Wrigley Field at 100: Help Wanted for Cursed Cubs

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Wrigley Field at 100: Help Wanted for Cursed Cubs
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Forget the rally caps and break out the party hats. Wrigley Field celebrated its 100th birthday on Wednesday.

Ernie Banks was there. What's a Friendly Confines celebration without Mr. Cub?

So was Dutchie Caray. How can you sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" without Harry's widow?

Steve Bartman? How cool would it have been to officially reunite the team with the unfairly vilified fan of the 2003 playoffs?

"No, he is not going to appear at the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field," Frank Murtha, Bartman's lawyer/friend/spokesman, said of the man who touched off a Chicago firestorm by touching a potentially catchable foul fly when the Cubs were five outs from the World Series. "The Cubs as an organization, both the past ownership and present ownership, have been supportive and sympathetic to Steve's situation."

If and when Bartman goes public, Murtha says, it will be at a time, date and situation of his choosing. Instead, Bartman continues to live in the Chicago area, work at the same organization and eschew requests that could bring closure (if it worked), danger (if some lunatic acted on a threat) or profit (if Bartman were interested).

"At the time, he was offered well into six figures to do a Super Bowl commercial," Murtha says. "It wasn't about negotiating, with Steve. It probably would have been one of the more stupid things to do when security was an issue, to have his face on a Super Bowl commercial. He has no intention of commericially profiting. Others have."

AP Photo

Were there players and descendants from Cubs World Series champions of the last 100 years at the 100th anniversary? Yeah, that's a trick question.

The last Cubs championship was in 1908. The Cubs haven't even been in the World Series since 1945—the year the Curse of the Billy Goat began.

"My uncle, he went with the goat to the World Series in 1945," Billy Goat Tavern owner Sam Sianis says. "They don't let him in, because Mr. Wrigley said he didn't want to smell a goat at the park. My uncle left and took his goat back to the farm. Later on, the Cubs lost the World Series. Then my uncle sent a telegram to Mr. Wrigley that says, 'Who smells now?'"

So don't expect a ceremonial purging of the cruel karma from the black cat that walked in front of the dugout and cursed the 1969 Cubs either. Or from the Gatorade spill that soaked Leon Durham's glove before a ball went under his mitt and unraveled the 1984 playoffs. Or from any of the harbingers that so obsess and haunt and entertain Cubs fans, who can't imagine a team would naturally be this bad this long but who remain faithful because they have hope and tradition and Wrigley Field.

"We don't believe in curses," Cubs vice president of communications and corporate affairs Julian Green says.

Charles Rex Arbogast

They do believe in Wrigley Field. It is part ballpark, part Wayback Machine. It has ivy and brick on the outfield walls and a hand-operated scoreboard in center and the ashes of former Cub Charlie Grimm and former Cubs fan/songwriter Steve Goodman. It has the charm today's retroparks covet.

A number of books have emerged as Wrigley celebrates its 100th birthday, including A Nice Little Place on the North Side by George Will. After a speaking engagement in Chicago, Will mused about what Wrigley at 100 means to him.

"It means it's one of the links baseball has to our distant past," he said. "You walk into that little space, and you realize when it opened in 1914 there had to be Civil War veterans there, guys who had been at Gettysburg, Antietam, Johnsonville, Shiloh. So it's a great connection with the only sport in America that goes deep into our roots."

Even if it can be a hindrance too. Will contends the allure of Wrigley Field can hurt the Cubs, who knew people would show up even without a title team. And the stadium, he says, needs to adapt.

"I think improvements have to be made for the modern athlete," he says. "Batting cages they can use during the game. Film facilities so they can see what got them out on the last at-bat."

And, the Cubs would add, improvements have to be made to generate more money.

Without them, as the team enters its second century at Clark and Addison and Waveland and Sheffield, the franchise stands at a crossroads. 

***

Wrigley Field wasn't always Wrigley Field. Charlie Weeghman opened Weeghman Park in 1914 to house his Federal League team. His Whales actually won the league championship in 1915 before the Cubs moved over from the West Side Grounds in 1916.

Weeghman Park-turned-Cubs Park-turned-Wrigley Field has done more than baseball. Over the years, there would be boxing and wrestling, ski jumping and soccer, the Globetrotters and concerts. And football. The Cardinals and Bears each used to reside there. The Bears won the NFL championship at Wrigley as late as 1963.

But baseball remains its legacy. In 1917, Cincinnati's Fred Toney and the Cubs' Jim "Hippo" Vaughn pitched the only double-no-hitter there. (The Cubs lost in 10 innings when Jim Thorpe drove in the winning run.) In 1920, Lou Gehrig homered there in a high school game. In 1970, Banks hit his 500th home run there. In 1943, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League played its All-Star Game there.

