Wrigley Field in January. The snow glistening in the sun, the ancient park quiet and still …what a beautiful sight, and one not often seen by the general public.
The Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio, XM Radio), surprisingly, is not the first time that a sporting event has been held in the 94-year-old park in the dead of winter. But it is a new experience to all but the most venerable of Chicago sports observers.
It’s been 65 years, in fact — all the way back to World War II —since anyone held a January competition in Wrigley Field.
In late 1943, the Norge Ski Jump club of suburban Chicago, a non-profit organization founded in 1905 and dedicated to spreading appreciation of the sport, asked Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley if they could use Wrigley Field for their annual mid-winter ski-jumping competition.
The meet, which was open to both men and women from around the United States, was usually held in the Chicago suburbs. But the gasoline rationing mandated by the U.S. War Production Board during World War II meant that many prospective fans wouldn’t be able to drive the long distance to attend.
Wrigley, losing money on the Cubs during the War and also supporting his brainchild, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, was happy to have someone in the park when he wasn’t using it, because he could then sell concessions to the visiting customers.
The media was informed of the tournament on Jan. 3, 1944. To bring in more customers, the Norge club announced that proceeds from the event would be donated to local servicemen’s societies.
The club, headed by Karl Nilsen, experienced unexpected friction over the event, however. The resistance came not from the park’s neighbors, nor the Chicago winds, but rather from Illinois’War Production Board.
The WPB, which held control of all licenses for entertainment activities during the war years, was concerned that the materials needed to build a new ski jump at Wrigley were critical to the Allied effort, and that it would additionally be wasteful to use gasoline to transport lumber and workers for a “non-essential event.”The WPB officially rejected the event on Jan. 12.
Following some intense and speedy lobbying with the Board, the Norge club were allowed, on Jan. 14, to rent pre-existing metal and concrete material from a local concern and hurriedly construct the ski slide. The event was held on consecutive Sundays, Jan. 23 and 30.
The tournament featured contestants coming from most Midwest states and some from as far away as Colorado. Jumpers climbed atop a 90-foot-high artificial hill constructed near the backstop and slid toward home plate. The skiers then took off into air, soaring toward the iconic center-field scoreboard that was constructed in 1938 and remains at Wrigley Field today.
The January 23 series of jumps drew 6,000 fans, while the next week’s conclusion of the competition brought in some 5,000. Brooklyn-born Army Sgt. Torger Tokle, serving at Camp Hale, Colorado, was the overall winner of the Class A division, which pitted the tournament’s top jumpers. Beginning adults competed in Class B, youth in Class C, and senior citizens (!) in a special class.
While the Norge club considered running future events at the Cubs’ballpark, they never did. Following the end of the Second World War, P.K. Wrigley eventually wound down his non-baseball and non-football events, which at one time had included basketball, wrestling and boxing.
The 1944 ski-jump tournament was the only athletic event ever conducted in January at Wrigley Field …until now.
Stuart Shea is covering the ice rink build at Wrigley Field for NHL.com. He is author of "Wrigley Field: The Unauthorized Biography" (Potomac Books) and worked a Major League Baseball contributor at Wrigley Field for a decade.
Author: Stuart Shea | Special to NHL.com