Ernie Banks has crystal-clear memories of sun-drenched afternoons at Wrigley Field. The man known as Mr. Cub conjures a Currier and Ives-like portrait of baseball being played in the "Friendly Confines," the quaint ballpark on the North Side of Chicago that will turn 100 on Wednesday.
"The Friendly Confines will be there forever,'' said Banks, 83, who played all of his 19 seasons with America's most lovable losers. "We were flying back from New York one year and I said, 'We're getting back to the friendly confines of beautiful Wrigley Field.' It stuck.
"It is an amazing ballpark; it really is. Willie Mays hit 54 homers there, Hank Aaron hit 50, Mike Schmidt hit 50 .''
And Banks hit 290 of his 512 homers there.
Wrigley's famous wind currents have aided and conspired against the long ball. Dave Kingman hit what was considered the longest homer, some say 600 feet, when he was a member of the Mets on April 14, 1976. It struck the porch of the third house from the Waveland Avenue corner amid an Americana scene of boys with gloves running after it. What seemed like fiction often was fact when it concerned Wrigley. Phillies win, 23-22, Mets win, 19-1. "The wind blows all kind of ways,'' Banks said.
Gone with the wind
An ill wind for pitchers is a breath of fresh air for hitters. "If the wind was blowing out, it became a launching pad,'' former Cubs catcher Barry Foote said. "And a game can end up 23-22, like it was against the Phillies.''
The Wrigley wind is legendary. The ballpark sits just blocks from the shoreline of Lake Michigan. "When you play in Wrigley, you have to look at the flags not every inning but every pitch,'' Hall of Fame outfielder Billy Williams said, recalling a catch he made on a blast by Aaron that saved Ken Holtzman's 1969 no-hitter.
"The ball was out of the ballpark, I guess by about 10 or 15 feet," Williams recalled, "but the wind was blowing in about a 35-mile-per-hour gale and I wound up catching the baseball. Bobby Murcer came up to me when he was traded to the Cubs and said, 'I thought the wind blew out in Wrigley Field.' I said, 'When Ernie and I left, the wind started blowing in.' ''
Pitchers have dreaded Wrigley Field for ages.
Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins was a reliever with the Phillies when he faced the Cubs in his last appearance of 1965. "I gave up a wind-blown walk-off home run to Ron Santo,'' he said. "It was a high pop-up. After the game, I said, 'I wouldn't want to pitch here for my career. It's like a minor- league park.' "
Jenkins spoke too soon.
"Six months later, I was traded to the Cubs.''
He went on to notch 167 of his 284 wins and 2,038 strikeouts in a Cubs uniform. He grew to love Wrigley. "I thought it was a pitcher's park,'' he said. "It didn't matter, wind blowing in or out. I just went out and performed, threw the ball down in the strike zone, made use of the corners.''
For many, the best part about venerable Wrigley is that it has retained its character.
"Going up the stairway and seeing the ballpark, seeing the field in a day game; it's a feeling you can't imagine till you've done it,'' said longtime Cubs fan Larry Rosen, 64, of suburban Skokie. "From the underground, up the stairwell and you walk out and there's a ballpark. Especially back in the '50s when everything was black and white on TV. You never saw it in color before. The grass is green, the ivy is green. It's something you can't imagine.''
That feeling never really left Williams, who said, "I'm thinking about finding a place, this lot where you can go out and play the game of baseball. That's what I think about Wrigley. I know you can't do it now, but in your mind, you wish you could. You can't turn the clock back. It was so much fun.''
Fan of the century
Louis Reinhart, 100, was born about a month before Wrigley, then known as Weeghman Park, played host to the Chicago Whales' Federal League home opener against the Kansas City Packers on April 23, 1914.
(The Cubs played their home games at the dilapidated West Side Grounds until 1916, when the Federal League folded and majority ownership of the Cubs was sold to Charles Weeghman, owner of the Whales.)
Reinhart, believed to be the oldest living Cubs fan, was invited to the April 4 home opener as the team began its seasonlong celebration of Wrigley's centennial.
Reinhart said because he is wheelchair-bound, he hadn't been to Wrigley in years, but in a brief phone interview this past week, he observed, "It hadn't changed much.''
Reinhart said he "expected to throw out the first ball,'' but Banks, Williams, Jenkins and Ryne Sandberg did that and Reinhart settled for a ball from the Cubs. "I hope this is the year,'' he said of winning a World Series, which hasn't occurred since the Cubs became the first team to win consecutive Series in 1907 and 1908 at West Side Park. "But I don't think so.''
