From the Pages of Vine Line: Philip K. Wrigley’s lasting impact on the Cubs and Wrigley Field

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In the emotional last throes of the chewing gum magnate’s life, while the Great Depression dug its claws deeper into Chicago’s big shoulders, William Wrigley Jr. made his only son promise him one thing.

Do not sell his beloved Chicago Cubs to pay the inheritance taxes.

The elder Wrigley’s illness and subsequent death at age 70 in 1932 were swift and unexpected, a wake-up call to his 37-year-old heir, Philip K. Wrigley, who did not have his father’s passion for baseball but shared his shrewd business sense.

Wrigley had already accepted the mantle of president of his father’s chewing gum company, and now, by death and default—and a sometimes-troublesome sense of loyalty—he was the Chicago Cubs’ majority stockholder and owner.

“He liked baseball. He was around baseball. He just didn’t view himself as a baseball person,” said Chicago Cubs historian Ed Hartig. “I think if P.K. had his way, he would have been an engineer.”

But he was first and foremost a Wrigley, and as a member of one of Chicago’s most powerful families, he had a duty to fulfill.

And that duty was to the Cubs.

* * * *
Simply put, Philip Knight Wrigley opened his eyes in the right crib. Born in 1894 at Chicago’s Plaza Hotel to a family of great wealth and influence, he never wanted for much.

“He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” Hartig said.

With that spoon came a secure job at the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company and leisure time to pursue his love of horses and boats, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. He was a low-level stockholder in his father’s baseball enterprise and stood to inherit Wrigley Field and the breathtaking Catalina Island off the Los Angeles coast. Even after the stock market crash of 1929 sunk the country’s economy, the Wrigleys fared well because they had avoided extensive dealings with banks, Hartig said.

Workers who lost their livelihoods in the meat, railroad and steel industries began to organize in the city, as hostility toward the wealthy swelled.

“Chicago was one of the major centers of left-wing agitation,” said Peter Alter, an archivist with the Chicago History Museum. “Socialists and communists were strong in Chicago.”

But the Wrigleys weren’t necessarily viewed as bad guys, Alter added. They were rich and powerful, but they still contributed to the city’s goodwill.

After all, the family had one of the few businesses that—though it did not necessarily flourish during the Depression—held on to its employees. The Wrigleys also owned the Cubs, a team that won pennants in 1929 and ’32 (and later in ’35 and ’38), often to half-capacity crowds thinned by hard times. But by 1933, the team and the company were under the direction of Philip K. Wrigley, a man who routinely veered from the trappings of coddled wealth.

“The way people viewed him was he was not your typical baseball owner,” Alter said. “He was not a Comiskey.”

Wrigley, despite his wealth, enjoyed a “normal” streak. He never went to college and eventually joined the military, where he became a mechanic. He got married, had three kids and plugged away at the family’s gum company, but he lacked pretense about his success. He was a loyal employer, even as competing businesses shuttered and sales slowed. He had a generous streak, giving great chunks of money to charities and interests and turning his father’s beloved Southern California island into a conservancy.

Wrigley’s father, William Wrigley Jr., wasn’t born a baseball fan but died the biggest Cubs booster around. He bought up shares of the team piecemeal until eventually he owned it outright. He also purchased the park, which the team leased from him.

As a sort of memorial to his father, Wrigley’s vow not to sell the team to pay inheritance taxes morphed into a blunt refusal to sell the team under any circumstances, despite some promising offers.

“He made a lot of decisions based on business principles,” Hartig said, “and not on sound baseball principles.”

Oftentimes that strategy worked; sometimes it didn’t.

* * * *

“Baseball is too much of a sport to be a business, and too much of a business to be a sport,” Philip K. Wrigley once said. This ambivalence showed in his leadership style and in how he kept the Cubs at emotional arm’s length.

When Wrigley started out as owner, he had the experienced Bill Veeck Sr. in his camp. Unfortunately, Veeck died only a year after Philip K. Wrigley took over, forcing the new owner to make his first big baseball decision—hiring a new president.

