In an interview with TheBlaze Books [Twitter, Facebook] in connection with the release of his new book, “A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred,” we spoke with prodigious columnist and author George Will on baseball, the Cubs and Wrigley Field, Will’s view on shortening baseball games to 7 innings, PEDs and his entertaining and informative unified theory of beer.
Our interview, which we conducted via phone, is below, slightly modified to include links and italics for emphasis.
Who is this book intended for? And why should non-Cubs fans and even non-baseball fans read it?
Will: Well it’s a little bit a book about me, it’s a book about Chicago, it’s a book about 20th century history, and about baseball in general. And beyond that it’s a book about the peculiar chemistry of loyalty that we develop towards these teams. Those of us who are sports fans occasionally sit back and say, “What am I doing? Why do I care so much about this?”
And the answer is a complex one that we care about excellence, and professional athletes do difficult, dangerous things well, but beyond that I think baseball particularly – the everyday-ness of it – the 162 game season, the fact that going to the ballpark is a big part of being a baseball fan in a way that going to a football stadium is not a big part of the NFL fan’s experience. I served on a Major League Baseball commission that studied this and we came to the conclusion that about 98% of self-identified NFL fans had never been to an NFL game. In baseball the ballpark itself, the experience of coming together with fellow members of your tribe for three hours of shared enjoyment is much more important than in other sports. In cities particularly where we’re kind of a dust of individuals, this provides us with unity – one that may only gather and disperse for three hours, but it does so 81 times a year at home, and on the radio and television, so it’s a very interesting chemistry of loyalty that’s also the subject of the book.
There’s also some I find interesting and amusing digressions on the history of beer and it’s relationship to baseball, and Babe Ruth’s called shot – alleged called shot in the 1932 World Series – I’m deeply skeptical of the whole myth, and things like that. It was a writing challenge that provoked me as a professional writer – I said “Well, Wrigley Field’s coming up on one hundred years old, must be some interesting things there. Turns out there really were.”
You mention a couple of stories there – I also thought in particular the Lady’s Day stories with folks being able to stand on the field were quite amusing, along with the sad story you tell of Hack Wilson’s life. Is there any one particular story that most resonated with you, or that you care most deeply about associated with the Cubs and Wrigley Field?
Will: Well let’s go with a couple of things you mentioned. One is the sad story of Hack Wilson who to this day holds one of the almost unbreakable records in baseball: 191 RBI’s in one season. He was five foot six. His shoe size was five and a half (5 ½). Very strange looking man and frankly today we know that some of the curious physical attributes of him are associated with fetal alcohol syndrome. And indeed he was born to a teenage unmarried mother who was herself an alcoholic. He was to die of alcohol-related ailments. But in a blazing career with a sharp rise in trajectory and equally sharp plunge, he dominated baseball for a few years. And there is a melancholy aspect of this because professional athletes generally have a compressed trajectory because they peak a little early in life and have to find something to do with the rest of their lives. He unfortunately didn’t have much of a rest of his life.
The most amusing story to me was to discover that Wrigley Field had a vendor for awhile who was a “ne’er-do-well,” and he seemed to have ways of sort of cheating his fans and the Cub management kept an eye on him. His name was Jack Rubenstein. He later left Chicago, moved to Dallas, changed his name to Jack Ruby and of course entered history by killing Lee Harvey Oswald.
Wonderful stories like this – you mentioned a moment ago the Lady’s Day phenomenon – William Wrigley (the Wrigley after whom the ballpark is named), was a visionary in baseball. First of all with regard to radio, a lot of owners said, “Oh radio’s going to kill baseball, it’s terrible. People won’t come out to the ballpark anymore.” He said, “Nonsense. Radio will be the greatest merchandiser of our sport. It will whet people’s appetite for coming to the ballpark.” So, he gave away the broadcasting rights to the Cubs. In fact at one point five Chicago radio stations were broadcasting the Cubs. And indeed it worked. People began to come out to see that which had interested them on the radio.
