Wednesday, April 23, marks the 100th anniversary of the first professional baseball game at what is now Wrigley Field. The Chicago National League Ball Club LLC will, of course, promote this anniversary with a special logo and various historical reenactments, including (almost certainly) losing a lot of ballgames, just as they have for so much of their century of futility at the intersection of Clark and Addison.
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Only florists and chocolatiers love anniversaries more than book publishers do, and so books galore will celebrate, commemorate and otherwise attempt to cash in on this event. We have a starting rotation of five to consider here. So you know where I stand, I will disclose all potential conflicts of interests as we proceed through this review.
COI At-Bat, Pitch One: I am a Cubs season-ticket holder, and so have a vested interest in the team and how well it does ... or doesn't do, as it affects the price of tickets I buy and perhaps choose to re-sell. Strike one against my objectivity!
Two challenges face the reviewer of these books. First, they all cover pretty much the same ground: From Weeghman to the Wrigleys to the Tribune Co. to the Rickettses; from day baseball to the installation of lights; Bill Veeck Jr. planting the ivy, the College of Coaches, Lee Elia's rant, "The Sandberg Game" and various postseason meltdowns (1918, '29, '32, '35, '38, '45, '84, '89, '98, 2003, '07, '08, with an honorable mention for 1969). Bears football, some hockey and concerts, but mostly the Cubs, an array of executives, managers, and players, some good, many bad, a few great, with a smattering of ugly.
Second, there is pretense that Cubs fans will use this review to decide which of these books to buy. This expectation is nonsense. Every Cubs fan will soon own most or all of these books, as such volumes are the default gifts given to Cubs fans for birthdays, graduations, confirmations, bar and bat mitzvahs, anniversaries, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus and Mothers, Fathers and Opening days.
COI At-Bat, Pitch Two: aAs a reviewer, I get to keep my copies and will be re-gifting them when I get another. Low and outside, ball one!
So the question isn't which of these books Cubs fans will buy and read. Rather: In which room should fans place each book? (My operating assumption here is that most Cubs fans live in relatively small homes, due to the high cost of tickets and crushed dreams.)
So, in the living room, in front of the couch on the remotes-and-beer-and-chips table (who has coffee in their living room anymore?): Ira Berkow's "Wrigley Field: An Oral and Narrative History of the Home of the Chicago Cubs" should take pride of place. Perfect for leafing through while muting commercials, Berkow's weighty tome features both historic photographs and prose as nimbly turned as a Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double play (which Berkow rightly points out were not all that commonplace or significant). Classic Cubs jokes and vignettes from players and other baseball luminaries provide hilarious sidebars, including White Sox fan President Barack Obama, who gets a two-page spread to decline to comment on the Cubs. (My favorite gag, paraphrased for brevity: A guy rubs a lamp and a genie appears and offers him one wish. He wishes for peace in the Middle East and hands the genie a map. The genie ponders it a while, and says it isn't possible and grants him another wish. So the guy asks for the Cubs to win the World Series. "Let me see that map again," the genie replies.) An oral history compiled by Tribune reporter Josh Noel accompanies Berkow's commentary, allowing luminaries as varied as Shecky Greene and Rod Blagojevich to reminisce about the old ballpark.
On the end table in the same room, to provide lighter reading when one of your season ticket partners has to crash on your couch due to marital difficulties at home caused by going to too many games, you should keep Les Krantz's "Wrigley Field: The Centennial: 100 Years at the Friendly Confines." Essentially a miniature coffee-table history book, it includes a DVD for idle viewing on off-days and so belongs near the TV. Krantz emphasizes the Cubs in postseason and historic games, such as the rarely discussed 1955 no-hitter by "Sad Sam" Jones, the first African-American to throw a no-no in the majors. The graphics in this book are especially interesting, with obscure ephemera (score cards, ticket stubs, photos that are not run-of-the-mill) livening up the writing.
In the bathroom? Dan Campana and Rob Carroll's "Wrigley Field: 100 Stories for 100 Years" will provide a desired distraction from the business at hand. Like your buddy sleeping on the couch, this book is flawed but essentially good-hearted. The book presents memories of Wrigley and Cub fandom from 100 different people, including players, broadcasters, ballhawks, firemen, cops, vendors and regular fans. It has all of the optimistic energy of the Wrigley bleachers before the first pitch of a July Saturday afternoon Cardinals game. But it also has a certain randomness and highly variable writing quality that might be par for the course for oral histories, but is still a problem (let's just say contributor Bob Costas is the Babe Ruth of these contributors). Like Berkow's, this book also suffers from including Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers, who is to Wrigley Field what a tramp-stamp tattoo would be on a society matron.