Cubs historian, Wrigley Field tour guide and lobbyist Brian Bernardoni likes to tell the story about his grandmother playing for the Chicago softball team that won at Wrigley Field during the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair. That, Bernardoni says, led Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley to start a women's pro baseball league a decade later during World War II.

"My oldest daughter took her first step about 40 feet from where Grandma played," he said during a Chicago Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) meeting the other day. "So for me, there's an emotional attachment here."

Everybody has a Wrigley story.

"It's baseball," says Ron Coomer, who went from Cubs fan to player to radio color commentator. "To me, growing up here, in this ballpark, with my dad, having traditions of walking into the park, getting a hot dog and a Coke, and then running up this lower deck so you could see the green grass and the ivy, that's what baseball was. You couldn't wait to drive down Waveland Avenue to see the scoreboard as you got close to the ballpark. It's still as exciting. I see that scoreboard as I'm turning the corner, and you go back to being eight years old again."

You grow up here, you come to Wrigley, you pass it forward. Unless you are a White Sox fan. Cubs and White Sox fans might as well be Yankees and Red Sox fans. North and South: A civil divide. Usually.

M Spencer Green
The Ernie Banks statue outside Wrigley Field.

"I grew up a Cubs fan on the South Side of Chicago, which wasn't real popular, even in my family," says Coomer, 47, who got hooked on the Cubs watching every day on pre-cable TV or listening on the radio. "Banks. Santo. Williams. Kessinger. Beckert. And that group stayed together for a while. I can remember watching Banks' home run, the 500th, and seeing Burt Hooton's no-hitter. That was my childhood."

Mike Veeck's childhood was different. Grandfather Bill Sr. used to be Cubs president. Father Bill Jr. helped out with the Cubs and was instrumental in planting the outfield ivy before later owning the White Sox. Mike appreciates how the combination of Harry Caray's move from the White Sox to the Cubs, of WGN's national footprint as a cable TV superstation, of Wrigley Field's beauty being broadcast around the country, lifted the Cubs.

Then again, when the former White Sox executive is asked what Wrigley turning 100 means to him, he says, "That it took my dad a little while to come to his senses and go to the South Side, since I'm a White Sox fan. Even my son, Night Train, is over working for the White Sox now. But you can't not acknowledge the wonderful spot that they have in history."

Harry would have turned 100 this year too. Dutchie talks about all that Harry did for the Cubs when he brought his seventh-inning stretch vocals to Wrigley Field (another Bill Veeck idea) and popularity to the North Side.

"If they were honest about him, they would say they do miss him," she says of the Cubs. "I don't think there's a person who did as much for the team as he did."

She is biased, of course.

But the Wrigley experience could use him, or something, right about now.

***

AP Photo

You want a little Harry? Head over to Water Tower Place on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, next to the famed Water Tower, which survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Go to the top floor, and CEO Grant DePorter of Harry Caray's Restaurant Group has gathered more remnants of the city's past. Some memorable. Some forgettable. All part of the Chicago Sports Museum, which just opened in partnership with the 7th Inning Stretch, part of you-know-who's restaurant chain.

Attractions include a chance to channel Harry without a seance by doing a little play-by-play or singing his trademark song from a Wrigley-esque broadcast booth. If you are more into ghosts, try the Curses and Superstitions exhibit. It isn't all Cubs, but nobody does curses better.

"The Cubs going back to 1908, with the longest sports drought in this country, you want to believe there could be something beyond it just being a bad team for a century, that maybe there is something supernatural out there," DePorter says. "I've talked to a lot of Cub fans, and there probably is no more superstitious fanbase."

Check out Durham's jersey from when the ball went through his legs. Or other nods to 1969 and, of course, 2003. No cursed moment has intrigued Cubs fans like the Bartman incident—if for no other reason than it's the most recent. One of the featured pieces here is the Bartman ball (or what's left of it), which DePorter purchased for $113,824.16 and then blew up.

Photo by Rudi Ayasse.

You also can see what it's like to blow up a ball yourself through a special-effects display. You can read all about how some parts of the ball were cooked in a spaghetti sauce.

All of this annoys Frank Murtha, who doesn't like anyone profiting from his friend's misery. He says DePorter wanted Bartman to attend the ball blowup in 2004, telling Murtha that's what Harry would have wanted. Murtha cracked that he'd ask his dad to ask Caray, because Harry "is buried right behind my father." Murtha never heard back.

Somehow, when it comes to the Cubs, this sort of thing makes perfect sense.

Every generation has an otherworldly moment. Babe Ruth's famous "called shot" was voted the No. 1 Wrigley moment by the Chicago Tribune. Did Ruth really predict his home run in the 1932 World Series? We don't know, and that's the great attraction of it, Ed Sherman, who wrote the new book Babe Ruth's Called Shot, told a local SABR meeting recently.

