CHICAGO – There was a giant replica cake right next to the Ernie Banks statue, and an old-time band played as fans made their way through the main entrance.
The famed marquee had a message, too.
“Happy Birthday, Wrigley Field,” it read.
Exactly 100 years after the Chicago Federals pounded the Kansas City Packers in the first game at the famed ballpark, Wrigley was the scene of a joyous birthday bash on Wednesday afternoon. Banks and other Hall of Famers such as Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Andre Dawson were on hand, and so were Bears greats Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers.
The Cubs and Diamondbacks went retro, wearing throwback 1914 jerseys, and the famed scoreboard listed Kansas City and Chi-Feds in their place. It was a day of celebration, a day of reflection. And a day that ended with another loss, the Cubs falling 7-5 after blowing a ninth-inning lead.
But before that, the memories, the stories, flowed like runs in a big rally.
“It just gives me goose bumps because I had a chance to play here,” Williams said. “I often said this was my playground during the summer for so many years. So I have enjoyed it and I still enjoy it.”
The celebration was held as Cubs ownership and the neighboring rooftop owners remain in a standstill over proposed renovations. The $500 million project, which includes a Jumbotron, is on hold because the Ricketts family wants assurances that it won’t be sued over obstructed views.
“You can’t ask a team to be competitive and you can’t ask people to do things and then tie their hands and their legs,” baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said. “It’s just wrong. Somebody has to say it so I’m happy to say it.”
The rooftop owners, who charge fans to sit in bleachers atop their buildings, have a contract under which they share 17 percent of their revenues with the Cubs. The Tribune Co., the previous owner, signed the deal and “this ownership didn’t,” Selig said.
He said the treatment the current owners – the Ricketts family – has received is “beyond unfair” and that he’ll do everything he “possibly can” to help them.
He also said the Rickettses have not approached him about moving, that they’re committed to renovating Wrigley and staying there.
“They know the right thing to do for this franchise and this sport is to preserve this, just like the Red Sox preserved Fenway,” said Selig, who made his first trip to the ballpark in May 1944.
Assuming they eventually go ahead with the renovations, it’ll be up to the Ricketts family to preserve that charm while bringing the stadium into the 21st century.
Wednesday was a day to turn back the clock, a day to celebrate the century that was at the neighborhood park on Chicago’s North Side.
Ushers wore party hats, and fans received birthday cupcakes and throwback jerseys. There was a replica Wrigley Field cake from Carlo’s Bakery, setting of the hit TLC show “Cake Boss,” just outside the ballpark.
On his way in from suburban Glen Ellyn, Illinois, Williams thought about all the events besides baseball games that have taken place at Wrigley Field over the years. The ballpark has hosted everything from boxing to soccer to pro wrestling to the circus to the rodeo to concerts to a Chicago Blackhawks game. There was even this: On back-to-back weekends in January 1944, ski jumpers leapt from scaffolding covered in snow and ice and landed behind second base.
Wrigley Field, it seems, has seen everything but a World Series championship. The Cubs haven’t won one since 1908 – eight years before they started playing at what was then known as Weeghman Park.
Of course, the Bears celebrated a few at Wrigley. They won NFL championship games there in 1933, 1941, 1943 and 1963 before they moved to Soldier Field in 1971.
Williams recalled watching the Bears at Wrigley, back when Sayers and Butkus and Mike Ditka were playing and when George Halas was running the club.
Butkus had a few good stories, too.
He mentioned the stench one time in the locker room, one he thought was coming from Doug Bufone’s “ratty” gym shoes.
Bufone insisted the smell wasn’t coming from the shoes. Butkus didn’t believe him at first. Then, he said, they were putting something on top of a locker when a tile fell and out plopped – you guessed it – a dead rat.
“I said, ‘Oh, there it is,’” Butkus said.
To Butkus, a South Side product who starred at Illinois and his hometown team, playing at Wrigley meant he’d made it – not because of his Chicago ties, but because of the stadium itself. Because of its quirks, its imperfections
“Pros aren’t supposed to play where everything is perfect,” he said.
“The ballpark itself, there’s just something about it,” he said. “The intricate angles. You came out and you walked around and looked around, and you just said, ‘Wow.’”