Mark Richardson —
I made my first visit to Wrigley Field as a 12 year old boy in 1968. I entered through the street gate and found myself in a large, dank cement enclosure that resembled somebody’s basement, writ large. There were concession stands selling food and souvenirs all along the walls, and stands set up in the center selling scorecards and pencils. We went up the stairs that led out into the stands, and as we got to the top, the greenest sight that I had ever seen met my eyes as the playing field unfolded in front of me. Beautiful grass, manicured like country club grass, perfectly straight baselines, the (at that time) 15″ high pitcher’s mound standing center stage, and what to a kid’s eye looked like such a huge outfield that it must take at least twelve fielders to cover it all. The outfield wall, eleven feet in height and not underscored yet by the abomination that is now “the basket,” was covered in beautiful green ivy (as it is to this day). I was overwhelmed. I had seen Wrigley many times on black and white TV, but this was, as it were, a whole new ballgame.
The Cubs were playing the Atlanta Braves that day, and both teams were star-laden. The Cubs lineup featured future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ron Santo. A fourth HOF player, pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, was also on the team, but he was not pitching that day. Instead, the Cubs sent lefthander Kenny Holtzman to the mound. He faced a Braves lineup that included the greatest of the great, Henry Aaron, as well as Joe Torre, Mack Jones, Felipe Alou and Rico Carty…names to strike fear into the heart of any young Cubs fan. Well, long story short, the Cubs won that day by a score of 5-1, Ernie Banks and center fielder Cleon Jones homered for the Cubs, and Holtzman tamed the mighty Braves sluggers, allowing only Joe Torre’s run on a wild pitch in the ninth inning. (Yes, pitchers DID go the distance in that long ago day!) But Wrigley Field itself was the star of the day in my mind. I fell in love with this beautiful and historic park on that day, and it is still my favorite place on earth. There is no place I would rather spend an afternoon. Night games came to Wrigley belatedly, in 1989. But Wrigley, to me, still means green, sunshiny beauty on a summer afternoon. I have been to Wrigley well over 200 times now, and it still has the same captivating, exciting effect it had on me back in ’68.
The historic moments at the “nice little place on the north side,” as George Will has called the park, are legend. Built in 1914 by Charles Weeghman for his entry in the new Federal League, the Chicago Whales (or ChiFeds, as they were alternately known), it became home to the Cubs two years later, in 1916, after the Federal League had failed and Weeghman bought the Cubs. It was originally called Weeghman Park. The name was changed in 1926 to Wrigley Field after chewing gum magnate William Wrigley bought the ballclub. On May 2, 1917, Wrigley hosted what was to that point in baseball history the greatest game ever pitched. Fred Toney of the Cincinnati Reds and Jim (Hippo) Vaughn of the Cubs hooked up in the “double no-hit game.” Both pitchers hurled no hit ball through 9 innings, before the Reds finally found safe landing ground in the outfield, scored a run and won in the tenth. The next year, Wrigley hosted its first World Series, as the Cubs fell to the Boston Red Sox in one of only three World Series ever in which neither team hit a home run. The Cubs would go on to play the Series in 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938 and 1945, but in all of those opportunities, Wrigley never saw its heroes come out victorious. The Cubs won the 1938 pennant, though, in one of the game’s storied moments. Cubs catcher, Gabby Hartnett, batting in the ninth inning of a tied game against the Pittsburgh Pirates after the sun had largely disappeared into the evening sky, won the game and the pennant on what has been known ever since as “The Homer In The Gloamin’.” The park has seen such great moments as Ernie Banks’ 500th career home run, Billy Williams then-National League record, 1117th consecutive game, Fergie Jenkins six consecutive 20-win seasons, the “Sandberg game,” the 1984 classic in which the Cubs trailed the St. Louis Cardinals by two runs with two out in the bottom of the ninth when Cub second baseman Ryne Sandberg stepped to the plate and knocked a Bruce Sutter offering into the left field bleachers to tie the game. One inning later, with the team again trailing by two, Sandberg came up once more with a runner on base and two outs, and again he took a Sutter split-fingered fastball downtown to tie it up. The Cubs went on to win, and since the game was nationally televised as the NBC Game of the Week, Sandberg became a household name. Ryno went on to win the N.L. Most Valuable Player Award that year as he led the Cubs to the playoffs, their first post-season appearance since 1945. In 1989, led by star pitcher Greg Maddux and first baseman Mark Grace, the Cubs again won the N.L. Central Division race but lost in the playoffs to the San Francisco Giants. 1998 saw Cubs right fielder Sammy Sosa thrill Wrigley crowds as he and the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire engaged in the greatest homer derby ever, with both men eventually breaking Roger Maris’ single-season home run record. The Cubs returned to the post-season that year, as well as in 2003, 2007, 2008 and 2015. But still, they only got to the dance floor, they didn’t win the contest.
Many changes have occurred over the years at the old ballpark. Lights were installed in 1989, the upper deck was reconstructed in 2007 after large chunks of cement fell and nearly injured spectators below, statues of Banks and broadcaster Harry Caray have been erected, the bleachers have been torn down and rebuilt, video scoreboards have been installed above both the left and right field seats, and new seats throughout the ballpark have made sitting more roomy and comfortable for the fans. Even with all of these updates the old place is still nearly the same in appearance as it was back in 1968 on my first visit. Wrigley has now been designated as an Historic Site, and therefore, it is protected by the federal government, so Cubs ownership must now get approval for any work to be done.
Most baseball experts agree that the future is now for the Cubs, as they field a team that is currently leading all of baseball in victories and is as full,of good young talent as any team in the past 75 years. But, as the saying goes, they don’t play the games on paper. The Cubs still have to go out and win. But whether this is finally the long-sought year or not, one constant is there that can be counted on season after season. Wrigley Field will be, again this year, the most beautiful ballpark in America, and the fun to be had there will be unrivaled.