the older circuits.

Because of his moderate success with the Whales, Charlie Weeghman was one of those interested in buying a team and, fortunately, didn’t have to look far to find one. The Cubs, Chicago’s west-side National League team, were owned by Charles P. Taft, a successful Cincinnati businessman and brother of the former U.S. President. Since there had been loud clamoring that he and the club’s president, Charles H. Thomas, could not successfully run the Cubs long-distance, he was easily persuaded to sell 90 percent of the club’s stock to Weeghman and a few associates for $500,000.

After the transfer took place in Chicago on January 20, 1916, Weeghman added the team’s 25-man roster to his old Federal League one and decided to make his old friend, Joe Tinker, the Cubs’ manager. Naturally, he also decided to switch the Cubs from their west-side park to his own north-side one. Before he could do so, however, he had to assume the leasing obligations of the Cubs’ former park for a period of two years. The property on which the west-side park was located was owned jointly by Mrs. Charles P. Taft and Mr. Charles W. Murphy, another former Cub owner. They had originally taken a 99-year lease on the property and 88 years still remained. So while Weeghman was paying the rent for the next two years, they hoped either to sell both the park and their lease or prepare the land for some other purpose.

In brief, that’s the story of how Chicago’s Wrigley Field was built and how the Cubs began to play their games there. Weeghman would own the Cubs for only three years before financial problems would force him to sell a majority of the team’s stock to William Wrigley, president of a large chewing gum company. Under Wrigley and later his son, Philip, the park would gradually be enlarged and improved in the years ahead. In 1923 the grandstand was reconstructed so that it would extend all the way down both foul lines and two larger steel-framed bleachers were erected to replace the old one in left and the simple brick wall in right. In 1927-28 the upper deck was constructed and in 1937 an entire new bleacher was built from foul line to foul line with a new scoreboard placed atop the center-field section. But despite these changes, the park’s basic layout would continue to remain, to this day, virtually the same as when it was first designed by Zachary Davis for Charlie Weeghman’s Chifeds.