Chicago National League Ball Club, Inc., better known to Major League Baseball fans as the Chicago Cubs, is a subsidiary of the publicly traded media giant Tribune Company. The Cubs have played longer in one city than any other sports franchise. After winning a number of championships in its early history, the Cubs have evolved into sports' most lovable losers, failing to win the World Series since 1908 and not even reaching the Series since 1945. Win or lose, the Cubs have been a perennial favorite on Chicago's WGN television superstation, and draw well at the gate. Often the team's ballpark, Wrigley Field, the second oldest in Major League baseball, is a greater attraction than the team itself. It was the last major league stadium to install lights, and any changes to the facility are met with community opposition, leading to efforts to have Wrigley designated a landmark, which would give the city the power to veto any major renovations.
Late 19th Century Origins
The history of professional baseball dates back to the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, a barnstorming team that took on and defeated all challengers. In 1870 the Chicago White Stockings was formed to challenge the Reds, and in 1871 became one of the founding members of the National Association, baseball's first professional league. At the end of the league's inaugural season, the team's ballpark was destroyed by the great Chicago fire, and the club was forced to withdraw from the National Association for the next two years.
When it resumed play, one of its early boosters, coal baron William A Hulbert, emerged as an officer, and a year later took over as president. Not only would he found the Chicago Cubs, he would have a major influence on the history of professional baseball. The game at the time was poorly run and suffered from the rampant practice of players jumping from one club to another, regardless of contracts. Convinced that he was operating under a disadvantage because of an eastern bias in the game, Hulbert felt no compunction about luring several players away from Boston's perennial championship club. Anticipating retribution from the eastern owners, Hulbert made a preemptive strike; he convinced other club owners to form a new league. Thus, in 1876 the National League was organized, promising to put baseball on a more sound business footing, with contracts honored, no play on Sunday, no drinking, and no gambling. The strongest National Association franchises joined the new league, and the National Association soon disbanded.
Hulbert would become both the president of the National League and the Chicago franchise, which would win the league's first championship. Hulbert died in 1882 at the age of 49, but he had been responsible for a number of important practices in professional baseball, such as having the league determine team schedules (rather than club secretaries), hiring professional umpires, and writing a reserve clause into baseball contracts. This clause bound a player to a club from year to year, and although it prevented contract jumping, it was open to abuse and kept down player salaries. It wasn't until the 1970s that baseball players gained the right to become free agents after fulfilling the terms of their contract.
In 1882 the team's manager, Albert Spaulding, replaced Hulbert as the owner of the Chicago franchise. Spaulding had also been a star pitcher and was already starting to build a sporting goods business that still bears his name. During this early period the Chicago club was known by a variety of nicknames: the White Stockings, Colts, and Orphans. They were also winners, taking the league championship in six of the National League's first 11 seasons. It wasn't until 1902 that the nickname of the Cubs was applied to the team, first appearing in a March 27, 1902, article in the Chicago Daily News. The name was officially adopted by the club in 1907.
There was also a change in ownership in 1902 when Spalding's agent, James A. Hart, took over. Three years later he was looking to sell. A former newspaperman and press agent for the New York Giants named Charles W. Murphy had been hired to work for the Chicago team, but when he learned of Hart's intentions, he bought the Cubs, using $100,000 he borrowed from his former publisher, Charles Phelps Taft, the older half-brother of William Howard Taft, who would be elected President of the United States in 1908. Because the team was successful, Murphy was soon able to repay Taft, who retained a minority interest.
World Champions in 1908
During Murphy's tenure the club became the first back-to-back winners of the World Series, which pitted the National League Champions against the best team in the upstart American League. The early years of the century were also the golden era for the Chicago Cubs. The 1908 World Championship would be the last in club history through 2003. It was also the period that witnessed the best-known double-play combination in baseball history--Tinkers to Evers to Chance--immortalized in a piece by New York Times writer Franklin Pierce. In truth, by modern standards they did not complete a high number of double-plays, and it was ironic that they should be linked together for posterity, given that Tinkers and Evers utterly despised one another.