And you mentioned Lady’s Day – he said, “Look, our ballparks at that time were sort of rough and ready places, and women didn’t want to go there – particularly didn’t want to go there alone.” He said, “Well, we’re gonna let them in free.” Well, on some days 17,000 showed up. And they overflowed the grandstand and the bleachers, and would stand in high heels – people got dressed up to go to the ballpark then – they’d stand in the outfield their heels sinking into the dirt and they’d string a rope around the outfield to contain them and still define the outfield. And they could help the Cubs because when the opposing batter hit a deep fly they’d back up, so the Cub outfielder could have more room to chase the fly down, and when the Cub batter hit a fly ball they’d move in, so they’d be more apt to go into the crowd for…I guess they’d call it a ground rule double. But this was the way baseball began to merchandise itself, and was a great success.
Speak a little bit to William Wrigley. One of the themes that I think might be lost in a lot of the mystique around Wrigley is that it seems that despite the historical problems on the field, that Wrigley was quite an entrepreneur.
Will: Well he was a chewing gum guy. But before he was a chewing gum guy he sold soap and other things, and he gave away the chewing gum as an enticement to get people to buy, when he was young, from his horse-drawn cart to buy the other products he was selling. Then he said, “Well you know the chewing gum’s more popular than the other products,” so he went into the chewing gum business. Went to Chicago and before long he had built the first great building on what is now the “Magnificent Mile” of Michigan Avenue, the Wrigley Building, right there on the river.
This was at a time when baseball was just taking off and was challenged by the formation of a new league, the Federal League. And it was for the federal league Chicago team that Wrigley field was built and opened in 1914. The Cubs didn’t enter this ballpark until 1916. The Federal League team was called for reasons I cannot imagine the “Chicago Whales.” Now the Cubs play a long way from saltwater. I don’t know why they were called whales except I guess whales are big and strong and it’s supposed to conjure up favorable images there.
But Wrigley would see a market and would know how to exploit it, and the contrast between him and his son who inherited the team, P.K. Wrigley, is striking because the son wasn’t that interested in baseball, didn’t really want to be a baseball owner, but he felt the family legacy required him to be. So he said “Well you know our team isn’t very good, but our ballpark’s a jewel. And what we will do is tell people to come see the ballpark and the baseball will be extra. He said “The grass would be so green, the ivy so lush, the sun so warm and the beer so cold, no one will care what the scoreboard says.” And for awhile he got away with it.
Particularly, the ivy is associated with him – he decided to spruce the ballpark up and put the ivy in. He got a young man who was also the son of another early Cub owner, Bill Veeck, and Bill Veeck Jr., who went on to be a famous baseball owner of the St. Louis Browns and the [Chicago] White Sox and the [Cleveland] Indians, Bill Veeck plants the ivy and while Bill Veeck’s father was dying of cancer, Bill Veeck said, “You know my father, I would like him to die with the taste of champagne on his lips.” Unfortunately this occurred during Prohibition, when alcoholic beverages were “technically” forbidden. But, a prominent Chicagoan who liked baseball who would go to both White Sox and Cubs games had a way of getting alcoholic beverages. His name was Al Capone. So young Bill Veeck got word to Al Capone about his dying father – Al Capone said, “Well, he will die with the taste of very good champagne on his lips.” And he provided champagne to Bill Veeck’s father until Bill Veeck’s father passed away.
Jumping to a couple of broader topics about baseball, in this book you weave together a set of stories that cover everything from history to philosophy to politics to religion to poetry to economics and pretty much everywhere in-between, but you also acknowledge that baseball comparisons to aspects of life are somewhat cliché. So I’m curious, is baseball inextricably intertwined with culture, or does it have some greater significance, cosmic or otherwise?
