This excerpt appears in the book A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred by George Will. The author spoke with Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. (Listen to our interview with Will and read Bill’s book review.)
On June 20, 1941, the poet Robert Frost, then sixty-seven, recited for the first time in public his poem “The Lesson for Today.” Its last line is perhaps his most famous:
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
Frost died in 1963, and this line is carved on the headstone of his grave in Bennington, Vermont. My lover’s quarrel is less spacious than Frost’s. Mine is with the Chicago National League Ball Club. The world is what it is and has been very good to me. The Cubs, however, are another matter. They have been generally disappointing and often annoying for most of my life, which began forty-seven days before Frost announced his quarrel. Why, then, have I, like many millions of similarly vexed and irritated fans, continued to love this team? There are, no doubt, many reasons. Or, because reason rarely regulates love, let us say there are many factors that explain the durability of my affection, and that of others, for the Cubs. Surely the most important ingredient in the chemistry of this peculiar loyalty is the place where the team has played its home games for a century. Wrigley Field really is a nice little place. Granted, few people would care about it if the Cubs did not play there. But a lot fewer people would care about the Cubs if they did not play there. What follows is a short stroll through the braided histories of the place and the team, both of which are facets of one of America’s singular cities. I will begin with my beginning.
I was born on Sunday morning, May 4, 1941, in Champaign, Illinois. The Chicago Tribune that morning reported that on Saturday the Cubs had been “characteristically docile” through the first five innings while losing to the Brooklyn Dodgers, 4–3, in Ebbets Field. On Sunday the Cubs crossed the East River and lost to the New York Giants, 9–4. It was their third loss in a row. Had I been paying attention then, this book might not have been written. But one thing led to another, as things have a way of doing, and in 1948, when I was still not as discerning as one should be when making life-shaping decisions, I became a Cub fan. The Catholic Church thinks seven-year-olds have reached an age of reasoning. The church might want to rethink that.
The 1948 Cubs may have been the worst squad in the history of the franchise, finishing in eighth place—which in those days was last place—and 27½ games out of first. The dreadful team inspired a Norman Rockwell cover on the September 4 Saturday Evening Post. Titled The Dugout, it featured a dejected and embarrassed Cubs dugout, behind which fans jeered. Their well-named manager was Charlie Grimm. He was, however, known as “Jolly Cholly” Grimm because he was so cheerful. Why was he?
On August 30, 1948, the Cubs’ owner, Philip K. Wrigley, ran an ad in the Tribune, which thirty-three years later would buy the Cubs from Wrigley’s estate, to apologize for the team. The ad told the unvarnished truth: “This year’s rebuilding job has been a flop.” You might say that. The last-place Cubs’ record was 64–90. The 1940s, my first decade, was the first losing decade the Cubs ever had. Since then, the Cubs have not had a winning decade. Since May 4, 1941, and through the 2013 season, they have lost 693 more games than they have won. What could compensate Cub fans for such a performance on the field? The field. Wrigley Field. This little book is about a little space. It is not, regardless of what some unhinged enthusiasts say, a sacred space. Wrigley Field’s footprint on a city block is a tad smaller than that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The enthusiasts think the ballpark is a kind of cathedral, and that Wrigley Field is to baseball what Rome is, or was once said to be, to religion: All roads lead there, or should.
This book is, in a sense, about a frame around a picture. The point of Wrigley Field is to display baseball games. People go to museums of fine art to see the paintings, not the frames that display them. Few people admire the pedestal more than the statue. Many people do, however, decide to go to Chicago Cubs games because they are played within this lovely frame. And just as a frame can serve, or be inappropriate for, a particular painting, ballparks can display ball games well or poorly. It is frequently noted that Wrigley Field is lovelier than the baseball often played on the field. It is a hypothesis of this book that the ballpark is part cause and part symptom of the Cubs’ dysfunctional performance. How can this high-quality building be partly responsible for the low quality of what has gone on in it?
From A NICE LITTLE PLACE ON THE NORTH SIDE. © 2014 by George F. Will. Reprinted by permission of Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House company.