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Wrigley Field is a ball park. If there was one way to rile Philip K. Wrigley, the retiring gentleman who owned the Chicago Cubs between 1932 and his death in 1977, it was to refer to Wrigley Field as a stadium. It is a park, with spiders and grasshoppers and vines an inch around on the field of play. The vines come into bloom in mid-May. The morning glories open up pale blue and pink and purple and are shut again by noon. The greenish-white flowers of the bittersweet bloom inconspicuously against the ivy. There is Boston ivy with its eight-inch leaves that stick out from the brick a foot and a half and are clipped by the ground crew before every home stand. There is Baltic ivy with its shiny, leathery leaves that stay green all winter, and the high-climbing Virginia creeper, whose five-leaflet clusters turn reddish-orange in the fall. That is when the bunches of grapes hang purple on the grapevines and the bittersweet berries turn red, but in the spring there are flowers where the fruit will be.
It is a park built for baseball. There are older ball parks-Comiskey, right across town, is one—and stadiums both bigger and smaller. But none can match Wrigley for watching a baseball game; the $1.50 seats in the leftfield bleachers are better than most stadiums' upperdeck boxes. People may talk about that "quaint little bandbox" of a ball park in Boston, but there is nothing quaint about the new electronic messageboard the size of centerfield, and anyone who has ever watched a game in the bleacher seats beneath that messageboard would take issue with calling Fenway Park "little." You can sit fully 600 feet from home plate.
Wrigley Field is a classic Midwestern cross between penurious efficiency and charm. Its slightly off-kilter center-field scoreboard is the last in the majors still operated by hand, yet it is the only one that gives inning-by-inning scores of all out-of-town games. The roof is held up by a rusted network of rafters, a maze of horizontals and verticals and diagonals. Wrigley Field is a Peter Pan of a ball park. It has never grown up and it has never grown old. Let the world race on—they'll still be playing day baseball in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, outfielders will still leap up against the vines, and the Cubs...well, it's the season of hope. This could be the Cubbies' year.
There is a tendency to credit the atmosphere in Wrigley Field to Philip K. Wrigley's traditional approach to the game, but evidence points to other forces at work. Mr. Wrigley was more innovator than traditionalist. In 1968, when synthetic turf was being developed, Wrigley was one of the first owners in baseball to look into digging up his park's natural sod and replacing it with artificial grass. It was only his inherent frugality that prevented him from going ahead with it. "When we have the money we'll probably install synthetic grass," Wrigley said. "There's no doubt it would pay for itself in a few years." One year he instituted a rotating system of head coaches instead of a single manager, an experiment ridiculed by the baseball Establishment. The Cubs were the first—and are now the only—team to televise every home game. Wrigley Field was the first ball park to install an organ, the first to have a Ladies Day.
White Sox owner Bill Veeck writes in his autobiography: "Old men, playing dominoes across the hearth, like to say that Phil Wrigley was the last of the true baseball men because he is the only owner who still holds, in the simple faith of his ancestors, that baseball was meant to be played under God's own sunlight. I know better. Having blown the chance to be first with lights, Mr. Wrigley just wasn't going to do it at all."
In fact, Wrigley Field was all set to be outfitted with-lights in late 1941. The Cincinnati Reds had introduced night baseball in 1935, so it was still a relatively new attraction, and President Roosevelt thought it would be a good way to give factory workers some relaxation at night. The lights had been paid for and were on the verge of being installed when fate intervened in the form of Pearl Harbor. On Monday, Dec. 8, the Cubs offered their towers, lights and cables to the U.S. Government, and they were used in the suddenly booming shipyards.
Right up through the '60s there was talk of installing lights in Wrigley Field so the Chicago Bears could start their football games later in the day and the Cubs could finish games that otherwise would be called on account of darkness. But the Bears moved to Soldier Field, and Wrigley Field remained unchanged.
"We can still draw without night games," says E.R. (Salty) Saltwell, vice-president of park operations. "We're not in this to lose money or break even. We draw heavily from young college, high school and junior high school kids during the summer, mainly because we have all day games."
Last year, with a 80-82 record that left them fifth in their division, the Cubs—with all their home games televised—nevertheless drew 1,648,587 fans. They come back like old lovers, by bus and via the El. They do not drive. There is not enough parking in the vicinity of the park to drive, which is another reason for the day games. They come back, and at worst they have an afternoon in the sunshine in the park, watching men at play and remembering what it was like when their fathers took them. What they were like. At best, the Cubs win. "If you can just play .500 ball for these fans they are happy," ex-Cub Manager Herman Franks said near the end of last season, the day he announced his retirement. "Can you imagine what they'd be like if you ever won a pennant for them?"
They would probably become crabby. Baseball fans spoil easily. The Cubs' last pennant was in 1945 (they have never even won a division title), and that 35-year drought is the driest spell in the major leagues. One of the reasons Cub fans are equable if their team finishes at .500 or better is that in the 20 seasons between 1947 and 1966 it did so only twice. In 1952 the Cubs went 77-77; in 1963, 82-80—rebounding from a 1962 season unnerving to the staunchest of Cub fans, when the record was 59-103, and Chicago finished six games behind the Houston Colts, an expansion team.