Will: I don’t think it has cosmic significance. You know I resist that kind of baseball writing because baseball is good enough. Baseball is one of those things in life as Bart Giammati said (Bart was commissioner of baseball briefly and before that had been president of Yale), great scholar of Renaissance literature, he said there’s some things in life that are good in themselves, leave it alone. We don’t have to infuse them with more meaning than that. They’re just very nice things, and baseball is one of those.
Now, that said, obviously it does, the pastime reflects the culture that sustains it, and, the culture that is nourished by it. And I do think baseball is good for the character. Now this seems odd for a Cubs fan to say, but losing is a very important part of baseball. Every team goes to Spring Training knowing it’s going to win 60 games and it’s gonna lose 60 games. And you play the whole season to sort out the middle 42 games. If you win 10 out of 20 games you’re by definition mediocre. If you win 11 out of 20 games you’re gonna win about 89 games, and you’re very apt to play in October. So, losing is a big part of baseball. The best team in baseball this year is gonna walk off the field beaten probably at least 60 times.
And that’s why – an NFL fan goes to a game – if his football team loses he’s devastated. If you go to a baseball game – you cannot be a baseball fan and say, “My happiness, my enjoyment of going to the ballpark depends on winning,” because there’s a lot of losing in baseball. Therefore, it is the experience of going to the ballpark, the experience of a wonderful little place like Wrigley Field, the shared enjoyment of the game with spectators who are sitting next to you and around you and they’re strangers but suddenly they’re friends for three hours, that’s the difference.
You mention that baseball is a reflection of the culture, although it also sort of reinforces character traits in folks. You may have seen that recently one unnamed Major League Baseball executive in a conversation with ESPN’s Buster Olney reportedly advocated for a 7 inning game as opposed to a 9 inning game. So I wanted to hear your comment on that, and also in general the fact that the slowness of baseball is actually a virtue. Can our culture sustain it in such a fast-paced era?
Will: Well first of all, I don’t know who this executive is, but I think he was wise to say that nonsense anonymously. The fact is, one of the great charms of baseball is the rich sediment of numbers, and the fact that we’ve only had one sharp disjunction in baseball: dead-ball era and lively-ball era – and that was in 1920 – makes possible this wonderful ongoing conversation and comparisons of ballplayers over now more than a century. And all that would be disrupted if you went to 7 innings. But why 7 innings?
I mean, you talk about baseball being slow, I wrote a book called “Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball” 24 years ago, which is I think I’m told the bestselling baseball book of all-time now, precisely because I wanted to demonstrate how fast it was.
All the decisions that have to be made: pitch by pitch, out by out, inning by inning. Once you do this, you realize why ballplayers say that when they’re going well they slow the game down because there is so much thinking and calculation and adjusting going on, adapting to the situation literally pitch by pitch. That seems to me important for baseball fans to understand.
Baseball more than any other sport rewards knowing the sport really in-depth. You don’t really need to know a whole lot about basketball to enjoy the balletic athleticism of these extraordinary NBA players. Baseball’s not like that. I mean they’re great athletes, but you have to – you’re enjoyment is directly proportional to your knowledge of the subtleties of the game.
Many of the stories that you tell in this book have a mythical aspect to them. Why is it that today we don’t seem to have analogous stories – you know players don’t seem to have the colorful nicknames and all of the lore around them. And maybe that’s just my own biased view, but is it that folks back in the “old days” needed to pass the time and so they exaggerated the truth, or people were superior story-tellers, or is it just that the mystique is dead now that we have information at our fingertips and know everything about everyone at all times?
Will: Well I think that last may be part of it. The fact is the cornucopia of media sources we have gives us such a flood of information, and brings us into a kind of ersatz intimacy with the athletes that some of that mystique disappears. Also, it’s the sheer saturation of professional sports. You know in baseball – when I became a baseball fan in the ‘50s and ‘60s – baseball had the nation’s undivided attention between the first of April and whenever Ohio State played Michigan in football in the fall. Today there are six weeks between the last NBA championship game and the first NFL preseason game. So it’s sports all year round. Furthermore, I buy the Major League Baseball package on my television cable system – I can see every game everywhere, all the time. I hate to tell you how many hours I spend watching the West Coast games back here in Washington. So you’re quite right that there is a kind of overload.
