Wrigley Field at 100: Neighborhood gem
Just about everybody within baseball, or any baseball fan, has a Wrigley Field story.
Like Ernie Banks, the greatest Chicago Cub ever, who speaks of being so physically close to the fans there as a player, he could look directly into their eyes. Or Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, who met his wife, Cecilia, in the ballpark’s famed bleachers. Or MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who made his first trip from his native Milwaukee to Wrigley as a 10-year-old boy in 1944 and jokes that the Wrigleyville neighborhood looks no different today than it did then.
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
It’s been well known that baseball’s deep connection to history is among its key, defining characteristics. And Wrigley Field, celebrating its centennial this year, stands as a crucial, almost universal, piece of connective tissue in that link to the past.
For decades, visiting the northside Chicago ballpark has stood high among personal bucket lists of fans and players alike, and now ranks as the third most-visited tourist attraction in the entire state of Illinois. The venue itself played notable roles in beloved films such as “The Blues Brothers” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and its unofficial moniker of “The Friendly Confines” is one of the most well-known venue nicknames in the industry. Legions of tour bus outfits and tourism companies base their entire summer schedules around when they can get to Wrigley Field.
The concourses are extremely tight. Parking around the ballpark can be a nightmare. The player clubhouses and training facilities have been among the worst in all of professional sports. The less said about the bathrooms, the better. Weather during games is at best unpredictable and often inhospitable, driven by ever-shifting winds off Lake Michigan. And then there’s the Cubs themselves, internationally famous for a streak of ineptitude that has seen 105 seasons and counting since the team’s last World Series title.
Many of those issues are now the focus of a large-scale, $500 million effort by the team’s owners to renovate Wrigley Field and redevelop pieces of the surrounding neighborhood, including building a hotel (see story).
Such efforts were initially intended to begin several years ago, but were delayed by negotiations with both the city of Chicago and neighboring rooftop owners that at times have grown fractious. More than four years after the Ricketts family bought the Cubs from the Tribune Co. for a then-MLB record $845 million, efforts to renovate the ballpark for the second century have now become a focal point of the conversation around celebrating its first one.
“Wrigley really is special,” Ricketts said. “There’s a vibe there. It’s unique. I think a big part of it is the fact it’s so small and intimate. The genius layout of the park a hundred years ago is something we’re still taking advantage of. It has the old ballpark feel, where the fans are really a part of the action. And everyone knows that when they get to their seat at Wrigley, they’re in their happy place. You just pick up on that energy all around.”
Accidental journal of history
Like many ballparks of the early 20th century, Wrigley Field was hurriedly built with nary a thought of its eventual, lasting impact. Constructed in only six weeks in early 1914 on the grounds of a former Lutheran seminary, the then-Weeghman Park features the basic field layout used today, and Wrigley’s current lower grandstand is original to the ballpark. But through a series of changes during the next several decades, numerous quirks and features were added that melded together to help make Wrigley Field what it is today.
The grandstand received a second deck in the late 1920s. The bleachers, ivy walls and still-in-use, hand-operated
|Wrigley Field is shown under construction in 1914. The ballpark, originally built with only one level of seating, was completed in only six weeks.
The facility changes were often unconnected to each other, with no overarching vision, and driven in part by the fact that Wrigley Field was actually one of the country’s first true multipurpose venues. While the Cubs obviously dominate the ballpark’s history, the Chicago Bears played there from 1921-70, encompassing a large part of that team’s glory days, and the venue played host to virtually every kind of live event.
|The project was the brainchild of Charles Weeghman, who is shown standing on the right with Federal League President J.A. Gilmore.
But within that haphazard series of events is a major crucible of sports history. No other American sports venue still standing can boast that legends such as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, Hack Wilson and Gabby Hartnett all played on its field. Opening just two years after Fenway Park in Boston, Wrigley Field is the second-oldest facility in U.S. pro sports still in active and continuous use.
“Wrigley Field is just another one of those true cathedrals that’s so important to our game, and so important to Chicago and the country,” Selig said. “There are a lot problems there right now that need to be worked out, and I know the Ricketts family are working very hard to sort all that out. But there’s just something really great about going there.”
Similar to the Fenway centennial two years ago, the Cubs’ Wrigley celebration is less focused on the actual 100th anniversary day of April 23, but rather on creating a yearlong commemoration of the event. Part of the plan includes honoring each decade of Wrigley history during a different homestand of the Cubs season. During each homestand, the Cubs will wear a different throwback jersey. Many of the throwbacks denote particularly weak periods in team history, and some do not at all stand the test of time in terms of aesthetic appeal. But the intent all the same is to create a conversation with fans about the anniversary all season long.
“You only get one chance to do something like this in your lifetime,” said Colin Faulkner, Cubs vice president for
|The Cubs take on the Yankees in the 1938 World Series.
Even with a Cubs team projected to struggle again in the standings this year, that celebration will again have the team pushing toward 3 million in attendance, a figure not long ago unthinkable given the team’s history and a fairly tight seating capacity of just over 41,000. Despite the track record of on-field malaise and heartbreak, the Cubs have not fallen below 2.6 million in attendance since 1997. The 3 million mark was surpassed for eight straight seasons in a 2004-11 stretch. For Cubs longtimers, that’s a seismic shift from days in the 1970s or ’80s when game crowds of less than 5,000 were not unusual.
The roots of that attendance explosion lie in part with the late Harry Caray, the legendary WGN announcer who through the team’s broadcasts on the WGN-TV cable superstation became not only a Chicago institution but a national figure. Caray’s outsized personality and famed renditions of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley games helped turn the ballpark into a must-visit destination for fans across the country.
“You had the ’84 and ’89 [playoff teams] that had a moment and put us and Wrigley on the map. But I think Harry and the broadcasts had a lot to do with that,” said Carl Rice, Cubs vice president of ballpark operations, a team employee since 1982 and a northside Chicago native. “It took us from 1.2 million [in attendance] to 2 million. But ’98 to 2003 then really kicked off a new renaissance around the Cubs and got us to 3 million. Honestly, none of us really thought we could ever get to 3 million.”
Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are often lumped together in any ballpark conversation, and the Cubs and Red Sox are two of MLB’s classic, traditional franchises. The Ricketts family is now pursuing a large scale renovation not unlike the $285 million worth of work that Fenway Sports Group has now completed in Boston. Like Fenway, Wrigley is on the National Register of Historic Places, a protected landmark status that has created more controversy in Chicago than in Boston given it predates the as-yet-unstarted renovations. And the Cubs are leaning on Massachusetts-based D’Agostino Izzo Quirk Architects, which worked on the Fenway restoration, for consulting help.
But that’s essentially where similarities end.
“The two parks are pretty dissimilar except for their age,” Rice said. “Wrigley is built on a traditional, U-shaped form. Fenway, as we know, is a little more cock-eyed and has the Green Monster and so forth. We still owe a lot to the original design here.”
Still, the two lead baseball executives for the Cubs, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, previously worked for the Red Sox, and are looking for lightning to strike a second time where a revival of Wrigley Field coincides with a rebirth of the team on the field.
“Sitting out in the seating bowl on a summer day, I don’t think there’s a better place on the planet [than Wrigley Field],” Hoyer said. “But that said, you go underneath, and it’s not up to modern standards. So Theo and I do have a perspective on this. … I don’t see any reason why we can’t do this renovation without losing any of the charm.”