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updated: 4/24/2014 6:03 AM

Wrigley Field's 100th birthday brings together the best

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  • Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, greets the crowd during pregame ceremonies marking the 100th birthday of Wrigley Field on Wednesday.

      Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, greets the crowd during pregame ceremonies marking the 100th birthday of Wrigley Field on Wednesday.
    Associated Press

  • Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, who played for the Bears at Wrigley Field, is recognized Wednesday during pregame ceremonies marking the 100th birthday of Wrigley Field.

      Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, who played for the Bears at Wrigley Field, is recognized Wednesday during pregame ceremonies marking the 100th birthday of Wrigley Field.
    Associated Press

  • Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus, who played for the Bears at Wrigley Field, is recognized Wednesday during pregame ceremonies marking the 100th birthday of Wrigley Field.

      Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus, who played for the Bears at Wrigley Field, is recognized Wednesday during pregame ceremonies marking the 100th birthday of Wrigley Field.
    Associated Press

 
 

For part of one day, the talk about Wrigley Field didn't center on battles with rooftop owners, a ballpark in need of repair or a ball team in need of good players.

There was enough of that later in the day, including a heartbreaking Cubs loss to the Diamondbacks.

Early, though, it was about memories.

Some of the greatest providers of those memories were on hand Wednesday as the Cubs celebrated the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field.

Opened as Weeghman Park, home of the Federal League's Chicago team, the ballpark at Clark and Addison streets on Chicago's North Side has been home to greats in both baseball and football. While short on championships, it has been long on big moments and big stars.

"You know what?" asked Billy Williams, the gentlemanly outfielder with the sweet swing. "I was thinking, coming out here from Glen Ellyn, they built this ballpark for it to house baseball. It is supposed to house baseball. But it has been the backdrop for so many adventurous times.

"The Chicago Bears, when they used to play here, I remember coming out of the clubhouse and coming down to the bench and seeing George Halas, Mike Ditka, Gale Sayers … all of those good individuals that played here, Hall of Fame players.

"It's been the backdrop to so many things.

The Cubs threw a nice 100th birthday party for the old ballpark and invited some of the people Williams mentioned, and others. Butkus and Sayers, who came to the Bears and Wrigley Field in 1965 and played there until the Bears moved to Soldier Field in 1971, were on hand.

Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks, received perhaps the biggest cheers during pregame ceremonies. Among former Cubs joining him on the field were Andre Dawson, Glenn Beckert, Gary Matthews, Randy Hundley, Bob Dernier and Milt Pappas.

Wrigley Field has been maligned over the years by some who have said it's not modern enough or too cramped or whatever.

Butkus, maybe the most fearsome linebacker who ever played, had a different take.

"Well, you know what it meant to me?" asked Butkus, who still looks like he could take a ball carrier's head off. "It was like I made it in the pros, because pros aren't supposed to play where everything is perfect. We had a locker room back there that was too small for a basketball team. The field tilted.

"It was perfect for what I thought it meant to be: a pro can play anywhere."

Sayers wrote the most memorable football script at Wrigley when he scored 6 touchdowns against the 49ers on Dec. 12, 1965.

"It was my day, simple as that," said Sayers, who sat next to Butkus in the Cubs dugout. "I've always said God gave me a gift to go out there and run with the football, and that's what I did. I thought I could have scored 10 touchdowns that day. But, hey, time ran out. It was just a day that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I loved that day."

Dawson played right field for the Cubs and won an MVP award with a last-place club in 1987. He was routinely saluted by the right-field fans, who would bow to him when he'd return to his position.

"They kind of brought me out of my character, my makeup, because I had never experienced that," Dawson said. "I just felt the love and the adulation that is only associated with the stars from their home fans. For me, it was a new beginning, and I wanted to make the most of it. The fans refueled me. They gave me that extra incentive day in and day out to go out and represent the uniform, not disrespect the uniform. The fans were who made us."

One person near and dear to the memories of the old Cubs and their fans was Ron Santo, the third baseman and Hall of Famer who died in 2010. Williams was asked how much Ronnie would have enjoyed this day.

"Oh, man," Williams said. "Talk about it. Talk about it. Yeah. I think this is kind of equal to when he went into the Hall of Fame, the celebration, Wrigley Field. When you look back, you say, 'I got a chance to play there.' Ernie, myself and Santo, we all said the same thing: I got a chance to play in a century-old ballpark we're still celebrating."

• Follow Bruce's reports on Twitter@BruceMiles2112.

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