From the Pages of Vine Line: The best home opener from every decade of Wrigley Field

WeeghmanPark

Wednesday marks 100 years of home openers at the stadium we now call Wrigley Field. The following can be found in the April issue of Vine Line.

For a century, it’s been the day when everything is new again. To mark the occasion, there have been fireworks and parades; tributes to legends and unforgettable, edge-of-your-seat wins; warm spring days and blustery, winter-like afternoons.

Opening Day at Wrigley Field has always been a time to remember what it feels like, sounds like and smells like to be a part of Cubs history. Since 1914, fans from across Chicago and around the world have made their way to the Friendly Confines to witness the start of a new season and pin their hopes on the lovable North Side nine.

Over the years, the park has evolved: Weeghman Park became Cubs Park became Wrigley Field; the Chi-Feds became the Whales and then gave way to the Cubs; and 14,000 seats grew to 41,000. But the game and the excitement of the fans remain the same, season after season.

To celebrate the Cubs’ home opener on April 4 and Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday on April 23, we’re taking a look back at the most memorable Opening Day from each of the Friendly Confines’ 10 decades. Because this is, by nature, a subjective exercise, we called on Cubs historian Ed Hartig to help choose the games.

Without further ado, here are Vine Line’s 10 most exciting Wrigley Field openers.

1910s
April 20, 1916: Cubs, meet Weeghman Park

The Cubs’ official debut at their new, North Side home was no small event.

The matchup with the Cincinnati Reds kicked off with fireworks, six brass bands, a 21-gun salute and an official flag-raising ceremony. Local dignitaries gave speeches—though it’s possible few in attendance actually heard them. The roar of the brass bands drowned out at least one address, given by a local judge.

Members of the 25th Ward Democratic Organization paraded around the park with a donkey. There was a car parade, and the team’s president was presented with flowers and a live bear cub. (The cub, Joa, was led to home plate, where he mugged for photographers.)

Outside of the park, hundreds of people gathered on rooftops and clustered around windows to catch a glimpse of the action. Workers even added extra seats to the outfield to accommodate the crowds.

“There was a newness and a curiosity to things,” Chicago Tribune writer James Crusinberry noted. “It was the first time many of the players and doubtless many of the fans had ever seen the North Side park. But they seemed to have no trouble finding it.”

After all the festivities, the Cubs didn’t let their fans down, topping the Reds 7-6 in 11 innings. Cy Williams doubled to reach base in the bottom of the 11th, and a Vic Saier single drove him in to score the winning run.

Reds left fielder John Beall recorded the game’s only home run­­­—which meant he should have earned a free suit from a local tailor named George Kelly. The tailor was offering suits to any player who hit a home run during the opener, but it’s unclear if Beall ever took Kelly up on the offer.

1920s
April 14, 1925: The Chicago Cubs are on the air

For the first time in Cubs history, fans tuned into the action at Wrigley Field without leaving the comfort of their homes.

The 1925 home opener was broadcast on WGN Radio, with announcer Quin Ryan calling the game from the grandstand roof. At the time, it was a revolutionary—and risky—concept. Other baseball clubs had held off on radio broadcasts, because they worried airing the games would deter fans from actually coming to the ballpark.

The Cubs faithful, however, still turned out in droves. The crowd was estimated at 40,000, a then-Opening Day record.

“That the North Side park—newly painted and looking as neat as a Dutch bakery—will be jammed today is a certainty,” Chicago Tribune writer Irving Vaughan noted the day before the game. “The advance sales of seats have been so heavy that the supply of reservations was exhausted early yesterday.”

WGN’s broadcasts were sporadic in the early days, but the practice caught on soon enough.

As for the game itself? On a particularly chilly April day, the Cubs topped the Pittsburgh Pirates, 8-2, thanks to the efforts of starting pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. The right-hander hit a home run, double and single, and pitched a complete game, surrendering just two runs, neither earned.

