A Century in the Cathedral

Written by: Matt Kelly

Considering that the ballpark on the corner of Clark and Addison Streets in Chicago was built on the old grounds of a seminary, it makes complete sense.

After all, that old park, now known as Wrigley Field, has acquired a religious aspect for many baseball fans. The 2016 season will mark Wrigley’s 100th as host of Chicago’s beloved Cubs, marking the perfect time to reflect on its rich history as baseball’s “Friendly Confines.” From its iconic ivy-lined walls to its hand-turned scoreboard to the beautiful red marquee outside, Wrigley carries an aesthetic quality all its own. The park’s singularity, however, was not apparent when it first opened to Chicagoans on April 23, 1914.

Wrigley Field has grown better with age.

In late 1913, the Chicago Lutheran Seminary grounds were up for sale and in the crosshairs of baseball owner Charles Weeghman. The businessman had made waves in the inaugural season of the burgeoning Federal League, when he acquired former Cubs star and future Hall of Famer Joe Tinker from the National League’s Cincinnati Reds for his Chicago Chi-feds. The purchase was interpreted as a message that the new league meant business, and Weeghman looked to double down with a newer, bigger ballpark. After acquiring the land with a 99-year lease, Weeghman hired Zachary Taylor Davis, who also designed Comiskey Park on the South Side, to design a new stadium. Construction began Feb. 23, 1914 and, incredibly, Weeghman Park was ready for baseball exactly two months later.

Weeghman demolished the old seminary buildings and expanded the stadium before the 1915 season, when the re-named Chicago Whales captured the Federal League title. It would be the team’s last campaign, however, as the upstart league collapsed from financial troubles that winter.

Undeterred, Weeghman rebounded to purchase the National League Cubs for $500,000 and moved the Cubs from West Side Park to their new permanent North Side home. The first Cubs game was played at Weeghman Park on April 20, 1916.

Weeghman applied successful promotions like “Ladies’ Day” from his restaurant franchise, established one of baseball’s first concession stands and was one of the first owners to let spectators keep foul balls.

By 1918, Weeghman’s suffering lunch counter business forced him to sell the Cubs and their ballpark to chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. By 1923, an influx of fans convinced Wrigley to rebuild the grandstands and expand the park’s capacity from 18,000 to 31,000. The renovations helped Wrigley draw 1.5 million fans in 1929, a major-league attendance mark that would stand for an incredible 17 years.

By that point, the stadium had been renamed Wrigley Field and was beginning to take on a life of its own. Bill Veeck Sr., Wrigley’s appointed president of the team, captained one of the most successful runs in franchise history, helping to gather talented players including future Hall of Famers Kiki Cuyler, Gabby Hartnett, Billy Herman and Hack Wilson. It was with these and many other stars that the Cubs enjoyed their most prolific run of success, capturing the Senior Circuit pennant in 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938 and 1945. There were high times – like Gabby Hartnett’s “Homer in the Gloamin’” in ’38 – and low times, including Babe Ruth’s called shot in ’32 (commemorated by his bat in the Hall of Fame collection) and a loss in Game 7 to the Tigers in ’45.

Hall of Fame Membership

There is no simpler, and more essential, way to demonstrate your support than to sign on as a Museum Member.

But much of Wrigley’s charm lies in the ephemera in the stands, and not necessarily what’s happening on the field. That 1945 Fall Classic, for instance, may be remembered more at Wrigley for a certain billy goat and its supposed hexes more than anything else. A look out to left field reveals a wholly unique set of seats atop the apartments on Waveland Avenue. Ivy planted by Veeck Sr. back in 1937 and later maintained by his son, future Hall of Fame exec Bill Veeck Jr., completely covers much of the brick outfield walls to challenge opposing outfielders. And who could forget Harry Caray, the 1989 Ford C. Frick Award winner, who brought his bravado and renditions of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” over from Comiskey in 1981 to the adoration of all.

A souvenir pin commemorating Caray’s 50th year of broadcasting on June 24, 1994 sits on exhibit in the Sacred Ground exhibit in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. So too does a “No Lights at Wrigley” poster and an “Opening Light” button, providing insight into both sides of the fervent debate over whether to introduce night games to the idyllic stadium in 1988.

Other items in the Museum’s collection paint the complete picture of the historic park. There’s a microphone used by Pat Pieper, Wrigley’s announcer from 1916-74, that replaced the megaphone he originally used. There are numerous ticket stubs from games through the decades, as well as official programs from the 1947 and 1962 All-Star Games. And two artifacts symbolize some more recent celebrations among Cub fans: A ‘K’ sign from the left-field bleachers during Kerry Wood’s record 20-strikeout performance on May 6, 1998, and a No. 3 sign from the old scoreboard used to mark a three-run home run by Sammy Sosa – a homer that also happened to be his 60th of the season – on Sept. 12 of that year.

But aside from all the memories preserved in Cooperstown, the most visceral aspect of actually being at Wrigley are the fans themselves. Whether it be the stadium’s original capacity of 18,000 or its current day total of 42,000-plus, it’s called “The Friendly Confines” for a reason: Perhaps only Boston’s Fenway Park, opened two years before Wrigley, can boast as intimate a setting between players and spectators.

“Happiness is going eyeball-to-eyeball with those Cub fans,” Hall of Famer Ernie Banks once said. “That's really what I appreciated most about playing in Wrigley Field.”

William Wrigley once famously boasted that he could “sell pianos to armless men in Borneo,” but the Cubs have proven to be an easier sell. Even if the home team is struggling, its ballpark is still one of the game’s prime attractions.

“It's the baseball version of St. Patrick's Cathedral,” said former Cubs general manager Ed Lynch. “It's something people have seen and been to and have been associated with for not only their lifetime, but their parents' lifetimes, too. You just cannot replace this type of ballpark.”

Matt Kelly is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Diamond in the Ivy

Bill Veeck planted an idea that still grows at Wrigley Field.

Diamond in the Ivy

Bill Veeck planted an idea that still grows at Wrigley Field.