As you might have read earlier this month, Fred Washington, one of just a few men who works inside Wrigley Field’s famed center-field scoreboard, posting the Cubs and other scores, is retiring at the end of this season.
Six years ago, I had the chance to interview Fred (known to many bleacherites as “Freddie”) and he went up into the board with my camera to take some photos of the interior.
This article originally appeared in the 2011 Maple Street Press Cubs annual that I edited; I thought you’d enjoy reading it, as Freddie prepares for retirement, hopefully after posting the score of a Cubs World Series winner.
It tells stories.
What you see are just numerals: 102 020 100 – but every line on the venerable Wrigley Field scoreboard tells a story. Did a team just score ten runs in an inning? It almost looks like a zero at a distance, but if you see “10” posted in an inning, you wonder: “How did they get all those runs?” Or, if a line starts: 000 000 – your immediate thought might be, “Is there a no-hitter going?”
The Wrigley Field scoreboard is unique. In addition to the 15½ by 20 inch, five-pound panels that track inning-by-inning scores of the Cubs game and other major league games; the balls, strikes, batter uniform number and outs are recorded on what appear to be electric lights but are actually magnetic “eyelets.” The board at Wrigley Field was the first and apparently the only such use of this method. In 1937, when the board was constructed, the Tribune reported: “(the indicators) embody ingenious new magnetic principles never before employed in scoreboard design." Or since, because the company that created this design almost didn’t finish its Wrigley job. Bill Veeck, who was working for the Cubs at the time, told that story in his book Veeck as in Wreck:
I spent a sleepless night getting that scoreboard up, too, although I can hardly blame Mr. Wrigley for that one. While I was fooling around with the blueprints, an inventor walked into my office with a working model based upon an entirely new concept. Instead of having lights switching on and off, like all other scoreboards, his model featured brightly painted eyelids (sic) which were pulled up and down magnetically.
The inventor was a shy, hesitant, and somewhat apologetic man, proof enough for me -- out of my long experience scouting inventors -- that he was the real thing. In addition, the model worked to perfection. Predictably, Mr. Wrigley was fascinated by it. "This is what we want," he said. "Something different. Just so long as he can have it ready before the end of the season."
I asked my genius if he could have it ready.
You bet your sweet life he could.
The day before the delivery date stipulated on the contract, I phoned his factory to find out what kind of help he was going to need from our ground crew. Nobody answered. I sped immediately to the factory address and found a small second-floor loft. It was deserted.
My genius, as I later learned, had invented a great deal in his life, but he had never actually built anything this big. Thus, he had assembled all the necessary material in his loft, had completed a good part of the work, and then, with the moment of truth staring him in the face, he had panicked and run out.
I summoned the ground crew from the park. The wiring, I could see, was similar to switchboard wiring, so I called a friend at Kellogg Switchboard Co. and borrowed a couple of dozen of his electricians. We all rolled up our sleeves and went to work. I drilled the frames. The ground crew put the frames together and the Kellogg electricians wired them. We built the whole scoreboard in that loft during the night, carting it to the park unit by unit, where the park electricians assembled it.
It worked perfectly. It is the scoreboard still being used at Wrigley Field.
Not to leave the story hanging, I paid the inventor every cent the contract called for, without even deducting the amount we had paid the extra help. There was no denying it, his scoreboard did work.
And it still works to this day. If you’re close enough to the board in the bleachers, you can hear the metal eyelets open and close. The eyelet panels are 18 by 30 inches with eight vertical and five horizontal openings per panel; those openings are four inches in diameter, but there are no openings where none are required to produce numbers. The white eyelets lie beneath the perforated panels and are lifted and retracted magnetically. The eyelet display is controlled, by its original electronic panel, from the press box by Rick Fuhs, known as "the Fastest Finger in the West."
But the rest of the scoreboard’s display – the inning-by-inning scores, hits recorded for the Cubs and their opponents, starting and relief pitchers for the game at Wrigley Field and in games in distant cities, and final scores put up at the very end of each score line after the inning-by-inning totals are taken down and replaced again by blank panels – are placed there by men who work every day inside the board, during the frigid cold of April and searing heat of July and August. If you look very closely at the board, you may, from time to time, see faces briefly peek out, and occasionally, a hand waving at folks in the bleachers. Those hands belong to the scoreboard operators, who also have some stories to tell, and can provide a look inside the board that most Cub fans only see from the outside.
Chicago native Fred Washington has been a Cubs fan since he returned to the USA from service in Vietnam in the early 1970s. In April 1984, he began working for the team in security; he quipped, “I thought they won because of me.” Eventually, he worked his way up to become a security supervisor.
After that, he says, “They told me the only job available was my boss’s job, so I guess I had come up as high as I could, so I just went on to the grounds crew. In fact, one of the regulars’ fathers was retiring, and I took his spot. I became a grounds crew member in April of ’88, and I started in the scoreboard in 1990.”
This year will be the 22nd season that Washington has been one of three, or sometimes four men who post the numbers in the board. When there’s a “full board”, as he terms it – a day when all the major league teams are in action – he, Brian Helmus and Darryl Wilson share the duties with an additional helper.
The scoreboard men call the various spots on the board “floors”, because they have to climb stairs to get from place to place inside. The Cubs game is at the bottom left of the board – on the “first floor” -- though it wasn’t always; when the board was first built in 1937, the Cubs game was on the top of the National League list. In 1969, when MLB expanded to 12 teams, it was moved to the middle of the board, and it didn’t move to its current location on the bottom until 1982.
