It’s a sunny, warm afternoon in the northern section of Chicago. With the cold spell seemingly over, many are situated out front of Wrigley Field, taking advantage of such a glorious day. Donning the blue and red colors of their favorite team, these fans have found plenty to eat, drink and do on this Saturday afternoon, despite the fact that their beloved Chicago Cubs are 300 miles south at Busch Stadium, playing the division rival St. Louis Cardinals.
As we watch the people playing various backyard games near the official team store, the excitement begins to build, because while the Cubs might not be in town today, the Friendly Confines are open for expansive tours and, at just $25 per person, it’s a real steal to get into the clubhouse and on the field.
“Anyone here for the 1:30 p.m. tour, we are about to start,” yelled one Cubs employee.
When we walked through the gate, we were given a brief overview. The tour would last just under 90 minutes and take us into the bowels of one of the most iconic sports venues in North America. But first, it was time for a little history lesson about how Wrigley Field – and the Chicago Cubs – wound up snuggled into that small area around Addison and Clark streets after several different iterations.
Sitting a few dozen rows behind home plate, no one could focus on our tour guide Kyle’s first few sentences, instead taking all sorts of photos of the pristine green grass and its surroundings. After settling in, we all learned a great deal about the Cubs franchise – that it originally started as the Chicago White Stockings in 1876 before switching to the Chicago Colts, the Chicago Whales and the Chicago Orphans. Wrigley Field wouldn’t come along until many years later, in 1914, when the Cubs name was firmly established, though the building was originally called Weeghman Park and it only held about 14,000 spectators, though the desire to put more butts into seats came in the early 1920s. It was a wealth of knowledge but not over done and, at that point, we made our way out to the right field bleachers to learn about baseball’s most interesting fans.
Known for its “Bleacher Bums,” the outfield is lined with cheaper general admission bleacher seats and this might have led to an abundance of blue collar fans. This part of the tour certainly had the best stories of the afternoon, several of which have changed Wrigley Field – and baseball, for that matter.
One specific story was about how before the wall was built, fans used to hold up a rope to signify the end of the playing field and if the ball went over that rope it was a home run but if it went under it, it was a ground-rule double. Well, naturally, the bums would move the rope 25 feet closer and lower it when their team was pitching and do the opposite for the visitors. This went on for around 10 years. Another was in 2008, when Jim Edmonds reached it into the ivy for a ball and mysteriously came away with two balls, at which point he threw both. The last was the inclusion of the batter’s eye in the outfield. Wrigley was the first to do it, because fans would bring in jackets with white t-shirts underneath, so when the Cubs were batting they saw the jackets but when the opposition came up, they lost sight of the ball in a sea of white shirts. It wasn’t too long before the league caught on and implemented to leave the centerfield area uninhabited at every stadium.
Oh – and if you think those net baskets are for catching balls in the outfield – think again. Those nets are there because Bleacher Bums used to race along the wall for a cold beer and sometimes fall into the field of play. The team then decided to slant the wall and put in nets to catch any drunkards before making the almost 11-foot drop. The tour guide delivered these stories perfectly and with each quip he had the group laughing, before segueing into the next portion of the tour – the outfield rooftops.
Plenty has been made about the rooftop seats over the years as the city of Chicago and the Cubs have each tried to squander a few pennies from this area which the franchise doesn’t own. Some of the buildings have had to close their roofs down over the years because the line of vision is gone – like when the team added the two massive scoreboard screens in the outfield – but it continues to thrive as an alternate view and the team now gets a small cut without blocking anymore views, so it seems everyone is happy here. After that, we were off to the visitor’s clubhouse, one of the highlights of the tour.
Kyle explained that inside this tight space once stood some of the greatest athletes to ever play professional sports – not just baseball players, but others for exhibition games and special events. Michael Jordan played there in an exhibition as a member of the Chicago White Sox organization, Pele had played a soccer game there as a member of the New York Cosmos and Wrigley also housed the Chicago Bears from 1921 until 1970—apparently Bears owner George Halas would often turn the hot water off in the room after a loss, because, rumor has it, he was a little bit of a sore loser. There have been a ton of concerts at Wrigley too, with names like Billy Joel, Sir Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney and Lady Gaga among the long list of music royalty to perform at the Friendly Confines. As Kyle explained, no other place in the United States can boast such an extensive list of new and old visitors from the world of entertainment and sports – except probably that little white house on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Next was the press box, an area we were pretty humbled to see. With ceiling fans circulating the air, this smaller-sized room had clearly held some of the greatest sports journalists. And the walk to get there was just as awesome – passing the organist’s area as well as the legendary booth where Cubs announcer Harry Caray called games from 1982 until 1997. We could almost hear him yelling his trademark ‘Hey!’
The last portion of the journey was something every Cubs fan – and really every baseball fan – dreams of and that was getting on the field and sitting in the dugout. That ground has seen the likes of Ernie Banks, Greg Maddox, Ron Santo, and Sammy Sosa over the years, making it that much more profound. We made sure to bask in just how incredible it was to be in that dugout but after about five minutes and countless photographs, we made our way back to the concourse where our tour then concluded with a few smiles and thank yous from those working the front gate.
Wrigley is the second oldest ballpark in the league, it’s one of baseball’s last remaining churches and there’s no doubt this tour is well worth your time – even if you’re not a baseball fan. The stories and history of Chicago that are woven into this experience are fascinating and keep your attention. The memories are well worth the price of admission but the only thing that might’ve made it better was a hot dog and an ice cold Old Style while sitting in the bleachers listening to the park’s history.