1930s
April 12, 1933: Prohibition is (almost) over—and Cubs fans know it

About two months after the 21st Amendment, which would repeal Prohibition, was proposed to Congress—but still three months before Illinois officially ratified it—beer was back at Wrigley Field for the first time in more than a decade.

After the game, two bars located under the grandstand reported that they sold more beer at the 1933 home opener than they had soft drinks at the same game in 1932.

Fans enjoying the affair with a cold one got to see the Cubs top the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-0. Gabby Hartnett had three hits in four at-bats, driving in two runs.

Cubs ace Lon Warneke, who had a few peculiar habits, took on the equally colorful Dizzy Dean.

“They called [Warneke] the Arkansas Hummingbird,” teammate Phil Cavarretta said at the time. “He’d be by his locker, and he had a little ole ukulele, and he’d play that and hum and sing, which was fine. As long as he kept winning ballgames, why complain?”

1940s
April 17, 1945: The start of something big

The story about 1945 wasn’t so much the home opener as the season it launched. The Cubs went 98-56 to capture their most recent NL pennant, beating out the Cardinals before falling to the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

The campaign was bookended by a pair of series against St. Louis. Bill Nicholson hit a home run early in the opener and later scored the winning run on a ninth-inning single by Don Johnson.

Later in his life, Cavarretta would compare Johnson to another second baseman with a reputation for starting a rally.

“Don Johnson was our Ryne Sandberg,” he said.

The Cubs would finish 6-16 versus the Cards for the year, but they still outpaced the division by three games.

1950s
April 18, 1952: A spirited comeback

With the Cubs down 4-1 heading into the ninth inning against the Cardinals, it looked like the team was poised to start the season on a disappointing note.

But the Cubs knocked in four runs in the final frame against three Cardinals pitchers, who didn’t retire a single batter, to notch a 5-4 win. A pinch-hit double from Bill Serena with the bases loaded drove in Roy Smalley and Joe Hatten for the tying and winning runs.

“I never saw such spirit,” said Cavarretta, who was managing his first home opener and considered sending himself in as a pinch-hitter. “In that ninth inning, four or five guys were eager to hit while we were building up the rally. I was going to get into the act until they switched to a left-hander.”

1960s
April 8, 1969: Just when you think you’ve got it …

The 1969 home opener looked like a clear-cut win, as the Cubs headed into the ninth inning up by three runs. But then Philadelphia’s Don Money slammed a three-run homer off Fergie Jenkins, and fans were left on the edge of their seats.

The Phillies took the lead in the 11th, but the Cubs battled back. In the home half, Randy Hundley singled and scored on Willie Smith’s two-run, walk-off, pinch-hit home run. Ernie Banks also homered twice in the Cubs’ 7-6 victory.

“I was in the dugout trying to keep warm, and I wanted to give Willie a kiss for doing it because I was freezing,” said Cubs infielder Glenn Beckert.

Cubs pitcher Bill Hands was sitting next to manager Leo Durocher in the dugout as Smith stepped up to the plate.

“[Durocher] kept saying, ‘Just a dying quail over third, that’s all I want.’ And I said, ‘The hell with that, Skip, he’ll hit it out.’”

1970s
April 14, 1978: Climbing the wall to get in

Typically, the team would save about 22,000 tickets to sell on gameday, but they’d cut that number to just 12,000 prior to the season. Knowing they’d have to be quick to get a seat, eager fans started lining up outside of Wrigley Field at 3:30 a.m.

Ushers pushed back people trying to climb over the outfield wall to get in, and, for a while, vendors were worried there could be trouble—especially since they were going through more beer than they ever had before.

In the end, the park saw its largest Opening Day crowd (45,777), and Woodie Fryman took a no-hitter into the sixth before a fly ball by the Pirates’ Dave Parker fell in. Gene Clines should have caught the ball, but Clines turned the wrong way, and the ball fell to safety.

The Pirates rallied to tie the game, but the Cubs ultimately won, 5-4, on a walk-off home run from Larry Biittner.

