When Did Wrigley Become the Star?

Over at ACB, they were discussing the Cubs’ ability to draw fans regardless of the state of the team due to the tourist attraction status of Wrigley Field. My comment ballooned into a blog post. I posted it over there, but I figured I’d include it here too given the week-long posting vacation I’ve been on.

I don’t think the team officially started exploiting the Wrigley advantage until 1998. I remember because I was trying to break into advertising in 1997, and part of my makeshift portfolio was a proposed campaign for exploiting the Wrigley advantage since the team sucked so bad yet never really promoted the uniqueness of the stadium. But the real reason the focus had never been on Wrigley as a place was because the Cubs had been a personality-driven franchise. The centerpiece personality was Harry Caray.

Harry joined the Cubs for the 1982 season and became, more or less, the instant face of the franchise. Not all that coincidentally, John McDonough joined the Cubs as director of sales and promotion in 1983, and moved steadily up the Cub corporate ladder, incorporating the broadcasting division into his official responsibilities in 1991.

During Harry’s 16 seasons with the Cubs, the key marketing advantage was not Wrigley Field, it was the national audience (radio & TV) for each and every game with Harry as the featured star in both media. You may have heard Mark Grace tell of Harry’s ability to draw crowds of fans away from Cub superstars like Grace, Sandberg, and Dawson, leaving them alone to marvel at his vastly superior fame.

I guarantee you, John McDonough is a smart guy, and he capitalized on and did everything he could to encourage Harry’s fame. Harry Caray (or the unabashed homer image he projected) was the focal point of Cub marketing and promotion throughout his tenure with the team.

When Harry died before spring training of 1998, that’s when the Wrigley experience took center stage. His passing was sad for all of us, but the timing of the marketing transition could not have been better.

The culture was primed for it. In 1989, Field of Dreams became a hit, and it swelled in popularity upon its release on home video. “If you build it, he will come” became the meme that wouldn’t die. The importance of baseball in familial relationships and the culture of America took on mythological status on a mass popular level. And the movie may have been centered around a bunch of dead ballplayers from the South Side, but the idea of a ballpark lost in time conjured images of Wrigley for every Cub fan.

The next year was the last season every played at Comiskey Park, the oldest functioning park still standing at the time. And in 1991, the New Comiskey opened its gates to people generally disenfranchised with its modern look, despite the plethora of outstanding amenities. Boo for progress.

The next year, 1992, Oriole Park at Camden Yards turned the inner harbor into a baseball time machine. It was the anti-Comiskey despite the fact that the same company designed and built both parks. But with Camden’s old-world (yet amenity-rich) feel came a newfound appreciation nationwide for the parks that already carried a sense of nostalgia.

New parks continued to spring up (the Jake, the Ballpark at Arlington, Pac Bell, Coors Field, etc.) in attempts to marry the classic Americana vibe with the modern cry for additional attractions. But the baseball stoppage of 1994 cost the league a World Series, and it broke any illusions fans may have had about Major League Baseball’s quaint sense of history.

When Harry died in ’98, baseball was still recovering from the aftermath and fans were still disenfranchised. But instead of marking the demise of baseball as we know it, Harry’s passing turned Wrigley Field into a shrine to everything baseball was meant to be, at least in the eyes of the fans.

The tradition of the 7th-inning stretch being sung poorly continued. Homages to Harry popped up around the neighborhood. In a single game, Kerry Wood struck out an Astro for every year of his life. Sammy Sosa hit sixty-effing-six homers for the season. Ron Santo cemented his place as the slight reincarnation of Harry Caray (Noooooooooo!). The Cubs made the playoffs in as dramatic fashion as fans could possibly dream.

Wrigley became . . . magical. It was no longer Harry Caray’s personal stage. It had become his own small section of heaven.

That, my friends, is when Wrigley Field itself became the center of the hype. At a distance, it’s easy to see that the talk of magic and curses and overwhelming sentimentality is a bit of a crock, but in the moment, it all just seemed too perfect. Even looking back now, I get a little wrapped up in the emotion of it all.

Still, the storybook drama has worn off. I’m not alone in wanting to move on from the nonessential drama and just win a championship already. The thing is, I think the Cubs as an organization have moved on, too. Turning Wrigley into more of a place of business and less of St. Harry’s Cathedral might help all of us step into a new era: the age of winning.

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