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Wrigley Field: A Century of Survival

Wrigley Field: A Century of Survival

This article was published in the Spring 2011 Baseball Research Journal.

Wrigley Field's idyllic charms-the ivy, hand-operated scoreboard and bleacher sunshine-belie a tenuous past. The North Side ballpark, in fact, is lucky to be around at all.

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On January 22, 1914, Charlie Weeghman leased land to build a ballpark at Clark and Addison streets for his team in the upstart Federal League. But resistance sprang up immediately and rumors hinted that organized baseball drove much of the opposition.1 Cubs President Charles Murphy tipped organized baseball's hand, saying, "It is my opinion that the Federal League will not start. There are some surprises in store for the promoters of the 'outlaw' circuit."

First, an unknown person tried to purchase a parcel of land on the property. Weeghman put up $15,000 of his own money to buy it and keep the site viable for his ballpark.3 Soon after, persons unknown circulated a petition through the North Side neighborhood. Mr. Herman Croon, who lived across the street from the proposed site, at 3649 Sheffield Avenue said:

None of the property owners want the park. They know that a park of the kind will decrease the value of their real estate 25 to 50 per cent and practically kill good rental because of the kind of people that such a park will bring into the locality."

Finally, in March, an injunction nearly stopped construction.

But progress on the steel and concrete structure continued and Weeghman Park opened to great fanfare on April 23, 1914. The Federal League, however, lasted just two seasons. In the deal to dissolve the league, Weeghman was allowed to purchase the National League Cubs, his heretofore West Side-based rivals.

Weeghman now seemingly carried leases on two ballparks: Weeghman Park and the Cubs' West Side Grounds. Many felt the west side held more promise for the Cubs, owing to their rich history there. But West Side Grounds' antiquated wood construction left it a relic compared to other major-league parks. Consequently, on January 21, 1916, the Cubs moved their lockers and uniforms from West Side Grounds to Weeghman Park. That day, the Cubs became Chicago's "North Side" team. In the process, Weeghman Park did what most other Federal League ballparks could not: successfully outlive its league.

In 1918, Murphy, who owned West Side Grounds, repurchased stock in the Cubs. He didn't hide his desire to see them vacate Weeghman Park. "I hope and think the Cub management will eventually see the wisdom of returning to the west side location and building a modern, up to date plant." Murphy's stance led the Christian Science Monitor to erroneously report that the team would "move back to its former grounds on the West Side" before opening day 1919.

Murphy sued the Cubs' management for back rent, claiming they broke their lease when they left West Side Grounds.10 In 1920 he filed another suit, trying to keep the National League from scheduling games at the North Side park, now called Cubs Park.11 But later that year, Murphy finally sold his rotting West Side Grounds to the state of Illinois which razed it and built a hospital complex on the site, thus ending any talk of the Cubs moving back to the old neighborhood.

William Wrigley, Jr. eventually purchased the Cubs and their grounds, and the park, soon renamed Wrigley Field, flourished. The new management expanded it twice in the 1920s. Moreover, Wrigley and later his son, P.K., made Wrigley Field the cleanest and most comfortable in the majors. Add exciting Cubs teams to the mix and the North Siders led the league in attendance from 1926 through 1932. After World War II, P.K. Wrigley was rumored to be purchasing the Riverview amusement park, two miles west of Wrigley Field, and constructing a new stadium on the site. The Riverview property encompassed over 70 acres, large enough to provide parking that was scarce at Clark and Addison streets. But Wrigley squelched the rumor. "We have too much money invested in Wrigley Field to make such a move," he said, "and we're pretty well satisfied with it."

The Cubs finished last in both 1948 and 1949, beginning a 20-year hold on the second division that sapped fan support. In 1962 the Cubs finished last in major-league attendance for the first (and only) time at Wrigley Field. After the season, the other National League owners made an extraordinary request of P.K. Wrigley: They asked him to install lights at the North Side ballpark. By now the Cubs and their paltry 609,802 turnstile count were drags on the league.

Visitors received 29 cents from each ticket sold at the time, so road teams averaged only $2,185 per game at Wrigley Field in 1962. In contrast, visiting teams took in an average of $9,627 per game at new Dodger Stadium.

While P.K. Wrigley wouldn't even install lights at his nearly 50-year-old park, most major league cities were throwing up modern, multi-purpose stadia. This new era of building commenced in 1960 with Candlestick Park. The ballpark featured cantilevered construction that eliminated most of the view-obstructing posts that came with every previous ballpark. And another convenience-acres of parking-surrounded it.

Modern stadia also went up in Washington, New York, and Houston. Pressure mounted for Chicago to join the other cities and replace Wrigley Field as well as the White Sox's cavernous Comiskey Park. Newspapermen threw around words like "old", "ancient", and "antique" to describe the North Side ballpark, and Wrigley Field's reputation suffered.

