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IN THE BALLPARK

End of an Era at Wrigley
By Suzanne Bethard

Somehow I thought it would creak. Wrigley Field had served the fans of Chicago since 1914 and it would be entitled to a few "wrinkles," excuse me, cracks.

After decades of longing to see Wrigley Field, I finally made arrangements during the summer of 1988 for a trip to Chicago for the sole purpose of spending a weekend at the ballpark. The arrangements were made with no time to spare before the end of an era. As a member of the Atlanta Baseball Nostalgia group sponsored by a local travel agency, I saw Wrigley Field B.N.B. (Before Night Baseball), a term Chicago Tribune writer David Silverman used to distinguish from A.N.B. (After Night Baseball).

More precisely, I saw the last day game B.N.B.

For those too young to remember, twenty years ago Wrigley Field ended a historic holdout as America's only remaining major league ballpark to play all games during the day.

Imagine a chocoholic sitting in a big bowl of chocolate, and you can picture my joy at a weekend trip to Chicago designed so that I could sit in Wrigley Field and watch baseball.

On my first day at the ballpark, a nearby fan caught the southern accents floating back and forth among my fellow travelers. He asked, "What brings you to Chicago?"

"Wrigley Field," I replied.

"No."

"Yes."

"You've got to be kidding."

"Not at all. I've always wanted to see Wrigley Field."

"But, all the way from Atlanta?"

"Yes."

"Just to see the Cubs?"

"No, just to see Wrigley Field."

That weekend I was happy to find out that Wrigley Field didn't creak. Quite to the contrary, it was immaculately groomed and maintained with a devotion to detail. If Wrigley Field was a lady, she would have been wearing white gloves.

The ballpark's petite size, with a seating capacity under forty thousand—unheard of in the modern dome era—helped establish a homey feel. The brick-walled outfield sported ivy that immediately struck a sense of familiarity made possible by nationally televised games-of-the-week.

If a brawl was to break out in the stands, it wouldn't be uniformed police who rushed to the scene, but members of "crowd management," dressed like ushers, who were on hand to restore friendliness to this user-friendly ballpark.

Victorian-shaped wooden signs of teal blue directed fans to their section of ivy-colored seats. A vendor sold programs for $3 downstairs in a round, blue cubbyhole. No rookie to his task, he had begun selling programs at Wrigley Field for ten cents each sixty years earlier at the age of twelve. He thought the ballpark was "one in a million." And he was hardly alone in his assessment.

The tastes of 1988 were depicted in the array of food choices available at concession stands. Nachos, pizza, and jumbo chocolate chip cookies were all available. At the same time, the good old days were still alive and well with the following goodies offered: frosted malt cups, caramel corn, and Dad's old fashioned root beer floats.

Peanuts were sold in clear cellophane packages that allowed them to be seen but not smelled. At least there was no smell until fans opened those cellophane packages and cracked the peanuts between their fingers. Empty shells smashed on the concrete below seats provided an authentic ballpark aroma.

On that weekend, the manual scoreboard—save an electronic section up the middle—was still there to allow fans the luxury of using their imaginations. A mystery person inside the scoreboard dropped the score into place after each side was retired. While the inning was in progress, a sunny yellow number recorded the score, to be replaced later by a white number that signaled all outs had been exhausted.

That scoreboard, which could have easily been called an information center, allowed fans the freedom of spontaneity because it didn't instruct them how to enjoy the game like so many of the electronic monsters in stadiums today. No instant replays intruded on the day's enjoyment of the sport.

Through that scoreboard, it was possible to follow inning-by-inning play in all games underway in both leagues. Again, this feat was accomplished manually as some unseen number carrier dropped the score into place after each side was retired in major league ballparks across the country.

Today's electronic scoreboards just can't compete with the old-fashioned appeal of that manual scoreboard at Wrigley Field. The slim electronic middle announced the batter up and his average, except when the pitcher was at bat. It was then that the white-gloved manners of another era popped up. The ERAs and won/loss records of pitchers were announced instead of their scraggly batting averages.

