The Magazine

George Will at Bat

Wrigley Field and the national pastime.

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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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.