CHICAGO – It’s hard to think of Wrigley Field as anything but a place of heartbreak — a place where fans wait, season after season, for an elusive World Series title that never comes.
Yet in the century without a championship, the ballpark has been in first time and time again in changing the way America watches baseball.
It was the first to let fans keep foul balls. The first with permanent concession stands. The first with organ music. The first to clean the park and broadcast games as part of an effort to diversify the fan base and attract women and their kids to a game traditionally more popular among men.
“We think of all this as so obvious, but back then this was considered revolutionary,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig.
The ballpark will mark its 100th birthday this spring, and the Cubs plan a celebration in April to honor one of the nation’s most classic ballparks, where runs still register on a manual scoreboard and watching a game is like taking a step back in time. As the centennial approaches, the Cubs and Chicago have found themselves stuck in a debate about how far to go in modernizing the ballpark with the same Jumbotron that towers over other fields.
“When you put a Jumbotron in the outfield I think you are messing with what makes Wrigley Wrigley,” said Phillip Bess, director of graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame’s architecture school and who helped lead an effort to save Fenway Park from demolition. “If the Cubs do that it means they really don’t understand what it is about Wrigley that is unique (and) the kind of place people will come to even when the team is bad.”
But don’t be so quick to call Wrigley Field a tired, old home of a perennial loser. It may have been the last ballpark to install lights for night games, but he park’s ivy-covered walls are a defining feature of what was once a sparkling, modern ballpark run by men who were trying to create a new experience for fans.
The park was built by a man named Charles Weeghman for a team in something called the Federal League, which was trying to give the more established National and American Leagues — which the Cubs and the crosstown White Sox played in — a run for their money.
Finished two years after Boston’s Fenway Park, it cost about $250,000. Two years after the park opened, the Cubs moved in.
“It was considered a great looking park, a lot nicer than the rat-infested park the Cubs were playing in on the West Side,” said Stuart Shea, author of “Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines.”
From almost the day it was built, the owners started tinkering with the place. After nine homers were hit in the first three games — an astronomical total for the time — the Chicago Federals, the original tenants, picked up the left field fence and moved it back about as much as 50 feet in some spots.
Now, the famed ballpark is in for another makeover. The $500 million project, which includes a Jumbotron proposal, is on hold because the team wants assurances from the neighboring rooftop owners that they won’t sue over obstructed views.
The Cubs have also said repeatedly they don’t want to destroy what makes Wrigley one of the most popular and recognizable sporting venues in the country.
Still, the team argues Wrigley needs to be brought into the 21st century, generate more revenue and attract younger fans who expect things like Jumbotrons. Team Chairman Tom Ricketts has said he’s running a baseball team, not a museum.
While some disagree, others say no change will erase what makes Wrigley Field what it is.