Wrigley chose longtime team investor and fishmonger William Walker, but it was a short and rocky arrangement. Though history looks back on Walker’s tenure more kindly, he sealed his fate with several questionable trades, for which he was vilified in the press. Wrigley bought him out, sent him packing and took over as president in 1934.

“God knows, I don’t want the job. If I could find another Bill Veeck, I’d put him in there in a minute, but he doesn’t seem to be available,” Wrigley said, according to an article published by the Society for American Baseball Research. “No matter who’s in there, if anything goes wrong, I’m going to get blamed for it, so I might as well take the job myself.”

While the team won three pennants in the ’30s, Wrigley was less occupied with Cubbie blue than ledger black.

“His father was at games a lot,” Hartig said. “P.K. very seldom went to games.”

This is ironic considering his marketing push early in his presidency, when he went to great lengths to sell “Beautiful Wrigley Field.”

Yes, there was Cubs baseball to see, but the park was also an experience to behold and to be sold, win or lose. Wrigley began purchasing ad space in Chicago newspapers in the middle of winter, a practice that was decried leaguewide. But he was planting the seeds for interest in games and getting on fans’ radar long before tickets went on sale.

While Wrigley was a bottom-line kind of guy, he was not miserly. He relished spending money for the sake of the park and fan comfort. Wrigley brought in bigger, more comfortable seats at the expense of capacity, had the bleachers rebuilt to improve sight lines and laid plans to “green” up the park, which eventually led to the addition of the iconic ivy.

Yet in the final days of pre-war baseball, Wrigley’s loyalty to commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis got the best of him, and it wound up costing the Cubs. Wrigley was the only owner to go along with a plan hatched by Landis to keep minor league teams from folding during the war by making them independent entities that could sell their players to the highest bidder. It didn’t work.

“P.K.’s decision to dismantle the farm system put him back 10 years,” Hartig said.

He also resisted adding night games to the schedule, partly because he felt they were a passing fad and partly because the born innovator hadn’t been the first person to come up with the idea. In 1941, he reluctantly purchased the most advanced lighting system in baseball, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he promptly donated the materials to the war effort. After that, the idea remained dormant for decades.

One feather in Wrigley’s innovation cap was the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II, tryouts for which were held at Wrigley Field in 1941. However, he was woefully behind on the matter of integration, taking a back seat while Jackie Robinson first donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform in 1947. The Cubs signed an African-American player to their Los Angeles farm team in 1949, but Chicago was still an all-white club until Ernie Banks took the field in 1953.

In the ’60s, Wrigley devised the curious College of Coaches experiment, in which the manager was replaced by a rotating roster of head coaches who would assume the lead every few weeks. The intent was to create good all-around players who had access to a number of intelligent voices, but it just wound up confusing the team and encouraging favoritism.

Ultimately, it was television that made Wrigley’s legacy.

After World War II, he began pushing the idea of televising games. Just as his father had pioneered radio broadcasts amid criticism, the younger Wrigley was convinced that seeing was believing when it came to his beautiful ballpark, and that broadcasting games on TV would cultivate fandom. It worked, and the team’s relationship with WGN, which went on to become a “superstation” transmitted around the country, birthed fans for both the team and the park far from the Lakeview neighborhood.

* * * *
The promise to his father, at once bold and uncertain, remained steadfast. Philip K. Wrigley did not sell William Wrigley Jr.’s beloved team, nor the gum empire he built, during his 60-plus years steering both ships. Even when the team entered a dark period of losses and mismanagement, he largely did right by his father. And the family business, where his true talents lay, thrived.

Not every decision Philip K. Wrigley made was sound. There were mistakes and missed opportunities. But he gave freely of his significant wealth, created Cubs fans nationwide and made Wrigley Field a destination for fans around the world.
In the end, he kept his word.

—Kerry Trotter

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