Wrigley Field at 100 years old still a baseball mecca

Wrigley Field at 100 years old still a baseball mecca

Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Apr 23, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; A general view of the main marquee in front of the stadium before the baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks at Wrigley Field. Today marks the 100th year anniversary of the stadium's opening.

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by Joe Mock, Special for USA TODAY Sports

KING5.com

Posted on April 23, 2014 at 1:47 PM

Updated Wednesday, Apr 23 at 1:47 PM

The point of Wrigley Field is to display baseball games. ... And just as a frame can serve, or be inappropriate for, a particular painting, ballparks can display ball games well or poorly. ... Wrigley Field is lovelier than the baseball often played on the field.

— George Will, A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred

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CHICAGO — As the sport celebrates the 100th birthday of one of its great cathedrals — the construction of which the Chicago Cubs originally fought at every turn — its rich history is the talk of baseball.

But why does it seem as if the glorious aspects of this famous venue outnumber the accomplishments of its tenants? Even more perplexing: Why do Cub fans continue to fill its grandstand and bleachers as the memory of the team's last appearance in the World Series in 1945 has long since faded?

As Stuart Shea, author of Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines, puts it, Wrigley is "a place where good memories are created and bad memories are ameliorated."

As Shea points out, the team's failings seem to be easier to absorb when you're sitting in such a gorgeous, stately venue.

Like Shea, Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer George Will is one of a number of noteworthy authors who have penned books on Wrigley to coincide with the 100th anniversary of its opening, which occurred April 23, 1914. Will told USA TODAY Sports that he is a Cubs fan for life because "I have a nagging fear that if I ever stopped following them, they'd start winning."

Indeed, the play of the Cubs over the years can be characterized as ugly more often than not. After sporadic stints of success, the Cubs have suffered through unparalleled futility. From 1948 through 2013, the team went 4,871-5,564 (.467).

Despite this, the love affair between the fan base and the team's venue is unrivaled in sports — and that love affair, according to Will, has played a key role in the team's poor on-field performance.

Calling A Nice Little Place on the North Side a "business book, about a business model that failed," Will notes the loyalty of the fans and their enthusiasm for coming to Wrigley for the experience of the venue meant they weren't all that demanding about wins and losses.

If "attendance might've varied more directly and more dramatically with the success on the field, it would've provided a much more powerful incentive to improve what was going on on the field," Will said.

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Outlasting upstart franchise

The most dominant squads in the franchise's history played in the first decade of the 20th century, when the Cubs called West Side Grounds home. The teams in 1906 through 1910 had the best five-season winning percentage in Major League Baseball history (.693). Before moving into Wrigley in 1916, the team won a stunning 465 more games than it lost (1,219-754) starting in 1903.

It hasn't gone so well since.

During the final seasons at crumbling West Side Grounds, the Cubs and organized baseball fought to keep the upstart Federal League from basing a franchise on the city's growing, untapped North Side.

Ed Hartig, who for 20 years has acted as the Cubs' unofficial team historian, said the National League even had "an ingenious plan" to have an agent acquire a slice of the property that had been selected for the Federal League venue in an attempt to thwart the plan to construct a park at the corner of Clark and Addison.

When the agent failed to buy the land in time, construction began on the park that for two years served as the home of the Chicago Whales. The team won the Federal League championship in 1915, just in time to see the league fold.

Whales owner Charlie Weeghman quickly put together a group of investors who bought controlling interest of the Cubs. They moved the team into the palace built for the Whales, thus starting the longest running relationship between an NL team and its ballpark, topped only by the Boston Red Sox's use of Fenway Park since 1912.

The stadium went by Weeghman Park until 1920, when the team started pushing the name Cubs Park — a name now attached to the team's new spring training facility in Mesa, Ariz. During the late 1920s, the team's star was Hack Wilson, winner of four home run titles and holder of the MLB record for RBI in a season (191, in 1930).

In time for the 1927 season, the team renamed the park in honor of owner William Wrigley and greatly expanded seating. The result: the first NL team to top 1million in attendance.

Wrigley's son P.K. became the owner of the team in 1932, and he made no secret that the experience of coming to Wrigley Field was more important to him than whether the team won.

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Early 20th century success

While the team won the NL pennant in its third season at Wrigley, it is a run of four NL crowns in 10 seasons (1929 through 1938) that represents the high-water mark for the team during its Wrigley years.

The 1932 club faced the mighty New York Yankees in the World Series, and what the matchup lacked in drama (New York won in a sweep) it made up for in folklore.

In Game 3, Wrigley's overflow crowd and the Cubs players in the dugout howled with every pitch to Babe Ruth. After a gesture (at the bleachers? At the home dugout? At the pitcher?), "The Bambino" blasted one of the longest homers — and most debated as a "called shot" — in the ballpark's history.

The Cubs' next shining star was catcher Gabby Hartnett. He hit the "Homer in the Gloamin'," a blast into Wrigley's lightless dusk that won a crucial game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1938 and propelled his team to the pennant.

Sam Pathy, author of the comprehensive Wrigley Field Year by Year: A Century at the Friendly Confines, called that game "the best singular Cub event in the park's first 50years."

The 1945 season saw many of the game's stars serving their country during World War II. It also saw the Cubs play in the Fall Classic ... with no trips since. As was the case with the previous six World Series in which the Cubs participated, the American League team won — the Detroit Tigers in seven games.

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