I walked into Wrigley Field for the first time in the summer of 1998, a special summer for the game of baseball and, no matter what revisionist baseball historians want to say now, an especially fascinating summer for baseball in Chicago. The Cubs were in contention and Sammy Sosa was in the midst of the chase for the single-season home run record. For a young baseball fan, even one who wasn’t a Cubs fan, a summer trip to Wrigley couldn’t have come at a better time.
I don’t really remember a whole lot about the ballparks I went to as a kid, probably because I grew up going to games in Cincinnati and St. Louis and Atlanta and their stadiums all looked and felt and sounded roughly the same. The minor league team in our hometown played in a multi-purpose dump too. I saw a lot of baseball. I’d never realized that a ballpark itself could be an experience to enjoy and remember.
Then I walked into Wrigley. I don’t remember the game much, other than the fact that the Cubs were hosting the Arizona Diamondbacks and that Sosa didn’t hit a home run while I was there. All I remember, really, is the feeling of Wrigley, the sense that this is what baseball was supposed to look and feel and sound like. This, the ivy on the walls, the ramps and steel beams and bleachers, this didn’t feel like any of those bland stadiums I’d been to before.
The Friendly Confines turn 100 years old today, on the anniversary of the first game Chicago’s Federal League team played there in 1914. The Cubs moved in two years later; the ivy was planted and the outfield bleachers installed in 1937. The place has been a mecca of baseball ever since. Wrigley’s history isn’t exactly pretty: it is now officially 100 years absent a championship, and the Cubs haven’t won so much as a National League pennant in nearly seven decades. Wrigley is marked more by despair — curses of Billy Goats and Bartman and god knows what else — than it is by anything other than hope that the next season will be better.
And for 100 years now, there has always been a next season. Wrigley has changed and more changes may be coming soon. But it’s still there and, for all intents and purposes, remarkably similar to the Wrigley that opened a century ago. That’s something only one other ballpark in baseball — Boston’s Fenway Park — has ever lived to say, something that seems unlikely any other ballpark will say in the future. In a game where more than two-thirds of the parks aren’t 25 years old and others aren’t going to survive adolescence, in a game where even its oldest friends — Comiskey across town, Tiger in Detroit, Yankee in the Bronx — are gone, Wrigley is the old man in the bleachers who isn’t just talking about baseball’s history but is actually living it. It’s a place that links baseball’s far past to its recent history to its present and future, the Dead Ball Era to the Integration Era to the Steroid Era and beyond. People at Wrigley today are sitting in the same seats where fans once saw The Babe call his shot, where others watched Ernie play two, where I saw Sammy chase Maris, and where still others groaned as Bartman touched that ball. In a game that lives and breathes its own history more than any of our sports, where the ballpark is an inherent part of the charm of the game, there’s something indescribably special about one park lasting 100 years. About a century of Chicago’s hardball hopes and despairs being Wrigley’s and Wrigley’s alone.
Wrigley was once its own sort of shiny object, a place that lured the Cubs away from Chicago’s West Side because it was a nicer park. It was, as author Sean Deveney describes, the first park with concession stands and Ladies’ Days and souvenirs. Perhaps what’s most remarkable about the place, though, is that over the next century, it survived even as it became outdated and simplistic. It marched on even as its contemporaries were shuttered — when places like Crosley and Shibe and Forbes succumbed to the horrific cookie-cutter era that marked the middle of the century, Wrigley stood. It was still around decades later when baseball came to its senses and realized it should have never left ballparks that were pretty, enjoyable, and charming in their simplicity. By the 1990s, cities started replacing those awful behemoths with parks that were more like…Wrigley.
So today we have Camden and AT&T and Arlington and PNC and Coors, beautiful ballparks that have charm and aesthetic appeal and fit into their neighborhoods the way Wrigley has always fit right in right there at the corner of Clark and Addison. Those parks are all lovely places to see a game. Most of them are updated versions of the Friendly Confines, with much of the charm and and more amenities. But none of them are Wrigley. And these days, they’ll be lucky to live half as long.