Cubs go all out to celebrate Wrigley's 100th birthday
Players, statues sport throwbacks; Hall of Famers on hand for centennial
CHICAGO -- Talk to former players, regardless of sport, about Wrigley Field and they'll tell you the same thing: Let's do another 100 years.
Perhaps Hall of Famer and Cubs legend Billy Williams summed it up the best by noting the field's significance beyond baseball. It's as much about life and culture in Chicago as it is about the Cubs.
"They built this ballpark to host baseball. ... But it has been the background for so many adventurous times," Williams said. "The history. Everything that happened here -- you had some great ballplayers that passed through here, and the history they made here at Wrigley Field is still housed here and this old ballpark."
From prime boxing matchups to NFL championship teams, Paul McCartney and the Wings to Cubs pennant chases, conventions to a six-touchdown game, Wrigley Field has seen it all. The Cubs pulled out all the stops Wednesday for one of baseball's most beloved and cherished ballparks. It truly is the Party of the Century at the iconic stadium, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of its first Major League game between the Chicago Federals -- who called Wrigley home for two years before the Cubs moved in -- and the Kansas City Packers.
Even inanimate objects deserve birthday cakes when they turn this old. The Cubs designed a Wrigley Field replica birthday cake near the corner of Clark St. and Addison St. that was roped off. By 10:30 a.m. CT, it was nearly impossible to navigate through the crowd without walking on the street. The game started at 1:30 p.m.
Everyone was dressed for the occasion, too, from the grounds crew to ticket attendants to statues. Grounds crew members working on the field donned dark blue jackets reading "Weeghman Park" on the back, the name of Wrigley Field from 1914-20 before the Wrigley family renamed it prior to the '27 season. It was called Cubs Park from '20-26.
The immortalized versions of Ernie Banks, Williams and Ron Santo also sported Chicago Federals replica jerseys. Even Harry Caray obliged, as if to say, 'Holy cow, they wore these?' The D-backs followed suit by wearing replicas of the uniforms worn by the Kansas City Packers.
"There are always things in this job and my career where I think, 'This is one of those special days,'" Commissioner Bud Selig said. "I'm enjoying it immensely. It brings back a lot of history for me."
Cubs royalty took their turns talking to the media and being cheered on by adoring fans. There was Williams, then Bears legends Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers. Dawson swooped in for a chat, and so did one of the more recent former Cubs in attendance, Ryan Dempster. Fergie Jenkins was the last to talk to reporters, but not before graciously signing autographs for fans.
"I didn't know at the time that when I first came up to the big leagues that I was going to play in a historical park like Wrigley Field," Williams said. "When I first walked in, I was so excited about being in a Major League Baseball park, but now after I hear what's going on, the people talking around the country, the big celebration of a century ... it just gives me goosebumps.
"I had a chance to play here, and I often said this is my playground during the summer for so many years, so I've enjoyed and I'm still enjoying it."
Butkus and Sayers were the first to run out for the "Alumni Take the Field" segment, taking their spot near first base, which was near the southeast corner of the end zone. The two dazzled the crowd near the end of the Bears' tenure at Wrigley Field, from 1921-70.
Sayers provided a legendary performance forever etched into the minds of Bears fans on Dec. 12, 1965, at Wrigley. The Hall of Fame running back scored six touchdowns -- four on the ground, one through the air and another via punt return.
"I probably could have scored 10 touchdowns that day, but hey, the time ran out," Sayers said. "A day that is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I love that day."
Butkus wasn't shy about the reality of Wrigley Field as a football stadium, saying the locker room was "too small for a basketball team," and he noted that the field was on a slant. But Wrigley Field still had a certain aura around it.
"You know what it meant to me, it was how I made it in the pros because pros aren't supposed to play where everything is perfect," Butkus said. "A pro plays anywhere. We could go play in a prairie somewhere, because that's what it's about.
"I think the mystique is here. It was such a great place, the people were close."
Banks trotted to short and Glenn Beckert took his spot on the other side of the second-base bag. Dawson jogged to right, Gary Matthews took left and Bobby Dernier went in between to center. Jenkins, Milt Pappas, Dempster and Lee Smith met on the mound, while Randy Hundley shored up the expanded battery behind the plate.
Dawson, who revitalized his career with the Cubs and won the 1987 National League MVP Award, said he liked the "intimate coziness" of Wrigley.
"The fans are right on top of you here, and you can hear conversations if you're close enough to the wall," he said. "You talk back. A lot of things people don't realize is that you get in conversations with them. You'd be amazed at some of the things you can talk about."
Dempster became a fan favorite after spending the 2004-11 seasons with Cubs before being traded midway through the 2012 season. His most memorable experience at Wrigley was his first, and as a visitor.
"It's an incredibly special place for me," Dempster said. "I remember June 1, 1998, making my first start here as a member of the Florida Marlins, visiting player, running out towards center field and having the right-field bleachers just absolutely rain down on me with insults and let me know how bad I was going to do that day --- they were right, they were definitely right.
"I just remember what a special place it was then, and then to come here as a Cubs player to put that uniform on, and I'm just glad I was able to be here for this and celebrate what a special place this is for so many different reasons."
Sadly, the ex-Cub who likely would have most enjoyed the 100th birthday celebration has since passed. Santo, the affable former Cubs third baseman and radio broadcaster, died of bladder cancer complications in December 2010. Sam and Spencer Brown, Santo's grandchildren, took his spot at third.
"Ronnie has always been excited about everything, and I think this is equal to when he went in to the Hall of Fame," Williams said of the celebration.
Pregame ceremonies continued with a tribute from Selig, Cubs legends and others saying, "Happy birthday, Wrigley Field" on the right-field video board.
Grounds crew jackets weren't the only tribute to former Cubs owner Charles Weeghman. His grandniece, Sue Quigg, threw the game's ceremonial first pitch using a 100-year-old ball her grandmother, Dessa Weeghman, threw at a Chi-Feds game a century ago. Longtime Wrigley Field public address announcer Wayne Messmer sang the national anthem, capped by a flyover from biplanes.
Like so many times before, the sun shone bright and a cool and crisp breeze wafted in from Lake Michigan throughout the game.
In the fifth inning, a chorus of 32,323 sang "Happy birthday" to the park. In the middle of the seventh, Butkus, Jenkins, Williams and Dutchie Caray, widow of Harry, led the crowd in "Take me out to the ballgame," a steeped tradition made popular by the legendary broadcaster.
As Dempster said, there's no way to explain the magic of the place. You have to experience it for yourself.
"This is for the fans, this is for the older generation, this is for the young generation," Dawson said. "It's happy birthday, happy birthday to a landmark. You would rather be playing a lot better but you only have a 100-year birthday once, if you ever get fortunate to do that. This is for the fans."
Joe Popely is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.