Hello again, everybody. It’s a bee-yoo-tiful day for baseball.
– Harry Caray, American baseball broadcaster
We celebrated Jacob’s 13th birthday last Friday by taking the Wrigley Field Tour in the morning, enduring a three-hour rain delay, and watching the Chicago Cubs beat the Houston Astros, 3-1 – all runs scored by solo shots. All told, we were there almost 11 hours, much to the chagrin of our 10-year-old daughter who claims that she hates baseball (clearly not her mother’s daughter).
After touring Fenway Park in Boston three summers ago, we definitely had to tour Wrigley Field, which is the second-oldest ballpark next to Fenway in all of Major League Baseball (MLB) and oldest National League ballpark. Wrigley Field was once a seminary, but when the train ran past it and it was no longer a quiet place to meditate, Charles Weeghman bought it, named the park after himself, and was home to the Chicago Whales as part of the Chicago Federal League. Weeghman Park held its first game in April 1914. The financially troubled league folded the following year, but Weeghman purchased the Cubs and moved the National League team to the 14,000-seat park to play its first game in April 1916. The Wrigley family purchased the team from Weeghman in 1920 and in 1926 it was renamed Wrigley Field after owner William Wrigley Jr., who was a chewing gum magnate. (Side story: Wrigley sold laundry detergent and other cleaning products and attached chewing gum on the bottles as a perk; when people started buying his products just for the chewing gum, he ditched the products and stuck to selling chewing gum. Smart businessman!)
In 1937, the bleachers and original, hand-turned scoreboard were constructed when the outfield was renovated to accommodate more seating. The park had no fence in the early days; Cubs fans held a rope that they lowered when the Cubs were up at bat and held it up higher and farther back when the opposing team came to the plate. MLB banned that practice, and the Cubs built a wooden fence, with ivy – which is original to this day – planted in three days in 1937. If a baseball lands in the ivy, the outfielder holds up his hands and the ball is a ground-rule double. If the outfielder decides to go after the ball in the ivy, the ball is live and he’d better know where that ball is. It’s not unusual for two balls to pop out of the ivy – as many balls are hit there during batting practice – at which time the ball is live. When the wind blows across the ivy wall, the leaves change color as they ripple in the wind; it’s a poetic and beautiful moment.
Because Wrigley Field is smack dab in a residential area, games were played during the day. The neighborhood opposed night games because of fear of mayhem at night but agreed to have lights installed in 1988 when the Cubs threatened to leave Wrigley Field. MLB would not allow the Cubs to play in their own park for post-season games because night games commanded more television telecast revenue. However, only 30 out of the 80 home games are played in the evenings, which was a compromise to residents. People used to watch the games from the rooftops on the outfield side of the park until the Cubs and MLB complained, citing safety reasons, but, of course, they also weren’t able to charge admission for those viewers. Local bar owners worked with the building owners to reinforce the buildings to support bleachers, which incited further anger from the Cubs because they still weren’t getting ticket receipts from the fans in those bleachers, which look quite nice from afar. After the Cubs installed opaque strips to the outer nets to obscure viewing, the bar and building owners came to an agreement with the Cubs, which allowed the team to receive a percentage of the rooftop bleacher ticket revenues.
Wrigley kept the team in the family for more than six decades but the latest heir sold it to the Chicago Tribune for $21 million in 1981, which turned around and sold the team and the field to the Ricketts family, whose father began Ameritrade, for $900 million in 2009. Our tour guide put the cost of owning a Major League baseball team in perspective: Second baseman Ryne Sandberg’s contract in the 1980s was approximately $24 million – more than what the Wrigley family sold the team for just years earlier. The latest dispute with the Cubs owner and neighbors is over erecting a Jumbotron in left field, which would obstruct the view and erase the old-time feel of the park, which currently has approximately 41,000 seats. At first blush, you don’t get an immediate sense – like you do at Fenway – that the park is old, but the exposed steel structure and the columns, which were constructed in 1927 to uphold the upper decks and as a result obstruct the view of some seats, and the original manually operated scoreboard, ivy wall, and minimal electronic signage retain the charm of an old ballpark.
Rain delay, then let’s play ball
I’ve never experienced a rain delay of a ballgame, having gone to many Oakland A’s and SF Giants games for years. Amazingly, after a quick nap, the time didn’t drag, even for Isabella. We spent the tour panting in the heat and humidity, and then donned our sweaters and jackets when we got to our seats after watching the Astros infield practice and the temps dipped and the wind whipped. Thankfully, we were under the overhang in Section 209 in left field. We observed the 30-man crew roll out the tarp, listened to the organist play song after song, people watched, and then cheered along with the rest of the approximately 33,000 people in attendance as the crew came out, peeled away the tarp, and raked and chalked the infield.
The Cubs lost 101 games last year, but they were still 10th in the majors in home attendance. This year they are 15 games out of first place in the National League Central division, tied with the Milwaukee Brewers for cellar honors, and their average home attendance is 11th in the majors. Go figure, but good for them. Too bad the Oakland A’s fans aren’t coming out to support their fabulous team. As fate would have it, the Cubs hosted the Houston Astros, who are also in the cellar of the American League Western division. Despite both pitchers having ERAs close to 5, it was a pitchers’ dual. We witnessed a ball lost in the ivy for a ground-rule double, and all four runs were scored by solo home runs. The food fare was minimal, I’m assuming in keeping with the old-time feel. Because of the rain delay, we ended up eating hot dogs for both lunch and dinner!
Lakeview district and Julius Meinl
Afterwards, we met up with my friend, Maria Diecidue, whom I wrote a profile about her volunteer work in India. Maria lives three blocks from Wrigley Field. Although the neighborhood is also known as Wrigleyville, the district is called Lakeview. It’s a beautiful area that has a Brooklyn vibe to it – unique shops, lots of restaurants and bars, neighborhood feel to every corner, and wonderful architecture from the turn of the century. Many triplexes have been turned into single-family homes, but most, if not all, still retain their architectural integrity.
Maria took us to Julius Meinl (3601 North Southport Avenue, 773.883.1862), a Viennese-style coffee and pastry shop, a few blocks away. We were serenaded by a violin and bass duet. I had ginger tea with my carrot cake, while David enjoyed a mousse-like chocolate cake. It was the perfect way to erase our hot dog fest. We had a nice if short visit with Maria, which culminated in a quick tour of Lakeview. So, I have found yet another place I wouldn’t mind living. I will have to check out Chicago in January and stay for a while….