The Jews of Wrigley
A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred
By George F. Will
Crown Archetype, 224 pages
Here are some things that have happened since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series:
The Twist swept the nation; Communism rose and fell, as did rock ’n’ roll; maniacs split the atom; two world wars were fought; a Catholic was elected president, then assassinated; a man walked on the moon and another guy hit a golf ball up there; mushroom clouds, penicillin, the pill, the jumbo jet, the Internet; Prescott Bush’s grandson reached high office; a Hawaiian was elected president; and yet still no trophy. How long has it been? One day I saw a kid in a T-shirt with the big words “Chicago Cubs World Champions” over tiny numerals: “1908.”
George F. Will’s wonderful book A Nice Little Place on the North Side reads like a history of a ballpark, but it’s really a fan’s interrogation of the most harrowing riddle: Why can’t the Cubs win? Is it human error, divine providence, or the stadium itself? Does Wrigley Field taint even great players? Before complicated algorithms, there was an equation followed by betting men: If, on any given day, you want to determine which baseball team will lose, figure out which roster carries more ex-Cubs.
Will was raised in Central Illinois. He grew up a provincial, dazzled by the distant lights of Chicago, buildings and exchanges, the trains winding in and ovioletut of the tenements. For him, the Cubs became a proxy for a larger life, and, following his passion, he became one of the great baseball writers. But reading this book, you feel as if he’s finally got down to the core, the source of his love for the game. For a lot of us, Wrigley, with its red brick and ivy, is a kind of Eden. It sits on the floor of baseball time, a relic of the days when the spitter was legal and the hicks went straight from the farm to the mound. The Cubs have had their share of lunatics and heroes, and Will chronicles the best of them: Cap Anson and Three Finger Brown; Hack Wilson and Grover Alexander; Billy Jurgis, a 24-year-old shortstop who, in 1932, was shot in the Hotel Carlos by a lady admirer carrying a note that said “life without Billy is not worth living”; “Lou ‘the mad Russian’ Novikoff, who tried to steal third with bases loaded because ‘I got such a good jump on the pitcher.’?” Eddie Waitkus, a former Cub, who, back in town with the Phillies, was shot by another lady admirer—her name was Violet, she’d built a shrine to Waitkus—in the Edgewater Beach Hotel, the episode that inspired Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. Mike Vail, a Cub right-fielder who, while trying to throw out a runner in 1979, beaned the batboy.
Wrigley Field was actually built for another team in another dispensation—the Chicago Whales of the defunct Federal League, whose roster can be found on the Internet (the players’ names read like those on the sides of sunken clipper ships). The Cubs took possession in 1916, around the time that chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley bought the franchise.
Serious Cubs fans can date the start of their troubles to the shift of ownership in 1932 from father William to son Philip Wrigley, who took over with a sense of dread obligation. (In 1958, he told Sports Illustrated, “I don’t think I’ve done anything I ever wanted to do or ever will.”) It was Philip who, clearly not electrified by the machinations of winning, decided the franchise would market the field rather than the team; a visit to Wrigley would be a day at the beach, with nine men doing something in the middle distance. “Our idea in advertising the game, and the fun, and the healthfulness of it, the sunshine and relaxation,” Wrigley once said, “is to get the public to see ballgames, win or lose.” The resulting disincentive is cited as a cause of the club’s failures: Wrigley Field sells out either way, so why pony up the cash for top-drawer talent? There is a photo from 1937 that captures the moment this woeful plan was realized. It shows Bill Veeck Jr., then just the son of the team’s president but soon to be a baseball legend of his own as the game’s first PR genius, planting the ivy that would cover the outfield walls, giving the park its wonderful pastoral glow. It’s like finding a picture of God blowing into the mouth of the primordial mud cake that will become Adam. It’s the origin, the first moment, when the pain begins. You will lose, but you will do it in ivy. In his song “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” Steve Goodman calls Wrigley “their ivy-covered burial grounds.”
Will operates by accretion of anecdote and detail, which is the only way, as that is baseball and that is life—one damned thing after another. He’s especially good on great happenings, upheavals that haunt the imagination of fans. There was the famous “called shot” in which, in the 1932 World Series, Babe Ruth did or did not point to the centerfield bleachers before parking the ball there. Much controversy has surrounded this happening: Did Ruth point to the outfield, or was he merely pointing at the pitcher, or the bench jockies who’d been riding him? There was the National League championship series in 2003, in which a fan named Steve Bartman—“He was sitting in aisle 4, row 8, seat 113”—interfered with a foul that might have been caught, and might have helped end the inning, and might have led to a win, which would have put the Cubs in the World Series for the first time since 1945. Did fans blame the million-dollar shortstop who booted a double play ball later that inning? No, they blamed Bartman, who had to be escorted out under armed guard. He has lived in seclusion ever since, hated and pitied, a personification of the tortured soul of the Cubs fan.
When I was a kid, the team was purchased by the Chicago Tribune, and we all thought, well, here we go! We were wrong. In 2009, it was bought by the Ricketts family, who made a fortune with Ameritrade. The Ricketts in 2011 brought in Theo Epstein, the whiz kid who turned the Boston Red Sox around and ended their 75-year drought. The result, for the Cubs, has been two of the worst seasons in history.
For a long time, I did think Wrigley Field was to blame. No lights, schizo winds, curses, and so on. The last team to win there was the Chicago Bears in 1963. The only baseball team to do it was the Whales in 1915. But I’ve come to believe we don’t win because God doesn’t want us to. Being a Cubs fan is like being a Jew: We represent a story, a tradition; we are a symbol, a light among nations; we stand for the other kingdom where the losers shall finally win; our home is ancient and sacred but troubled; our history is harried but we continue. Will’s book is a kind of gospel for the faithful, First Wrigley and Second Wrigley. I only wish he’d spent more time on my favorite team, the 1984 Cubs of Sandberg and Durham, and I also wish A Nice Little Place on the North Side ended happily, with a Cubs championship, but that would make it science fiction.