Wrigley 100: Before the Confines, there was the West Side Grounds
(Photo courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)
Each month in Vine Line, we are looking back at a century of Wrigley Field history. In the January issue, we tackle the pre-Wrigley years when the team called various parks home.
Imagine a world in which Wrigley Field wasn’t the home of the Chicago Cubs. There’s no marquee, no manual scoreboard, no ivy and no bleachers.
Though the Cubs became one of the eight charter members of the National League all the way back in 1876, they didn’t officially move into the Friendly Confines until 1916—two years after the venerable facility was built.
Aside from Fenway Park and the Boston Red Sox, perhaps no stadium is as inextricably linked with its organization as Wrigley Field is with its lovable Cubs. When people travel to Chicago, the nearly 100-year-old stadium is a top tourist destination year after year. It’s a testament to one of the most sacred baseball cathedrals in the game.
But for all the history—the beloved ballpark will celebrate its centennial on April 23—and despite the great stories your grandparents, parents and kids have regarding their many trips to Wrigleyville, there was a time when the Chicago Cubs existed without Wrigley Field.
A century ago, there was no such thing as baseball on Chicago’s North Side. The South and West sides were the epicenter of sports in the city, while the corner of Clark and Addison still served as a cemetery. The Lutheran Church constructed a facility on the property that would one day house Wrigley Field in the 1870s, and they opened an adjoining seminary in 1891.
For the first decade of the 20th century, the Cubs dominated the National League at a stadium called West Side Park—though there were other facilities as well.
Chicago’s National League representative had the same problem finding a suitable place to play home games that much of baseball was experiencing at the time. Poor ballpark conditions, inadequate fields, bad leases and an inconstant fan base turned the NL club later known as the Cubs into a de facto Chicago barnstorming team for nearly 20 years.
From 1876-93 they spent time at the 23rd Street Grounds (1876-77), Lakefront Park with its 200-foot left-field fence (1878-84), West Side Park I (1885-91) and South Side Park (1891-1893). The 1891 overlap came as a result of the organization using West Side Park on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and South Side Park on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
At the time, Blue Laws—city- or region-specific ordinances—were still in effect in much of the country (including Chicago), and they effectively limited local recreational and entertainment options on Sundays and prevented any viewing or playing of baseball games. This was during a time when men generally worked six days a week and reserved Sunday for relaxation, often for religious observances.
In 1892, however, the National League removed any restrictions against Sunday baseball, paving the way for Chicago NL club President James A. Hart to take advantage of a prime opportunity. The World’s Fair was set to open in Chicago in May 1893, and Hart realized the global event could help drive his business (and perhaps signal an end to the city’s Blue Laws). The Columbian Exposition’s arrival also meant thousands of people would be visiting Chicago and looking for ways to spend their day off—and their hard-earned money.
Ideally, the management of Chicago’s NL team, then called the Colts, wanted to continue playing its games at South Side Park—located on 35th and Wentworth—due to its close proximity to the World’s Fair, which was occurring at Chicago’s lakefront. The problem with South Side Park was that the initial lease on the stadium still prohibited games from being played on Sundays. As a result, Hart pushed the team west to the West Side Grounds, a facility that was owned by Albert Spalding and John Walsh, also the Colts’ majority owners.
For the 1893 season, home games were still played at South Side Park Monday through Saturday, but the team played its Sunday games on the West Side. The Colts moved into the West Side Grounds full time the following season.
Though it sounds odd in today’s world for an ownership group to have its team play in a ballpark other than the one it owns, Spalding and Walsh viewed the western location that now houses the University of Illinois Medical Center as too far away from the city. Playing ball at the West Side Grounds was originally seen as a major gamble—though it’s one that would eventually be rewarded with solid play from the club.
The West Side Grounds, or West Side Park as it was called at the time, was a spacious wooden ballpark that seated 8,000 fans when the club initially moved in. Home plate was on the corner of Polk and Lincoln (now Wolcott) facing southeast, Wood Street ran behind left field, and Taylor Street’s flats and stores abutted the facility to the south. Though it’s difficult to find accurate dimensions for the stadium, during some of the time the Cubs spent there, center field was 560 feet from home plate. It’s believed it was roughly 340 feet to right and 310 feet to left.
In the early 1900s, a series of renovations added an upper deck and replaced the small row of outfield seats with full bleachers, doubling the stadium’s capacity to 16,000. By 1910, seating had expanded all the way to 30,000. Bleachers were also added to center field in 1908, reducing the outfield distance to 418 feet.
The most eye-catching aspect of the venue was an advertisement that was installed in 1913 and ran down the length of the right-field wall. The enormous ad stood back only about 10 feet from the fence, and it blocked sightlines for many who sat in the back of the bleachers. Like Wrigley Field today, fans were also able to take in a game from the adjoining rooftops.
But perhaps West Side Park’s best feature was the caliber of baseball that was played there. Cubs fans in the early 1900s got to see something people have been fantasizing about for the last century—success at the highest level. As a tenant of the West Side Grounds, the Cubs averaged nearly 100 wins per season over a nine-year span (898 wins from 1904-12). The infield trio of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance, along with pitcher Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, became league stars who were well worth the price of admission.
Charles Webb Murphy’s purchase of the Cubs in July 1905 coincided with one of the club’s most successful runs in franchise history. Between 1906-10, the team played .693 ball (530-235) and captured four NL pennants and two World Series titles (1907 and ’08). The one season during that run in which they didn’t win the pennant, they still managed to win 104 games.
But there was a growing problem. Though there was plenty of success on the field and the stadium was constantly expanded, the park’s infrastructure was starting to give way.
Murphy, who purchased the stadium in December 1908, failed to update the visiting facilities, and rival NL teams complained that the plumbing in their clubhouse often didn’t work. Murphy argued that it wasn’t his job to make visiting teams happy, even after a family of ducks made a home in the clubhouse. Murphy’s West Side Grounds was also being rendered obsolete by the first steel and concrete ballparks, which were being built in 1910.
But it wasn’t just the stadium that was falling apart. The team that became a dynasty in the century’s first decade was aging and beginning to fray at the seams. Following a 104-win campaign in 1910, the Cubs had six straight seasons in which they lost more games than they had the previous year. This run of poor play eventually caught up to the fan base, and attendance numbers began to dwindle.
In 1916, a group headed by Chicago business mogul Charles Weeghman purchased the Cubs and moved them into his new Weeghman Park—or Wrigley Field as it’s known today—a modern steel and concrete facility on the city’s North Side that was opened two years prior to house the Federal League’s Chicago Whales.
As terms of the move, the Weeghman group agreed to pay two years of rent at the West Side stadium while Murphy found a tenant to replace the ballclub. Even though Murphy received his rent checks, he still filed several unsuccessful lawsuits attempting to block the team and the National League from playing Cubs home games on any field other than his own. He’d later claim he was raising money to repurchase the club, though that never came to fruition.
Finally, in October 1919, Murphy finalized a deal to sell the property to the state of Illinois for $400,000. The space was to be used as the future home of the Illinois State Hospital and the University of Illinois Medical School. The stadium was torn down in 1920.
The West Side Grounds certainly did not have the hold on the hearts and minds of visitors that the Friendly Confines has today. It lacked the marquee, the ivy and all the other attributes that make Wrigley Field the special place it is.
It did, however, house more than 20 years of Cubs history and some of the best teams ever to play the game. Wrigley Field has deservedly received so much praise that the West Side Grounds is not much more than an afterthought these days. But hosting four World Series appearances in five years is no small feat, and for that, the West Side Grounds should always be remembered.