Yankee fans, including my wife, find it endearing and slightly pathetic that while they invoke the names of World Series-winning heroes to exalt their team's history — Ruth! Gehrig! DiMaggio! Reggie! Derek! — Cub fans grow dewy-eyed to recall the stars — Banks! Santo! Ryno! Wood! — of teams who didn't win even so much as the chance to lose a World Series.
My stepfather would have turned 102 years old this year. And he still would have been too young to have even prenatal memories of a Cub team winning the World Series.
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In "Mr. Wrigley's Ball Club: Chicago and the Cubs During the Jazz Age," Roberts Ehrgott has written a graceful, engrossing account of an era in which the Cubs, while already falling short of winning the World Series, built a national following in the age of flash, flappers, mobsters, molls, bank runs and breadlines.
At the heart of the story are William Wrigley Jr. and William Veeck Sr. (and how strange to hear those names in partnership, decades before their sons would own clubs on the opposite sides of town). Wrigley's fortune was founded on chewing gum; Veeck was a sportswriter who eventually became the team's president.
Selling gum across the country helped Wrigley see more clearly than other owners into the future of radio. Most clubs feared that letting people hear a game for free would keep them from ever paying to get into the park. But Wrigley, Ehrgott says, grasped how the sound of baseball on the radio, seeping "down quiet streets and alleys, inside stores and barbershops and the ice cream parlors that fronted for the ready availability of beer," brought baseball into America's kitchens, bedrooms and shops, making women and kids into fans and baseball as much a sound of summer as crickets.
"Cub games had created the first electronic village," says Ehrgott.
Wrigley also moved the club's spring training to Catalina Island, the "Magic Isle with a Smile" he had bought in 1919 that was about 20 miles off the shore of Los Angeles. Ehrgott calls Catalina "an unsurpassed spring training mix of climate, scenery, and swank surroundings," a playground for gamblers, gamboling movie stars, equally frisky wild goats — and Cubs.
The club would pull in to L.A. on a plush Santa Fe railcar that steamed across farmlands, plains and deserts on its way to Hollywood, stopping for photo ops, interviews and impromptu nonsense along the route. Hack Wilson, Gabby Hartnett, Kiki Cuyler and Charlie Grimm (who played his left-handed banjo) were already household names (like Wrigley's Gum) because the signals of Cub games over WGN and other stations would carry clear across the country's flat midsection. Radio and their spring training jaunt made the Cubs a national brand in that half of America where major league baseball had yet to be seen.
(And so it was not surprising that one of their personable young announcers, Ronald Reagan, would be offered a Hollywood screen test one spring. As my godfather, Jack Brickhouse, used to say, "It took an old Cub announcer to win the Cold War.")
One of Ehrgott's most appealing portrayals is of Lewis Robert "Hack" Wilson, the heavyset, hard-hitting and even harder-drinking outfielder. His 1930 season of 56 home runs and 191 runs-batted-in is still considered just about the best-ever in baseball history (the RBI mark still stands, while his National League homers record was dubiously broken six decades later by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa).
It is tempting to laugh off Wilson's epochal carousing, brawling and drinking (young Bill Veeck Jr. was delegated by his father to dunk Wilson into an ice-water bath to rouse their cleanup hitter for a game). But decades later, it's also important to see how Wilson drank himself out of enduring stardom. After Ruthian stats in 1930, Hack Wilson went into a slump that boozing turned into a tailspin (the major leagues had also switched to a heavier ball with higher seams to improve the odds for pitchers). Wilson was benched by Rogers Hornsby, who had replaced Joe McCarthy as manager, and was traded in the off-season.
Hornsby was a nondrinking, nonsmoking moralist. Perhaps his piety left more time for his gambling, the scale of which makes Pete Rose look like a Franciscan monk. Veeck and Wrigley let Hornsby go, too, by the middle of the 1932 season, even though he had helped lead the team into the 1932 World Series (which they lost in four straight games after Babe Ruth pointed vaguely toward the bleachers and hit a home run shot to the right of the scoreboard). Difficult and despised as Hornsby was, it seems small-minded that Cub players refused to vote him a full World Series share.
The Depression darkens the book's last chapters. About 750,000 people in Chicago were without jobs — an astonishing 10 percent of the national total, writes Ehrgott — and Wrigley opened a North Side shelter for 2,000 men. He died at age 70 just before the Cubs left for 1932's spring training, the club that Wrigley and Veeck had spent so lavishly to make champions becoming, incongruously and exasperatingly, even more cherished and rich over the next 80 years as it set records for losing.
I especially appreciate the way Ehrgott doesn't dwell so much on the Jazz Age Cubs' sociopolitical significance that he shortchanges the games on the field. Describing the narrative drama of a baseball game is becoming a neglected art in this age of instantaneous news bursts. But it is an art, and Ehrgott helps us see the elegance between the foul lines of a falling-down drunk like Hack Wilson and the matador nimbleness of Babe Ruth (who drank as much but held it better) at home plate. Thanks are due to the University of Nebraska Press for being an academic publisher that cherishes fine, lucid writing.
Scott Simon hosts NPR's "Weekend Edition" with Scott Simon, PBS shows, and is the author of several books, including "Home and Away," a sports memoir, and the novel "Windy City."
"Mr. Wrigley's Ball Club"
By Roberts Ehrgott, University of Nebraska Press, 485 pages, $34.95Copyright © 2015, RedEye