Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, would often say of Wrigley Field, “Let’s play two.” And growing up as a Cubs fan, sitting in the left field bleachers, it seemed a reasonable proposition every day. And nothing would be better than basking in the bleacher sun for hours during a daytime doubleheader (especially if the Cubs swept!)
My first game at Wrigley field was before I was a fan. When I was a sixth grade “patrol girl,” my school took us on an appreciation trip to see a Cubs game. We sat in the grandstand and watched the L.A. Dodgers beat the Cubs. Sandy Koufax was on the Dodgers’ mound; the rest of the game, I don’t remember. What I do remember are the smells (a combination I would come to identify as eau de cheap beer, cigars and hotdogs on steamed buns), the beauty of the ballpark, and that particular crack of the bat that can only mean “deep fly ball to the outfield…going…going…gone!”
I had only a passing interest in baseball then; my best friend was an American League fan, and I was strictly National. But that was soon to change, when my mom, who was, indeed, a baseball fan, decided to take us to Wrigley for “Ladies Day,” which meant free entry to the grandstands.
Over the next few years, my love of all things Cubs would blossom into full-time fandom. Once-a-week Ladies Day excursions expanded, and as the Cubs became a contending team back in the very late 1960s, I became a frequent flyer at the old ballpark, mostly at home in the shade of the grandstands, but with an occasional foray into the “expensive” lower box seats (first base side!), where you were practically on the field and part of the action.
We’d make banners out of old sheets with sayings like “From Hell to Heaven in ’67,” “The Cubs will be great in ’68,” “The Cubs are fine in ’69.” Each motto, of course, was courtesy of Mr. Cub, who each season would coin the annual incantation.
Finally, in 1969, the Cubs were great, perhaps the greatest Cubs team fielded in my lifetime: Don Kessinger (shortstop), Glen Beckert (second base), Billy Williams (left field), Ron Santo (third base), Ernie Banks (first base), Randy Hundley, pitchers Ferguson Jenkins, Kenny Holtzman, et al. The mostly all-star starting lineup is still emblazoned into my memory. In September that year, true to form, the Cubs fell apart in the aftermath of blazingly hot August day games took their toll (at least that’s what I told myself), and, improbably, impossibly, the Mets took it all.
By then, I’d moved from the grandstand to the bleachers, sitting amongst the luminary “left field bleacher bums.” I was in a 14-year-old’s baseball Paradise, drinking Tab and Fresca, munching “Ron Santo” pizza and salted-in-the-shell peanuts. My friends and I would set off from our suburban home at 7:30 a.m., taking the bus, then the “el,” getting off at Addison, and then walking the half block to Wrigley field, which rose from the residential neighborhood like an Olympic shrine to my teenaged eyes. (I still never tire of driving past the old ballpark.)
Lining up at the bleacher entrance we would sit along the wall stadium wall, waiting to pay our $1.50 to get in at 11:00 for batting practice. Even by the time we’d arrive at about nine, there was always a queue ahead of us. There was something magical in the air and the time would pass quickly. Finally the crank of the gates would signal us to stand–it was time! Sometimes, the Andy Frain ushers, who knew us all by then, let us in early, and occasionally without paying, leaving us a little bit extra for a Frosty Malt or a box of Cracker Jack.
The sun was always bright, and the metal bleachers always hot, it was better suntan weather at Wrigley than at the beach only a few blocks away. Going to a Cubs game, sitting in the bleachers was almost as much of a party as it was a baseball game, sitting below the giant green scoreboard, cheering, jeering, and from time to time, tossing back to the field the odd home run ball from the opposing team. It almost didn’t matter that the Cubs never made it past September. Just being there, being part of it, seemed enough.
So here it is, 2014, and Wrigley Field is 100 years old. It’s been longer than that since the Cubs won a world series. It costs up to $60 to sit in the bleachers, way beyond the finances of most adults, let alone teenagers. And the box seats? The place to hang over the dugout during batting practice and grab an autograph (I still have my scorecards covered with eventual Hall of Famers)? Hundreds of dollars.
I haven’t been to Wrigley for years, and it’s certainly too expensive to go more than the occasional time or two during the season; it’s no longer the bargain it had been when I was a kid. I still yearn for a Cubs pennant, and I love the fact that Wrigley is still that homey, day-game-playing icon in the middle of a residential area. There’s nothing upscale about the park (except the ticket price), which somehow seems right (except the ticket price!). I still can smell Eau de Wrigley if I concentrate while watching on my high def TV, but the crack of the bat and vibrant green of the turf and ivy aren’t quite the same as live and in person.
So Happy Birthday Wrigley Field, may you never change in spirit or location. May the ivy ever grow green and verdant, and the stiff winds blow ever from the Southwest (but only when the Cubs are at bat).
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