“When he left the bench, honest to God, he told me he was going to hit one out of here,” manager Herman Franks said of Biittner.

“I never said that,” Biittner countered. “I’m not a home run hitter. You know that.”

1980s
April 4, 1989: “Ulcer city”

Mark Grace said he’d never been involved in a more nerve-racking or exciting game.

The situation: With the Cubs holding a slim 5-4 lead, the Phillies opened the ninth with three straight singles off closer Mitch Williams. Noted Cubs-killer Mike Schmidt, who had already knocked a home run in the game, was due up.

“When you have the bases loaded, no one out, and you’re 2-0 on Mike Schmidt, I can’t think of a worse situation to be in in all of baseball,” pitcher Rick Sutcliffe later said.

Luckily, Williams was up to the challenge. The quirky reliever rallied to fan the slugger and then struck out Chris James and Mark Ryal to preserve the win.

Williams’ former Texas teammate Paul Kilgus had given Cubs manager Don Zimmer some advice on how to survive watching Williams pitch in such a game.

“Ulcer city,” he said. “Drink a lot of milk, Zim.”

Sutcliffe picked up his third Wrigley Field opening win in five seasons, and Jerome Walton and Joe Girardi both made their major league debuts, each chipping in two hits.

1990s
April 3, 1998: Farewell to a legend

On an emotional day, the Cubs opened the 1998 season by paying tribute to Harry Caray, who had passed away in February.

The team unveiled a Caray caricature above the WGN-TV booth, and Caray’s wife, Dutchie, pinch-hit for her husband, leading the crowd in a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” When the song finished, a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace,” and 3,000 blue and white Harry Caray balloons were released from behind the left-field wall.

In the game itself, the Cubs beat Montreal, 6-2, for their third straight victory, but it was the spontaneous wave of emotion that swept the ballpark at the top of the seventh inning that was the talk of the team afterward.

With one out to go before the start of the seventh-inning stretch, virtually everyone in the stands was on their feet, and chants of “HAR-RY, HAR-RY” echoed across the El tracks.

“I was looking around thinking, ‘Oh, geez, what if a ball is hit to me right now?’” said third baseman Kevin Orie. “I was trying to pay attention, but, at the same time, I was trying to soak it all in. Everyone had goose bumps.”

At one point, Montreal’s Chris Widger sent a fly ball into the outfield. Right fielder Sammy Sosa and second baseman Mickey Morandini went running for it, but the crowd’s chanting was so loud they couldn’t hear each other. The ball bounced out of Sosa’s glove.

Starter Steve Trachsel did a little bit of everything, pitching 7.1 innings of two-run, four-hit ball, striking out seven and driving in three runs with a pair of singles.

2000s
April 13, 2009: Lilly’s near no-no

Rain nearly postponed the game, but after a 72-minute delay, the Cubs and the Rockies got things going on a miserable 36-degree day.

The Cubs featured a makeshift lineup, as they were missing projected starters Milton Bradley (groin), Geovany Soto (shoulder) and Aramis Ramirez (stiff back) due to injuries. Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez was his own worst enemy, lasting only 3.2 innings, walking six and hitting a batter. The Cubs finished the game with nine walks.

The weather was the story until Ted Lilly got on a hot streak. The lefty didn’t give up a hit until the seventh inning, when he allowed a single to Garrett Atkins. He followed that with a walk to end his day. Three relievers finished off the Cubs’ 4-0, one-hit win before 40,077 fans at Wrigley Field.

Would manager Lou Piniella have left Lilly, who had thrown 104 pitches through 6.2 innings, in the game if the no-hitter had still been intact?

“It would’ve been a tough decision, because it’s early in the season to let a pitcher go much more than what he pitched,” Piniella said. “You’re looking for problems.”

Lilly said he knew he was on a good run, but didn’t let it shake his concentration.

“I was still trying to focus on making quality pitches, and not so much, ‘How am I going to protect the no-hitter?’” he said. “I just wanted to make good pitches and felt if I did that, I like my chances.”

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