This is it. Today is the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field. Initially it was known as Weegham Park, and then Cubs Park, but eventually the Wrigley family came in and they got the name right... What's odd is we hear so much these days about signing rights where ball parks get the name of some product, like AT&T Field or Minute Maid Park. But we tend not to think of what might be the greatest case of corporate sponsorship naming as being that. Wrigley Field sounds just right. It should be Wrigley Field. But there it is, named for a gum company. In fairness, the huge difference is that the Wrigley family actually owned the Chicago Cubs, they didn't just pay for naming rights. But it's stayed Wrigley Field, even after the Tribune Company bought the team. And with the new management. It's Wrigley Field.
There's a lot to wax poetic about Wrigley -- that giant, hand-operated scoreboard. The ivy-covered walls. The famous marquee. But I'll leave that to other articles, and after all, people have been waxing poetic about those things for decades. Only one thing I'll add -- to me, what's most magical about Wrigley, after these 100 years, is that it sits smack in the middle of a neighborhood. I think that as a result of that, it's become more than a park, but a part of the culture. Truly part of the city.
I remember my first game at Wrigley Field. I was a wee kidling and went with my dad. The Cubs were playing a day game (of course) against the Milwaukee Braves (they hadn't moved to Atlanta yet), and we were sitting in the grandstand, a few rows behind the third base dugout. The reason I remember the game so well, even at such a young age where memories don't always reside, was the oddity of the game. For some reason, the sun that day was so bright and so direct that when there was a fly ball, the fielders were often blinded. I have vivid memories of a player camping under a high fly...and then suddenly covering the head with their arms and running off to safety.
My favorite memory at Wrigley Field, however, was going to a Sunday doubleheader (which is as good as baseball gets, though alas they don't do that anymore, unless it's day/night...), and in the first inning of the first game -- when a crowd's enthusiasm and energy is at its peak, Ernie Banks -- the beloved Mr. Cub -- came up with the bases loaded, and the place was going wild for that. And he hit a grandslam home run. Cheering rarely gets louder or happier.
One thing I've never seen in Wrigley Field is a World Series game, but...well, that's the way it goes. And after all, This Could Be the Year. (Not likely this year, but...hey, you neeeeeeever know. I'm a Cubs fan. Hope springs eternal. With emphasis on the "eternal.")
My dad did see a World Series game in Wrigley Field. Not a World Series championship, of course, but hey, for a Cubs fan, that's cotton. He grew up blocks from Wrigley, and at that time a kid accompanied by an adult got in free. He's talked about walking over to the park when he was around eight years old, going up to strangers and having them take him in to the game. Ah, boy, life has changed a whole lot since then.
He also said that in those days, the overflow crowd would actually stand on the field, in the outfield where the Warning Track is. They'd put a rope in front of the fans, and the game was played with them there.
The most fun baseball game I ever saw there was probably in the mid-1980s. The Cubs were playing the San Diego Padres and won 23-7, getting 31 hits. Just a joy. (When you're a Cubs fans, it's those things that stand out. A good game can make a season. A good inning can make a season...) The funny thing though is that my friend I was with worked in his family business, but played hooky that day. So, he couldn't tell anyone there that he'd actually been at the game! I remember leaving the park afterward, and there was a crowding milling around, and the policeman on duty who saw us asked, "How did the Cubs do today?" When we explained the unlikely occurrence for the Cubs, he burst out laughing.
But this is probably my favorite Wrigley Field story of all. And the odd thing is that it has nothing to do with baseball.
Not only the Cubs, but the Chicago Bears also played in Wrigley Field, for about 50 years. I went to only Bears game there -- but it was a doozy. It was the game when Gale Sayers as a rookie scored six touchdowns to tie the National Football League record, which still stands. December 12, 1965. The day was pouring and the field was muddy, so the team took Sayers out of the game after three quarters when he had five touchdowns. They only put him in the fourth quarter, for one play. A punt return. He ran it back for a touchdown! Through the mud, with the opposing San Francisco 49ers slipping all over the place. It was also the game where the 49ers kicker, Tommy Davis, who at that point had the longest streak of kick extra points...missed.
One of the things the Bears did in their early days playing football at Wrigley was that, at halftime, rather than have a marching band, they'd bring in kids who were in the local neighborhood football leagues to play a 15-minute game. My dad was in one of those leagues, so he can officially say that really and truly he played in Wrigley Field.
The rest of us? We sat there and watched. And it has been a joy.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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