Does anybody really believe curses keep foiling the Cubs?

"Of course I don't," Mike Veeck says. "But it's still fun. It doesn't mean I get frightened every Halloween, but I sure do buy into it every year. The Curse of the Billy Goat; who am I to argue with it?"

The Sianis family has tried to lift the Curse of the Billy Goat. It's still there, Sam insists. Not that he wants the Cubs to lose. He doesn't. Not that he hasn't heard from some crazies. He has. Even threats about killing the goat.

Last season, someone sent a goat's head to Wrigley Field.

"That's probably about the craziest story that I heard (about Wrigley Field)," Cubs pitcher Edwin Jackson says. "You don't know what to think. Some people are just crazy. Some people are big believers in the curse."

Most people aren't that sick.

But more and more seem to be getting sick of the losing.

***

Photo by Rudi Ayasse.

Something magical happened 30 years ago. The Cubs made the playoffs. For the first time in 39 years.

And the Cubs topped two million in attendance. For the first time.

They went back to the playoffs in 1989. And 1998. And 2003. And 2007. And 2008. Not anymore.

The Cubs drew three million every year from 2004 through 2011. Not anymore.

Attendance keeps dropping. Through the weekend, the Cubs were on pace to finish below 2.4 million, their lowest total since 1997.

The Cubs lost 288 games from 2011-13. That's the most for any three-year period in Cubs history. They were 5-12 through Sunday's game, in last place in the NL Central.

Tom Ricketts and family bought a Cubs team that had fallen to 83-78 in 2009. What Cubs fans wouldn't give for 83 wins now. Which is why Ricketts erred by saying on the radio at the start of the season that president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer could win 83 games every year in their sleep.

Instead, the Cubs have traded players for prospects. They have a bigger plan. They have rebuilt the minor league system and now boast some of Baseball America's best prospects. The publication ranked the Cubs organization No. 4 overall before this season, up from 16th before the 2011 season. Epstein was hired after that.

"They're trying to build something sustainable," says Coomer.

Meanwhile, the major league team has plenty of stopgaps, projects and prospects. Their major league payroll that hovered around $150 million in 2010 is flirting with $100 million now.

In Boston, Epstein took another cursed team with an even older ballpark and won the World Series in two years. The Red Sox already had talent and money. The Cubs don't. Not at the major league level. Could the Cubs really be this cash-strapped, playing in this market, at this ballpark?

AP Photo
Cubs GM Theo Epstein, left, and owner Tom Ricketts.

Bleacher Report was told that Ricketts, Epstein and Hoyer were not available to comment for this story, by email, via phone or at Wrigley. But their plan is essentially this:

  • Rebuild the farm system.
  • Build revenue.
  • Renovate Wrigley Field.
  • Redo the TV deal.

When the Ricketts family bought the Cubs, the debt created a problem. The Cubs have proposed a $500 million renovation package that will create new revenue, including signage from a Jumbotron in left field.

USA TODAY Sports

But wait. You know those cool rooftop seats across the streets from the ballpark? The building owners say the Cubs' plans could block some of the views. Which, according to Wrigley Field Rooftops Association spokesman Ryan McLaughlin, would violate the 20-year contract they signed with the Cubs a decade ago, which gives 17 percent of gross revenue to the team. The rooftop owners are wrong about the contract, the Cubs counter.

"The hell with them," George Will says of the neighbors. "I'm sorry. It's not their product."

So now, the renovations are in limbo, talks ongoing. Ricketts won't threaten moving. Just last week, he said at an MLB Diversity Business Summit he is committed to Wrigley.

Meanwhile, he is searching for minority ownership to inject money. The Cubs also have cut off their deal with WGN after this season in hopes of getting a better TV deal, at least temporarily, from WGN or elsewhere. The biggest problem is, the Cubs can't try to establish their own network until after the 2019 season, if they go that route. Their local cable deal with Comcast runs through 2019.

Can the Cubs find a way to thrive until then? And, dare we ask, to win a World Series in our lifetime?

Imagine what it would mean for Julian Green. He grew up in Chicago, worked as the press secretary for then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama and watched Obama eventually become president. Now Green is here to help the Cubs to the top.

"Working in Chicago," he says, "it's all politics."

OK, but which would end up the greater challenge: helping get Obama to the White House or the Cubs a World Series title?

"Oh, wow," he says. "You know, it was certainly a special moment for me personally to see not only the first African-American elected to president, but to know that I had a role in making it happen. So fast-forward to here, I'm with the Chicago Cubs and part of this journey. I don't know that I could tell you which will be more special until we achieve the world championship."

When it happens.

If it happens.

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