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Fun at the Old Ballpark

A baseball troubadour on a baseball shrine.

By 3.25.14

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A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred 

By George Will 

(Crown Archetype, 
223 pages, $25)

T.S. Eliot, who in his later years sounded more British than the British, was actually born in St. Louis and by all rights should have been a Cardinals fan. He could have been diverted in his middle years by Dizzy Dean, Pepper Martin, Ducky Medwick, and the rest of the highly entertaining Gas House Gang. But no. Our Thomas Stearns packed off to Old Blighty, there to become a poet, essayist, editor, and all around purveyor of High Culture.

Eliot had important things to say and was an insightful poet, even though in this capacity he put forward the absurd notion that April is the cruelest month. (April!) Baseball fans know better. This is a slander of a fine month indeed, a month when the regular baseball season gets underway, and the point at which the year begins for those who cherish the Grand Old Game. (E-Poet, if you’re keeping score.)

For the many who look forward to Opening Day the way youngsters and romantics look forward to Christmas morning, April is far from the cruelest month. But March is certainly the longest. Comes now the reliable George Will, a fellow who knows a bit about politics and a lot about baseball, with an entertainment to help those making do with exhibition games get through the remaining days before the real deal begins. (As we shall learn, Will also should have been a Cardinals fan.) 

In a recent Fox TV special on Charles Krauthammer, another baseball éminence grise, Will said he writes about politics in order to support his baseball habit. OK, a bit tongue-in-cheek. But we can be glad that Will also writes about his favorite game. For the advantage of fellow baseball enthusiasts, Will has already produced, among his many books, Men at Work, and Bunts. His latest, A Nice Little Place on the North Side, will sit solidly on the bookshelf with his previous baseball classics. It’s fitting that one of the ablest chroniclers of the American cultural scene takes on one of the oldest and finest ball yards in the country, Chicago’s Wrigley Field. (The other baseball shrine being Boston’s Fenway Park, also venerable, fan friendly, and highly patronized.)

The reason for Will’s parsing of Wrigley just now is that the grand old park will celebrate its 100th season of baseball this summer. Fenway is two years older. (The third oldest big league park is Dodger Stadium, a mere stripling at 52 years.) Baseball purists, in whose ranks I happily march, are prone to get a little sappy about these two fine old ball yards. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Those who read Will’s short but fine treatment will understand why, though Will keeps the sentimentality in check.

Will, born in Central Illinois in 1941, has from childhood indulged a lasting affection for the current and long-time tenants of Wrigley, the Chicago Cubs, even though he concedes the Cubs “have been generally disappointing and often annoying for most of my life.” Part of the reason for Will’s otherwise puzzling devotion, and that of many other Cubs fans, is Wrigley, which Will says is, pursuant to previous owner P.K. Wrigley’s plan, a “beautiful setting for ugly baseball.”

Philip Wrigley was not the baseball fan his father William, who died in 1932, had been. But he was a promoter. His product was baseball, his setting Wrigley. He worked on the latter to the exclusion of the former. His business plan went in this wise: “Our idea in advertising the game, and the fun, and the healthfulness of it, the sunshine and the relaxation, is to get the public to see ball games, win or lose.” In 1958 Wrigley revised and extended his remarks, going so far as to say, “We are aiming at people not interested in baseball.” The Cubs’ lack of success on the field over the past half century – with post-season anomalies such as 1984, 1989, 2003, 2008 and the near anomaly of 1969 – tends to support this approach. As Will fames it, watching the Cubs because they play in Wrigley is a bit like buying the painting because of the frame, the sculpture because of the pedestal. 

So there you have it. Enjoy the beautiful day (perhaps in this regard April is the cruelest month for Wrigley marketers) and the beautiful setting. But don’t trouble yourselves overmuch about who wins the ball game. Thus begins the “friendly confines,” heavy on great sight-lines and Ivy-covered outfield walls, but, save for the odd Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, or Ryne Sandberg, pretty light on the hitting, pitching, and defense that lead to W’s. The beautiful ball yard, by this declension, is an enabler of dysfunctional baseball. 

The gag (or maybe it’s not a gag) is that in the Wrigley souvenir store fans can purchase sweatshirts with the Cubs logo and the legend, “Any team can have a bad century.” This isn’t exactly accurate. Although the Cubs last championship came in 1908 (when Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain were still alive but Ronald Reagan has not been born yet), the longest championship drought by any Major League team, there was ample Cubs success on the field until the 1940s, including seven National League pennants for the Cubs between 1910 and 1945. The Cubs did not have a decade with a won-lost percentage below .500 until the 1940s. They’ve not had a winning decade since. (In my dictionary, by the word “hapless,” there is a team photo of the 1956 Chicago Cubs.) Will’s timing in plighting his troth to the Cubs in the 1940s was awful.

Baseball is our most statistically analyzed sport. Players can hardly spit a sunflower seed without it being recorded and toted up somewhere. (A new breed of baseball cyber-geeks, with ample waistlines, laptop computers, and lots of time on their hands, has come up with a host of new statistics called sabermetrics, which baffle baseball Mustache Petes like me who cling to such venerable quantitative guideposts as batting average, RBIs, and earned run average – another column for another day.) The latest stats, dreamed up by a couple of quantitative sports guys named Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim, claim to demonstrate, with charts and graphs, that the attendance at Wrigley Field is less sensitive to the Cubs’ winning than is the case with any other team and any other ballpark.

I’ll spare you the boiler-plate, but the average “attendance sensitivity” in Major League Baseball is 1. The Yankees sensitivity is 0.9, meaning attendance tracks the pin-stripes’ won-lost percentage pretty closely. The Red Sox are also at 0.9. The Cubs are at 0.6, leading Moskowitz and Wertheim to label the Cubs “America’s Teflon team.” In fact, the pair finds the price of beer in the park tracks attendance better than the Cubs’ won-lost percentage.

Nice Little Place is more than just a personal meditation on Will’s favorite team and baseball park. As is always the case with Will, readers are treated to a mix of history, anecdotes, vignettes, cultural analysis, various informative diversions, and much wry humor. Of course there is a good deal about the history of Chicago and early baseball here. There’s even an extended treatise on beer (baseball’s natural solvent) and how it has made not just baseball fans but the human race happier than it would otherwise have been, even healthier in the years of bad water supplies. We learn how “let there be lights” came much later in Wrigley than in any other ball yard. 

Some of the material will be familiar to baseball fans. Did Babe Ruth really “call his shot” in the third game of the 1932 World Series at Wrigley? Will examines the briefs for both sides. How friendly could the friendly confines be when Leo “Nice Guys Finish Last” Durocher managed the Cubs (1965-72)? Will shows us Bill Veeck (as in wreck) planting Ivy on Wrigley’s outfield walls. We meet former baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a onetime federal judge whose main qualification to be commissioner after the World Series gambling scandal of 1919 was that he looked like an Old Testament prophet with a toothache, and he had the same view of suspects’ rights as Andy Sipowicz (a fictional NYPD detective with a classic Chicago accent).

Will reports that someone figured out that about 140 million people have watched ball games at Wrigley Field. An impressive figure, not least because the population of the U.S. in 1914 when Wrigley first opened was about 99 million. No way to know how many more will visit this baseball shrine, but I hope I’m included. I’ve not had the pleasure, though I’ve had the privilege to haunt Fenway for a couple of dozen games. Wrigley was already on my bucket list before I read this tribute. But I’m glad I read it anyway. You will be too.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.