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Book Review: 'A Nice Little Place On The North Side'

Next in a continuing series of reviews of books about the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field.

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George F. Will is a political columnist. This, you likely know. You also probably know that he's written several books on baseball -- and if you haven't read "Men At Work," you should, because it's one of the better baseball books written by anyone over the last 25 years.

Will grew up in Central Illinois as a Cubs fan; he's 15 years older than I am and thus his formative years as a fan were of the horrid Cubs teams of the late 1940s and all of the 1950s, for which anyone who grew up in that time as a Cubs fan can be offered sympathy.

"A Nice Little Place On The North Side" isn't so much a history of Wrigley Field -- as you might surmise from the cover -- as it is a series of vignettes about the history of the Cubs. Most of them, you have heard before or read about here; about the only thing I learned that I hadn't known before was that in the early days of radio, the Cubs gave their radio rights away for nothing. Yes, for zero dollars, to the point where at one point five different stations were airing the games. Why did they do this? Because at the time, it wasn't well understood that teams could make money from radio broadcasts. What the Cubs wanted was to get people into Wrigley Field, and in this, they succeeded, partly because of the promotional value of the broadcasts, mostly because in the late 1920s and early 1930s, they were a very good team.

That was, of course, the same reason that P.K. Wrigley televised all his home games when television began. It had worked for his father, why not for him? Will writes that P.K. Wrigley cared little for baseball (nor, in fact, the gum business he inherited), but he was a promoter, and realized he had a gem in Wrigley Field to promote both businesses. Unfortunately, and as Will points out, when the team is bad, people stop showing up, as they did through the 1950s and early 1960s. Will does, though, quote the authors of "Scorecast," Cub fans both, as saying Cubs attendance is the "least sensitive to performance in all of baseball." This may or may not still be true, given the declines in attendance since 2008.

There's a long and interesting part of this book that has to do with beer. There, I got your attention. Will traces the history of how beer was first created, and notes that it helped societies grow -- even while providing a means to escape from said societies -- by allowing people to drink a liquid that wasn't contaminated, as most water has been throughout human history. He also shows how beer-drinking, a social activity, has migrated from the tavern as the main source of imbibing over the last 50 years, to ballparks as said place, with Wrigley Field a prime example.

About Wrigley Field itself, Will notes:

Wrigley Field really is a nice little place. Granted, few people would care about it if the Cubs did not play there. But a lot fewer people would care about the Cubs if they did not play there.

Lest you think that's a nostalgist's view of the ballpark, Will gives a good (and mostly up-to-date) summary of the current plans to renovate the park and the conflict with the rooftops. He comes down squarely on the side of the Cubs and modernization, writing:

Wrigleyville has an agreeable middle-class feel to it, but the median price of a home in the neighborhood is almost $1 million. It is difficult to imagine that a 175-room boutique hotel adjacent to the ballpark, plus a spruced-up Sheffield Avenue used as a pedestrian mall on game days, will damage property values. But beyond being respectful for the neighborhood and assuaging its anxieties, the challenge for Ricketts is to preserve the Wrigley Field of 1914 while making it suitable for the fans -- and the players, managers and coaches -- of 2014.

(I should note here that while most of Will's commentary on the Wrigley renovation plan agrees with my position, I'm not really in favor of the Sheffield Avenue closure.)

The bottom line for Will -- and I imagine, many of you, too -- is distilled down into these sentences:

This book is, in a sense, about a frame around a picture. The point of Wrigley Field is to display baseball games. People go to museums of fine art to see the paintings, not the frames that display them. Few people admire the pedestal more than the statue. Many people do, however, decide to go to Chicago Cubs games because they are played within this lovely frame. And just as a frame can serve, or be inappropriate for, a painting, ballparks can display ball games well or poorly. It is frequently noted that Wrigley Field is lovelier than the baseball played on the field.

Sadly, that has been true for many recent decades; Will cheerlessly recites the drumbeat of losing throughout the book, but in a way that will entertain rather than depress you. The book is officially available March 25, but you can pre-order it now at the link above.

Finally -- and you know I'd do this -- the photo on the front cover of this book, showing the author in front of the famous manual Wrigley scoreboard, was taken last August 30, when Cubs icon Ryne Sandberg returned to Wrigley as Phillies manager for the first time. Whether that was done intentionally or not, I found it wholly appropriate. George Will's baseball writing is always recommended.