Today marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of Wrigley Field: A century since Charles Weeghman opened the gates of the new home of the Chicago Federals.
You know the story: The Federal League arose as a challenge to the established National and American League, seeking status as a third major league. The Federal League backers were a mixed lot: some were woefully undercapitalized, while others, like Chicago Federals (also referenced as the Chi-Feds, later the Whales) owner Charles Weeghman, had more in the way of resources for players — like Chicago Orphan / Cub Joe Tinker, signed as a player-manager — and facilities, like the grand new ballpark built on the city’s up-and-coming North Side. Weeghman, the successful owner of a chain of luncheon counters, had the baseball bug: he attempted to buy the St. Louis Cardinals in 1911 and inquired about the status of other teams before investing in the Federal League.
After the Federal League flamed out, Weeghman bought a controlling interest in the money-losing Chicago Cubs and moved the team from West Side Grounds to the larger and more profitable Weeghman Park. He eventually sold out to William Wrigley Jr., who shifted names from Cubs Park to Wrigley Field after taking over control of both the team and the ballpark.
Wrigley Field went from a run-of-the-mill ballpark to a palace of nostalgia thanks to idiosyncratic management from the Wrigley family. On the one hand, Wrigley Field was the first ballpark to feature organ music when team management decided to use it daily in 1941. And the massive scoreboard in center field was the finest in baseball when it opened. But Philip Wrigley didn’t believe in night baseball, so the ballpark was the last to feature lights and night games.
Still, these quirks were of interest mostly to North Sides and ballpark fans until WGN-TV and Harry Caray arrived on the scene. The Tribune Company had purchased the Cubs from William Wrigley III and sought to use game broadcasts as the cornerstone of programming on its new WGN cable station. Harry Caray, a veteran broadcaster who loved the limelight since breaking in with the St. Louis Cardinals broadcast team in 1945, had the perfect broadcast style for the Cubs of the era: the team wasn’t always great on the field, but Caray and producer Arnie Harris made sure there were plenty of crowd shots showing attractive women playing hooky from work and sipping a beer from the team’s biggest sponsor, Budweiser.
It was on these WGN-TV broadcasts that the notion of Wrigley Field as the world’s biggest beer garden began, and it’s an image that persists to this day. If you’re a ballpark and/or history fan, you know the traditional beer at Wrigley Field over the years was Old Style and the local taverns were more likely to serve Augsburger than Budweiser, but no matter: the myth of Wrigley Field as Bud paradise remains. Wrigley Field in many ways is a modern construct, with echoes of the past intertwined gracefully with an up-to-date veneer.
And this veneer will be extended with the upcoming improvements proposed by the Ricketts family. Now, we’re all for updating of classic venues; the work put into improvements to Fenway Park gave new life to a classic ballpark. And many of the proposed improvements to Wrigley Field, such as the widening of concourses and improved fan amenities, are long overdue. But some, such as the high-tech circus planned for the exterior, don’t really fit into the dignified way the ballpark fits into the North Side: thousands and thousands of lights will be installed for the sheer purpose of selling you crap. Wrigley Field, with the iconic marquee and the restained exterior, won’t be the same Wrigley Field that fans have enjoyed for the last 100 years. So savor today, Wrigley Field friends: change is coming, and not all of it will be pretty.
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