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Winter Classic to add to Wrigley mystique

by Evan Weiner /
The Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings aren't going to play two at the "Friendly Confines" of Wrigley Field on Jan. 1. While that might make Ernie Banks unhappy, the teams will make history at the old ballpark on Chicago's north side when they meet for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio, XM Radio).

The old ballpark, which began life as Weeghman Park in 1914 as the home of Charles A. Weeghman’s Federal League baseball team, the Chicago Whales, has been the Chicago Cubs' ball yard since 1916. It also housed the NFL's Chicago Bears from 1921-70 and a North American Soccer League franchise. Babe Ruth allegedly called his shot there in the 1932 World Series.

Wrigley Field is just not a place where baseball is played. There is an aura surrounding the park; it's a place to be seen. "The Bleacher Bums" have their own culture, people watch games from neighboring rooftops and the seventh-inning stretch has become a notable event. Celebrities are brought in to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" -- usually off key, but that doesn’t matter as videos of the moments have become YouTube staples.

Wrigley Field didn't have lights for night baseball until 1988. Day or night, the wind patterns are unpredictable, which affects any balls hit into the air. And then there's the ivy covering the outfield brick wall.

The ballpark has been in movies. In "The Blues Brothers," Elwood Blues' home address on his Illinois driver’s license was 1060 W. Addison, which is Wrigley Field’s address. Other movies shot there include "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off," "Rookie of the Year" and "A League of Their Own." Television series also have used the old ballpark. There even was a play, "Bleacher Bums," in the late 1970s that was supposed to have taken place in Wrigley’s right-field bleachers. The United States Post Office has issued a Wrigley Field stamp.

The Cubs never seem to win big games, but that is secondary to the Wrigley experience as longtime Cubs third baseman and broadcaster Ron Santo and Football Hall of Famer Mike Ditka will attest. That experience will grow to include the first outdoor NHL game played in Chicago on Jan. 1, 2009.

"You know, I came up when I was 20-years-old (in 1960)," said Santo of his first days with the Cubs. "They had WGN, every game was on (TV) at home, that had a lot to do with it, the fans' loyalty to the Cubs and Wrigley Field. A lot of mothers that were home with their young kids would watch baseball. They had Ladies Day, it was just a tradition. We were drawing maybe 600,000 (fans) in the early '60s, and after we won, that team of Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Fergie (Jenkins) and (Randy) Hundley, it became a ballclub that represented good baseball. Cubs fans love good baseball; even though we never won, Wrigley Field is special.

"It is like a cathedral, there is not a better place to play baseball, and I think the Cub fan enjoys it. … When I came up, those little kids became fans and it kept building and building, and with the Bleacher Bums and everything, it is a great place to watch a baseball game, and Wrigleyville became very popular. It is almost, when you go down, you got a good package, you got good baseball, right after the game you can eat anywhere, have a drink. It is all-Cubby fun. Wrigleyville has been there since 1914.

"(Wrigley Field) is special. You are tired after so many games, but when you get to Wrigley Field, there is an atmosphere in there when you walk in, it moves you to another notch. It is very unique. To be up in the press box and see Lake Michigan over the right-field wall and all those people up in those buildings is fantastic."

There were no lights at Wrigley when the Bears played there, so football games would start at noon on Sundays to make sure the games would end by sundown. Darkness won't be an issue for the Winter Classic, but there was a certain charm to a lightless park.

"I was brought up in day baseball and I never thought there would ever be lights in Wrigley Field," said Santo. "I am happy that there are, because there wouldn't be a Wrigley Field without lights."

Wrigley Field also saw a lot of football in its day.

"Wrigley Field was unique because the fans were so close to the players," said Mike Ditka, who played on the 1963 team that won the NFL championship and who finds it regrettable that Wrigley Field no longer hosts NFL games. "It's very compact and small and only seated at maximum 47,000 (for football), that's why they can't play now, there aren't enough seats. The thing about Wrigley Field that made it so unique, you went in one end zone you ran into the dugout, and you ran into the other one, you hit into the center-field wall. And the dugout on the other side, they put boards over the dugout. Part of the end zone, it wasn't field, it wasn't grass, it was like cement -- it was the dugout steps. It was close. I think the people who watched enjoyed it more for that reason.

"Anything you said, they heard it in the 16th row. I will tell you that, and (coach George) Halas said a few things, too. I can remember coming off a game, we were losing to Cleveland and someone nailed me with a snowball or ice ball. I was so mad, I started off after them and the old man (Halas) got mad at me for hauling after the fans. Halas got on anybody's back if you went after the fans."

Wrigley Field is a colorful place; it's more than just a slab of cement with seats. It is alive, and for the first time it will host a hockey game, which means more stories will be added to its legacy.

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