The neighborhood around Wrigley Field aged, too. The Lake View area became a port-of-call for many first-generation immigrants, and with white flight to the suburbs a key fact of post-World War II urban life, residents became more transient and the area showed signs of neglect. A 1963 newspaper article on Alta Vista Terrace, a Victorian-inspired block of residences just a few hundred feet north of the ballpark, for example, called the homes "an island in the middle of a blighted area."

In January 1964, amid this talk of modernity, P.K. Wrigley said, "I am in favor of building a community stadium in Chicago; something like a domed arena going up at Houston…The Cubs, White Sox and Chicago Bears would play there…We would tear down Wrigley Field and sub-divide it for residential use."

Shortly after, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley named a committee to investigate the feasibility of a modern stadium. The final report, released in December 1964, called for a 55,000-60,000 seat $34-million multi-purpose stadium which would replace Soldier Field. It would have a grass field and an open roof.

Chicago Bears owner George Halas supported the plan and P.K. Wrigley seemed willing to move forward. White Sox owner Art Allyn, however, did not. Earlier, he said this about the prospects of a civic stadium in Chicago: "If there is any possibility, however remote, of making use of the city's credit or utilizing the taxpayer's dollar, I'll not have a damn thing to do with it."

When the stadium report went public Allyn railed against it, estimating his team would lose $1.25 million a year in gross income from concessions, parking, and rent. His ferocious opposition doomed the project. Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park stayed right where they were.

At the opening of St. Louis' new Busch Stadium in 1966, Chicago Tribune writer Richard Dozer seconded the feelings of many, saying, "The fact remains that tonight Chicago fell another peg in its tumble towards the bottom of the list with its increasingly archaic north and south side baseball plants."

In 1967, Art Allyn himself revealed plans to build a $50-million private sports complex on the near South Side. It included a 46,000-seat ballpark, a 60,000-seat football/soccer stadium, and a 15,000-seat indoor arena. To ensure team identity, he'd call the ballpark (patterned after new Anaheim Stadium) "White Sox Park" when his Sox played and "Cubs Park" when the North Siders played. If the Bears joined in, he would name the football arena "Halas Stadium."

But Allyn's proposal went nowhere. He received little help from Mayor Daley, who was still pushing his own stadium plan. New public or private stadium plans were floated again in 1968, 1971, 1975, and 1977, but they never amounted to much. The modern stadium era had passed Chicago by.

After the Tribune Company bought the Cubs from the Wrigley Family in 1981, neighbors worried that the team would install lights at the ballpark. Grassroots groups, including the newly formed C.U.B.S. (Citizens United for Baseball in Sunshine), claimed that night baseball would exacerbate parking problems, increase vandalism, and diminish property values. The neighbors lobbied hard and made themselves heard. Both the Illinois House and Senate banned nighttime sporting events at Wrigley Field. In July 1983 Chicago's City Council passed a zoning code amendment further outlawing night baseball.

Even before the city law, Cubs General Manager Dallas Green reasoned that the team, lights or no lights, might need a larger park to raise revenues to compete in the 1980s and beyond. Despite intense fan criticism of Green's statement, Cubs CEO Jim Finks added:

People have narrowed the issue down to do we put lights in Wrigley Field or not. The day-night issue is important. But I feel to leave it at that, as most people do, is missing a significant option for us-a new stadium.

When the Cubs lost a suit against the city and the state, management met with the Schaumburg, Illinois village manager about a possible move to the Northwest suburb.With the White Sox ready to abandon Comiskey Park, the time finally seemed ripe for a multi-purpose domed stadium for the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears.

The threat intensified when ABC television, the game's postseason rightsholder, exercised a contract clause requiring that all 1985 World Series games be played in prime time. Dallas Green said that if the Cubs made it that far, he'd move the games to another National League city instead of using Comiskey Park. That scenario, Green said, would be "the death blow."

Tribune Company executive vice president John Madigan, minus the hyperbole, said, "…it would be very difficult to remain in Wrigley Field without lights." Anticipating a loss of upwards of $150 million in income if the games moved out of Illinois, the state senate quickly voted to allow up to 18 night games a year at Wrigley Field.

Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, long opposed to night baseball at Wrigley Field, rethought his position as well. First, a new poll showed citywide support for lights.28 Second, the status quo meant huge economic losses, should the Cubs host postseason games outside the city. Finally, the Cubs were dabbling with the suburbs and the White Sox arguing with the state over their own stalled stadium deal. The loss of even one team would devastate the mayor politically. While Washington had limited control over the White Sox situation, he did have a say in the lights issue.

