Monday, September 22, 2008

The Friendly Confines

Farewell to Yankee Stadium, the house that Ruth built. Some of baseball's most historic moments have been played out on this venerable old stage. Thanks for the memories! However, my link to America's great pastime was formed at Wrigley Field on the north side of Chicago, at the corner of Addison and Sheffield.

Wrigley Field is where I first saw baseball more than 50 years ago. My father took me to see the Cubs on one glorious and sunny summer afternoon in August. The outfield walls were covered with ivy, the grass was a vibrant green and the infield was a reddish brown. As we sat in the first row between home plate and the Cubs dugout, I looked out on the gigantic hand operated scoreboard in centerfield with its big clock and array on national league pennants streaming above in the breeze.

Even then Wrigley Field was like an old baseball glove, well broken in and very comfortable from any position. Built as Weegham Park in 1914, the project cost a staggering $250,000 and took an amazing seven weeks to complete. It was constructed to house the Chicago Whales, part of the Chicago Federal League, and had a capacity of 14,000. The Cubs began playing at Weegham Park in 1916, and the park was renamed Cubs Field in 1920. Six years later the field was named after chewing gum magnate William Wrigley.

On that first visit I remember how small Wrigley Field seemed. From my seat I could hear the players talking with each other. I could hear the infielders chatter, "hey batter batter, swing!" I could hear the umpire's emphatic calls, "steeeee-rike!" The on deck batting circle was right in front of me. There the now legendary Ernie Banks would warm up while waiting to bat. He looked over and smiled at me, was that a wink? Banks was not only a feared home run hitter, he also was a wonderful role model for all young boys. He called Wrigley Field "the friendly confines," and would often say "let's play two!" Until 1984 all Cubs games in Wrigley were only played only during the day. Then local ordinances were loosened to allow some night games, and lights were installed.

During subsequent visits I would see such greats as Henry Aaron, Lou Brock, Roberto Clemente, Sandy Kofax, Don Drysdale and Casey Stengel, to name a few. I would frequently try to arrive at the park in time for BP, batting practice. My friends and I would chase down foul balls hit into the stands. We pretty much had the run of the park before the game started. I remember arriving with a friend early one summer's day and encountering a bunch of players getting off a bus. I had many of them sign my scorecard. The signatures included Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Roy Campenella, Johnny Podres, and Pee Wee Reese. These were the Brooklyn Dodgers!

From 1920 to 1971 Wrigley Field was also the home of the Chicago Bears. I attended a few of their games over the years. I saw the remarkable Gayle Sayers run for more than 100 yards against the powerful Green Bay Packers. Bears founder and coach George Hallas would stand on the sidelines while Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka, Willy Galimore and Billy Wade fought in the trenches. Great Bears like Sid Luckman and Red Grange, the galloping ghost, played here on cold winter Sundays. In 1963 the Bears were World Champions.

I understand how special Yankee Stadium is to New Yorkers. For me, Wrigley Field will always be my home. And this year I hope that the Cubs will bring Wrigley Field its first World Series championship. In fact, let's play two!

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