Furthermore, today’s ballplayer — partly because we know so much more about conditioning and all the rest — no one goes to Spring Training anymore to get in shape. These guys report in shape. No one works as a bartender or runs a bowling alley during the offseason as [Stan] Musial and Duke Snider and people like that used to do. Now you train year-round. So these guys are a little too serious to be the happy-go-lucky, hard-drinking, hard-eating, partying people like Babe Ruth.
To that end, alcoholism was rampant in the early days of baseball, especially in the early 1900s when teams would barnstorm, and even through the first half of the 20th century. And today it seems that (and granting that trends are going in the right direction) performance enhancing drugs are the sin of choice. So speak a bit to the evolution from performance destroying drugs, to performance enhancing ones.
Will: Well it’s a good point. For a long time, before we got to steroids and human growth hormone and all the rest, what ballplayers had in their clubhouses – and they were quite out in the open – there were just jars of them like jellybeans…there were jars of amphetamines. That was how the older players got through the dog days of August. When it was hot and they were tired and they had nagging injuries, they used that as a performance enhancing drug. And that’s why baseball as part of cleaning up its act has got the amphetamines out – it’s one reason baseball’s becoming younger. A lot of the older players just can’t get chemically enhanced to get through this anymore.
Furthermore, the players now have risen up. For a long time the leaders of the [MLB] Player’s Association, the union, treated the drug testing as an assault on civil liberties. And an assault on privacy. Well the players have now rebelled, and they have made their preference really clear, and their preference is that they don’t want to compete on an uneven playing field. Money is being taken out of their wallets, bread off their table, by competitors who just have an unfair advantage, that they don’t want to match that unfair advantage by putting their bodies at risk. So I think that the steroid parenthesis, PED, performance enhancing drug, parenthesis, in baseball history has been pretty much closed.
Now, that said, we have to say look, the financial rewards of baseball success are so staggering – I mean we now have $200 million contracts – that the bad chemists are always going to be out there trying to devise a drug that the good chemist can’t detect. That’s gonna be a part of life forever, I understand that. But, the players and Major League Baseball are on the same page now, and are ratcheting up the severity of the punishments, so that I think it is fair to say that the parenthesis is largely closed.
And to turn that back to a more happy topic of beer, I thought that the section of your book on how all of history to some degree stems from alcohol was pretty fascinating and entertaining. Can you provide sort of the cliffnotes version to readers.
Will: You know I’ve written – this is my 14th book – and I had more fun writing this than I think of all the books I’ve written, readers are gonna burst out laughing at parts of this because it is such an antic tale in some facets.
[sharequote align=”center”]Mankind probably brewed beer before it baked bread…shows your priorities were straight[/sharequote]
Turns out mankind probably brewed beer before it baked bread. That shows your priorities were straight right from the beginning. It was probably an accident that started primitive man to understand fermentation of grain. But they sure liked what they got when it fermented. And it developed – beer became a kind of currency, beer became a tradable good, began to develop markets. Fast-forward to the 19th century, the German immigrants arrive, and people like Anheuser-Busch, and Schlitz and Pabst, whose names became of course associated with great brewing dynasties in this country, and the American people developed a taste for larger. Now lager has to be kept cold, so they had to develop refrigeration and refrigerated cars and trucks, railroad cars and trucks. So, it begins to radiate all through American culture, and certainly in American baseball, because people go to the ballpark thirsty and they want to drink beer, and there were a few Major League owners who on moral grounds thought it was naughty to drink beer at the ballpark, and they didn’t last very long.
I suppose except Connie Mack.
Will: That’s right, well Connie Mack was of course a phenomenon. There’s another baseball record: most games won as a manager, most games lost as a manager, because no one was gonna fire him because he owned the team, so he did that for 50 years.