Best known as a conservative political commentator on television and in his Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated newspaper column, George Will also is America's leading poet of baseball, producing periodic bursts of eloquence on the national pastime. A lifelong Chicago Cubs fan — growing up in Champaign, he used to spend long afternoons locked in passionate debate with his mother, who preferred the White Sox — Will devotes his new book, "A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred," to the Friendly Confines.
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Too friendly, perhaps. Part valentine, part stinging critique, "A Nice Little Place" advances the provocative theory that the Cubs' owners' success at turning Wrigley into a hallowed destination for fans helped doom the once-dominant team to decades of mediocrity on the field. If people keep coming because of their attachment to the historic venue at Clark and Addison, what does it matter whether the team wins or loses?
Printers Row Journal caught up with Will, 72, for a phone interview from his office in the Washington, D.C. area. Just back from his annual two-day visit to the Cubs' spring training in Mesa, Ariz., the columnist, superfan or not, was in a pull-no-punches mood about the team and its celebrated ballpark. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: How did the Cubs look to you in Arizona?
A: Let's not dwell on that.
A: They look like the team they advertise, a team in rebuilding mode.
Q: You're a Cubs fans, of course, and not just any Cubs fan: You go to spring training, you hang out with the owners and management of the team, and yet here you've written a book that somehow I don't think the franchise will be all that thrilled by.
A: Well, the Ricketts family are big boys and girls. They didn't become the achievers they are without looking facts in the face. And the facts about the Cubs' past are not their fault and not their problem.
Q: Of course, their ownership of the team has not been entirely unblemished, according to commentary in the press and among fans, as you well know.
A: Oh, sure.
Q: One of the things they've been criticized for is the set of proposals for change at Wrigley Field, the subject of your book. People are so attached to the place as it is.
A: Well, look what they've done in Boston with Fenway Park — an even older ballpark, by a couple of years, and as equally venerated in New England as Wrigley Field is in the Midwest.
Q: Even fetishized, perhaps.
A: Yes, you might say. But they've made enormous changes up there, from the seats on the Green Monster to tiny things that are hard to see but that make this early 20th century structure amenable to the expectations and, frankly, the desires of 21st century fans. And what they've shown at Fenway Park, and are going to show at Wrigley Field, is that you can preserve what people love while giving people also what they actually desire, which are modern conveniences.
Q: You say early on that "It is a hypothesis of this book that the ballpark is part cause and part symptom of the Cubs' dysfunctional performance." That's a striking statement, but you make a pretty strong argument that because people love to attend games at Wrigley Field — good or bad — and because of the way it's been built up as this temple of baseball, it has robbed the team of the incentive to win games. Have I summarized it fairly?
A: You have. We need to go back to P.K. Wrigley, who inherited the team and didn't really want it, who felt somewhat trapped by his inheritance. He wanted to be a good citizen of baseball and do right by what he had inherited from his father, but he wasn't much interested in baseball. He was very interested in presenting the Cubs in a nice venue, and he essentially said, "We're going after those fans who are not all that interested in baseball."
The business model of the Cubs became, "The grass will be so green, the ivy so lush, and the beer so cold, and the sunshine so warm that people won't be terribly concerned about what it says on the scoreboard." It didn't work altogether, in the sense that if you really want people to come pouring through the turnstiles, you need to have a winning product. But to a remarkable extent, Wrigley Field itself became a destination. It's true today; there are baseball fans in Seattle and San Diego and Miami who don't really feel they've checked all the boxes until they've come to the corner of Clark and Addison.
Q: If you're someone who's not a dyed-in-the-wool Cubs fan — such as, frankly, myself; I'm more of a White Sox guy — and you go to Wrigley for the first time, I think you often wonder, "What's all the fuss about?" It can seem like just a dingy little place. To me, U.S. Cellular Field is much more accommodating.
A: Well, I'd dispute "dingy." But "little," sure. That's part of the point. It was shoehorned into an organic, living, vibrant urban neighborhood, which remains that today. And that's the way baseball used to be. All the talk about baseball's rural past, that's kind of nonsense. The idea that baseball was invented in Cooperstown, N.Y.? Not a grain of truth to that myth. Some of the earliest baseball games, when the New York Knickerbockers played, were in what is now the Murray Hill section of Manhattan. That might have been a little bucolic in the 1840s, but still, baseball grew up as much in cities as it did in small towns and the rural countryside. You mention the Cell; have you been in the upper deck there?
A: Well, take pitons and an ice ax with you when you do go, because it's like climbing a mountain. And it's not the fault of the White Sox, but the Cell is surrounded by concrete freeways and railroads and other things that make it not quite as enticing as Wrigleyville.
