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By Geoffrey Johnson | Photo: Courtesy of Chicago History Museum | March 7, 2016
The latest renovations at Wrigley Field are actually just the next step in the venerable park’s evolution—a constant process of reinvention that began right after its first opening day. We take a look back, on the occasion of the Cubs’ 100th anniversary there.
On April 20, 1916, in the first game at their new home—the ballpark known today as Wrigley Field—the Chicago Cubs triumphed over the Cincinnati Reds 7-6. Fireworks saluted the U.S. flag as the game commenced, a home-run ball sailed across Sheffield Avenue and boisterous fans hung around for 11 innings to witness a dramatic come-from-behind victory. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Don’t let that fool you. While the sights and sounds of the game played at Clark and Addison have remained essentially the same over the last century, the ballpark itself has been in a near-constant state of flux. The recent round of changes, an ambitious multiyear endeavor known as the 1060 Project, is only the latest in a long line of alterations, though the scope of the undertaking—expanding bleachers! Giant video screens! An outdoor plaza! A new hotel!—have left some fans disoriented. “You’re not even going to recognize Wrigley Field when it’s done,” lamented one Lakeview resident to the Chicago Tribune.
Wrigley Field actually predates the arrival of the Cubs by two years. In 1913, Charles “Lucky Charlie” Weeghman, who’d made a fortune with a chain of fast-food luncheonettes, announced plans to build a ballpark at Clark and Addison. It would serve as home field for the Chicago Federals, his entry into the upstart Federal League. Zachary Taylor Davis, who had designed palatial Comiskey Park for the White Sox, served as architect, and he laid out a 18,000-seat stadium, its main feature a roofed single-level concrete-and-steel grandstand that wrapped around the first- and third-base lines—the foundation of today’s ballpark.
Despite protests from neighborhood property owners, the $250,000 project proceeded rapidly. Workers razed old seminary buildings on the site in late February 1914, broke ground in early March and had the place ready for the April 23 home opener. An overflow crowd watched the Chi-Feds rout the Kansas City Packers 9-1 in the inaugural game. Fans who couldn’t get into Weeghman Park, as it was called, were still able to watch the game—from neighboring rooftops.
Changes came almost immediately, on and off the field. In late April, after a flurry of home runs, the left-field fence was moved back as much as 50 feet. In 1915, the Chi-Feds, now known as the Whales, won the championship of the Federal League—which, after only two seasons, promptly folded. Unfazed, Weeghman and other investors, including the gum king William Wrigley Jr., bought the National League Cubs and moved them to Clark and Addison. (They had previously played at rickety West Side Park, a site occupied today by the UIC Medical Center.)
By 1919, Lucky Charlie’s unwise investments and profligate lifestyle caught up with him, and Wrigley bought the team and the field, which he rechristened Cubs Park. Shortly thereafter, Wrigley welcomed a football team to his friendly confines: George Halas’ Decatur Staleys, who, as the Chicago Bears, won eight NFL titles during their 50-year tenure on the North Side.
Architect Davis returned in 1922 for a $300,000 renovation that involved moving a portion of the grandstand and pushing the field back 60 feet toward the southwest. (To get a sense of this, imagine home plate in the original park situated where the pitcher’s mound is today.) In 1926, the park got its third and final name—Wrigley Field—and began a decade of nonstop expansion. The upper deck was installed between 1926 and 1928, the marquee on the front facade went up in 1934, and the legendary bleachers and iconic scoreboard arrived in 1937—the same year Bill Veeck famously planted the ivy along the outfield wall. (Fun fact: The marquee at Clark and Addison, which proclaims Wrigley Field the home of the Chicago Cubs, was first colored green; today’s bright red didn’t appear until the 1960s.)
Following Wrigley’s death in 1932, his son, Philip Knight Wrigley—forever known as P.K.—took over the team and the park. He proved a conscientious caretaker of the latter, investing lavishly on upkeep and improvements (money better spent, in the eyes of some, on ballplayers). “[P.K.] is the primary reason why the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908,” wrote one Cubs historian in 2003, “and also the primary reason why Wrigley Field has survived to this day.”
P.K. died in April 1977, and in June 1981, his son, William Wrigley III, announced the sale of the Cubs to the Tribune Company. The $20.5 million price tag also included the ballpark. Over the years, the new owner installed private skyboxes—“mezzanine suites”—erected statues of several of the team’s illustrious players (and one bespectacled announcer), opened a number of in-park “clubs” and, with the 2005 appearance of Jimmy Buffett, transformed the place into a raucous concert venue.
But, of course, the Tribune Company’s most indelible imprint came when it put lights in Wrigley Field, ending a 74-year tradition of day baseball—though a torrential downpour brought the first night game, August 8, 1988, to an ignominious close.
The Ricketts era began in October 2009, when the well-heeled family, led by Tom Ricketts, bought the Cubs and Wrigley Field for $845 million. Since then, the family’s epic construction project has led to battles with neighborhood residents. (Shades of Charles Weeghman!)
Naturally, there’s a simple remedy for any lingering acrimony. Five National League pennants have flown at Wrigley Field. Hoist a world-championship banner and even the protean old ballpark will likely stand up and cheer.