I will come back and edit this again as I wrote it while taking a synthetic morphine as I recover from the surgery on my quad tendon. Yesterday was tough--once the block wore off, I was in pain. Today hasn't been quite as bad, but every time I try to back off on meds, the pain goes up... between the meds and an ice machine that keeps cool water on my leg, I am making it.
George F. Will, A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred (New York: Crown Archetype, 2014), 223 pages including a bibliography, index and a few photos.
Baseball is as encrusted with clichés as old ships are with barnacles.
-George Will (page 105)
The Cubs are an old organization and at one time (pre-Wrigley’s Field) they were a powerhouse. In the 1880s, with Cap Anson, they had many championships. It’s just that they’ve had a bad century, winning their last World Series in 1908. Will gives the history of the team that was first known as the Chicago White Stockings and under the leadership of Albert Goodwill Spaulding (baseball’s first entrepreneur) helped invent Major League Baseball. (31). Goodyear published yearly “Spalding Guides” to Major League Baseball. In his 1908 edition, Goodyear (who Will noted “was not always fastidious about facts”) created the myth of Abner Doubleday inventing baseball in the summer of 1939 in Farmer Finney’s pasture in Cooperstown, NY. (33) After being known as the White Stockings, the team went by a number of names (Colts, Orphans and Spuds). In 1902, after the creation of the American League, there was another team in Chicago that was using the name “White Sox’s,” so they looked for a new name and decided on Cubs as it represented bear-like strength with a playful disposition. (36) Another interesting fact that Will provides: The American League was founded in 1882 and its main difference at the time was it allowed beer sale at ball games. (34)
In 1914, the Cubs built their new stadium with the home plate at the corner of Addison and Clark Streets at the site of a former Lutheran Seminary. (20) Ironically, Addison Street was named for Dr. Thomas Addison, who identified "Addison anemia," providing more comic material for the Cubs. (15) Two years later, William Wrigley, who had made his fortune with chewing gum, brought into the Cub organization. (45). Wrigley was a promoter who was fond of saying, "Baseball is too much of a sport to be a business and too much of a business to be a sport. (46) His was the first club to allow people to keep balls that were hit into the stands and unlike other teams, who saw radio broadcast as a threat, he allowed stations to broadcast the games free of charge. (47-48). He reached out to women and built a strong female fan base. Under his family leadership, the motto was if the team was bad, “strive mightily to improve the ballpark.” (87) The Wrigley’s tried to create a ballpark for the whole family and would advertise for people to come out and have a picnic. The joke was that the other team often did. (83)
Will goes into detail about the Cub’s 1932 World Series loss to the Yankees and the game when Babe Ruth “called the shot” before he hit a home run over center field. As he notes, it probably didn’t happen the way it has been portrayed. Ruth, and the Yankees, were upset with the Cubs over a player (Mark Koenig) they’d traded from the Yankees late in the season. The team decided that Koenig would only get ½ of a share of the World’s Series proceeds for the team since he didn’t play all year for them. This increased the tension between the teams and most likely Ruth’s pointing the bat at the Cub’s dugout. The game was also interesting because of who were in the stands. Franklin Roosevelt was there (just 38 days before being elected President along with a 12 year old boy (John Paul Stevens) who would go on to be a Supreme Court Justice. (55-6)
Will tells many other stories about the Cubs and the field. This includes providing the background to the book and movie, The Natural. (65-67); how Jack Ruby was a vendor at Wrigley’s before moving to Texas where he shot Lee Harvey Oswald (90); of Ray Kroc selling paper cups to Wrigley’s before starting McDonalds (91); and Ronald Reagan broadcasting Cub games in Iowa via teletype. (93).
Wrigley’s field was the last major league ballpark to install lights. Will notes that one of the reason was the local bars, who liked day games so that the fans would stop off at the bar for drinks and food after the game was over. It is also one of the few stadiums to hold on to the organ and to shun more electronic means of music and scoreboards. Other topics that Will covered included race relations and baseball in Chicago. Some of the earlier leaders of the team were racists, which is ironic since the most famous Cub was Ernie Banks, an African-American. Another famous Cub was Manager Leo Durocher, known for saying “nice guys finish last.” This is another myth that Will shatters, noting that Durocher was speaking of the Giants and said, “All nice guys. They’ll finish last” and journals “improved on his quote.” (108) He also noted that Durocher didn’t like Ernie Banks. “You could say about Ernie that he never remembered a sign or forgot a newspaperman’s name,” Durocher said. (112)
The last part of the book is mostly philosophical as Will explores the role tribalism plays into our love of sports, the beauty of which “is its absence of meaning.” (188)
I don’t always agree with George Will’s politics, but I share a love of baseball and enjoyed reading this book. I had picked it up a few months ago and it was just what I needed as my concentration was greatly reduced due to my torn quad tendon. If you don’t mind Will’s myth-busting, you’ll find this book to be a gem.