April 23, 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the one of the most famous landmarks in Chicago, and certainly the most famous on the North Side, Wrigley Field. Naturally, this celebration could not go unrecognized by the members and friends of the Emil Rothe Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research, based in that same city. And so it was that Saturday, April 19, 50 members and friends gathered in downtown Chicago to celebrate the most famous mix of brick, steel, concrete, and ivy that Zachary Taylor Davis ever conceived.
Gathering at the Cliff Dweller’s Club overlooking the Lake Michigan waterfront, Rich Hanson, Emil Rothe chapter president, welcomed the attendees by noting the appropriateness of the location in relation to Chicago baseball history such as the sites of Lakefront Park and the Federal League offices. Also recalled were other centennials being celebrated in 2014, including Babe Ruth’s debut and WWI. He then ran through the meeting’s agenda of 4 presentations, all related to Wrigley Field in some way, and gave a reminder to all about the upcoming SABR Conventions in Houston this summer and Chicago next summer.
Dan Levitt led off the presentations with an overview of the short history of the Federal League and how that battle played out with Chicago at the center. Founded in 1913 as a minor league, the Federal League began to aspire to be a major league after Jim Gilmore bought the Chicago team and wrested control of the league. Gilmore then sold his club to a Chicago restaurateur named Charlie Weeghman, who wanted to move the club to a site on the North Side and bring current Major League players to the Federal League. Weeghman’s first signing was Joe Tinker, who he swooped in to take from the Reds as they tried to sell him to the Dodgers. As a result, the owners tried to buy Weeghman, the richest owner in the Federal League, out and cause the Federal League to collapse. That deal, and a subsequent one, would be scuttled by Charles Murphy. Needing a place to play in 1914, Weeghman financed the construction of a stadium at the corner of Addison and Clark Sts. in 6 weeks. The war between the leagues would go on through 1915, when Weeghman was offered the Cubs for approximately $500K and most of the other Federal League owners wanted to be bought out. Despite its short tenure, the legacy of the Federal League has lasted far longer, as it led to MLB’s anti-trust exemption and the implementation of the reserve clause in many player contracts.
After this overview of the historical circumstances around the contruction of the ballpark, Brian Bernardoni gave a history of the host club and, more pertinently, the Friendly Confines. Brian is a tour guide at Wrigley, and is well versed in its history. He provided many of the historical artifacts on display during the meeting, including the newspaper announcement for the first game at then-named Weeghman Field and a pennant from the Chicago Federals. Brian mostly talked about the construction of the field and the key people behind that construction, including Weeghman, Davis, William & PK Wrigley, and Fr. Gorman of DePaul University. (If you must know the details behind that last name, ask Brian.) He also highlighted the additions and changes made under each ownership group, from the Wrigleys (ivy, organ, baskets) to the the Tribune (lights, suites) and an overview of the Ricketts plans. Brian’s presentation was followed by a break and some Wrigley-inspired trivia questions, all of which were answered by someone in attendance.
Next up was writer Ed Sherman, who discussed his book about the most disputed moment in Wrigley’s history, Babe Ruth’s Called Shot. After relating some personal memories of his days at a vendor in the stands at the venerable ballpark, he described his motivations for writing the book. One of those motivations was interviewing someone who was at that game, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. After detailing the history of what the key players claimed in regards to whether the Bambino did or did not call his shot and the difficulties in accurately researching the event, Ed settled on noting that the at-bat itself was very extraordinary and reserved his judgement on the matter for those who read the book.
Also with a book on hand, Sam Pathy follwed Ed and gave a brief overview of famous home runs at Wrigley. He handed out a 7 page list of long home runs, defined as those with an estimated distance greater than 440 ft. The list included many citations of these tremendous clouts, from newpapers to TV (usually WGN) calls. Steroid-phobic fans looking through this list will squirm at the last 2 pages that are utterly dominated by a man who forgot how to speak English in front of a Congressional grandstand, Sammy Sosa.
The last presentation by Stuart Shea discussed the Ricketts’ renovation plans for Wrigley and evolved into a lively discussion about the future of the ballpark. Stu noted that one of the reasons fans are able to celebrate Wrigley’s 100th birthday was due to the foresight of Davis and Wrigley. Davis’ original modular design allowed for the ballpark to modified in many ways, and Wrigley was very dilligent about making sure the structure received the necessary upkeep and renovations that have helped the building stay standing for so many years. Shea then went on to discuss what he feels the big changes at the park will be with the proposed renovations, noting most of the changes were about allowing Wrigley field to generate more revenue for the club and the Ricketts family. The discussion was ignited after Stu provided his views on the most controversial element of the plan, the Jumbotron.
This discussion continued both in large and small groups as the meeting wound to a close. After attendees took the opportunity to get an autographed book or 3 and take some pictures from the rooftop, people went their separate ways. For this group of baseball fans, not all of whom support the Cubs, Wrigley’s birthday party had just started.