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A national treasure: Wrigley Field turns 100 years old

Photo: Kichiro Sato/AP

Wrigley Field hosted its first game on April 23, 1914 and is the only Federal League ballpark still standing.

This story appears in the Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issue Wrigley: Celebrating 100 Years Of The Friendly Confines. Copies can be purchased by clicking here or by going through the Sports Illustrated magazine app on the iPad, Kindle Fire, Google Play and Nook Tablet or by calling 800-274-6800. To buy other past issues of SI, go to backissues.si.com.

The great patriarch of baseball calls us home every year with benevolence, familiarity and heaps of that epoxy that binds a family: memories. Wrigley Field puts us on his knee, the summer air redolent of freshly cut grass, grilled meats, cold beer and suntan lotion, and begins again, "Did I ever tell you about that time...?" We're entranced, childlike in wonderment at the simplicity of it, losing ourselves in this comforting continuum that is baseball at the corner of Clark and Addison. Wrigley is grandfatherly, comfortable in its wrinkles and proud of its aging. Largely without filigree, accoutrement or other architectural baubles, Wrigley at 100 years old is not necessarily beautiful. Certainly it does not try for such effect.

Yet in 2007 members of the American Institute of Architects put Wrigley at No. 31 among its top 150 buildings of "America's Favorite Architecture" -- ahead of such iconic buildings as Carnegie Hall and the National Gallery of Art. No other sports venue still standing was listed among the top 100. Wrigley was the highest-ranked building in Chicago, no small honor in a city that has done for architecture what Salzburg has done for music.

There is nothing grand about Wrigley Field. Its architectural achievement is its very lack of grandness. It's the clapboard house of ballparks, appealing to our need for a sense of home, for not just the familiar but for the familial. Grandpa Wrigley is always there for us.

Wrigley Field is the most meaningful sports venue in this country. It is meaningful because of the concrete ramps and steel beams and off-kilter lines that make it resemble the first draft of a ballpark. But it is more meaningful because of the time and place those brick-and-mortar characteristics have come to define. Like the Statue of Liberty, Wrigley has grown to be identified and cherished for its patina. The longer Wrigley stands and the faster, louder and busier everything else outside its brick walls becomes, the more we need it.

NEWCOMB: Why Wrigley didn't become what we know for almost a quarter-century

*****

Wrigley Field long ago became more important than the team that calls it home, the Cubs, a unique reversal of value in American sports. The Yankees tore down Yankee Stadium and built another one. In Boston, Fenway Park may be two years older than Wrigley, but a Sawx fan will leave Fenway stomping and scowling if the home team loses. A Cubs fan always leaves Wrigley content; the satisfaction of having been there trumps the outcome of the game. Of course, a century of lowered expectations for the Cubs contributes to this freedom. Not only have the Cubs never won the World Series in 100 years at Wrigley Field, but also they have fielded only 40 winning teams. How meek are the Cubbies? No other team answers to a diminutive, and no other team forfeits even the appearance of a home field advantage by promoting its ballpark as the Friendly Confines.

The chunky centerfield scoreboard at Wrigley is more important than the actual score it tracks. To sit in the bleachers on a warm summer day is a quintessential American experience, like walking the National Mall, hiking Yellowstone or driving the Pacific Coast Highway. It's like being strapped into a wooden roller coaster: You are surrounded by strangers but bound like brothers by the atmosphere and the excitement that awaits. The chicken-wire basket that rings the brick outfield wall is the equivalent of a "Keep Your Hands Inside the Car" warning. It was installed to prevent Bleacher Bums from spilling objects onto the field -- themselves included. And so you wind up with another of Wrigley's quirks: home runs that are neither inside-the-park home runs nor home runs that clear the outfield wall.

Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The hand-operated scoreboard in centerfield is one of Wrigley's most iconic touches.

Like all things Wrigley, what makes the bleachers so appealing is their age. The permanent bleachers were constructed in 1937, or 23 years after the park opened in 1914. The park was first known as Weeghman Park, in honor of Charles Weeghman, the owner of the home-standing Chi-Feds of the Federal League, and it remains the last Federal League ballpark standing. In 1926 it acquired the name of chewing gum magnate and Cubs owner William Wrigley. It since has become a devotional of sorts, satisfying our need for a physical place to explore what we believe in, which is only fitting in that Wrigley was built on grounds where a Lutheran seminary once stood. A rooftop sign reads, as if conducting the services in high Latin, EAMUS CATULI! LET'S GO CUBS!

For many years, however, empty seats were as much a Wrigley tradition as day games. The pennant-winning 1918 Cubs drew only 4,458 people per game. From '53 through '67 the Cubs never drew a million fans. During one of those years of irrelevance, in '66, only 530 people showed up for a September game against Cincinnati.

The turning point -- when Wrigley became a destination, not just a ballpark -- occurred in 1984. Until then the Cubs had never averaged 21,000 fans in a ballpark that since 1927 has had room for at least 38,400. Then, out of nowhere, or rather from the abyss of 11 straight nonwinning seasons and 39 seasons without a playoff team, the '84 Cubs, led by manager Jim Frey and second baseman Ryne Sandberg, won 94 games and the National League East, and people flocked to Wrigley as never before. The Cubs drew two million fans for the first time -- an average crowd of 26,346. A good team in a quaint ballpark, and suddenly a culture was born. By 2006, such was the appeal of Wrigley that more than 3.1 million people squeezed in to watch a Cubs team that lost 96 games.