On November 13, 1987, the mayor, attempting to head off political losses came out in support of lights at Wrigley Field. He had the votes to repeal the four-year-old law. Lights seemed assured. But less than two weeks later, on November 25, a fatal heart attack claimed Mayor Washington. After some political scrambling, Washington's successor, Eugene Sawyer, pulled together a coalition that finally allowed lights on the North Side. The Cubs played their first official night game at Wrigley Field on August 9, 1988.

Further threats began to chew at Wrigley Field. The neo-classical ballpark era began with Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992. The wildly successful retro-looking brick ballpark started a two-decade long succession of new ballpark construction. Each new stadium created revenue streams unheard of just a few years earlier, including banks of skyboxes, seat licenses and wide concourses lined with concessions. These new-era parks were self-contained entertainment venues with batting cages, playgrounds, and in some cases Ferris wheels and swimming pools. Dave Van Dyck of the Chicago Sun-Times asked the proverbial question: "Can a baseball park built for $250,000 in 1914 survive the economic reality of the 1990s?"

The answer by 2000 was an emphatic "probably not"; eight of these new parks, in Cleveland, Baltimore, San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, and Seattle, outdrew the Cubs even when the North Siders registered their second-highest attendance mark to date. Randy Minkoff, writing in Crain's Chicago Business, made the logical conclusion that "Wrigley Field, as we know it, has got to go."

But a funny thing happened on the way to extinction. The Cubs made peace (and profits) with the neighbors and the city, instituting income-sharing with rooftop owners, a bleacher expansion, and high-priced field seats. In addition, the Wrigleyville neighborhood has come full-circle, becoming a destination in its own right for both local residents looking for a good time and tourists wanting a tangible piece of the past. Yes, Wrigley Field is old. But Wrigley Field is REAL. It's one of only two major-league ballparks where you can watch a game in nearly the same environment as your grandfather did 70 years ago. It's this historical context, the dichotomy of grass and ivy in the city, and the yesteryear neighborhood surrounding the ballpark, that make today's Wrigley Field experience unique. It's something modern-era stadiums from the 1960s can't touch and something the recent neo-classic ballparks can only hope for. By 2010, the Cubs, playing in 96-year-old Wrigley Field, outdrew all eight franchises that only a decade earlier had outsold them.

Having survived the great wave of new parks, Wrigley Field is safe from extinction. Major external threats may not occur until the next cyclical frenzy of ballpark construction, which should come by 2030 at the very latest. In the meantime, its greatest threats will be internal. Is the ballpark structurally sound? Can it bring in enough revenue to support the sport's ever-escalating salaries? And just as important, who will pay to ensure that these things happen?

Between 1950 and 1971, the Cubs replaced Wrigley Field's entire grandstand-every seat, every slab of cement, and much of its supporting steel structure. Even though three fist-sized spallings (fragments) fell from the upper deck flooring in 2004, the grandstand, on average, is only as old as Dodger Stadium and is in no threat of falling. For now, the Cubs need to address the spalling issue should they hope to remove the makeshift netting that has wrapped the upper deck floor since 2004.

In November 2010, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts unveiled plans to renovate the ballpark. Beyond the aforementioned structural issues, the changes would increase Wrigley Field's "footprint," enabling the team to extract more revenue from the park and its environs.

For example, the new plans show a "Cubs' Alley" immediately west of the ballpark, filled with shops and restaurants in the style of the popular Yawkey Way outside Fenway Park. The plans also include the long-talked about "Triangle Building" which would house team offices and a parking lot. Other revenue-raising ideas include enlarging the main concourse, opening the park's lower roof with added space for eating and meeting, and moving the team's clubhouse from its current location under the third-base grandstand to underneath left field!

Ricketts sought to utilize a portion of the State of Illinois' ticket amusement tax to float bonds for about half ($200 million) of the renovations. The request seemed logical enough; in the past two decades the amusement tax financed, among other things, the Chicago White Sox's new Comiskey Park, the renovation of Soldier Field, and at least some of the construction of the United Center.

But the state squelched Ricketts' funding request. Illinois today is $13 billion in debt and the state was in no mood to assist a private enterprise with public money, even one that is the state's third-largest tourist attraction. The Cubs will get public support eventually, but not until Illinois rights its financial ship.

For nearly 100 years, Wrigley Field survived a series of threats from organized baseball, new-era ballparks, and warring neighbors. But the ballpark's future is now bright. Its history-laden charm is a major draw and a social and financial asset to the Cubs, the Wrigleyville neighborhood, the city of Chicago, and the state of Illinois.

Unlike those of the 20th century, future threats will be internal and preventable. The Cubs' leadership has signaled its commitment to ensuring the park's physical integrity. They have plans to increase its revenue-enhancing potential. And the neighborhood, the city, and the state all have a stake in seeing it succeed.

Sam Pathy is a public librarian from Worthington, Ohio. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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