Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 9, 2014

Book Review: Wrigley Turns 100

On the 4th of March, one hundred Marches ago, groundbreaking ceremonies were held at an irregular tract of land on Chicago’s North Side. Just six weeks later Weeghman Park, a modern single-deck stadium, hosted the 1914 home opener of the Chicago Chifeds of the one year old Federal League. Only two seasons later both the Chifeds and their minor league were consigned to the back pages of baseball history.

But the team’s flamboyant owner “Lucky Charlie” Weeghman, who had made a fortune from a string of local lunch counters as an early day Ray Kroc, was able to buy the Second City’s Senior Circuit major league franchise. As soon as his $500,000 purchase was complete Weeghman moved the Cubs from dilapidated West Side Park to his shiny new self-named stadium. Not long after the fast food magnate’s financial luck ran out, and by 1918 he was forced to surrender control of the Cubs to William Wrigley of Juicy Fruit fame, who had gradually expanded an initial small investment in the team. Less than a decade later, after two major expansions that added both a second deck and outfield bleachers, the stadium at 1060 West Addison Street was officially renamed Wrigley Field.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great Game’s second oldest ballpark, Pulitzer Prize-winning sports reporter and author Ira Berkow has produced “Wrigley Field: An Oral and Narrative History of the Home of the Chicago Cubs” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang).  In addition to Berkow’s historical overview, the volume includes both a foreword by retired Cubs’ pitcher Kerry Wood and a preface by retired Supreme Court Justice and Chicago native John Paul Stevens; and a section of “Wrigley Memories” from notable Cubs fans, gleaned from interviews by Chicago Tribune reporter Josh Noel.

The team that Weeghman bought was a National League powerhouse. Then known as the White Stockings, the Chicago franchise topped the standings in the league’s inaugural season in 1876, and won the championship six times in the NL’s first eleven years. After playing as the Colts and the Orphans before finally settling on the Cubs, Chicago won four titles in five years between 1906 and 1910, and won back-to-back World Series in 1907 and 1908, all before moving to their current home. Of course, even casual baseball fans know that the second of those two world championships was also the Cubs’ most recent title. But more than a century of frustration does not mean that a chronicle of Wrigley Field lacks drama, and this book contains plenty.

Right up front there is the moving story of Kerry Wood closing his injury-marred career as he began it, by striking out one final batter. In May of 2012 Wood was called from the Cubs bullpen before a typically full house and set down the only hitter he faced on three pitches. Wood also recalls sitting in the dugout and experiencing the sudden change of fortune in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, when Chicago was five outs from the World Series behind a dominant Mark Prior, until a high fly to left drifted toward foul territory and the fans in the stands, with outfielder Moises Alou in pursuit. And he recounts the gray May afternoon in 1998 when a small midweek crowd watched in awe as a fireballing rookie tied the major league mark by striking out twenty Houston Astros over nine innings.

Proceeding chronologically, Berkow takes readers through the many decades of baseball at Wrigley, most of it during the day and all of it with the unpredictable winds coming off Lake Michigan. There are memories of the days of pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander and outfielder Hack Wilson, visits to the park by Al Capone, and the 1932 World Series when Babe Ruth may or may not have called his shot to center in the 5th inning of Game 3. All that before there was even ivy on the walls.

There are repeated trips to the World Series, in 1918 and 1929, three in the ‘30s and one more in 1945, all ending in defeat. Then follows the great darkness, two full decades of second division finishes, a period of extended futility leavened only slightly by the arrival and blossoming of Mister Cub, Ernie Banks. That is followed by more recent tales which will be immediately familiar, from the first night game in 1988 to the inimitable presence of announcer Harry Caray to Sammy Sosa’s home run race with Mark McGwire to, yes, that Game 6 foul ball that brought Moises Alou and Steve Bartman together.

Because the old ballpark is home to a team that hasn’t won a championship in more than a century, some of the most poignant passages in “Wrigley Field” are in Noel’s interviews, which comprise the book’s final chapter. Author Scott Turow and columnist George Will, actors Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz, former player Ryne Sandberg, and Smashing Pumpkins lead singer Billy Corgan are among those who recall their first visits to Wrigley and remember moments of greatness amid long years of despair.

Aside from Wrigley’s centennial anniversary, this book is also timely because it is published just as the old ballyard is readying for its most dramatic changes since night baseball arrived a quarter century ago. While the team and owners of nearby buildings who sell rooftop seats overlooking the action continue to squabble, the city has given approval to a $500 million renovation plan to modernize and upgrade the park and the fan experience. The neighborhood fight is over the Cubs’ plan to put up outfield advertising signs that the team says it needs to generate revenue to pay for the renovations; while nearby building owners worry about the impact on sightlines from their bleachers beyond Wrigley’s bleachers.

Through it all the old park remains; like its ancient cousin in Boston a reminder of the long history of our timeless game. A quarter-century ago the great Vin Scully opened a broadcast from Wrigley with this:

“She stands alone on the corner of Clark and Addison, this dowager queen, dressed in basic black and pearls, seventy-five years old, proud head held high and not a hair out of place, awaiting another date with destiny, another time for Mr. Right.

She dreams as old ladies will of men gone long ago, Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, Frank Chance. And of those of recent vintage like her man Ernie. And the Lion. And sweet Billy Williams.

And she thinks wistfully of what might have been, and the pain is still fresh and new, and her eyes fill, her lips tremble, and she shakes her head ever so slightly. And then she sighs, pulls her shawl tightly around her frail shoulders, and thinks, “This time, this time it will be better.”

Now comes her hundredth season and still Wrigley waits, as do the loyal fans who fill her seats.

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Responses

  1. When I was a kid, Tinkers to Evers to Chance was something we talked about as the ultimate double play. Chuck

    • Thanks Chuck. The third baseman in that group was a guy named Harry Steinfeldt. His numbers were every bit as good as the others, but “Steinfeldt to Evers to Chance” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. As a result old Harry is lost to history, while the other three are in the Hall of Fame! Thanks again, Mike

      http://www.onsportsandlife.com

  2. Sounds like a fine book. I’ll have to go look for it.
    Great review. Love the quote from Vin Scully.
    -Bill

    • Thanks Bill. No announcer paints a picture with words any better than Scully. I appreciate what Theo Epstein is attempting in Chicago, but I think for Cubs fans the long wait is going to continue for a bit. Thanks again, Mike

      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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