Analysis: Why The Wrigley Deal Is Good For Everyone

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Wrigley Field will soon celebrate its 100th birthday, and then the 100th anniversary of its first Cubs game two years later. The agreement with the city of Chicago to renovate and upgrade Wrigley will assure the team of revenue and facilities the equal of any in baseball.

One of the best things about BCB is that it brings several generations of Cubs fans together. Unlike a lot of sites of this type -- which tend to bring mostly younger readers -- there are many of you who are in your 50s and even older; I suspect that's because that's my age cohort and those of you "of a certain age" share the history of the Cubs that I grew up with, as well as what's going on now.

With this year being the 50th anniversary of the first time I set foot in Wrigley Field -- that date's coming up later this summer, I'll write about it when it happens -- I've lived through several generations of Cubs players and iterations of the ballpark. Virtually all of the players who were my childhood heroes are now in their 70s, some in their 80s, some now passed away. That's a sobering thought, especially since none of them were able to bring a World Series title to the now-99-year-old ballpark at Clark & Addison in Chicago. Like all of you, I'd like to see that happen while I'm still around to enjoy it.

The one constant of being a Cubs fan through those 50 years is Wrigley Field. Just two other teams -- the Red Sox and Dodgers -- can say that they've played in the same place over that period of time. Every other team has had a new stadium built during that half-century, and Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium have been extensively renovated, both ready for another 50 or 75 or 100 years of baseball.

Wrigley Field stands alone, a monument to the past. It's had some changes made over the last 25 years -- lights, the last ballpark to get them, 40 years after the Tigers were the 15th of the Original 16 teams to get them; mezzanine suites in 1989; and an extensive renovation of the bleachers in 2005-06. The image you see at the top of this post is a postcard issued by the Tichnor Brothers; it appears to date from about 1938, not long after the current bleachers were first built (note, you can still see in that image a small scoreboard to the left of the left-field bleachers, something that didn't exist for long after that construction concluded in 1937). Here's the full-size version of that postcard image if you'd like to examine it more closely. I believe this is an actual aerial photo colorized and stylized to look like a painting.

I think I can pinpoint the precise moment -- a short period of years, really, rather than one specific moment -- when Wrigley Field's image changed from "old" to "beloved". I learned this when writing the Game From Cubs History series this past offseason. During that series, I quoted from Tribune beat writers, covering the games of their era. Check out what Wrigley Field was called in 1967:

The Family day line on the Clark street side stretched north to Waveland avenue. Spectators started coming to the ancient park by 8:3O a.m.

"Ancient," even though the park was just a bit more than 50 years old. During the 1960s, in the name of "progress", many historic buildings and sites all over the USA were being bulldozed. Stadiums built in the same era as Wrigley Field -- Crosley Field (Cincinnati), Forbes Field (Pittsburgh), Connie Mack Stadium (Pittsburgh), the original Busch Stadium (St. Louis) -- had been demolished for multi-purpose stadiums that were supposed to be state-of-the-art. (All those replacements are also gone now, telling you that they were likely a bad idea from day one.)

Now look at what Wrigley Field was called just 10 years later, in 1977:

The Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds tangled in one of the most incredible, exciting, and entertaining games in the 61-year history of the vine-covered baseball shrine.

So Wrigley Field went from "ancient" to "vine-covered baseball shrine" in just one decade. (The writer's time span, 61 years, ignored the two Federal League seasons there, but that's not critical to my point.)

What happened, I think, is that people of my generation fell in love with the team of the late 1960s, the group still revered, the group that never made it, and with the ballpark at the same time. As history was destroyed around them, with the country in tumult, I think many of us wanted to hang on to something that seemed to hark back to a more innocent past. Remember that the Cubs had set an attendance record in 1929 -- 1,485,166 -- that was the record for any major-league team until after World War II, and was the Cubs' team record until 1969. The teams of the late 1970s, that briefly contended before fading, cemented this love among those of us who in that era were just getting out of college and discovering how great it was to spend an afternoon at Wrigley.

What if P.K. Wrigley hadn't exercised benign neglect of his team after 1945? If he'd have installed lights, as he had originally planned in the early 1940s, most likely all the buildings on Waveland and Sheffield would have been bought and torn down in the 1950s as more people came to the games by car. Even in the 1970s, those buildings weren't worth much; I know that one of the buildings on Sheffield was offered for sale for just $38,000 in 1978 (about $135,000 in 2013 dollars). In the 1960s Chicago, like other cities, did consider some sort of multipurpose stadium for the Bears and either the Cubs or White Sox. Here's one such concept that would have been built in what is now the South Loop; another one from the 1980s would have built side-by-side baseball and football stadiums with a movable roof (cool concept, actually).

But those didn't happen. And by the 1980s, with the Cubs finally becoming a competitive team and Harry Caray selling the vibes of Wrigley nationally on WGN-TV, the ballpark became an even more beloved place to be. Lights didn't change that, at least for me; I love day baseball, but going to a game at night at Wrigley was just more Cubs baseball, simply at a different time of day.

Fast forward to 2009, when the Ricketts family bought the team. Wrigley Field is now approaching its 100th birthday, and even with patching up over the years, it's clear that the park needs more work. The Wrigleys, Tribune Co. and the Ricketts family have poured many millions of dollars into nothing more than maintenance of the physical plant at Clark & Addison; it's probably in as good shape as any 99-year-old building in the United States of America.

But Major League Baseball is now a $9 billion business. Wrigley Field is quaint. There's nothing wrong with quaint; Fenway Park does quaint quite well, but the owners of the team went so far as to commission designs for a "New Fenway Park" in 1999. It would have been built adjacent to the existing park, and looked much the same, just larger with more amenities. They could propose that because Fenway is in a commercial area and land could have been acquired. New ownership took over, and with that and some local opposition to "New Fenway" in Boston, the plan was scrapped and instead, Fenway was rehabbed, in much the same way the Ricketts family wants to re-do Wrigley.

The people who have said, "Just build a replica of Wrigley in the suburbs" do not understand that most of what makes Wrigley Field what it is, is where it is. If there were land adjacent to Wrigley to build a replica or new stadium -- as there was in New York with new Yankee Stadium -- then maybe that would have been feasible.

It's not. And the Ricketts family committed to Wrigley Field from the first day they took over as team owners. What they have now proposed, and what has been accepted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney, still subject to being signed off on by various legislative bodies, is, I believe, a perfect way to preserve the past, while giving players and fans exactly what they need for the present and future. The Cubs' current clubhouse and workout facilities are laughable (Tom Ricketts, at the news conference Monday, mentioned pinch-hitters warming up by hitting into nets in the clubhouse); this deal would bring them up to modern standards. Wrigley Field's fan amenities are subpar; they've been improved over the last 10 years, but still probably equivalent to what most parks had in the 1980s, before the current retro parks building wave began. And guess where virtually every architect who designed those retro parks came for ideas? That's right, Wrigley Field. They all want to have the intimacy that Wrigley Field has naturally, and those cities who have had bars and restaurants spring up near the new stadiums want what Wrigley's neighborhood gives them organically.

If that means we have to have a video board looming over left field, bring it on. This deal costs the city nothing, brings in construction jobs and also permanent jobs, will bring tourists to the city and thus tax and other revenue, and the Cubs have been extremely sensitive to neighborhood concerns such as parking (the Cubs had the better idea, remote parking, than the local alderman had, a garage in a congested area), security, and other things that neighbors have asked for. As far as the rooftop clubs are concerned, their aggressive and hostile tone through the last few months has caused them to lose in the court of public opinion, and for those who think those are an area "tradition", remember that they really didn't exist in their present form until the last 15 years or so. The business people who invested in them took a chance, even with a signed agreement with the Cubs; times and conditions change, and if they lose their investment -- well, I'd have had a bit more sympathy for them, perhaps, if they had given any sign they really wanted to work with all the other parties to this deal instead of simply threatening lawsuit with every media release.

This deal is a win for everyone -- the city, the 44th Ward, Cubs players, and Cubs fans. It will bring in extra revenue which Tom Ricketts says will go directly to the baseball operations department, to help bring a World Series title to the North Side of Chicago. To which I conclude, and say yet again: "Bring it on."

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