Wrigley is about memories that remain intact when the world outside the park has changed. "They rebuilt the bleachers,'' said Paul Dickson, author of "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick.'' "But the way the bleachers are staged, the way the wall is cantered, that's exactly the same since '38.''
There have been some improvements for fans, and finally installing lights in 1988 changed the dynamic a bit. "I felt a little sad,'' said Banks, by then long retired and in the Hall of Fame. "But it was still Wrigley.''
Wrigley, which became a Chicago landmark in 2003, is the majors' second-oldest park behind Fenway Park (1912). It is in need of some improvements, something Tom Ricketts and his family, who purchased the Cubs in 2009, have been fighting to accomplish.
"You are going to take batting practice and the rats look bigger than a pig out there,'' former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said after a Cubs-Sox game in 2006. "I think the rats out there are lifting weights.''
Those Chicago fans who root for the South Side team housed 9.6 miles away liken Wrigley to the "world's largest outdoor beer garden."
But for the fans of the North Side team . . .
"There's been only one Wrigley Field. That place is special,'' said Lennie Merullo, 96, the oldest living former Cub. "If you haven't been to Wrigley Field, you haven't been anywhere. Wrigley Field is a place that will always be. It's the heartbeat of Chicago.''
Merullo, a shortstop, played from 1941-47.
Years earlier, on Oct. 1, 1932, in Game 3 of the World Series, Babe Ruth created a forever Wrigley and nationwide epic moment when he was said to have pointed his bat at the outfield bleachers before hitting a 440-foot home run. It already had long achieved legendary status by the time Merullo arrived.
"He's supposed to have pointed,'' Merullo said. "If legend says so, I believe it.''
Ruth reportedly said of the friendly confines, "I'd play for half my salary if I could hit in this dump all the time.''
Merullo also saw Jackie Robinson come to Wrigley in 1947. "The whole South Side would come to the North Side to see him play,'' he said.
Evolution of a stadiumWeeghman Park was built in six weeks for $250,000 on the city's North Side at 1060 West Addison St., the address John Belushi gave as his own as Jake in the Blues Brothers.
The stadium transformed into Cubs Park by 1920 after chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. bought out Weeghman. The park was renamed for Wrigley in 1926.
In 1937, baseball innovator Bill Veeck introduced the hand-operated scoreboard still used today and the signature ivy to the outfield walls. "We used to say don't get tangled up in the vines,'' Merullo said.
Veeck went on to own the White Sox, twice. Son Mike Veeck, who has ownership in several minor-league teams, said: "I'm a White Sox fan through and through. My wife said, 'I got to go to Wrigley Field and see the ivy.' Paul McCartney played a concert there. She got to see the ivy and I didn't have to see a Cubs game.''Curses
The Cubs last played in a World Series in 1945, losing in seven games to the Tigers. Merullo observed, "We thought we'd be in the World Series every year.'' That year was the year of the goat and the belief by some that the team is cursed.
Sam Sianis, 78, said his uncle Billy, original owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, went to Game 4 with a goat. "They wouldn't let him in even though he had two tickets,'' Sianis said, suggesting one ticket was for the goat. "They didn't want the smell of the goat in the ballpark. When the Cubs lost the World Series, my uncle sends a telegram to Mr. Wrigley saying 'who smells now?' ''
Bill Sianis, Sam's son, said he was outside Wrigley with a goat on Oct. 14, 2003. It was the eighth inning of Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against the Marlins. Fan Steve Bartman reached for a foul ball off the bat of the Marlins' Luis Castillo. Bartman deflected the ball and Cubs leftfielder Moises Alou couldn't make the play. The Marlins rallied from a 3-0 deficit, scoring eight runs in the inning to win that game before taking Game 7 to advance to the World Series, where they beat the Yankees.
The curse has since been lifted -- several times -- but to no avail. "We like the Cubs,'' Sianis said, "We don't wish anything bad toward them.''
Bartman has made no public statements since the incident. "I hate to say it hasn't been something of a life-changing event because everybody talks about it periodically,'' said his attorney, Frank Murtha. "He works at the same company, his job takes him out in the field. He goes to sporting events.''
Murtha would not say if the infamous Bartman has returned to a Cubs game.
Someone famous is there quite often. The list of celebrities who have sung "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch -- ranging from actor Bill Murray to Bears player and coach Mike Ditka to Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder -- makes the Cubs' World Series drought -- 105 years and counting -- seem like a low number. But for Cubs fans, the real celebrity is the ballpark.
"I'll see you at Wrigley Field,'' Banks said in his rich tone. "And let's play two.''