- Wrigley Field: A great place to suffer for the past 100 years.
I visited Wrigley Field for the first time on a Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1982. I was five and accompanied by my dad. He was a Detroit Tigers fan and I had no previous interest in baseball, but it was understood we would root for the Cubs because we were north-siders (well, northwest suburbanites), even though I secretly thought their opponents, the Pirates, had a better team name.
He bought me a scorecard, a hot dog, and an adjustable-sized Cubs hat, which I still have. I remember peering through the tunnel to the lower deck. I’d never seen grass as bright green as the outfield.
The Cubs won that day, 5-3. I liked being able to throw the wrapper from my hot dog on the ground. I enjoyed cheering on the catcher, Jody Davis, by yelling, “Jo-DEE! Jo-DEE!” I realized it was more fun to watch a game with my dad at Wrigley Field than at home on TV. For these reasons, I decided that day that I was going to be a Cubs fan. When, a few years later, I saw my second ballpark, the old Comiskey, I did not change my mind. (It probably didn’t help that I was actively encouraged to root against the Sox, since they were playing the Tigers.)
Thus, I set myself up for a lifetime of misery. Sort of. Because even though our team never won, it still lost in the best ballpark. As an adult, I would rent a shitty, shitty apartment just because it was three blocks from Wrigley. (This is the only one of my childhood dreams I have managed to fulfill.) I am, sadly, typical of a Cubs fan. As long as they play at Wrigley Field, we’ll put up with anything.
This year Wrigley Field turns 100. There will be speeches and more celebrations and battles between the Ricketts family and the city. Already there are at least seven histories of the old ballpark, looking back on the mostly bad old days. I have had the dubious joy of reading two of them: George Will’s A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred and Stuart Shea’s Wrigley Field: The Long Life & Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines. Both cover roughly the same events, in very different styles.
- Random House
Will’s book is very obviously the work of a newspaper columnist. He read a pile of books, extracted the salient details, added a few entertaining historical anecdotes (many cribbed from Bill Veeck’s autobiography Veeck as in Wreck, one of the greatest baseball books of all time) and digressions on things like the history of beer in America, and spewed out a couple hundred pages with very wide spacing. He offers a few theories for the Cubs’ eternal futility—longtime owner P.K. Wrigley’s preference for beautifying the ballpark rather than paying for talent, the team’s failure to integrate until 1953, six years after the Dodgers brought up Jackie Robinson (Steve Bogira goes into far greater depth in his essay in this week’s paper)—and explanations, both economic and psychological, for why Cubs fans continue to put up with the team. There’s nothing in Will’s book that will surprise anyone who has ever read a book or watched a documentary on Cubs history. But it is an easy read, perfect for a flight between Chicago and Washington, D.C., where Will now lives.
Shea, on the other hand, is a historian. He’s logged hours and hours in newspaper archives, digging up accounts of Wrigley Field’s life and times from people who actually experienced them. Some of his findings are surprising. For instance, the marketing strategy of Beautiful Wrigley Field was in place even before it opened. Charley Weeghman, the restaurant magnate who built the park for the Chicago Whales, his short-lived Federal League franchise, always intended it to be a clean, comfortable place to watch a ballgame, unlike the filthy rat- and snake-infested West Side Grounds (since torn down, but it was on the site of what’s currently the UIC Medical Center) where the Cubs played until 1916.
Other fun facts uncovered by Shea: It took less than three months to build the entire ballpark. Beer wasn’t sold there until 1933, and even then, it was just near-beer. There were plenty of night events at Wrigley Field—including exhibition games from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, also founded by P.K. Wrigley—before permanent lights were installed in 1988. (And about those lights: Wrigley planned to install them in 1941, but after Pearl Harbor, he allegedly donated them to the war effort. Shea has uncovered evidence, however, that they ended up in a racetrack.) Wrigley’s love of Wrigley Field was not entirely motivated by aesthetics: turns out he owned the park outright, while he had to share the Cubs with a group of stockholders, who paid him rent. Bill Sianis’s goat, the ostensible catalyst for the curse, was named Sonovia.
- University of Chicago Press
Unfortunately, Shea’s time in the archives seems to have dulled his perspective and ability to tell a good story. He finds it necessary to describe the myriad landscaping issues (drainage was a perennial problem) and every. single. opening day, even the ones when nothing of any apparent importance occurred. A minor riot in 1945 over the insufficient number of World Series tickets—a regular occurrence, at least when the Cubs were still playing in World Series—takes up more space than the story of Sianis, Sonovia, and the curse, arguably a more significant event, at least in terms of franchise mythology. The Steve Bartman game and the subsequent 2003 collapse, described by Will in six excruciating pages (oh, the pain! even 10 years later!), rates just a couple of paragraphs from Shea.
(Shea, for the record, doesn’t delve into the psychology of Cubs fandom, although he does tackle the race question and its impact on the Cubs, who stunk so bad in the 50s and 60s they even drove fans away from Beautiful Wrigley Field.)
I would not have thought it possible to be bored by reading about one of my favorite places, but every time I picked up Shea’s book, I felt an urgent need not just to check my e-mail and social media accounts, but also to clean up the kitchen, dust my bookshelves, and exercise. And I’m a Cubs fan after all, which makes me something of a masochist. I may, however, get ahold of a copy of Veeck as in Wreck. Even though it contains some stretchers (which both Will and Shea take pains to debunk), that is the book Wrigley Field truly deserves.
Aimee Levitt writes about books on Fridays.