Monday, August 29, 2011

A Trip To The Friendly Confines

Perhaps the only thing I like in baseball as much as historical uniforms is old ballparks. Sadly, I never got to see a game at Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Tiger Stadium, or Forbes Field. We only have two of these gems left, and the good citizens of Boston and Chicago are lucky indeed to still have Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

Weeghman Park, as it looked in 1914.

The first time I visited Wrigley was in the late 1980s. I had just started the Ebbets Field Flannels, and was full of idealism and a renewed love for the game. I had already been to a Sox game at old Comiskey on this trip. The Cubs were out of town, but it was a glorious summer day, and I decided to head to the North Side anyway and have a look. After walking from the Addison L station, I stood on the sidewalk on Clark Street greedily eying the entrance. The wisp of green that lay a fleeting few steps away beckoned me. A maintenance worker was spraying the ground with a hose, and when he turned his back to me I made one of those instant decisions and slipped in behind him. I quickly made my way up the ramp into the stands and walked down the right field side looking over my shoulder, as I expected to be ejected at any moment. But no one said a word. There was just the beautiful summer day, the row upon row of empty seats, the towering hand-operated scoreboard above the bleachers, and the dazzling emrald green of the outfield. It was strangely quite and peaceful, with the only sounds being the sprinklers and the distant sounds of the neighborhood. I didn't push my luck by going down to the field, but with the park all to myself I just sat back and enjoyed the moment, then quietly left the same way I came in.

One of the most legendary - and controversial - moments in baseball history. Babe Ruth calls his shot in the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field...or does he?

A recent trip to Chicago found me with some time on my hands. Again, the Cubs were out of town, and having no interest in the South Side team since they tore down old Comiskey I decided I'd be "legit" this time and take the Wrigley tour. If you are a baseball history buff like I am, it's the best 25 bucks you'll ever spend. The tour guides are informative and entertaining and you get to go into a lot of nooks and crannies of this lovely old park, including the clubhouses and press box (but alas, not the manual scoreboard in center field).

Left: The Whales won the 1915 Federal League crown behind the pitching of Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown. This photo of Brown's disfigured right hand was taken at Weeghman Park.

A few fun facts, EFFers might already know: Wrigley Field started out as Weeghman Park, and was built not for the Cubbies, but for the Chicago franchise of the fledgling Federal League. Chi-Feds owner Charles Weeghman wanted to best both the Cubs and the Sox, and built the most modern facility in baseball at that time in just five weeks. The park at that time featured only the main seating bowl - no upper deck or bleachers. Also, the Cubs must have brought their own bad luck when they moved into the park later, as Weeghman saw a championship in only its second season, as the Feds (now christened the Whales) won the pennant in the Federal League's final campaign of 1915. When the league passed into history after the 1915 season, Weeghman put together a syndicate to buy the Cubs, and the National Leaguers moved into the park in 1916. It was renamed Cubs Park in 1920, and finally Wrigley Field in 1927, after the chewing gum magnate had gained control of the team.

1927 also saw the upper deck completed, and the current bleachers and scoreboard were added in 1937 by Bill Veeck, who also planted the famous ivy (amazing how often Veeck's name pops up in these stories). As we all know, lights were not installed until 1988 - the last major league park to do so.

The NFL Bears were accommodated with an extra bleacher section that held 9,000.

What struck me most about the contrast of Wrigley Field today with my first visit was not in the park itself, but across the street on Waveland and Sheffield Avenues. The apartment buildings that literally look into Wrigley always had lucky tenants who could watch the game from the rooftops. But by the early 1990s, this evolved into a full-fledged commercial operation. The tenants have been cleared from most of these buildings, and professional stadium seating (sometimes double-decked) has been installed. These seats are sold through ticket brokers, just like the seats inside the park. While it is hard to deny the role revenue plays in every aspect of major league baseball these days, this phenomenon seems not really keeping in the old neighborhood spirit of the thing. (Rather than put up a "spite" fence, the Cubs made a deal with these operators and take 17% off the top).

Wrigley, of course, has not meant just baseball. The Chicago Bears called it home until 1970. (A Northwestern University college football game was played in Wrigley last season but seats added since the Bears left meant that all offensive plays had to be run in one direction!). The NHL played its Winter Classic here in 2009.

Wrigley Field today, from the press box.

There are very few places left in the world where I can truly feel like a kid, and Wrigley is one of them. To sit in the bleachers and bask in the sun under that magnificent scoreboard while the timeless sights, sounds, and rhythms of baseball seep into your pores along with the sunshine is one of life's remaining simple pleasures. As Harry Caray might say: "Holy Cow!".

Our Flannel Of The Month is the 1915 Federal League champion Chicago Whales home jersey. The team was known as the Chifeds or simply Federals its first season, but a fan naming contest was held in 1915 and "Whales" was the second most popular entry. The top vote-getter? Chickens!.