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THE CUBS: FOILED AGAIN
The Chicago Cubs were born to lose. They were cursed. Their die-hard fans said so. It wasn’t just that Chicago’s National League franchise hadn’t won a World Series since 1908. Other teams had gone decades without winning, too. The Philadelphia Phillies had been in the league since 1883 and still hadn’t won a World Series. What distinguished the Cubs was how consistently and entertainingly they stunk.
They were winners before they were lovable losers and traced their ancestry to a different animal—the whale. Their home diamond started out with a different name, too. Wrigley Field began its long life as Weeghman Park, named for the luncheonette tycoon who built it.
In the early 1900s Charlie Weeghman strolled the busy sidewalks of the Loop with a gardenia in his lapel, tipping his bowler hat to the ladies. Lucky Charlie, they called him. He had landed a restaurant job as a boy, filling coffee mugs for the builders, bankers, lawyers, aldermen, priests, and mobsters who made the town go. He soon moved up to maître d’ and then manager, saving his wages and tips until he could open his own place. Weeghman’s Lunch Room was a spotless, white-tiled cafeteria where working people could get a sandwich and a glass of milk for twenty-five cents. Chicagoans lined up to get in. Before long he had a chain of Lunch Rooms—America’s first fast-food chain—that launched what the Tribune called a “cafeteria craze.” By the time he turned thirty-five, his fortune amounted to $8 million (about $200 million today), more than enough to build a baseball park.
As a boy he’d pictured himself knocking doubles and triples like Cap Anson, the great first baseman of Chicago’s National League baseball club, which played home games at the rat-infested West Side Grounds. After making his millions, Weeghman tried to buy the St. Louis Cardinals, but his wealth was a little too fresh for the silver-haired men who ran Major League Baseball. They turned him down. So he poured his money into a new league.
For the 1914 season the upstart Federal League of Base Ball Clubs placed teams in eight cities, including Chicago, to challenge the monopoly of the National and American Leagues. Their players were mostly big-league castoffs and never-wuzzes, but Weeghman had big plans for his Chicago Federals, cleverly nicknamed the Chi-Feds. As a first salvo against the game’s establishment, he signed the Cubs’ famous shortstop Joe Tinker.
Tinker had black hair spilling over a unibrow so pronounced you can see it on his Hall of Fame plaque. The Cubs’ catalyst when they won four pennants and a pair of World Series, he had crossed into folklore in a 1910 poem by newspaperman Franklin Pierce Adams, a New York Giants fan:
These are the saddest of possible words:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double—
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Weeghman signed the thirty-three-year-old Tinker as the Chi-Feds’ player-manager for an unheard-of twelve thousand dollars a year. Four days later, he leased nine acres in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood. The land had been home to the city’s Lutheran Theological Seminary until the seminarians decided their neighborhood was going to hell. They could barely hear themselves pray over the noise from trains clattering through the new El station on Addison Street. One seminarian recalled “smoke, dust, grime, soot, dirt, foul gases, railroading by night and day, whistles, ding-donging of bells.” Weeghman leased the land for sixteen thousand dollars a year and hired architect Zachary Taylor Davis to build a ballpark there.
Davis had gotten his start at Louis Sullivan’s firm, working alongside a twenty-one-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright. With $250,000 of Weeghman’s lunch money to spend (about $6.3 million in today’s dollars), he started from scratch less than two months before the Chi-Feds’ 1914 season began. Davis and Weeghman hired hundreds of Chicago men to wield shovels, wheelbarrows, hammers, and saws and run mule teams and steam- and gasoline-powered engines on double shifts through February and March. From groundbreaking to Opening Day, they built the park in seven weeks.
They couldn’t have done it without the sort of friends who can help a construction job. One of Weeghman’s friends, New York mobster Arnold Rothstein, paraded around Chicago with flunkies like Legs Diamond, who enjoyed stabbing people who crossed his boss and cut out their tongues if they griped about it. This was five years before Rothstein fixed the 1919 World Series.
On April 23, 1914, a mile-long parade of motorcars and merrymakers led from the Loop to Weeghman Park to celebrate Opening Day. Ten brass bands played. A dozen fans in sombreros brought a live bull to the game. The park was built to hold fourteen thousand baseball bugs, as fans were called in those days, but more than twenty thousand packed the place that afternoon. Just before the game began, a car festooned with roses and carnations drove onto the field. Joe Tinker stepped out and waved to the crowd.
Tinker singled in three trips to the plate as the home team thumped the Kansas City Packers, 9–1. Chicago won again the next day. The Chi-Feds often outdrew the Cubs and White Sox—not only because they won but because Weeghman made baseball a bug-friendly experience. His concession stands sold the best ballpark food at fair prices. His team was the first to let fans keep foul balls, a policy that irked other owners, who had ushers chase down foul balls and return them to the field. Weeghman also pioneered Ladies’ Day, letting women in free every Friday.
In the winter of 1915 he held a newspaper contest to give his Chi-Feds a better name. With Charlie’s luncheonettes in mind, readers suggested that the team should be the Chicago Buns, Beefers, Doughnuts, or Pies. Windy Lads was another contender. In the end he decided to call his team the Whales. Weeghman’s Chicago Whales chased the 1915 Federal League pennant with help from another former Cubs star, Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown.
Born in 1876, the hundredth anniversary of American independence, Mordecai Brown was a Hoosier who had lost much of his pitching hand in a boyhood accident. A mechanical corn shredder tore off most of the index finger and part of the pinkie on his throwing hand. To his delight he discovered that the accident didn't keep him from playing ball. In fact, the stubs of his fingers helped put spin on his curveball. After signing a minor-league contract with the Terre Haute Hottentots, “Three-Finger” Brown climbed quickly to the majors, landing with the Chicago Cubs. He won 26 games with a league-best 1.04 earned run average in 1906, when the Cubs won 116 games, running away with the National League pennant. Nine years later he helped lead Weeghman’s Whales to a Federal League pennant on the last day of the season. Somehow the little ballpark held 34,212 fans that day, more than twice its official capacity. In one account, Chicago’s baseball bugs “went Borneo” when the Whales clinched, rushing the field to mob Tinker, Brown, and the rest of the players.
After that season, Major League Baseball—the established National League and American League owners—bought out the Federal League. Each Federal League owner received $600,000 to disband his team. (One club, the Baltimore Terrapins, refused and sued the major leagues for violation of federal antitrust laws. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, where the Terrapins lost. In an opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the Court ruled that baseball was a game, not a business engaged in interstate commerce.) As part of the buyout settlement, Charlie Weeghman was allowed to buy the Chicago Cubs. Not only that, he got to add his Federal League players to the Cubs’ roster. Tinker and Brown rejoined their former teammates, who were glad to move from the dilapidated West Side Grounds to the new baseball palace on the North Side.
Lucky Charlie was having the time of his life. He watched his Cubs from the owner’s box and sometimes stayed after night fell on Weeghman Park. He kept a stable of horses in stalls under the grandstand. His favorite was Queen Bess, described by the Chicago Tribune as “an old, gentle bay mare.” On summer nights the owner let Queen Bess run and graze on the field.
Copyright © 2019 by Kevin Cook