Author perfectly captures magic of Wrigley Field

It is hard to imagine but Wrigley Field, the storied ballpark at Clark and Addison streets that is home to the Chicago Cubs, was built in just seven weeks at a cost of $250,000.  That was 1914, and at the time it wasn’t built for the Cubs but for the Chicago Federals (or “Chi-Feds”) of the upstart Federal League. The Cubs started calling it home two years later, in 1916, when the Federal League folded and the Chi-Feds’ (which had since changed its name to the Whales) owner, Charles H. Weeghman, bought the Cubs for $500,000.

At the time, the ballpark was named after its owner.  It would not become Wrigley Field for another decade, in 1926.Wrigley-Field-Book-Cover

These historical fine points are chronicled in Stuart Shea’s splendid new book Wrigley Field: The Long Life & Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines (University of Chicago Press), an update to his 2004 book Wrigley Field: The Unauthorized Biography, timed to coincide with Wrigley’s centennial celebration.

The 448-page book is packed with colorful anecdotes that are sure to keep any Chicago history buff or baseball fan – yes, even those who root for the South Side White Sox (or “Pale Hose,” as Shea notes they are nicknamed) – glued to their bleacher seat.   Shea points out the irony that the Cubs first World Series after the club moved into what is now Wrigley Field, in 1918, didn’t even take place there, but at their South Side counterpart’s Comiskey Park. The Cubs of course lost that series, and, as is well-chronicled, have not won a single World Series since moving into Wrigley.

A few other nuggets packaged in the book, like the prize in a box of Cracker Jack:

  • As originally constructed, the ballpark had a small horse stable built under the third-base stands, where Weeghman kept a horse named Queen Bess.  “Weeghman kept Bess fed and had her pull the lawn mower when the ballpark grass needed to be cut,” Shea writes. “At nights, with the team out of town, Bess had the run of the diamond.”
  • Owner P.K. Wrigley, who is credited with the idea for planting the ivy on Wrigley’s outfield wall, had a “less brilliant scheme” to install Chinese elm trees on the concrete “steps” leading up to the scoreboard on the upper center-field bleacher level.  Shea notes that this part of the beautification process was abandoned in the early 1940s.
  • Before the Cubs unveiled Clark the Bear as their mascot in 2014, Wrigley Field was home to only one mascot, a creature called Cubbles, for a short time in the late 1970s; prior to then, a live baby bear named Joa lived in cage outside the park, at Clark and Addison, during the 1916 season.

While these slices of Wrigley history are fun to chew on there is much more meat to Shea’s undertaking. Shea, a lifelong Cub fan himself, provides a fascinating chronology of the ballpark’s growth into a baseball temple “surely larger than the team it houses.”   He raises the specter that this has allowed its owners to take advantage of the generations of Cubs fans who have been “raised on the idea of fun at the ballpark rather than on the expectation of a watching a winning team.”  As a result, owners have largely been able to get away with putting an inferior product on the field.  “In fact, the Cubs seem to thrill in making baseball a momentary distraction from their true, if unstated purpose: milking fans out of as much money as possible,” he writes.  This is clearly in evidence this year with the organization planning the “Party of the Century,” a season-long celebration of Wrigley’s 100th birthday, while the team it fields is not expected to contend.

Most importantly, Shea’s book provides historical context for the Wrigley Field of today – described by Shea as “a living wonderland for baseball fans” – and the current ownership’s drastic expansion plans for it.  As portrayed by Shea, alterations to Wrigley are nothing new.  The ballpark has been in a state of perpetual change since it was built in 1914; however, the modifications to it have never been dramatic and have been almost seamless.  This metamorphosis saw the installation of the upper decks in 1927 and 1928, the planting of the ivy and the erection of the hand-operated score board in 1937, the addition of the basket to the outfield wall in 1970, the affixing of the light towers in 1988, and the construction of the press boxes and luxury boxes in 1989.

“It’s only by looking closely at the park and its history that one can see the nature of the changes at Wrigley Field and how those changes have served to build an image of constancy and steadfastness against the encroachment of modernity,” Shea poignantly writes.

The author sees the current $500 million renovation project – with plans to install a Jumbotron and construct a hotel with an outdoor deck connected by a bridge to a multistory office building – as different from all those that have come before it and casts a cautionary flare about the possible implications, contending that these proposed changes could “make Wrigley, perhaps for the first time, unrecognizable to someone time traveling from 1914.”

The organization that is throwing a nostalgia party for its home ballpark this season is at the same time moving to change much of what it is that Cubs fans and baseball purists celebrate most about it – the timelessness of it.   It is this kind of perceptive insight that sets Shea’s impressive biography apart from others that have tried to dissect the magic that is The Friendly Confines.  For Cubs fans desperately looking for reason to cheer this year, this superb history of the ballpark they so cherish surely is it.

Please take a look at this book on Amazon: Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines


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