From the Pages of Vine Line: Charles Weeghman and the construction of Wrigley Field

WrigleyField

(Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame)

The following can be found in the February issue of Vine Line.

It’s a typical chilly April afternoon on the North Side.

A strong breeze blows off the lake, and the people clustered in the bleachers are bundled in winter clothes. But they don’t seem to mind the cold. Some arrived as early as 9 a.m. to see the marching bands and politicians parade in the street.

They wear red and blue caps, ring bells and sing songs. The park looks, someone would later remark, like “a huge floral horseshoe.” Music plays and curious onlookers gather at windows and on the rooftops of adjacent buildings.

A few dozen members of the Daughters of the Grand Army of the Republic parade in with a 30-foot silk American flag. They present the team’s manager with gifts—three dozen neckties, a six-foot-high floral display—and someone fires off a series of explosions to mark the occasion.

Finally, one of the leaders of the GAR, filling in for Chicago’s mayor, steps out onto the mound and throws the first pitch.

It’s April 23, 1914, and baseball has come to West Addison Street on Chicago’s North Side. But the Cubs—and Wrigley Field as we know it—would take a little longer to arrive.

* * * *

Depending on how you look at it, the story of Wrigley Field began either with a property deal struck in the waning hours of 1913 or with an unlucky investment made a few years earlier.

In 1909, three men with ties to American Association baseball found what they thought was the perfect spot for a ballpark. The parcel of land at North Clark and West Addison streets in Chicago was the former site of a Lutheran seminary. It was surrounded by homes and businesses and offered convenient access to public transportation.

The plan was to bring an American Association team to Chicago. But there was a problem: The city was spoken for, according to Organized Baseball. The Cubs and White Sox had already claimed the town—the Cubs were playing in a park on the city’s West Side at the time—and both teams refused to approve a new organization in their territory.
For the next few years, the three men held onto the property, but they didn’t make any progress on a new team.

Enter Charles Weeghman.

The self-made millionaire began his working life as a waiter. He eventually opened a diner, followed by another and another. Once he was running 15 restaurants, he began investing in pool halls and movie houses. By the time the men from the American Association were sitting on their North Side plot of land, baseball was surging in popularity, and Weeghman was getting some big ideas.

In 1913, the increasingly crowded baseball universe got a new competitor, an independent minor league operation called the Federal League. To secure its financial standing, the league went looking for deep pockets and found Weeghman, who had already tried, and failed, to buy the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.

With Weeghman’s clout in the mix, organizers figured they could give the American and National leagues a run for their money and declared the Fed League an official major league. Because the operation was independent, they didn’t have to get Organized Baseball’s permission to set up a new franchise in town.

Prior to the 1914 season, Weeghman acquired the Chicago Federals for $25,000—but he insisted if they were going to be a major league team, they needed a major league-quality stadium to rival those of the other professional teams in town.

He had just the spot in mind—that former North Side seminary that was close to streetcars and the city’s rail system. Plus, it came with a near-perfect geographic orientation. It was as far north from the city’s center as Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox, was south. For the first time, Chicago would have proper North Side and South Side teams.

On Dec. 31, 1913, Weeghman agreed to a 99-year lease on the property. The spot at Clark and Addison was about to get a second chance. That is, unless Organized Baseball had anything to say about it.

* * * *

Technically, the Chicago Federals didn’t need anyone’s permission to play in the Windy City, but the fledgling organization was still going to have to fight its way in.

The AL and NL threatened to blacklist players who joined the Federals. Even though Weeghman was already gathering up a roster of big-name players—including infielder and manager Joe Tinker—the opposing leagues didn’t stop their fight. Instead, they tried to pull the rug out from under him, right in the North Side neighborhood where he was trying to build his new baseball empire.

Weeghman’s lease became official in January 1914, and all the details were published in the Chicago Tribune. He would pay $16,000 annually for the first 10 years of the 99-year lease, eventually upping the rate to $20,000. That averages out to the equivalent of about $452,000 per year in today’s dollars.

By late February, some of the neighbors around Clark and Addison were pushing back. Several of them signed a petition against the ballpark, which they delivered to the city’s building commissioner.

But the little secret just about everyone knew at the time was that the neighbors weren’t particularly opposed to the park.

Cubs historian Ed Hartig said major league officials were holding frequent meetings, trying to figure out how to get rid of Weeghman, his team and his ballpark.

“You think about this nowadays—oh, my gosh, some of the stuff they tried to do,” Hartig said. “Professional men who had made their money in real estate, in communications, in newspapers, and here they are in back rooms trying to finagle these deals.”

