Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at 100 Years by George Will - Book Review

A Nice Little Place on the North Side:Wrigley Field at 100 Years by George Will (Random House, 2014, 226 pages, $26.00) celebrates the 100th anniversary of the opening of Wrigley Field, one of the last remaining old baseball parks, and the ongoing futility of the woebegone Chicago Cubs, a baseball team that hasn't won a World Series since 1908 and not appeared in it since 1945. Despite a storied early history and plenty of fine players who have graced Wrigley Field, this is an unparalleled record of futility, which is belied by the ability of Wrigley Park and the Cubs to bring customers through the gates to enjoy an afternoon, during years of day baseball long after lights were installed elsewhere. Will is most often noted as one of the deans of newspaper column writing, his conservative take graced by elegant writing and, often, close analysis. Beyond that, his passion for baseball in general and the Chicago Cubs in particular is unmatched. He is an elegant writer, filled with both facts and insights in both areas. A Nice Little Place on the North Side is an intriguing, yet maddening, work which presents a good read, although it does not reach the excellence of his previous baseball book, Men at Work. I haven't read his other baseball book, Bunts.

Wrigley Field

Will has a marvelous eye for detail, a penchant for history, and an ear for the unusual circumstance. He uses all three qualities to good effect in this book. Nevertheless, there's a maddeningly strange feel for the unusual coincidence that I found reminiscent of Bill Stern (1907 - 1971), one of my childhood's most treasured catalogers of the strange and unusual in sport. As Stern might have, and perhaps even did, Will tells who the Cubs player was that played in the last game in which Babe Ruth hit a home run and the first game in which Henry Aaron hit his first home run (Answer: Phil Cavaretta). Other pieces of interesting trivia are the intriguing relationships between Jack Ruby, Ray Kroc, and Ronald Reagan, with Wrigley Field. He also tells about the famed double play combination of Tinker to Evers to Chance, who weren't as good as the poem that tells their story and who wouldn't even talk to each other. If I remember correctly, Stern told this story, too. Will's writing is always elegant, cultivated and sometimes convoluted, as he explores the nooks and crannies of being a Cubs fan with insight and depth from the perspective of a fan as well as a Princeton Ph.D. who also attended Oxford University.

Hack Wilson

In many ways Will, like his alter ego the distinguished political columnist and social commentator, never veers very far away from his roots. He's at his best when he writes about history. He talks about the rise of Chicago as the engine of commerce and growth in the Midwest while pretty thoroughly trashing one of my once favorite poets, Carl Sandburg. He suggests that Wrigley Field itself might be the cause of the Cubs' incompetence through the years as he details the career of Phil Wrigley, son of the team's founder and long-time owner of the Cubs. Wrigley, who didn't much like baseball, saw Wrigley Field as a park in the midst of the city where people could come for a day in the sun in a park-like environment while a baseball game took place before them. He cared more for the fan experience than he did about building a winning ball club.

Ernie Banks

Will makes considerable hash out of two important elements central to the nature of baseball in America: race and beer. In his chapter on race in baseball, Will talks about the not charming history of race relations in Chicago, including the placement of Wrigley Field on the North Side, a largely white enclave. He points out that the largest crowd ever to fill Wrigley Field, at the time, came to see Jackie Robinson's first game there in 1947. He lavished praise on the black people who came to this event in their Sunday best and cheered with lusty restraint, the way he might want the good black people of Chicago to present themselves to a largely white audience. Finally, however, he ends up trashing Ernie Banks as a mediocre fielder who became Chicago's most beloved player, despite a career with a mostly loosing team. Somehow, Banks emerges more as a symbol of futility, almost an embarrassment, than the Hall of Fame member he is and deserves to be. Will's chapter on beer suggests that attendance at Wrigley Field is more responsive to the price of beer there than to the record of the team, supporting the allegation with extensive research, as he details some of the history of beer.

George F. Will - Baseball Fan

George F. Will is one of the most widely read writers in the world, with his twice-weekly syndicated column appearing in more than five hundred newspapers and online news sources. He is a Fox News contributor and the author of thirteen books, including Men at WorkWith a Happy Eye But . . .BuntsThe Woven Figure, and One Man’s America. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary and the Bradley Prize for outstanding intellectual achievement, he lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Will is at his best when he deals with pocket profiles of people like Hack Wilson, P.K. Wrigley, Ernie Banks, and minor players, Wrigley Field itself, the City of Chicago, and the Cubs. He is less convincing when his concerns within baseball overlap his political and social ideology, for instance in race. Nice Little Place on theNorth Side: Wrigley Field after 100 Years by George Will (Random House, 2014, 226, $25.00) turns out to be mostly a catalog of failure – bad players, quirky happenstance, bad management, lack of ambition, and just bad play. How all this became lovable remains a mystery. I recommend this book for sports lovers with at least a small taste for the literary in their sports reading. The book is extremely well-documented and filled with interesting narrative. Will, however, has a penchant for trenchant cuteness. For instance, he mentions that April is, indeed, the cruelest month, without mention of T.S. Eliot (the great American poet and Anglophile), expecting his readers immediately to recognize the reference. Despite lapses like this, the book is mostly a delight for literate baseball fans. The book was provided to me by the publisher as an electronic galley. I read it on my Kindle.