The Cubs in 1908 were also involved in what was arguably the most controversial moment in baseball history: the "bonehead Merkle" incident. During that season the Cubs were in a tight race with the New York Giants for the National League title when on September 23, 1908, the two teams met in New York's Polo Grounds in a crucial game. The Giants appeared to win the game in their final at bat with a two-out hit, but 19-year-old Giant rookie Fred Merkle, the runner at first, failed to touch second base. Rather, he ran for the clubhouse in center field to avoid the crowd surging onto the field. The Cubs retrieved the ball, or at least claimed they did, and touched second base, thus forcing out Merkle, negating the run, and extending the game. Because a similar circumstance involving the Cubs had occurred earlier in the season, the umpires were alerted to such a possibility and agreed with the Cubs' argument and called out Merkle. The league ruled that the game would be replayed at the end of the season, if necessary. Since the teams were tied in the standings, the game was played, the Cubs won, and went on to defend their World Championship.
Murphy later wore out his welcome with Cubs' fans for trading away popular players and doing little to prevent World Series' tickets getting into the hands of speculators who jacked up the price. He was also becoming unpopular with his fellow owners for unflattering comments he made to the press about Major League Baseball. The National League owners banded together to oust Murphy in 1914, and Taft stepped in to buy Murphy's interest for approximately $500,000. Taft also made it clear, however, that he did not intend to hold the club for very long. Finding no acceptable financial offers, he held onto the team until 1916, finally selling the Cubs to restaurateur Charles Weeghman and a group of partners. Weeghman was the owner of the Chicago Whales of the Federal League, a rival big league that played in 1915, and took Major League Baseball to court. As part of a settlement between the two parties, Weeghman was allowed to buy into the National League. He moved the Cubs to the new Northside ballpark he called Weeghman Park, which he had built the year before for the Whales at a cost of $250,000.
One of Weeghman's minority partners was William K. Wrigley, Jr., a lifelong baseball fan who moved to Chicago from Philadelphia, where he was born in 1861, the son of a soap maker. Wrigley started his own soap business in Chicago, and as an inducement to merchants for carrying his scouring soap he offered baking powder as premium. When baking powder proved more popular than the soap, he began selling the baking powder and offered chewing gum as a premium. Then chewing gum was even more popular, and Wrigley cast his lot with the future of chewing gum. In 1893 he introduced Juicy Fruit and Spearmint gums, and by advertising heavily he was able to make Wrigley's Spearmint the most popular chewing gum in America and make himself a wealthy man. Wrigley loved to spend afternoons at the ballpark with friends, and he quietly began buying up stock in the club so that by 1921 he became sole owner. Single-deck Weeghman Park now became Cubs Park in 1921 and was renamed Wrigley Field in 1926, the same year that plans were announced to add a second deck, which would increase seating to 40,000. Also of note during the 1920s, WGN Radio, on April 14, 1925, broadcast its first regular season Cubs game.
The Wrigley Years
Under William Wrigley's ownership, the Cubs were willing to spend on top players and fielded winning teams, albeit no World Champions. When he died in 1932 he left the chewing gum business and the Cubs to his son, Philip Knight "P.K." Wrigley. Reportedly Wrigley, on his deathbed, elicited a promise from Philip to never sell his beloved Cubs. P.K. Wrigley never did sell the team, but he was also reluctant to spend money on the club. To get fans to come out to Wrigley Field, he decided to sell ambience. He was quoted as saying, "The Fun ... the sunshine, the relaxation. Our idea is to get the public to go see a ball game, win or lose." In 1937 the famous vines were planted on the outfield wall, and bleachers and a new scoreboard would be installed. Wrigley's approach may have angered fans who wanted to root for winners, but his ballpark kept bringing them back. Wrigley Field would remain standing as other cities tore down their vintage ballparks, replacing them with multipurpose stadiums in the 1960s and 1970s. Wrigley Field was the last to install lights, which had begun appearing in the 1930s at major league parks. The Cubs actually purchased lighting equipment in 1941, but on the day after the Pearl Harbor attack that led to America's entry into World War II, Wrigley donated the equipment to the War Department. During his lifetime he never tried installing lights at Wrigley Field. Most owners had turned to lights as an economic necessity, to boost attendance, but Wrigley lacked the need, and since all the other clubs installed lights, not having them made Wrigley Field even more unique.
The Cubs next made it to the World Series in 1945. According to lore, William "Billy Goat" Sianis, the Greek-immigrant owner of a local establishment, the Lincoln Tavern, was not allowed to bring his pet goat Murphy into Wrigley Field to watch the fourth game of the series even though the goat had a ticket. Angered that Murphy had been turned away because he smelled, Sianis placed a curse on the team, saying "Cubs, they not gonna win anymore." After the Cubs lost the series to Detroit, Sianis sent a telegram to Wrigley: "Who smells now?"
