BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Nice Little Place on the North Side’

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A NICE LITTLE PLACE ON THE NORTH SIDE: WRIGLEY FIELD AT ONE HUNDRED
By George F. Will
Crown, $25, 223 pages

George Will is the most elegant of today’s political essayists, and with “Men at Work,” “Bunts” and this tribute to Chicago, the ballpark that graces it and the fans who pack it to root for its hapless team, he can be counted among the best baseball writers to come down the pike — or, more accurately, up the pike, from Champaign, Ill., where he was born a Cubs fan in May 1941.

Since his birth through the 2013 season, he writes, the Cubs haven’t had a winning decade, losing 693 more games than they’ve won. “What could compensate fans for such a performance on the field?” he asks. “The field. Wrigley Field.”

“This book is, in a sense, about the frame around a picture.” Many people “go to Chicago Cubs games because they are played within this lovely frame.” However, because “Wrigley Field is lovelier than the baseball often played on the field the ballpark is part cause and part symptom of the Cubs‘ dysfunctional performance.”

He quotes Bill Veeck, who planted the ballpark’s famous ivy, on what he learned from P.K. Wrigley about maintaining attendance with a poor team: “‘His solution was to sell ‘Beautiful Wrigley Field‘; that is, to make the field itself so great an attraction that it would be thought of as a place to take the whole family for a delightful day.’”

That became the Cubs‘ business model, and it worked, although since the Cub’s last World Series victory in 1908, “this book is being published in the 106th year of the Cubs‘ rebuilding effort.” Nevertheless, as Cub fans say, “any team can have a bad century,” and for Wrigley Field itself and its role in baseball history, it’s been a great one.

There was Babe Ruth in 1932, hitting his famous called-shot (or not) home run off Charlie Root, whose defiantly jutting chin earned him the nickname “Chinski” from manager Charlie Grimm. Later, Ruth, responding to a question about the homer from the wife of Walter Lippmann (of all people), delivered a wonderfully obscene answer, reprinted here. Others weaving their way through Mr. Will’s narrative include Hack Wilson, the great home run hitter, who in 1930 reported to spring training 20 pounds overweight. “‘I spent most of that off season in tap-rooms.’” Wilson died destitute.

There was Al Capone, a regular Wrigley patron, who was very kind to a young Bill Veeck; Leo Durocher, the only man in baseball history to dislike Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks; FDR, Justice John Paul Stevens, Anton Cermack, Mayor Richard J. Daley, Jack Ruby, Ray Kroc and a talented young baseball radio announcer, Ronald Reagan.

Manager Lee Elia earned a place in Cubs history with an extended excoriation of Cubs fans in the choicest baseball journeyman’s language. In 2003, there was the extraordinary Bartman foul-ball incident that so unsettled the fans and upset Cubs pitcher Mark Prior, taking a playoff-game shutout against the Florida Marlins into the eighth, that he blew the lead, the Cubs blew the game and the next day blew the playoff.

The Curse of the Billy Goat? Perhaps. However, an incidental observation might be that night games and boozed up fans don’t always mix. Mr. Will offers no hard opinion, but he weaves into his narrative disquisitions on beer, prohibition, fan drinking habits and the relationships among beer prices, ticket prices,and attendance figures.

In the end, Mr. Will is a hard-core fan. When his son and daughter-in-law had their first child, he suggested they name him Clark Addison Will, after the two streets intersecting at Wrigley. “They rejected this terrific idea,” he writes, not because it was weird, but because many others have done it. (In fact, this writer knows an intelligent and attractive Chicago couple who did so.)

As Mr. Will points out, more than a score of ballparks opened after Wrigley have been demolished, but Wrigley endures. “Wrigley has lasted because it is, like a clipper ship, elegantly practical. If architecture is, as Goethe said, frozen music, then Wrigley Field is a rendering, in bricks and steel, of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game.’ “

Today, there are practical demands on the owners, the Ricketts family, to modernize, and political pressures from owners of surrounding rooftop sports bars not to interfere with their views of the field. When an issue becomes political in Chicago, there are often negative consequences, and Chicago’s prosperous suburbs are making attractive offers. However, the Ricketts are serious people — serious about the Wrigley legacy and serious about the team they field — and even Chicago pols are reluctant to kill golden geese.

In the meantime, it’s an easy El-ride to Addison, or from downtown Chicago a good walk, say with a daughter or son, on a nice day. Wrigley famously welcomes young singles, couples with children, as well as older folks who like to sit in the sun, enjoying the sharpness of the colors, eating a hot dog or two, just letting the mind float. If they win, it caps a perfect day. If they don’t, it’s still a perfect day, and there’s another game tomorrow.

As George Will puts it, whether or not the Cubs see a World Series soon, “Life is what happens, whatever it is. Anticipation of what might happen next is part of the fun. And life, which has its ups and downs, is leavened by the pleasure of passing time now and then in nice places, like the little one on the North Side.”

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