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Wrigley Field at 100: George Will on baseball’s grandest frame

Wrigley Park postcard

Wrigley Field turns 100 years old this season, and a host of books are arriving on the scene to commemorate the occasion. Jesse Goldberg-Strassler reviews George Will’s A Nice Little Place on the North Side.

George Will bookUse either your imagination, or a handy search engine, and envision Georges Seurat‘s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, with the sun bathing the landscape here, shadows stretching out there, the lake shimmering, and the lawn teeming with people enjoying the day.

Wrigley Field, the ivy on its outfield walls as green as Seurat’s lakeside grass, turns 100 this year. In honor of that momentous birthday, loyal Cubs fan and nationally syndicated columnist George Will has written A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred, which should prove a delight for Cubs rooters and an engrossing read for Will’s kindred thinking-person’s baseball fan.

(Will was previously known in baseball circles for writing Men at Work (1990), Bunts (1997), and — to me, at least — an annual baseball trivia column.)

“This book is, in a sense, about a frame around a picture,” he writes early on. “The point of Wrigley Field is to display baseball games. People go to museums of fine art to see the paintings, not the frames that display them. Few people admire the pedestal more than the statue. Many people do, however, decide to go to Chicago Cubs games because they are played within this lovely frame.”

The frame established, Will deftly populates his canvas with the colorful characters and events that have graced, scandalized, and immortalized the Cubs’ longtime home. He dabs here and there: the reason for the ivy; the presence of Al Capone and the Chicago mob; the powerful rise and alcohol-afflicted fall of Hack Wilson; the comedy that was the College of Coaches; and the clash of the scowling Leo Durocher and the smiling Ernie Banks.

It should be mentioned that the book is written with a conscious, uniform structure, without chapter divisions. (Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, after all, is not divided into neat segments; the entire scene is presented as one.) Instead, a slim rectangle filled with a sketch of ivy lets the reader know that we have concluded our spotlight on the Phillies’ remarkable 23-22 10-inning victory at Wrigley and will now be moving on to Lee Elia’s 1983 meltdown, “…reprinted, with excisions made to protect the delicate sensibilities of readers.”

Will’s historical anecdotes (and material such as the scouting report of a young Banks) are memorable, but the author is concerned with far more than simply history’s moments of interest. In one instance, he turns from an examination of Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim’s hypothesis that Wrigley Field has worked against the championship-starved Cubs to a discussion about the advent of drinking alcohol. Later on, he devotes space on his canvass to the late Senator Daniel Moynihan and the late Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, each of whom he ties back to Wrigley Field.  If you do not care for the subject matter of an essay — which appear in greater number as the book’s chronology arrives in more contemporary times — you need only wait a page or three, and you’ll discover yourself reading about something else entirely.

A Nice Little Place on the North Side is slim and reads quickly, but I do not advise sitting down to consume it all in one sitting. Take it in with due pace, perhaps in the middle of a sunny afternoon, granting Bill Veeck, A.G. Spalding, P.K. Wrigley, Hack Wilson, Mr. Cub, Janet Marie Smith, and, yes, Lee Elia, the time they each deserve. There are 100 years of history at hand.  What’s the rush?

Postcard of Wrigley Field in 1915, before the Cubs and William Wrigley.

You can order A Nice Little Place on the North Side from Amazon here.

Jesse Goldberg-Strassler is the voice of the Lansing Lugnuts and the author of The Baseball Thesaurus, which will be released in a second edition by August Publications next month.


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