After decades of success, the Cubs now became perennial losers, but their fans would at least be able to follow the team's exploits on the newly invented television. On April 16, 1948, WGN-TV broadcast its first game, an exhibition between the Cubs and the crosstown rival White Sox. The fortunes of the Cubs became so bad that in 1960 the team implemented what it called a "College of Coaches," a system in which the team's coaches took turns as manager. The idea was scrapped after five seasons, and Leo Durocher was brought in. He built a strong club that appeared to be on the verge of returning the Cubs to the World Series in 1969. However, the upstart New York Mets began catching up, and although Sianis, who would die a year later, supposedly lifted the curse, the Cubs faltered badly and ended up eight games behind the Mets, who would go on to win the World Series that October.
The Enlightening 1980s
During the 1970s the Cubs would often lead their division only to fall short. In 1977 P.K. Wrigley died, and the family sold the team to the Tribune Company four years later. Tribune was the parent company of WGN, and by buying the Cubs it locked up very valuable programming, which it would then be able to distribute to cable systems via satellite, joining WTBS in Atlanta, which broadcast Braves' games, as a so-called superstation. A new management team was installed with the Cubs, a number of players changed, and the team won a division title in 1984, only to fall short in the playoffs, losing to the San Diego Padres and again failing to reach the World Series.
Because the Cubs came so close to playing in the World Series, Wrigley Field's lack of lights became an issue for Major League Baseball, which wanted all World Series' games played at night in order to attain the highest television ratings. The Cubs began the lengthy process of gaining approval to install lights, a move opposed by baseball purists as well as people who lived in the residential area surrounding the park. Finally, in February 1988 the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance permitting a limited number of night baseball games at Wrigley Field. The first game under the lights at Wrigley was scheduled for August 8, 1988, with the Philadelphia Phillies, but rain caused a cancellation after three-and-a-half innings. The first official night game would have to wait until the next day. Later in 1988, the team reaffirmed its commitment to Wrigley Field by launching a $14 million renovation project that would add 67 mezzanine suites and a new press box.
In 1992 Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent proposed moving the Cubs from the Eastern to the Western division, an idea that was vehemently opposed by the Tribune Company, which was concerned about having so many West Coast games on WGN that would not only attract fewer viewers but also disrupt the station's highly profitable local news broadcast. In the end, the Cubs stayed, and Commissioner Vincent left. Several years later, baseball would realign further and the Cubs would be placed in the National League's Central division, a change that met with no opposition from the club.
Although the Cubs and their fans were wedded to Wrigley Field, the club was at a disadvantage compared to other teams with larger capacities and revenues from luxury suites, naming rights, and large parking concessions. For years, the Cubs battled with the row houses across the street from the outfield fences where makeshift seating was set up. At first it was just lawn chairs and maybe a kettle grill or two, but the rooftops evolved into revenue-generating enterprises. In 2002 the team constructed large windscreens that blocked some of the view and later in the year sued the rooftop operators. A deal was reached before the start of the 2004 season, with the rooftop owners agreeing to pay the Cubs 17 percent of their revenues. They simply passed that cost onto their patrons, who happily paid the increased ticket price. It was a win-win solution for both sides. The Cubs took in additional revenues, and the rooftop owners were able to book corporate parties in advance, knowing that there would be no disruption.
The Late 1990s and Beyond
In the late 1990s Cubs fans were entertained by the home-run exploits of outfielder Sammy Sosa, but it was the team's development of outstanding pitching that made it a contender. The team made it to the postseason in 2003 and was on the verge of making it to the World Series for the first time in half a century, when once again fate intervened. A Cubs' fan ended up snagging a foul boul that the Cubs fielders might have caught, giving the Florida Marlins new life in game six of the National League Championship Series. The Marlins won that night and closed out the series in seven games, then went on to win the World Series. For the Cubs the cry was once again "Wait until next year."
Meanwhile, Tribune Company was interested in expanding Wrigley Field and adding more night games, ideas that once again met stiff opposition from the community. The city threatened to designate Wrigley Field as a landmark, which would prevent the Cubs from doing much without government approval. It was also uncertain how committed Tribune was to its ownership of the Cubs. Because of its investment in the WB Network, WGN was less dependent on the Cubs for programming. Moreover, Tribune appeared ready to launch a major television-station buying spree and could use the $300 million the club would likely fetch. During Tribune's ownership of the Cubs, however, there were periodic rumors that it was about to sell. Whether they would prove to be true this time remained to be seen.
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