In his latest book, A Nice Little Place on the North Side, renowned baseball voice George Will explores the last hundred years of Wrigley Field. Not a Cubs fan? Not to worry. Fans of any team will enjoy Will’s sentimental stroll through America’s longstanding love affair with a trip to the ballpark. Will chats about baseball of yesteryear, where the game is headed and — spoiler alert — his picks for the 2014 World Series.
American Profile: Not only is this a book about Wrigley Field, it’s about baseball in America. Talk a little bit about baseball’s sordid past—you mention Al Capone and company.
George Will: Baseball, one of the things that give it its tremendous charm is its long history in the United States. There is a reference in the diary of a soldier at Valley Forge playing a game of base as they called it. The rules of baseball began to be codified in the first half of the 19th century. The Cubs started playing in the second half of the 19th century, and Wrigley Field itself is older than the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and Mt. Rushmore. So baseball has quite a past and its past runs back into the time when the United States was a pretty rough and tumble place. Particularly in the cities, gambling was a national pastime, which eventually caught up with baseball in Chicago when the White Sox threw the 1919 World Series. Chicago in the 1920s, of course, was famous for its gangster culture. And Al Capone was a big baseball fan. He’d go to games at both the White Sox Kaminski Park and at Wrigley Field.
AP: You describe baseball as a “thinking man’s game.” How so?
GW: It is a game of episodes not flow. Soccer is a game of flow, basketball is a game of flow…back and forth. Baseball goes pitch by pitch, out by out, inning by inning, and it leaves time to recalibrate between each episode. What will come next? What ought to come next? There’s a different strategy when a batter’s 0-2, rather than 2-0. Whether there’s a runner on base, not a runner on base. Will the runner be breaking with the pitch? Will the runner be stealing perhaps? Is this a sacrifice, or a hit and run. Being the game of episodes, you have a moment to contemplate that.
AP: Your account of Wrigley Field paints a picture of a high church of baseball. Despite all the turmoil, the subpar organizational performances, the tough times in the city of Chicago, what is the single reason Wrigley Field sustained 100 years?
GW: It was built at a time when we knew how to build ballparks. In the ‘60s and ‘70s we built these so-called “multi-purpose stadiums,” supposedly good for both football and baseball, but not particularly good for either. A batter can come to the plate and he wouldn’t know whether he was in St. Louis, San Diego, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia—they all looked alike. When Baltimore built Camden Yards, all this “retro ballpark,” did was rediscover what fans going to Wrigley Field and Tiger Stadium in Detroit, and Fenway Park in Boston already knew: baseball is spectator friendly, not TV audience friendly. People go to the ballpark. You ought to build a ballpark that brings the people as close as possible to the action. You build the ballpark around the diamond. And it helped that Wrigley Field was shoehorned into an organic, existing, urban neighborhood, so that it’s cozy, if you will. You don’t have this feeling of vastness. I remember the first time I went to the new Yankee Stadium a few years ago. I pulled up in front of it and got out and thought I was in front of the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C. People are always saying you can’t turn the clock back. Camden Yards said I absolutely can. And lo and behold people loved it.
AP: As media avenues continue to grow, how is this changing America’s pastime?
GW: Chicago was one of the early cities for experimenting with radio, and William Wrigley, the first Wrigley, the person for whom Wrigley Field is named, instantly saw something other owners were slow to recognize. Radio was not a threat. Wrigley said, “No, we’re going to use radio as the greatest advertisement of our sport.” And for a while the Cubs gave away the broadcasting rights. Wrigley’s theory was it would whet the appetite of fans and they would come out to the ballpark to see what they’ve been listening to. It worked. As we became a radio listening nation, baseball became a habit. Radio feeds the habit. Radio gives you the kind of background music of life from April-September. It’s always there. It’s in your car, it’s in your kitchen. You can carry it around with you. Then came television, and the same worry that people will not come to games. But baseball attendance has grown as the number of ways of enjoying it have expanded. Whether it’s radio, television, cable television, on your ipad or your computer, the more people see of it, the more they want it.
AP: You describe professional sports as “serving no valuable function” but are instead “municipal assets” meant to foster community. Talk more about that.
GW: Sports provide the same function that opera or ballet or theater does. They give us not only entertainment and a pastime, but they give us examples of excellence. Major League Baseball players are at the top of a very steep pyramid. There are millions of people playing baseball around the world, and a few thousand make it to the big leagues, so we get to see excellence. Baseball serves as a public utility in the sense that it gives a kind of unifying theme to vast disparate cities. A city can be a lonely crowd, to take the title of a famous sociology book published in the ‘50s. Bruce Catton, the great Civil War historian, said “baseball is the greatest conversation topic ever invented in America. Everyone’s got an opinion. Everyone’s got some information about it.” In a city where people of vastly different backgrounds and social standings circulate, you find a kind of anonymity. But baseball provides a common identification where people go to a ballpark and suddenly they’re part of a spontaneous group.
AP: Now for the zinger, what is your World Series projection for 2014?
GW: In the National League, there are two teams. There’s a team on each coast that would be plausible: The Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Being loyal to the hometown team, I’ll go with the Nationals. They will play in the World Series against either Detroit or Texas, or the always-surprising Oakland…because Oakland is a perpetual David against many Goliaths. I say Oakland against the Nationals.