George Will at Wrigley Field

"A Nice Little Place on the North Side" by George Will encourages the theory that Wrigley Field's transition to a hallowed place for fans caused the Cubs' decades-long losing streak. (Victoria Will/Random House photo)

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.


This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.


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.

Q: Ha!

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.