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The Rooftops And The Cubs: A History

You might have forgotten some of this, but it's more relevant than ever right now.

Stephen Wilkes

Your perception of the dispute between the Cubs and the owners of the rooftop clubs on Waveland and Sheffield in early 2014 is probably along these lines: "Those people are holding up a $500 million Wrigley Field renovation project; why won't they get with the program?"

It's not quite that simple, of course. The rooftop owners' association will remind you, as they have seemingly incessantly over the last year, that they have a contract with the Cubs and intend to enforce it at all costs. Ryan McLaughlin, spokesman for the rooftop association, issued a statement on behalf of the owners this week:

Over the last year, rooftop owners have indicated their support for the renovation of Wrigley Field. We will, however, vehemently protect our views outlined in the contract and we are united along Sheffield and Waveland more than ever. These most recent proposals that result in significant blockage are non-starters, but we remain committed to finding a reasonable solution nonetheless. Finally, it’s a red herring to blame rooftop owners for the lack of progress in renovating Wrigley Field and it’s time for the Ricketts family to put shovels into the ground.

It sounds somewhat conciliatory, but then again, it doesn't (words like "vehemently protect" aren't so nice). In this article, I want to remind everyone of how we got to this point in the first place. Just to warn you ahead of time -- this is going to be kind of long. Settle in for a bit of history.

You're surely familiar with the reality that watching Cubs games from the roofs of buildings across the street used to be, stereotypically, a bunch of building residents and friends in lawn chairs with beer in coolers. This did happen, often, through the 1970s and 1980s until some entrepreneurs realized that there could be money made from selling the view of the game. Thus the first rooftop club, the Lakeview Baseball Club on Sheffield, came into being sometime during the 1984 season. (Ironically, it also became the first one to file for bankruptcy.)

Several more clubs opened over the next decade or so, but the concept didn't really take off until about 1998, when the team got better and Sammy Sosa's home-run feats brought ever-bigger crowds.

The Cubs weren't happy about independent businesses selling tickets to something they owned and produced -- baseball games. This was their first response, in April 2002:

The Chicago Cubs are putting up black windscreens on fences ringing Wrigley Field to restrict views into the ballpark for security reasons, team officials said Wednesday.

The ballpark has chain-link fencing along the top of its walls behind the bleacher section and part of the grandstand along the foul lines. The windscreens, which are somewhat transparent, obstruct the view of the playing field closest to the outfield wall from the roofs of buildings that ring the ballpark.

Cubs executive Mark McGuire said the screening was considered during a security review after Sept. 11. The move comes just before Opening Day, Friday.

"What happens right now, is you've got a 1,000-plus people across the street [on the rooftops] that we have no control over," McGuire said. "The people entering our ballpark, we have a chance to screen the packages they bring in. If we lessen some of the views, we lessen some of our risks."

Remember, this was only a few months after 9/11. "Security" was on the minds of many people, but it was clear to just about everyone that "security" was simply code language for, "We're not happy with the rooftops, so we're going to try to block their views." Also, at the time, the Cubs were considering expanding the bleachers -- something that, as you know, was eventually done in the 2005-06 offseason -- and as Wrigley Field was also up for landmark designation at the time, many felt the Cubs were doing some misdirection:

Gregg Kiriazes, president of the Lake View Citizens' Council, called the windscreens a "smokescreen" designed to take attention away from the expansion plan.

"They're redirecting the community issues by pointing this to be a rooftop issue, which it's not," he said. "It has to do with them building on public streets."

The proposed expansion would require building over the sidewalks on Sheffield and Waveland Avenues. The city must approve the expansion.

The reaction to the windscreens was immediate, and almost completely negative toward the Cubs. Tribune writer Eric Zorn collected some thoughts of local writers at the time:

But so far, opinion appears unanimous at the Chicago Sun-Times: The newly installed windscreens on fences ringing the bleachers at Wrigley Field are a bad idea. 

The paper's yappy-dog sports columnist Jay Mariotti has been leading the anti-screen campaign, but two other columnists took a whack Monday: The "Little Green Monstrosity," wrote one, while another fretted that the semi-opaque barriers that spoil the view from seating galleries on nearby apartment buildings would also endanger pedestrians by making it harder for the guys with mitts on the sidewalks to pick up the flight of home run balls. 

Sunday, the paper found several historians and an economist to tut-tut in a news story about how "petty," "cheap" and besotted with "greed" Cubs management must be to put up a "spite fence." 

