SBJ/March 24-30, 2014/Wrigley Field at 100

Wrigleyville weaves into ballpark’s culture

When Wrigley Field opened in 1914, Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood, a three-square-mile section commonly known as Wrigleyville, was full of blue-collar Irish residents who worked in nearby factories.

As decades passed, most of those factories faded from existence, but the neighborhood kept its rough-and-tumble reputation.

Older Cubs fans remember when the Cubby Bear, now a busy concert venue across the street from Wrigley’s front gates, was just another dive bar in the late 1970s. The same was true for the few other taverns next to the ballpark at the time.

“It was a completely different neighborhood back then,” said Mike Lufrano, the Cubs’ executive vice president of community affairs and general counsel, who grew up just east of the ballpark. “It was not as commercially driven as it is now but it was still a great place to grow up. It’s in the heart of the city and [as a 10-year-old kid] you could walk to Wrigley. It’s evolved over the years but it’s still a great place to grow up.”

Fans take in a game from Wrigleyville’s iconic bleacher seats.
Photo by: Getty Images
So how did Wrigleyville get to be the thriving entertainment district it is today, highlighted by its rooftop seating?
The transformation began in the 1980s. WGN-TV, which broadcast most Cubs games, became one of the first “superstations” carried nationally by cable providers. Nearly overnight, millions of people nationally had easy access to Cubs games.

SBJ Podcast:
MLB writer Eric Fisher and facilities reporter Don Muret on Wrigley Field's first 100 years, what the park means to Chicago and what its future holds

In 1982, fun-loving Harry Caray left the crosstown White Sox to climb into the Cubs’ broadcast booth. Baseball fans across the country were exposed to Caray’s unique brand of play-by-play. He was a caricature: An aged white-haired man with a gruff voice, wearing giant horned-rim glasses, butchering players’ names, and shilling for Budweiser on TV commercials between innings. But the sporting public loved him.

Then, in 1984, the Cubs made the playoffs for the first time since 1945, and second baseman Ryne Sandberg was voted the National League’s MVP. It was cool to be a Cubs fan. Even better if you could attend a game in person.
The revitalization of Wrigleyville had begun, and it continues 30 years later.

“The fact that the Cubs won, that snowballed it,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig. “Harry was God to a lot of people. All of a sudden, the Cubs games were on TV across the country, [plus] Ryno’s MVP season. It was a perfect combination.”

The Cubs installed lights at Wrigley Field in 1988, which kept the party going longer.

Over the past three decades, the Cubs have made the playoffs five more times but failed to reach the World Series. Yet Wrigleyville flourishes. New bars and restaurants pop up, some replacing others that can’t make the cut in a neighborhood filled with drinking options. Others, like the Cubby Bear, have grown a foothold over the years and expanded their operations by offering live music and catering facilities to keep people coming through the doors in the offseason.

Along the way, the owners of brownstone apartment buildings behind Wrigley Field, along Waveland and Sheffield avenues, have capitalized on the boom by developing rooftop clubs complete with bench seats, charging admission for fans to eat and drink and watch the Cubs.

The rooftop tradition itself is nothing new. Newspaper accounts of the first game at Wrigley Field, a Chicago Federals’ 9-1 win over Kansas City, mentioned people on rooftops observing the action, Hartig said. Up to the early 1980s, though, the Wrigleyville rooftops mostly consisted of a smattering of apartment residents sitting in lounge chairs next to a card table and a cooler of beer while watching the Cubs.

“In 1984, when it started becoming apparent the Cubs were probably going to make the postseason, you started to see more semi-permanent structures going up,” Hartig said.

Fast forward to 2014, and the rooftops, now regulated by the city of Chicago, have grown more sophisticated, and the owners of those buildings have formed their own association. There’s a different type of relationship with the team now.

“It evolved into something that was fun at first, and everybody loved it,” said Cubs board member Todd Ricketts. “Now, they are our competitor. They sell tickets, and the advantage they have over us is they don’t have to maintain a ballpark or put a team on the field.”

And even though the rooftop owners have officially organized as one entity, there are still differences within the group that adds to the complexity of their relationship with the Cubs, according to Ricketts.

“It’s tough in that when we talk about needing certainty from the rooftops … they’re not one person,” he said. “It’s a ‘herding cats’ sort of idea. What one rooftop owner may think is an acceptable answer is not what the others think.”

The conflicts stem from a 20-year agreement the Cubs and the rooftop owners signed in 2003 that pays the Cubs 17 percent of their annual revenue. Over the first 10 years of the deal, the Cubs have been paid an average of about $3 million a year, said team President Crane Kenney.

But as the Cubs try to move forward with a $300-plus million renovation to bring Wrigley up to speed with much newer facilities, the rooftop owners take exception to the team’s efforts to put up new advertising signs and video boards in the outfield — elements the rooftop owners say will block the view of their patrons.

The rooftop owners are threatening legal action against the Cubs, which has led team Chairman Tom Ricketts to put off the multiyear renovation until he gets assurances from the group that there will be no lawsuits filed against the team. Still, as the 101st Opening Day approaches at Wrigley Field, team officials remain optimistic they can reach a solution that works for both parties.

“I think there’s a deal to be done that helps them keep their views and stay in business … and would allow us the certainty we need afterwards,” Lufrano said. “It doesn’t help the rooftops for us to be arguing. It’s not in their business interests or ours.”

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Wrigley Field at 100, Facilities

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