One of the schemes cooked up in those backroom meetings was to use the ballpark’s neighbors to fight the team’s plans. But Hartig said just about everybody saw through that tactic.

“Organized Baseball saw Chicago as being the key to the success of the Federal League. As Weeghman went, so did the Federal League—or at least that’s what Organized Baseball thought,” Hartig said. “The belief, or hope, was that if they could make life miserable for Weeghman, Charlie would withdraw his interest in the Chicago Federal League team. And with no Chicago team, the league would fold.”

The plan didn’t work.

The building commissioner told the neighbors he’d take their concerns under advisement, but warned them the Federal League already had enough support in the neighborhood to go ahead with its plans.

Two days later, wrecking crews were tearing down the seminary and a few nearby houses to make way for Weeghman Park.

* * * *

The stadium went up with a speed that seems unfathomable today, when major public projects typically require years of study, design and debate. Weeghman gave his construction team less than two months to complete the job, because he wanted the park ready for the start of the 1914 season.

About 5,000 people turned up for a groundbreaking ceremony on March 4, 1914. The building commissioner stuck a shovel in the dirt, and someone smashed a bottle of champagne. As soon as the ceremony was over, the chief contractor began issuing orders to 100 workmen hired to build the grandstand.

By late March, the structure was nearly complete. Weeghman pushed for speedy work, paying off union workers who went on strike and nearly doubling his 450-man crew.
The city provided some help too. The park’s eight-foot-high brick fence in the outfield didn’t follow city ordinances. An inspector reported the violation, but didn’t insist the wall be taken out. Ultimately, it stayed.

On April 23, visitors streamed in for Weeghman Park’s first game. Tickets were $1 for box seats (about $24 today) or 75 cents for the grandstand. One of the reasons the construction was able to move so fast was that the park was far less polished than today’s big league facilities.

“The ballparks were pretty simple then,” Hartig said. “It was 14,000 seats with no upper decks. The bleachers were pretty basic.”

Weeghman made a point of selling the facility as a cleaner alternative to other ballparks of the day, which were known for being a bit grungy. Hartig said it was common for teams to go through 15-game stretches and hose down the bleachers only a few times—and this in an era when the primarily male crowd generally went to games dressed in suits and ties.

Though the park was a scaled-down version of the modern Wrigley, it had a few special touches. Among them was a stable Weeghman had built for his horse, Queen Bess, under the third-base grandstand. Queen Bess pulled the lawnmower that cut the grass on the field and was allowed to run free around the park when the team was on the road.

About 21,000 people turned out for the first game to watch the Federals top the Kansas City Packers, 9-1.

The team finished the season second in the league, but Weeghman was worried about its continued success. In 1915, after a naming contest, the club was rechristened the Chicago Whales. They had another excellent season, winning the Federal League title, but by year’s end, the league was mired in legal challenges with Organized Baseball.
The Federal League had sued the American and National leagues for antitrust violations, but the battle was a stalemate. The federal judge on the case, future baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, thought the upstart league had a legitimate case, but understood that a ruling in its favor might cause Organized Baseball to collapse.

So he did the only other thing he could think of—he stalled, hoping one or both sides would cave. By the end of the 1915 season, the Feds were in a financially untenable position and reached an agreement to shut down.

In January 1916, less than two years after his namesake park opened, Weeghman and nine other investors, including majority stockholder Albert Lasker and chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., struck a new deal. The Cubs would add most of the Whales personnel to their roster and swap their well-worn West Side home for something bigger, better and newer: Weeghman Park.

* * * *

As the Cubs were moving in, Weeghman was moving out of the baseball business. Facing monetary problems, he began selling off his Cubs stock and was off the team’s board of directors by the start of the 1920s.

Wrigley, who wasn’t much of a baseball fan, began regularly attending games. By the 1917 season, he’d convinced the team’s board to move their Spring Training operations to his property in California. He continued to boost his holdings and owned a majority of the shares by 1919. From then on, his name would forever be linked with the Cubs and their venerable ballpark.

But Hartig said the forgotten bit of Wrigley Field’s early history is part of what makes the park so unique. During tours of the stadium, visitors are often surprised to learn that it hasn’t always been all about the Cubs on West Addison Street.

“To me, that’s the biggie, that it wasn’t built for the Cubs,” he said. “There was an independent league team that existed for three years—and almost took down Major League Baseball.”

—Erin Golden

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,545 other followers