Sports tourism is my favourite thing.
No matter where I travel, I always try to soak up some local sports culture, either by attending a game of any code, visiting a sports museum or touring the city’s stadia. During my recent trip to Chicago, I wanted to add the second-oldest baseball park in America to my list of stadium tours. Not because I’m a keen baseball fan, but because being both a sports and history nerd, I knew there would be plenty of quirky and interesting yarns to come out of the experience. I wasn’t disappointed.
Now, some of these tales may have been extrapolated over the years, but our guide Kenny wasn’t about to let the truth get in the way of a good story. All of these have at least some truths confirmed by Google searches, so I’ve left them in for you to make up your own mind.
What’s in a name?
The rivalry between Chicago’s two baseball teams, the Cubs and the White Sox, is one of the most heated in the sport. So it’s bizarre to think that the Cubs actually started out being known as the White Stockings. Once the team became manager-less in 1898, they were known as the Orphans, before adopting the Cubs moniker during a rebuild phase when the team was made up of mostly young players. (Fans had voted for the Chicago Chickens.)
The Chicago football team played the odd game at Wrigley too, and this even influenced their name. After a few games in the North of the city, someone suggested they change their name to the Football Cubs. The owner, insulted, refused the suggestion, calling his team ‘bigger and better than cubs’, and thus, the Chicago Bears were born.
The Cubs changing room was off-limits – even Kenny had never been in there – but it apparently comes complete with its own personal chef, pilates studio and barbershop. Wrigley’s visitor locker room is the only one in baseball which is above ground, and has been in place for 105 years. Over that time, names such as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Michael Jordan have dressed there.
Wrigley’s stature has seen it host many different events, and the visitor locker room is where guests prepare. Pele dressed in the room when he appeared for the New York Cosmos when soccer came to town, and the Harlem Globetrotters warmed up in the same space for an exhibition basketball game. Pearl Jam once partied so hard in the locker room that they had to replace the carpet.
Perhaps my favourite yarn in the locker room was that when the Bears played the Green Bay Packers at Wrigley, the staff turned off the hot water in the away locker room, meaning their neighbours would need to drive three hours home for a warm post-match shower.
One of Wrigley’s most famous quirks is a wall of ivy lining the outfield, which has been in place for over 80 years. Many balls have disappeared into the Ivy, and one game, a player went in looking for a ball, and pulled out two, and threw them both back into play.Day baseball
Wrigley Field is in the middle of suburbia, with 100,000 people living in a close radius of the ground. Residents were reluctant to have night baseball, not only because of the bright lights at night time, but weary of drunk baseball fans roaming the streets after dark. Wrigley was the last baseball stadium to get lights in America, being turned on in August 1988. Only 35 of the team’s 81 games are allowed to be played at night. There’s a good ESPN 30 for 30 podcast on this topic – The Lights of Wrigleyville.
They were meant to be in place much earlier than that. Lights were purchased and ready to install in 1942, but America went to war. The owners donated the lights to a local air force base to practice landing war planes in the dark.
Sneaky Cubs fans wanted every advantage for their team. They would wear white shirts under dark coats, and take the coats off when the opposing team was at bat. A white baseball was hard to spot against an all-white backdrop… The St Louis Cardinals petitioned the league to make a change, and it became a league-wide rule in 1952 to have a plain, dark-coloured area directly behind the pitcher.
There’s a few different baseball origins of the phrase ‘out of left field’, but in Chicago, they’ll tell you this is the true beginning of the idiom. Across the road from Wrigley, out beyond left field, sat an asylum for people deemed insane. During games, random, bizarre noises would float across the ground from those inside, and the patrons would say strange things came out of left field.
Being based in a neighbourhood means Wrigley is surrounded by domestic homes. The entrepreneurial spirit was alive with the locals, who would sell space on their rooftops for just slightly less than admission to the ballpark. This became the number one way to see a Cubs game, until the club took the owners to court, stating that they were making money off the team’s presence. Despite the owners claiming they were throwing regular parties that just so happened to coincide with baseball games, the courts ruled in favour of the team, and now owners must give 20% of all ticket sales to the club, which provides around $5 million a year. 2,500 people can fit across the 16 rooftops.
In 1993, Cincinati Reds pitcher Tom Browning wandered across to one of the rooftops, invited himself in to join the party with Cubs fans, and was fined $1000 for his troubles. He called it the best and most expensive beer he’d ever had.
A baseball tradition
The Cubs were the first team to introduce an organist at a ballpark in 1941. The current organist began in 1987, and has recently retired. He never missed a game, meaning he played at over 2,600 consecutive games.
Fly the W
The Cubs are known for flying a white flag with a blue W following a win. This stems back to when the club’s owners wanted to be the ones to share the team’s results, rather than the media. Instead of picking up a paper or tuning into the wireless, locals could look up at one of the many flagpoles around the field to see either a W or an L for a loss. As Kenny joked, “It was the internet before the internet.”
Other fun facts
The Wrigley family (yes, of chewing gum fame and fortune) were the first owners to allow fans to keep home run balls. In some cities, fans were charged with theft it they didn’t return a ball!
In 2015 against the Cardinals, Kyle Schwarber hit a massive home run that came to rest on top of the newly-installed video screen. The Cubs boxed it in glass and the ball will lie in that same spot for as long as the video screen endures.
Most home teams position their dugout behind first base. The Cubs sit at third base, a nod to their history of day baseball, escaping the setting sun.
Wrigley boasts a glorious manual scoreboard, which is manned by 6-8 people on game days. There’s no bathroom up there, so the staff use a long funnel when nature calls.
The Chicago Cubs were the first team to play the national anthem during a baseball game, although they started it during the seventh innings. The Boston Red Sox became the first to play it before a game.
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