Individual team flags waved down the left of the scoreboard by order of team standings in the National League East, and down the right by order of standings in the National League West. After each home game, the ballpark communicated with the surrounding neighborhood by removing all flags and replacing them with a single white flag for a Cubs win, or a blue flag for a Cubs loss.

The in-park crowd included the famous Bleacher Bums with their own T-shirts and creed. Only Cub home runs were acceptable to the Bleacher Bums. If a member of the opposing team hit a homer into the bleachers, the tradition held that the ball must be thrown back. And it was.

The outside-the-park fans who watched games at Wrigley Field introduced a new concept to me. This ballpark was participatory inside and out. Although the fans outside weren't counted in official attendance records, their enthusiasm was equal to the fans inside. They watched from their rooftops behind the ivy-covered outfield walls. And some watched from upper-story windows within the friendly confines of their homes.

Both before and after the game, I saw championship spirit alive on the neighborhood streets surrounding the ballpark. Impromptu bands played while merchants sold souvenirs from permanent shops alongside vendors hawking their goods on a daily basis.

The Stadium Club opened into the park as well as out of it, spilling into umbrella-attired tables placed near a shade tree. Wooden benches, intended for bus passengers, were available for fans wanting to sit and take in the street happenings. The air was magnetized by activity and excitement over the day's game. The ballpark was in no way isolated from the bustle of the people who loved it. While fans shopped for souvenirs, ate at one of the fast food franchises across the street, or just lingered and enjoyed the day, neighbors went about their business because Wrigley Field had been a part of their lives for a very long time. One resident across the street from an entrance gate repaired his sports car, sprawling parts across his driveway as fans passed by on their way home from the game.

Wrigley Field didn't hold baseball in awe and overwhelm its guests like many of the modern concrete stadiums. Its open air structure welcomed everyone as a fan, whether that fan had seen hundreds of major league games or had never been closer to a ballpark than a Little League field. It didn't take a baseball aficionado to appreciate the manual scoreboard or to converse with the friendly patrons. Wrigley Field fit everyone, no matter their size.

Despite the addition of lights and ushering in of night baseball, plenty of nostalgia remained for fans who enjoyed baseball when the sport was still a pastime rather than a corporate competition. One tradition alive and well that weekend was the scramble for autographs outside the player's parking lot after the game. It was the same autograph shuffle that had been danced for decades. After a game, small huddles form as players emerge from the clubhouse and the identity of the player is determined by group decision. Suddenly, it's as if everyone had known the player forever, his name shouted over and over again.

After the last game B.N.B, one Cub pitcher lingered in the swollen summer sun to sign autographs until he had covered the entire outline of fence holding his fans at bay. When he emerged from the clubhouse, more pint-sized future big leaguers asked each other, "Who's he?" Someone decided it was Scott Sanderson, and each young fan shouted with individual urgency, "SCOTT, SCOTT, SCOTT, Scott . . . !"

While Scott Sanderson patiently signed his name on scraps of paper shoved before him, a man nearby sold snow cones from a cart. With a hand-held metal device, he shaved the snow for each cone from a large block of ice. The movement of his hands was further evidence that, even in the age of electronic appliances, time could stand still at this ballpark.

During my visit to Wrigley Field, I was able to sit back and enjoy baseball as it was meant to be. The Cubs weren't battling for a pennant, but I found their ballpark to be a major league contender. And—on that last game B.N.B.—it was glowing from the attention of its fans.

—EFQ

SUZANNE BETHARD works in student affairs at Stanford University Medical School. Her writing has been published in Baseball Digest, JAMA, and Creative Loafing Atlanta. She is working on several short stories and a novel set in a revitalizing Atlanta neighborhood during the 1980s.

© 2008 Suzanne Bethard

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