Ivy, brick walls and pennant flags: Celebrating 100 years of Wrigley Field
Wood can burn, but brick, concrete and steel beams do not. And in 1914, fire was a big deal, especially in Chicago.
When Charles Weeghman, owner of the Chicago Federals, called architect Zachary Taylor Davis in 1914, flammability was foremost on his mind. Weeghman was looking for a new venue for his new team in its new league, and Davis was well known for designing Chicago's other baseball stadium, Comiskey Park, which had been built without the extensive use of fire-happy wood. For Weegham, the goal was to create a stadium that would last, at least for longer than a few years. So the new baseball stadium at the corner of Addison and Sheffield streets in north Chicago served as the emergence of a baseball stadium design trend, at least in Chicago.
Located on a former Lutheran seminary site, the park took just eight weeks to construct and only $250,000 in cash (roughly $5.8 million in today's money), even as crews brought in 4,000 yards of soil and planted four acres of bluegrass. Housing the Federal League's Chicago team for two years -- known in 1914 as the Federals and in 1915 as the Whales -- what was christened as Weeghman Park became Wrigley Field, the eventual home of the Chicago Cubs. On Wednesday, Weeghman and Davis' construction celebrates 100 years of existence, making it the second oldest professional sporting venue in North America (Fenway Park is its elder by two years). In that century, it has become arguably one of the best-known sports facilities in the United States, if not the world.
Most of what we know of Wrigley Field came to be in 1937, according to Wrigley historian Ed Hartig, when then-owner P.K. Wrigley urged Cubs general manager Bill Veeck to spruce up the stadium, which had already been renovated in 1921 and 1926. Wrigley felt that ballparks should be pastoral places, not akin to stadiums where gladiators fight, said Wrigley expert Brian Bernardoni. The owner wanted a park-like setting, similar to what he’d seen in trips to ballparks in California. That vision gave us the park we know today, complete with ivy, a brick outfield wall and a scoreboard.
The ivy—a mix of Boston Ivy and Japanese bitterwsweet—was the first part, grabbing a section of the wall. In '37, Veeck covered a small portion, and the look was a hit, expanding across the entire outfield fence and even—through vendors selling clippings—to yards throughout the surrounding neighborhood of Lake View. Now, the ivy covers an 11.5-foot-tall brick outfield fence, trimmed only by handheld sheers to keep it from overtaking the entire park. In more recent times, the Cubs’ vice president of ballpark operations, Carl Rice, said the team tried to grow the ivy on the outside of the stadium wall, but fans continually wanted to pick it, killing the effort.
While some of Wrigley's quirks came out of era-friendly norms, others were born out of financial necessities. When the park was built, the distance down the leftfield line was only about 310 feet, despite ample space for more. "There were tenants renting space on the property who had been very good at making payments," Hartig says. "So the owners didn’t want to force them to leave."
And while the leftfield foul line was small then, almost everything in the park proves minuscule now compared to modern stadiums.
Located on the third-base side at Wrigley because it was closer to the train tracks -- making it easier for the team to haul, via horse, equipment to the train depot for away games -- the 13,000-square-foot clubhouse is less than 50 percent the size of most modern parks. Without space for weight rooms -- both teams share a 350-square-foot weight room now -- and nowhere for batting cages, the home locker room has a makeshift batting cage that drops down in the center of the room for in-game warmups.
But it’s that visitor’s clubhouse that really gets people talking. Wrigley Field isn’t just about baseball; it was also the home for the Chicago Bears from 1921 until 1971, hosting more professional football games than any other stadium outside of the Meadowlands. Wrigley has also hosted professional boxing, professional soccer, college football (Northwestern and DePaul have both called it home) and even a ski jump competition from the upper deck in 1943. All those events, not to mention a visit from every National League team since 1916 (and Michael Jordan once during his baseball days, the only big-league stadium he played in), have brought a who’s who of visitors through the locker room.
"There has been only one visitor’s locker room since 1914," said Bernardoni, who has given Wrigley tours for nearly two decades. "It is where Lou Gehrig dressed before hitting his first home run in high school, the locker room of Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and Vince Lombardi. There have been more Hall of Famers in this one room than any other facility that exists in sports."
As current owner Tom Ricketts floats new renovation plans for the stadium, which include a new 6,000-square-foot video scoreboard and a three-story addition that will connect to the current park and feature an expanded visitor’s clubhouse, fan amenities and more seating, Rice doesn’t think the nature of the stadium will actually change much. "As one of the members of the team overseeing the renovations, our goal is to make sure when fans walk into the ballpark, it is the same look and feel," he said.
Those viewing the park from the outside certainly have a differing view: A blocked one.
With that argument aside, the proximity of seats to home plate, the cozy atmosphere of the tight upper deck hanging over the field and much of the early 1900s charm won’t go away, Rice said. Even the history of the visitors' clubhouse can remain, as plans call for an addition of a weight room, batting cage and more space, not a complete removal.
"Whether 50 years ago or today, it has that same feel, the same proximity to the live action," Rice said. "You can’t build charm and history, you need 100 years to do that, but of course all that space (of a modern park) makes you a little jealous."
Rice said that the original look of the park -- arches in the upper deck, trusses in the lower deck -- will tie in nicely with any renovations. And he’s eager to ditch the nasty chain-link fence that circles the concourses, visible from the exterior and interior, bringing back historic ornate ironwork that was there in the 1930s.
Updating the concourses to offer new restaurants actually fits a historic theme, too, as it was Weegham who revolutionized the way we eat at games. In the early 1900s, large food carts obstructed the views of spectators as they wheeled through the seats at field level. Weegham changed that by constructing baseball’s first permanent concession stand, located near home plate but behind the seats on the primary concourse. A marvel at the time, the limited prep space now means that concessionaires prepare most food off-site. There’s also a constant turnover of product, such as new beer deliveries every night.
The upper deck was added between 1926 and 1928 and the bleacher walls came into being in 1937. Lights weren’t even added until 1988 -- Bernardoni said there were plans to install lights in 1942, but the light standards were donated to the U.S. Navy’s Naval Station Great Lakes during World War II.
While the bleachers, walls and ivy get the most play, the giant scoreboard -- originally a reddish-brown color, but painted green in 1944 to absorb sunlight better -- required help from engineering students from nearby colleges to get it constructed. With over 300 openings, some simply to allow wind to pass through, up to five workers stay busy working inside the original structure during each game. Wrigley brought the family’s nautical loves to the game too, using white or blue flags to signal wins and losses and then keeping a live tally of the standings with team flags flying behind the outfield seats, hence the term pennant races.
But beyond the flags, the ivy, the bleachers and the scoreboard sits fire-hating concrete, steel and brick. The foresight of Davis turned Wrigley Field into much more than Weeghman Park ever was, but only because Weeghman Park made it possible. Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.