CHICAGO — Four landlords have owned Wrigley Field over the last century, beginning with Charles Weeghman, who opened the park 100 years ago Wednesday.
And like any Chicago residence, Wrigley has undergone some changes through the years, with all of those landlords putting their own stamp on the place, be it the ivy-covered walls and scoreboard (the Wrigleys), the lights and expanded bleachers (Tribune Co.) or the Toyota sign and right-field video board (the Rickettses).
Whether the alterations have added to the ballpark’s charm is up to each fan to decide, but it remains one of Chicago’s most popular tourist destinations despite the performance of its tenants.
People think of Wrigley Field as a link to our past, and most view longtime owner Philip K. Wrigley as a traditionalist because of his resistance to installing lights.
But that’s not completely accurate. Wrigley was ready to begin playing night baseball in 1942, only to donate the lights, towers and cable to the government for the World War II effort the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941.
He also considered tearing up the lush, green grass of Wrigley in 1968 and replacing it with an artificial surface.
“When we have the money we’ll probably install synthetic grass,” he said. “There’s no doubt it would pay for itself in a few years.”
Imagine Wrigley with artificial grass. Would it still have the same allure, or would it be just an old ballpark trying to look young?
We never will know because Wrigley never carried through, just as Tribune Co. never built the much-hyped Triangle building on the west side of the park.
From Weeghman to the Ricketts family, selling the ballpark as a must-see destination has been a never-ending effort. Weeghman, who built the ballpark for his Federal League team, the Whales, marketed it as an antidote to the Cubs’ West Side Grounds.
According to Sean Deveney’s book “Before Wrigley Became Wrigley,” the old Cubs ballpark was known for its “dirty” seats and “rude ushers and pushy vendors” who constantly blocked the aisles.
“There will be no abusive ushers to insult fans and there will be no dusty and dirty seats and filthy aisles for the fans to complain about,” Weeghman told the Chicago Post before the Whales’ first season.
After the Federal League folded in 1915, Weeghman acquired the Cubs and moved them to the park in 1916. The Wrigleys took control of the team in 1919 and in 1937 began renovations that led to the ivy, the current bleachers and the center-field scoreboard, which provides the vista that remains nearly the same 77 years later.
Bill Veeck personally planted the ivy and guided the construction of the manually operated scoreboard and bleacher walls, which included the curves near the ends of left and right fields, known as the wells.
In his autobiography, “Veeck As In Wreck,” Veeck wrote that P.K. Wrigley wanted him to market the ballpark as a fan-friendly destination:
“We sold ‘Beautiful Wrigley Field.’ We advertised ‘Beautiful Wrigley Field.’ The announcers were instructed to use the phrase ‘Beautiful Wrigley Field’ as often as possible. We sold it so well that when I came back to Chicago in 1959 as president of the White Sox across town, I found ‘Beautiful Wrigley Field’ my greatest single obstacle. Because ‘Beautiful Wrigley Field’ tacitly implied ‘that run-down, crummy joint on the South Side.’ “
Wrigley Field didn’t change much for several decades after ‘37, and though there was talk of adding lights periodically, it never happened during the Wrigley ownership. In 1980, vice president of ballpark operations E.R. “Salty” Saltwell told Sports Illustrated the team didn’t need lights to draw fans.
“We draw heavily from young college, high school and junior high kids during the summer, mainly because we have all day games,” Saltwell said.
But that anachronistic thinking didn’t last. Tribune Co. bought the team in ‘81 and had new President Dallas Green spearhead the effort to win city approval for night baseball. They finally installed lights in 1988 after years of acrimonious debate with the neighbors and the city.
The burgeoning popularity of the franchise due to the magical 1984 team spawned a proliferation of rooftop businesses, which led to even more squabbles.
Former President Andy MacPhail was in charge when the Cubs put up black windscreens in the back of the bleachers in 2002 to block views, citing security concerns after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
MacPhail maintained in an interview Tuesday it was the only way to get leverage.
“We had to go to the courthouse steps to make that deal,” he said, adding that the windscreens “helped our legal case, which in the end helped us make a settlement that I think was fair to all parties.”
A 20-year rooftop agreement between the Cubs and the owners was reached in 2004, giving the team 17 percent of the rooftop revenues.
The Rickettses believe the agreement, which current executives Crane Kenney and Mike Lufrano helped negotiate, does not prevent them from adding signage and a jumbo-sized video board that would block some rooftop views.
The $300 million renovation project remains on hold, however, because of the rooftops owners’ threat of a lawsuit.
The Rickettses did not respond to an interview request.
One final addition Tribune Co. made before selling to the Ricketts family was the bleacher expansion after the 2005 season. Since 2010, the Rickettses have made several revenue-enhancing alterations, including the Toyota sign outside the left-field bleachers, the video board on the top of the wall of the right-field bleachers and a private patio section in right.
In 2010, the Cubs even had a model of a giant elbow macaroni noodle installed near the Ernie Banks statue outside the park, referring to it as “noodle art.” The much-maligned ad was removed after the season but later returned across the street before being removed again.
Despite the rooftop battle, the Cubs’ relationship with the city has improved, so a solution is likely to be reached eventually. The Rickettses have the backing of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city council, unlike Tribune Co., which often was at odds with former mayor Richard M. Daley.
“At the risk of being unpopular, we had some obstacles to overcome when we tried to make certain improvements to the park,” MacPhail said. “I always felt, right or wrong, that part of that was the burden of being part of Tribune Co.
“The newspaper and its relationship to different political entities kept us, in my view, from having some kind of blank slate with the powers that be. In the end it worked out. We were able to make some adjustments we thought were positive for the future of the franchise.”
The franchise remains a work in progress, as evidenced by the current state of affairs.
But Wrigley Field is still alive and kicking, and despite a few flaws, we’re lucky to call it home.