CHICAGO — During my inglorious days as a player in the Toronto Men’s Press League (women were welcome, by the way), I can’t recall ever being stationed out in left field. I was more a second base, third base guy.
But I have been accused, on occasion, of coming from way out in left field. To do that, as you know, is to be unexpected, strange, odd, even crazy. It is American slang, with a baseball heritage, more specifically one which — who knew? — has its roots in the deep history of the Chicago Cubs.
I ventured off to the Cubs’ home, Wrigley Field, last autumn. My seat, as it happens, was well out in right field, not left, but during an edifying pre-game guided tour of the grand old stadium, the left-field lore was front and centre.
My tour group’s guide, a bright type named Clay, led us out onto the field in a roped-off area around home plate early on the crisp morning of a September Saturday day game against the Milwaukee Brewers, the staunch National League rivals from just 150kms north, up the coast of Lake Michigan. We shot the mandatory selfies with the towering Wrigley centrefield scoreboard in the background then settled into the high-priced box seats and Clay regaled us with tales of asylums and chewing gum, billy goats and ivy.
There’s loads of lore.
Wrigley Field is rightly known as one of the oldest ballparks in the majors; built in 1914, only Fenway Park in Boston is older — by two years. But the Cubs have been around much longer, according to no less an authority than the Baseball Almanac.
Above: Garth Woolsey gets to walk on the same field where legendary Billy Williams once toiled for the Chicago Cubs.
“No baseball team in any city has the length of lineage the Cubs have in Chicago,” it says, and Clay affirms it not in so many words. “They were originally formed as an amateur team less than a decade after the Civil War (1874) and joined the National League for its initial season. Playing their first professional game on April 25, 1876, exactly two months before Custer’s Last Stand and while Ulysses S. Grant was president of the United States, they defeated the Louisville Greys 4-0.”
(One more: That same year, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell conducted his famous telephone experiment.)
Infamously, the Cubs would go on to become the epitome of perennial losers, as they went 108 years between World Series titles, finally breaking the drought with victory over the Cleveland Indians in the deep autumn of 2016. That came in the 10th inning of Game 7 at Progressive Field in Cleveland. While historically a grand event to the long-suffering of Chicago, Wrigley Field faithful still have yet to see a World Series actually won in the so-called “Friendly Confines.” Never, in this case, really is a long time.
Yet, pre-Wrigley the Cubbies were anything but the field models for frustration.
These days, and for many decades, the Cubs are associated with Chicago’s North Side, while the American League White Sox are the passion of the South Side. But the Cubs started out as the pride of the West Side. They played out of the first West Side Park, 1885-1891, then out of the West Side Grounds, 1893-1915. At the latter location, they appeared in four World Series, winning in 1907 and 1908. This is where the double-play combination of Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance earned its fame.
The West Side Grounds is also the birthplace of the “out in left field” usages. There was a mental health-care institution, an asylum, behind the left field boundaries and it is said that patients could be heard yelling, sometimes at the players and fans, sometimes just because. From such seeds and fertile imaginations grow such sayings.
Above: Wrigley's outfield, with its iconic ivy trim, is one of the most legendary baseball parks in the United States.
The Cubs moved to their current location for the 1916 season, when they were purchased by Charles A. (Lucky Charlie) Weegham, who had built a new facility to house his team in the rival Federal League. His team was known as the Chi-Feds, then the Whales. He became known as the first owner to allow fans to keep foul balls, but the league folded after only two seasons and Weegham merged his team with the Cubs and moved them into his ballpark.
But he ran into his own financial problems and took on minority partners, one of whom emerged in 1918 as dominant — chewing gum magnate, William Wrigley. The venue became known as Cubs Park and eventually, Wrigley Field. The team drew 1.5 million fans for the 1929 season, a major league record and one that the team would not top for 40 years.
As the years ticked by, the Cubs had their close calls with victory, including 1945, when they lost the World Series to the Detroit Tigers. That was the year that William Sianis, proprietor of the Billy Goat Tavern, was asked to leave his seat during Game 4 of the Series. He’d arrived with his pet goat, Murphy, whose barnyard odours offended some nearby fans. Sianis is alleged to have sworn: “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” Thus was born the “curse of the billy goat.”
Murphy, given the opportunity, may have enjoyed grazing upon the the iconic ivy that grows against the outfield wall at Wrigley. It was first planted there in 1937 by team executive Bill Veeck. If a hit ball is lost in the vegetation, it is considered a ground rule double. The ivy gives the park a pastoral feel, as does the long tradition of day games. Under pressure from the league office’s in New York, and from the television networks, the Cubs finally played their first official night game in 1988, ending a streak of 5,687 consecutive day games.
The day-game tradition arose in part due to Wrigley’s location in a mostly residential area of the city, known as Lakeview. (Also known as Wrigleyville, although I am told such usage may brand one as a tourist, or a real estate agent).
Above: Cubs' fans arrive early to have their pictures taken with the team mascot and to buy up lots of team hats and jackets.
The ballpark occupies an entire city block bounded by Addison, Clark, Sheffield and Waveland. There’s a quaint fire station just beyond left field and owners of the rooftops overlooking the outfield have a deal with the team allowing them to rent out seats.
There is very little designated parking but easy access through Chicago’s excellent elevated train system. The immediate area has scores of restaurants and bars and on game days the neighbourhood has a festive air, sidewalks filled with folks (this is the American Midwest, where people say “folks”) in their Cubs gear. They saunter around the area, mingling with the multiple statues of former Cubs greats.
I stayed at a local hotel, the Majestic, for a few nights, an easy walk to Wrigley and close to the Lake Michigan shoreline. Many others staying there were Cubs fans, who have to be some of the most loyal and long-suffering of any no matter what the sport. Never mind they finally won, the fans seem united by the sense that it just might never happen again.
The Cubs permeate the culture. Long-time broadcaster, restauranteur and bon vivant Harry Caray became a legend in his own right. (“What does a mama bear on the pill have in common with the World Series?” Harry would joke. “No cubs.”) Celebrities lead the faithful in singing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” Comedian Bill Murray, a Chicago son through and through, wept when they finally won. The day I was at Wrigley Bob Odenkirk, star of the TV series Better Call Saul, threw out the opening pitch.
On a city bus ride downtown, I chatted with two fellow passengers discussing the state of their team. One guy tells the other he has season tickets, finally. “My son put me on the waiting list. Back then I was number 42,000 and something. Years later I got the call. I had just sold my house, so I had some money. Ten years now, I’ve had season tickets.”
The lucky one gets off the bus and the other guy turns to me and says, out of left field: “Can you imagine,” he says, “going to so many Cubs games?”
Boggles the mind.