Beyond that, the scoreboard has undergone very few changes. Even after further MLB expansion, the board remained the same, which means up to three games could be “missing” from the scoreboard. The board has also been repainted several times; in 1987, after it looked rather faded in a photo that appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, it was repainted within weeks. The most recent repainting occurred before the 2007 season.
On a typical game day, Washington arrives at work at Wrigley Field around 8 a.m. for a 1:20 p.m. start, after having picked up a couple of his co-workers to drive them to work. The setup, according to Washington, is remarkably simple; he says, “Brian usually sets the board up and what he does is he goes up there with a newspaper. The Cubs will always be up there because they’re our home team and everything else is done by their discretion. Of course you’d put anybody who’s in a playoff spot up there and a lot of times the starting time of a game will determine it.”
During games, Fred, Darryl and Brian, and that fourth person who’s added if there’s a full board, communicate all the necessary work in an old-fashioned way: “He screams up there hey, take care of this, two on the bottom of the third and so forth. And for instance if a game goes into the bottom of the ninth tied, the home team would have the bottom of the ninth so if they score it’s a final. So Darryl and whoever is up there will get together, put the final score in and clear the rest of the board so it’s just blank up there except for the final.”
They get their information from an old-fashioned clacking sports ticker tape that’s inside the board, and also from a 52-inch television that fans sitting in certain parts of the ballpark can see glowing in one of the holes during night games.
Screaming may work through the latticework of steel grates inside the board, but Fred says they had to finally put some boards down on top of some of the grates, because “when they’re eating or drinking and stuff, they spill, so we had to put a board there, but it’s not soundproof, you can hear real well, except for if there’s a loud noise.”
During the games, numbers can be changed fairly easily, since on the inning-by-inning number panels, both sides are used; the blanks you see when games begin are turned over for scoreless innings; then the “1” has a “2” on the back, a “3” turned around has a “4”, and so on.
Fred’s specific responsibility is primarily on “the first floor”, and among the things he does is put up the hit totals for the Cubs and their opponents. Last August 2, this resulted in some scrambling when the Brewers blasted their way past 20 hits to tie a Cubs team record for most hits allowed in a nine-inning game (26). The panels for designating hits have yellow numbers (which are also used to denote runs scored in the Cubs game while an inning is in progress), as opposed to the white ones for runs, and Washington began to get worried that night, because the board only has yellow numbers going up to 24: “I was looking at them: 22, 23. I said, ‘Uh oh, something’s gotta give here.’ I thought, ‘What are we going to do? Do you have no numbers in there or do you improvise?’ So, we improvised – we used an umpire’s plate.”
One of Fred’s duties – perhaps his favorite – is raising the “W” flag on days the Cubs win; of that, he says, “The only time I didn’t was when ‘Mark Dawson’ [Todd Ricketts, in disguise for his appearance on Undercover Boss] went up there. And I was kind of angry because if he thought that was so much fun, he should have come up there when it was raining and he may have done me a favor. So when he said he really enjoyed raising the “W” flag up, I can relate to that because I do also. I have certain things I do; let’s say for instance if I have to raise that “L” flag, if the El train is going by I’ll wait till it passes and then I’ll raise it. I was on the scoreboard one evening and there was a photographer up there so I went to raise the loss flag and he swung his camera around so I told him, ‘Hey please don’t do that. We don’t put losses up on a pedestal.’ He was nice, he turned the camera around. A win flag – it’s totally different. We lose enough.”
Washington says that the “W” flag is generally left up until the next morning, when the scoreboard operators come in and reset for the next game; but the “L” flag is taken down after only a couple of hours, as is the score of the Cubs game if they lose. Otherwise the final scores from any day are generally left up until one of the night crew comes in and clears them off so the board will be ready for the next day.
There’s not a lot of room to stand in the scoreboard and only a couple of chairs; Washington joked that it works for him and the others who have that duty because they’re “skinny”. They don’t have any windows, just some louvered panels on the sides of the board that they take down during hot weather, and the panels at the end of a couple of the rows that they open up and occasionally stick their heads out.
Washington says they’ve seen all kinds of things while interacting with bleacher fans. One incident he remembers was when he saw someone he thought looked like Ma Kettle from the old movie serials: “Well, Ma has this old fashioned hat because the setting is set back in the ‘40s. It kind of looks like a straw hat and it’s flat but you can tell it’s a woman’s hat. Well, I look out of the scoreboard one day, I see this woman; she’s in this hat and she’s got this long old fashioned dress on and I happened to glance over and I look over by the woman, and there’s a guy dressed up in an old dress, hat and there are stockings where you have to have this garter belt and I had my camera up there and I zoomed in on it and all I could see was a bunch of hair on the legs. He’s up there looking like Ma Kettle. It did not look pretty.”
Washington works every day during the baseball season, unless the Cubs are out of town on a weekend. During the winter, he says he does “nothing”, except for the two times in recent years when there have been fall or winter events at Wrigley Field: the 2009 NHL Winter Classic and last November’s Wrigleyville Classic football game. Since the Wrigley scoreboard doesn’t have panels that say “Blackhawks” or “Northwestern,” Washington says they used another low-tech solution to resolve that issue: peel-off letters that they put on blank plates, the same thing they do if a baseball team puts in a pitcher who wears No. 99 or some other number they don’t keep in their stock.
One of the things Fred Washington enjoys most about his job is the people he’s met there: “I really treasure the friends that I’ve made at Wrigley Field because there’s so many people that you meet and they’re so genuine. There’s a kindness that they show you. It’s not fake. They’re just nice people.” And Fred returns that kindness with a friendly wave from one of the open panels on the scoreboard – at least when it’s warm enough to open them. If you see Fred’s wave, wave back – he’s the story behind the story, and a big part of a scoreboard unique in professional sports.