What changed? Everything but Wrigley. A grandfather can take his grandson to a game in 2014 and sit in the same grandstand from which his grandfather watched men like Joe Tinker and Mordecai (Three Finger) Brown. Right there in the lefthanded batter's box, exactly where Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo stands today, Babe Ruth hit his "called shot" in the 1932 World Series. It is the same grounds where Gabby Hartnett hit his Homer in the Gloamin' to win the '38 pennant for the Cubs; where outfielder Andy Pafko lost in the ivy a ball hit by Tiger Roy Cullenbine in the '45 World Series; where Dave Kingman in '76 hit a home run so far -- about 530 feet -- it smashed a baluster three doors down Kenmore Avenue; where the Phillies outlasted the Cubs 23-22 in '79; where the lights finally came on in '88; and where Steve Bartman, in his Cubs hat and listening to the game on a headset, looking every bit the Sibley Guide version of a Cubs fan, joined Mrs. O'Leary's cow as one of Chicago's most infamous yet accidental antagonists.

CORCORAN: The 10 most memorable baseball games in Wrigley Field history

(And here's a bit of small-world Wrigley history: The cut of the ballpark, including the jut of leftfield stands from which Bartman interfered with a foul pop-up in the 2003 NLCS, is the original design of Zachary Taylor Davis, the same architect who, before he built Wrigley, built a mansion, in 1901, for Big Jim O'Leary, the son of Mrs. Catherine O'Leary, whose lantern-kicking cow started the 1871 fire that burned down nearly all of Chicago.)

Wrigley's best moments tend toward the idiosyncratic rather than the grand. For a ballpark that has been around for 100 years, Wrigley offers shockingly few moments of triumph. The Cubs are 7-20 in postseason games there. The Arizona Diamondbacks, established in 1998, have won more postseason games (12) at their home park, Chase Field, than the Cubs have won at Wrigley. The Cubs have never won the clinching game of a postseason series in Chicago.

That Wrigley could stand for a century without a single postseason clincher has come to define the ballpark nearly as much as the bittersweet and Boston ivy that climb the brick outfield wall. And yet Wrigley thrives without a championship team. It thrives because it is, literally and figuratively, part of our collective neighborhood.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg/SI

People come to Wrigley by foot, by bike, by El and in the occasional suburban car in search of a parking spot. You don't see Wrigley until you come upon Clark and Addison; there is no marveling from a distance. So low and modest is the profile of Wrigley that the rooftops of the adjoining walk-ups on Waveland and Sheffield still invite a spectacular view of the field. And when we do arrive, it's like coming home for Thanksgiving dinner, even if you've been gone for a year. It welcomes you with the comforts of home and the strength not to have changed.

Out from centerfield protrudes the bleachers and scoreboard, like the prow of a ship sailing over asphalt, its colorful pennants flapping from the yardarms. The steel beams, which hold the upper level, stand like proud sentries. Woe to the unlucky ticket holder who sits behind one, but happy are the thousands upstairs who are brought close to the field by this lost architectural secret of creating charm and quaintness.

That chicken-wire basket, the off-center curvature of the brick backstop, the sweeping lines of the outfield wells, the bullpens and their benches shoehorned between the foul lines and the stands, the dugouts that resemble tiny concrete submarines, the grandstands, obedient to the cut of the local streets, that just end abruptly instead of wrapping around the foul poles ... everything remains so familiar and so neighborly. It is a ballpark that seems to run more on people power than technology: the hand-operated scoreboard, the old-fashioned organ, the minimum of obtrusive advertisements that by design are subversive; they want to steal your attention from the field.

Once upon a time Wrigley was cutting edge. It was, along with its now-deceased cousin, Comiskey Park, which was also designed by Davis, one of the first concrete-and-steel ballparks. It was the first ballpark with a permanent concession stand. It was the first ballpark to install an organ, the first to have a Ladies Day and the first from which all its games were televised to its hometown audience. Wrigley actually had lights in 1941 -- they just weren't installed. And on the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Philip Wrigley pulled them out of storage and donated the equipment to the war effort.

Wrigley Field is still here because it is living history. Like Independence Hall, it's the genuine article and uniquely American. To introduce a foreigner to who we are as an American family, you could not do better than to take him or her to the Wrigley bleachers for a ballgame on a bright summer afternoon, beer and hot dog included. Its preservation has become as important as its past.

*****

Not many years before Wrigley opened, President Theodore Roosevelt helped expand the protection of our national parks, acknowledging the lasting importance of places like Yellowstone and Yosemite. "Our people," Roosevelt said, "should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children's children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred."

Wrigley, man-made and hardly majestic, has become a humble neighborhood park that deserves as much care. Its swaths of green, from the grass to the ivy to the shrubbery that serves as the batters' eye to the hue of the bleachers, the seats and the scoreboard: We are lucky to have it. And if we are really lucky we will see the same fortune that Roosevelt wished for our sequoias and our streams: Wrigley Field will be there for our children's children too.

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