You can tell George Will is a serious baseball fan because—I wish I could find another way to put this—he is serious about baseball. The statement isn’t (quite!) as fatuous as it sounds. Lots of people who profess their love of baseball are mere romantics and mythologists. They’ll well up at the thought of the greatness of the game and how its history interweaves with the greatness of America, and they gravely tug their chins at baseball’s qualities of timelessness (there’s no game clock) and infinitude (in theory, the mythologist will tell you, the foul lines extend into infinity).
Serious seriousness like Will’s isn’t dour or grim. As a writer, George Will has a deep appreciation for absurdity generally, and for the many comic absurdities of baseball in particular, and he is a practiced griot of the game’s colorful characters and history. But where the romantic is content to be high-minded, abstract, and goopy, Will is hardheaded, practical, and precise. The hardheadedness and precision turned Men at Work, his detailed 1990 study of how fielders, managers, and hitters do their very difficult jobs, into one of the half-dozen essential books for anyone who wants to understand the game—not the mythology of the game, not the Game as a Key to the American Character. Just the game.
Will’s new baseball book is an informal history of Chicago’s Wrigley Field, published on the 100th anniversary of its opening. Nothing taps the waterworks of a baseball romantic like Wrigley Field. It is a monument to baseball quaintness, a museum of the game as it once was. The ivy clinging to the outfield walls is just for starters. In place of the vast, dizzying HD screen looming over the modern ball field, fans at Wrigley gaze up, as their grandfathers did, at a hand-operated scoreboard just above the center field bleachers. A lilting, calliope-like organ pumps happily away in place of the punishing soundtrack of bad music that every other ballpark uses to rouse the tone-deaf fans from their seats.
Wrigley’s charm is undeniable, but a little puzzling. Until 20 years ago, Wrigley Field wasn’t even the most evocative baseball park in Chicago. Comiskey Park, where the White Sox played for more than 75 years, had witnessed more history—when it was torn down in 1990, it stood as the last ballpark Cy Young had pitched in—and it offered just as much antique atmosphere. The discomforts endured by the fans (suspicious food, overtaxed bathrooms, cramped concourses, hip-pinching seats) rivaled Wrigley’s. You could say the same about several old baseball piles that survived into the 21st century, from Tiger Stadium to Yankee Stadium.
Wrigley’s reputation for singularity arose from other factors, only one of them perverse. Even as the neighborhoods around baseball’s first-generation urban parks (including Comiskey) deteriorated during the 1950s and ’60s, the neighborhood surrounding Wrigley stayed relatively safe and livable. The elevated train dropped off fans only two blocks away, the streets to and from the park were lined with handsome old brownstones, and for blocks around, a welcoming, leafy ambience was maintained if you were quick enough to dodge the vomiting Cubs fans who spilled from the doorways of local saloons.
As Will points out, the abiding neighborhood was a mixed blessing for Chicago baseball, for it contributed to the second factor in the sentimentalist swoon. For decades, neighbors resisted management’s plans to put lights in the park, and even now, 25 years since illumination, their touchiness restricts the number of night games played there. The same neighborhood pressure limits the advertising in and around Wrigley, the stadium’s seating capacity, and the space available for private parking. All of this severely depresses the amount of money an owner can make and, crucially, reinvest in the team to build a winner. The result has been seven decades of nearly unbroken failure on the field. And it is this failure that the romantics truly love.
“Before the Cubs moved into Wrigley,” Will writes, “they were what the New York Yankees were to become: a byword for excellence.” Over one five-year span, ending in 1910, the Cubs logged what remains the winningest percentage in the history of baseball. The excellence was not to last. The Cubs moved into Wrigley Field, then known as Weeghman Park, in 1916, and the long decline commenced.
Thus from 1948—encompassing Truman’s defeat of Dewey, the Marshall Plan, and the reelection of Chicago’s Barack Obama as president—through 2013, they were 693 games under .500, with a winning percentage of .467.
The failure has, it’s true, sometimes produced amazing feats. Consider a single season, 1942. One Cub, Lou “The Mad Russian” Novikoff, tried to steal third base even though the bases were already loaded because, he said, “I had such a good jump on the pitcher.” A teammate, the shortstop Lennie Merullo, managed to commit four errors in one inning. Will writes appreciatively of such wonders. But as a man essentially serious about the game, he cannot countenance the sustained mediocrity—and worse—that has made the Cubs the cutesy-pie mascots of baseball’s romantics. It offends against the game, insults the very qualities that make baseball fun to watch and ponder. True Cubs fans aren’t charmed by habitual failure; they want to win.
The man who owned the team the longest, the chewing-gum magnate Philip Wrigley, acculturated the majority of Chicagoans to the hopelessness of his team’s condition. He did this, in part, by selling them on the pleasantness of his ballpark. “He was a promoter,” Will writes. “The product was actually the Wrigley Field experience.” Assembling a winning team was beyond his talents or interests. So he instituted Ladies Days to broaden the team’s appeal, admitting hundreds of thousands of wives, mothers, and daughters for free “to the prettiest ball grounds in the world.” He approved the ivy that still covers the outfield walls, and recast the datedness of his facility as proof of its timeless charm.
“Our idea,” Wrigley said, “in advertising the game, and the fun, and the healthfulness of it, the sunshine and the relaxation, is to get the public to see ballgames, win or lose.” The customers he most desired, he admitted, “are people not interested in baseball.” Will quotes the former pitcher Jim Brosnan on Wrigley: “His slogan was ‘Come Out and Have a Picnic’—and the other teams usually did.”
Wrigley is just one of the characters who make Will’s book such an agreeable ramble. A griot should always be open to digression, so in reading about a century of Cubs and their jewel box of a ballpark we also get the stories—some sad, some hilarious, nearly all of them fresh—of the great baseball genius Bill Veeck, the “human fireplug” Hack Wilson, the unavoidably cheerful Ernie Banks, and so on, down to Ray Kroc and, weirdly enough, Jack Ruby. Will even reprints, word for word, though with appropriate asterisks, the entirety of the most celebrated recorded rant in the history of the game, a tirade by the Cubs manager Lee Elia against jeering Cubs fans in the days when only afternoon games were played at Wrigley:
The motherf—ers don’t even work. That’s why they’re out at the f—in’ game. They ought to go out and get a f—in’ job and find out what it’s like to go out and earn a f—in’ living. Eighty-five percent of the f—in’ world is working. The other fifteen come out here.
Lee Elia was not a romantic, as you can see (or hear, if you call up the recording on the Internet). As a pro, he took the game seriously and hoped for fans that would do the same. “Baseball fans,” Will writes, “are given to gushing.” George Will does not gush. Exactly for that reason, though, he does enlighten and gratify his readers by writing endlessly enjoyable books about the game he (seriously) loves.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.