Q: Getting back to this seeming lack of correspondence between the win-loss record of the Cubs and the attendance numbers: You quote people who've looked at that and say the Cubs have the weakest correspondence between those two things in all of baseball.
A: Yes. The question is, what are we to make of that? Does it speak well of Cub fans? I suppose it does. The fans of any team form a kind of tribe, in the sense that they're loyal to the team colors, the team uniform, the team logo, the team ballpark. And that's all well and good. The problem is that if you're too loyal, you do diminish the incentive of the people running the team to run it as a winning operation. So loyalty has a downside here.
Q: You also talk about the much stronger relationship between attendance and the price of beer. Cubs fans will tolerate a losing team, you say, but they won't tolerate high beer prices.
A: (Laughs.) There is data that seems to bear that out. It's a somewhat disrespectful sign that Wrigley Field is the best singles bar on the North Side. There's no question that people go to the ballpark and have fun, regardless of the score. But that's something essential to baseball itself. Baseball is a sport in which there's a lot of losing. They play 162 games, and if a team that wins 10 out of 20 is by definition mediocre, a team that wins 11 out of 20 has a pretty good chance of playing in October. Every team knows they're going to win 60 games and lose 60 games; they play the whole season to sort out the middle 42. The best team in baseball last year walked off the field having been beaten above 60 times. If a Chicago Bears fan watches his team lose three in a row, he goes to bed and can't take solid food. For a baseball fan, that's just a bad weekend; we'll get 'em Tuesday morning.
Q: By comparison, the White Sox tribe is composed of much more fair-weather fans, in that when the team doesn't win, the fans don't show up. When they do win, they do show up, as they did in droves in 2005 when the team won the World Series. People insist that the White Sox earn the loyalty of the fans, that it's not the team's by divine right.
A: That's true, although it's also true that the relationship of fan loyalty and win-loss record is only one variable here. The Cubs have had different kinds of ownership over the years. William Wrigley was a serious owner, and the team had considerable success in the '20s and '30s. People forget that even before William Wrigley, in 1906, '07 and '08, the Chicago Cubs were the Yankees. The Cubs dominated baseball as it has rarely been dominated. That was before Wrigley Field, but it's worth bearing in mind that the fortunes of the club have had something to do, over the long haul, with the talent of management.
Q: You make the point in the book, in fact, that the Cubs had a much better winning percentage before Wrigley Field was built than since — which tends to bear out the thesis that as fabulous as Wrigley may be, it hasn't ultimately been a good thing for the team, at least in terms of winning percentage.
A: You know, baseball has become much more serious as a business as the stakes of success have grown, as prosperity has increased, as discretionary incomes have expanded since the Second World War, and as entertainment options competing for that discretionary income for the average American have risen. As a result of this, some teams went quicker than others to full-time baseball managerial talent. I don't mean the managers on the field but, rather, the managers in the front office. Some teams were run for a long time by wealthy people who looked upon them as kind of hobbies. It's interesting that two of the teams that for the longest time seemed most frustrated, the Cubs and the Red Sox, were both run, in a sense, as hobbies by rich people. That's really not an acceptable model for baseball anymore.
Q: But the venues in both places were, and remain, huge parts of the appeal for fans.
A: Absolutely. The baseball park doesn't just receive fans; it makes fans. I was on a committee that Bud Selig put together some years ago to examine baseball in the 21st century. One of the things we found was that something like 98 percent of people who described themselves as NFL football fans had never been to an NFL game. It was all television for them. Baseball fans go to the ballpark, and going to the ballpark — the experience of being in the group at the ballpark — helps make them fans.
Q: But if the Cubs had had a lousy place to play, or if they hadn't managed to turn it into a destination, as you say, might they have had better success on the field over the years?
A: It's conceivable. Wrigley Field gave the Cubs a strength independent of their performance on the field. It has given the Cubs a kind of cushion in hard times, when people said, "Well, they're not very good, but what fun it is to go there." But that can't ultimately be a proxy for baseball excellence. It can't substitute, over the long haul, for wins and losses.
Q: It's still a bit of a mystery, then, why people stay Cubs fans after so many years of futility.
A: I think it feels like bad character to give up on a team. You don't want to be that dreaded word, a frontrunner — someone who comes when things are going well and goes away when they aren't. There's something mythic about being a baseball fan, and that means being a fan through thick and thin, even when there's more thin than thick.
Q: Maybe there's also a romance, a kind of pleasant poignancy, in being devoted to a losing team.
A: Some people say that, but I'm completely impervious to it. They say losing's good for your character, but I've got quite enough character, thank you. I want my character spoiled by winning.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.
"A Nice Little Place on the North Side"
By George Will, Crown Archetype, 224 pages, $25