COI At-Bat, Pitch Three: I have 86'd Ronnie Woo from two taverns where I once tended bar, but he deserved it each time. Fastball, inside for ball 2 and a 2-1 count.
George Will's "A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at 100" belongs in the dining room. Not because his book is especially suited to formal meals, but because at every holiday dinner, there's one cranky uncle or in-law who disagrees with everyone else about religion or politics. To keep the familial peace, you seek some conversational common ground and end up talking about baseball (unless of course, this cranky uncle is a Sox fan, in which case you talk about football). As a renowned conservative columnist and bow-tie fancier, Will fits this profile.
COI At-Bat, Pitches Four and Five: I thought Will's first baseball book, "Men At Work," book was pretty good, so that's ball 3; but I personally disagree with everything Will stands for politically — so I slice a foul ball down the right field line, strike 2, for a 3-and-2 count.
In his narrative, Will re-creates the structure of a conversation at the ballpark. The ballpark's lore provides the main thread, and Will adds to our knowledge of that history. (His take on the Elia rant, for instance, adds intriguing context from interviews with Keith Moreland.) But there's time for digressions on Chicago history, the importance of beer in civilization, or the invention of Ladies Day, just as during a game, one will follow the action but chat about nearly anything else between pitches, at-bats and innings. Will's conversational tone hits the sweet spot of just such a day's talk.
But like the guy talking at the ballpark, Will sometimes gets things wrong. To cite one error, Will claims that one indignity contemporary Cubs fans will have to suffer is Greg Maddux in an Atlanta Braves cap on his Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown. Maddux chose to go into the Hall with no logo on his cap — he was more generous to Cubs fans than Will was when he assumed that three Cy Youngs and a World Series ring outweigh playing at Wrigley after coming up in the Cubs system. But as the old cliché goes, when you "assume" ... no, never mind. Be generous to cranky Uncle George; put his book in the dining room.
Stuart Shea's "Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines" deserves the place of honor on the nightstand of every Cubs fan, to be read a chapter or two at a time between Opening Day and the World Series.
COI At-Bat, Pitch Six: Shea's dad was a professor of mine at Loyola, Shea and I are members of The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), and he edited an essay I wrote ("The Cubs Fan Paradox: Why Would Anyone Root for Losers?") in In the Spring 2011 SABR Baseball Research Journal. We have a cordial acquaintanceship. Fastball just outside for ball 4, four, and a free pass to first base. With potential conflicts COI's fully disclosed, you all at Printers Printer's Row Journal can judge my umpiring under MLB's new replay rules.)
Shea's densely researched and superbly written 400-plus-page tome is perfect to savor over the course of a long baseball season. Though SABR is primarily known for statistical metrics that have taken baseball fans and executives beyond batting averages, RBIs and homers, SABR also supports in-depth historical research. Among these five books — and the many others I have read about the Cubs — Shea's use of historical sources is unparalleled. He doesn't just retell familiar old stories, he re-creates careers, seasons and games by diving into obscure sources and primary accounts, including many newspaper game-day stories.
If Will's book treats Wrigley history like a chatty afternoon in the box seats, Shea's book is an entire season of dedicated attention paid from the press box, the clubhouse, every section of the stadium, the rooftops and half the bars in Wrigleyville.
Each of these books is a worthwhile read, and each is suited to its own spot in any Cubs fan's abode. Meanwhile, only five more days before the home opener.
Bill Savage is a distinguished senior lecturer at Northwestern University.
"Wrigley Field: 100 Stories for 100 Years"
By Dan Campana & Rob Carroll, The History Press, 224 pages, $19.99 paperback
"Wrigley Field: The Centennial"
By Les Krantz, Triumph, 184 pages, $25.95
"Wrigley Field: An Oral and Narrative History of the Home of the Chicago Cubs"
By Ira Berkow, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 224 pages, $45
"Wrigley Field: The Long Life & Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines"
By Stuart Shea, University of Chicago, 444 pages, $20 paperback
"A Nice Little Place on the North Side"
By George F. Will, Crown, 224 pages, $25Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun