Even as you walk north on Chicago’s Clark Street, with bustling retail development all around, a sense of history permeates the journey.
While the vibe is new, the neighborhood is not. Young professionals fill the area now, much as their working-class ancestors might have in the time leading up to World War I when all was fresh and new.
The modest brick buildings that line the thoroughfare have stood for more than a century, housing restaurants and bars below and apartments above. Ahead, at the corner where Clark meets Addison, stands the icon of baseball Americana, looking much as it did 100 years ago this week when the gates first opened.
Wrigley Field is a living history museum — the Windy City’s version of Conner Prairie — and it has a vivid story to tell. It is not just a story about baseball. It is not just a story about community. It is a story about both.
Forget where your baseball allegiance might lie. There is something special about watching a game at Wrigley. It is rich with a tradition that spans generations and now centuries.
Wednesday marked an even century since Weeghman Park (as it was known then) opened its gates for a meeting between the Chicago Whales and Kansas City Packers of the Federal League.
Two years later, in 1916, the Cubs moved in, just a few years off their 1907 and ’08 World Series titles. They haven’t won again, a billy goat curse stopping a 1945 title run. Still, that has not kept Wrigley from iconic status.
As The Associated Press recounted this week:
“While baseball’s oldest ballparks close their gates one after another, their proud structures humbled by the years, their nostalgia outdone by luxury boxes, Wrigley Field remains a time capsule of the game. It looks the same as it did on that day in 1932 when Babe Ruth called his famous home run and will stay that way well into the next century.”
Yes, a time capsule, but times have changed from the early barnstorming days of baseball. A nostalgic facility is also one that is showing its age. Amenities are tight, if nonexistent, compared with modern parks. Those limited facilities (opposing players must put up a net in the locker room to take indoor batting practice) do not endear Wrigley to all.
“If they’re looking for a guy to push the button when they blow the place up, I’ll do it,” the Rangers’ Lance Berkman said last season.
Longtime White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen complained that the right-field bleachers were in serious disrepair.
“The rats are bigger than a pig out there. They must be lifting weights,” he said during the Chisox annual crosstown trip to Wrigley a few years back.
Through it all, the grand old place has survived, even absorbing the blasphemous act of installing lights (“like putting aluminum siding on the Sistine Chapel,” one writer said).
More change is on the way. A $500 million investment to spruce up the premises is in play, with updated locker facilities, seating and restrooms. The goal is to make Wrigley more convenient without sacrificing its century-old charm.
As the birthday celebration this week continues, the Cubs seemed intent on doing their part to continue the tradition, even if that means losing.
At Wednesday afternoon’s star-studded gala, Chicago took a 5-2 lead against Arizona into the ninth inning. The words uttered by player and announcer Joe Garagiola in the 1950s, though, still find their meaning: “One thing you learn as a Cubs fan: When you bought your ticket, you could bank on seeing the bottom of the ninth.”
Sure enough — even fitting enough on this day that brought back so many memories — Chicago gave up five runs to lose 7-5.
Blue? No, not really. Not when you’re at Wrigley.
As Richard Hoffer wrote in Sports Illustrated: “It’s impossible to feel blue at Wrigley Field, even though your beloved Cubs are losing again. The place has grown a bit larger and, amazingly enough, even more graceful since it was built in seven weeks in 1914 for $250,000. It’s a national treasure, a true American original. It’s ivy and brick and bleachers and a manual scoreboard and seats so close to the field you can almost hear the infield chatter of Hornsby, Hartnett and Banks.”
Yes, Wrigley hearkens back to a time when things were simple and reminds us that they still can be — green grass, blue skies and a timeless game that bridges generations.
If you have been, you know the feeling; if not, perhaps this should be the summer.
For just a short time, all else is subsumed by the rhythm and grace of a day at the park. Starting its second century, Wrigley remains a page upon which America writes its story.
Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.