Books

03.28.14

100 Years of Wrigley Field: Are the Chicago Cubs Horrible Because of the Ballpark?

Happy birthday Wrigley Field, but are you too beautiful of a ballpark? After all, attendance at games is more sensitive to beer prices—much more—than it is to the Cubs’ record.

Wrigley Field, the dead-ball-era ballpark wedged into perhaps Chicago’s hippest north-side neighborhood, turns 100 this April. With its ivy-shrouded walls, manually operated scoreboard, and concrete-and-steel edifice, it survives as a monument to architectural beauty and athletic ineptitude. The Chicago Cubs, those loveable losers of the National League, have called the friendly confines of Wrigley home for the past 98 years, and not once in that time have they won the World Series. For as much as Wrigley Field has served as a blessing for this bumbling franchise, it has also been, in some ways, its biggest curse.

The Cubs enter the upcoming baseball season 105 years removed from their last World Series title. Their losing streak is unparalleled in professional American sports. When the Cubs last won the World Series in 1908, Charlie Chaplin was still a vaudeville performer, the Titanic was nothing but a blueprint, and no human had yet reached the North or South Pole. The Cubs haven’t even played in a World Series since 1945, which represents by far the longest interval between pennants in baseball history. The Boston Red Sox, another team with a historic stadium and devoted fan-base, made their futility seem tragic in a Shakespearian sense. Before winning it all in 2004, the Red Sox survived until the seventh game of the World Series on four separate occasions during their lengthy championship drought, losing only by some agonizing twist of fate. In contrast, the Cubs are the jester figure in a Shakespearean comedy: able to steal a scene or two, but ultimately yanked from the stage when it’s time for the leads to marry. They are diverting but rarely consequential. Their failure is of the everyday variety—accumulative and quietly disappointing.

It wasn’t always this way. When they last won it all in 1908, the Cubs were baseball’s dominant team. As Caitlin Murphy notes in her book Crazy ’08, between 1906 and 1910 the Cubs won a record 530 games, four pennants, and two World Series, and garnered the highest five-year winning percentage ever. The team’s supremacy was so ensconced that Frank Chance, their salty manager/first baseman, once quipped, “Who ever heard of the Cubs losing a game they had to have?” The franchise carried itself with an arrogance that the New York Yankees would later adopt.

The ballpark that the Cubs moved to in 1916 had been constructed two years earlier on behalf of Charles Weeghman, a forward-thinking restaurateur and owner of the Chicago Whales of the short-lived Federal League. Somewhat cruelly, the Whales won the Federal League championship there in 1915, making them the only home club to clinch a baseball title in the park that eventually became known as Wrigley Field. Between 1916 and 1945, the Cubs would compete in five World Series in Wrigley, losing all of them.

No professional team endures more than a century of futility on bad breaks alone, let alone ++billy-goat curses or inopportune fan interferences. Such sustained mediocrity is indicative of an organizational strategy that does not fully incentivize winning—or, at least, tolerates sub-.500 seasons. In his jaunty, informative new book, A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred, columnist George Will, a fervid Cubs fan, suggests that Wrigley Field, with its idyllic backdrops and festive ambience, has partially enabled the Cubs organization to cobble together middling teams through the decades with reduced financial risk or fear of losing fans to the team’s south-side counterpart, the White Sox. “It is not a good sign for fans,” Will laments, “when their team’s venue is better known for the attractiveness of its flora than for the excellence of the athletes who have played there.”

P.K. Wrigley cared more about enhancing the aesthetics of the ballpark than compiling the ballplayers necessary to compete in the National League.

The Cubs’ losing culture largely originated with Philip K. Wrigley, an heir to the Wrigley chewing gum fortune who took over the team in 1932 upon his father’s death. As Will explains, P.K. Wrigley cared more about enhancing the aesthetics of the ballpark than compiling the ballplayers necessary to compete in the National League. In 1937 Wrigley installed the iconic bleachers and, per the suggestion of Bill Veeck (the future eccentric owner of the White Sox and Cleveland Indians, at various times), festooned the outfield wall with ivy. (A further experiment to plant elm trees beyond center field was mercifully cut short.) “The idea is to get out in the open air, have a picnic,” Wrigley said. “We mention that the things people like to do, to enjoy, are all in the ballpark. We stress the green vines on the wall … You see, people want to go to a park. We are aiming at people not interested in baseball.” As Will succinctly puts it, Wrigley’s business model seemed to be: “Serve cold beer in a pretty place and the score will not matter.”

Happily, P.K. Wrigley’s business model proved successful. I say happily because I should disclose my considerable bias. As a southern Illinois native, I was raised a devoted St. Louis Cardinals fan and an equally passionate Cubs despiser. The two sentiments usually come bundled together, and cut both ways. In a column from 1990, Will wrote: “Cardinals fans probably should be allowed to vote, and perhaps even to enjoy most other civil rights, but Cardinals fans were (and probably still are) insufferable.” Fair enough, and guilty as charged. I have owned T-shirts that reference 1908, and take pride that baseball is one of the few activities that St. Louis does better than Chicago. I would interpret a World Series championship by the Cubs as a sign that the end is near.

In an era when only six of 30 major league baseball stadiums are more than 25 years old, the fact that Wrigley Field has survived at all is a testament to the late owner’s efforts to market the ballpark as an attraction worth visiting even if the home team lingered in the cellar. By and large, Cubs fans bought into this philosophy. Will recounts a study published by financial economist Tobias J. Moskowitz and sports journalist Jon Wertheim in their book Scorecasting that calculated the link between home game attendance and season performance in the major leagues. Unsurprisingly, the authors discovered that attendance at Cubs’ games is the “least sensitive to performance in all of baseball”—that is, fans show up in droves regardless of the team’s win-loss record. (It should be noted, however, that attendance has fallen the last two seasons, when the team lost a franchise record 197 games. Even Cubs fans have limits.) Because of the reliable draw of Wrigley Field, Cubs management at times has shown little urgency in their century-long rebuilding efforts. What does affect attendance? “Attendance at Wrigley Field is actually more sensitive to beer prices—much more—than it is to the Cubs’ winning percentage,” Moskowitz and Wertheim found.

Always slow to change—the ballpark didn’t host its first night game until 1988—Wrigley Field finds itself in flux on its centennial anniversary. Last season the Cubs ownership announced an ambitious $500-million renovation plan that would install a Jumbotron in left-center field, add new weight rooms and batting tunnels, and increase concession areas and skyboxes. It’s a much-needed makeover for a ballpark whose historic charm barely compensates for its outdated facilities. Some of the ambience might be lost in the renovations, but based on the Cubs’ first 100 years in Wrigley, this might not be a bad thing for the team. The challenge for the organization moving forward, according to Will, is “to preserve the Wrigley Field of 1914 while making it suitable for the fans—and the players, manager, and coaches—of 2014.”

But, as I said, I’m a Cardinals fan. So if the team’s ballpark has indeed played some role in the Cubs’ century of failure, I say: Long live Wrigley Field.