Alas, the reporter found no one other than a Cubs VP to defend the screens. 

He could have called the Tribune, where published opinion has been unanimously pro-screen. 

"Right is right, and the Cubs happen to be right here," wrote our sports columnist Rick Morrissey Saturday. The  rooftop owners "are a few people who have grown rich off the Cubs arguing that their rights as bloodsuckers are  being violated." 

"When you watch a game from a perch above and outside the area where the paying customers are seated," I wrote Saturday, "it is, to put it bluntly, theft."

This was the prevailing opinion in early 2002 -- that the Cubs were being petty and cheap, and the thought expressed by Morrissey was a minority view. The Cubs were derided all year for having these windscreens up, and they really didn't block much of the view anyway. Writers called them "silly", and in mid-September, team president Andy MacPhail announced that the screens would come down after the season. Not only did this happen, but knowing this, some of my friends in the bleachers cut pieces out of them on the season's last day, and I got one of the pieces, which I still have, a weird part of Cubs history.

So after the 2002 season, the Cubs were viewed as the bad guy, and the rooftops (even though others besides Morrissey had echoed his term "theft" as what they were doing) as the plucky little underdog.

The Cubs filed a lawsuit against the rooftops in late 2002:

The team charged that the business owners stole its product and infringed on its copyright to "unjustly enrich themselves to the tune of millions of dollars each year."

Through 2003, the team and the rooftops attempted to negotiate a deal, and Tribune writer Gary Washburn reported one had been reached, in the paper's January 30, 2004 edition:

After prolonged and sometimes acrimonious negotiations, the Chicago Cubs and owners of 10 of 13 rooftop businesses bordering Wrigley Field have reached a formal agreement settling their long- running legal dispute. 

Representatives of both sides declined to outline details of the accord, but Ald. Thomas Tunney (44th), whose ward includes Wrigley, said Thursday that it follows the general terms of a tentative 20- year agreement reached with the help of a federal judge on Jan. 9. 

The rooftop owners will pay about 17 percent of their revenue for legal access to the games, Tunney said. The owners could be compensated during the early years of the agreement if the views of their patrons were hindered by any alteration to the ballpark, including a proposed expansion of Wrigley's bleachers. 

"These are two successful businesses and they're [now] going to do some joint marketing," Tunney said. "I am glad they are working together after being adversarial for so many years. I'm glad they were able to figure out revenue sharing." 

The Cubs are expected to receive roughly $1.2 million to $1.7 million a year. 

"We look forward to a long and productive partnership," said Cubs President Andy MacPhail.

Long, it has been, no doubt. Whether this deal should have been made in the first place or whether the Cubs should have simply allowed the lawsuit to proceed is moot at this point; it's not clear which side would have won had a judge eventually ruled in the case.

The Cubs eventually finished the rooftop expansion without any blockage of any views from rooftop clubs, which did extraordinarily good business during the Cubs' contending years in 2007 and 2008. As the team declined and attendance in the ballpark did the same, so went rooftop business. Most rooftops have been empty on many days over the last two seasons, and some have resorted to single-game sales and Groupons -- something that was never intended in the original agreement (it was supposed to be strictly for group sales, similar to the Cubs selling suites inside Wrigley for that purpose).

Then, the Cubs decided they wanted to put a Jumbotron in left field and another fixed sign in right field. From here, you know the story: the team has made multiple adjustments to its sign plans, put mock-up signs up to demonstrate what the views would be if those signs were permanently installed, and stated that they don't want to begin any Wrigley renovation project until they receive assurances from the rooftop owners that the Cubs won't be sued, an assurance they have not received.

It's time for the acrimony to stop. While some, like CSN Chicago's David Kaplan, wonder if the Cubs will ever get their business plan to work and suggest the Cubs talk to suburbs again about moving (the reasons that would never work have been discussed here on multiple occasions), I think the thing to do is for the Cubs, the rooftops and the city of Chicago to sit down and stop being angry with each other and work out a compromise. You know, like they did in 2003. As I recall, the rooftop owners back then weren't happy about having to give any money to the Cubs, but they did. And the Cubs weren't happy that the rooftop clubs would continue to exist, but they got some dollars out of it, so they were somewhat satisfied.

A compromise would help all parties concerned, and get the Wrigley renovation project under way. At this point it doesn't really matter, I contend, who's "right" or who's "wrong." What matters is that there's $500 million worth of business that could be happening right now in Lake View if a deal could be struck.

Get it done. Please.