A mere two blocks east of Ogden Avenue and historic Route 66, there is a square block of buildings along Polk Street in the Illinois Medical District that is a forgotten site of baseball history: it was once the home of the Chicago Cubs and the place where the team got that name. Had its then owner not been possibly the most hated man in pro baseball at the time and a complete cheapskate, as in too stingy to maintain that ballpark or build a new one (setting a precedent for later tightfisted Chicago team owners), that spot might still be home to the Cubs today. Instead, it’s home to the University of Illinois Medical School and the UIC College of Nursing.
A ring of faculty office and classroom buildings lines the periphery of the block. A small, cramped open space in the middle, serving as a rudimentary quadrangle, is crisscrossed with sidewalks threading through the space, from east to west. That small open space is all that’s left of the old baseball field. Only a barely noticed, weathered bronze plaque on Wood Street remains as a reminder for anyone who cares to look.
That baseball field was known as West Side Park, aka the West Side Grounds It seems highly appropriate to discuss it now because although the Chicago Cubs supposedly celebrated their 100th anniversary as a ball club last year, in fact April 2016 will be their 100th anniversary at Wrigley Field.
Does the existence of pro baseball on the West Side a century ago sound strange to you? It didn’t at the time. As sportswriter Sean Deveney of The Sporting News, author of the 2014 book Before Wrigley Became Wrigley, notes: “[T]he Cubs … deserted their longtime home on the West Side after [Charles] Weeghman bought the team. Many in Chicago felt that the Cubs belonged to the West Side, that there was some sacrilege in the team playing anywhere but in the section of town that had supported them through the wildly successful years just after the turn of the century, when the team was the most dominant in all of baseball.” The West Side was then the largest and most densely settled section of the city, the South Side being half overrun by the Union Stock Yards and by other industry and the North Side still being largely underpopulated. The Cubs were a West Side team; moving them was unthinkable.
From 1893 until the end of the 1915 season, West Side Park was where the Cubs became the Cubs and where the team resided when its only World Series titles to date were won. It was located immediately south of the old original Cook County Hospital (not the later one for which construction was begun in 1912 and completed in 1917). The field stretched from Polk Street south to Taylor Street and Wood Street west to Wolcott Street (then called Lincoln Street). This field was where the team played the longest before moving to the North Side in 1916.
In fact, the team – which began life as the Chicago White Stockings – had several home fields and several names before it landed at Addison and Sheffield and stayed there. Its first playing field was the Union Ball Club field at Lakefront Park (at the northern end of today’s Grant Park, where Millennium Park and Maggie Daley Park are now). The team played for several seasons at Lakefront Park before moving to a small lot in what is now Little Italy, halfway between what is now the IMD and today’s UIC campus to the east. Finding a new spot took longer than anticipated, and the team spent the first five-and-a-half weeks of the 1885 season (which began that year on April 30) on the road. The first West Side Park finally opened on June 6, 1885, with Cap Anson as player/manager of the team. That small lot was bounded by Congress Drive on the north, Throop Street on the east, Harrison Street on the south, and Loomis Street on the west. The team’s stay there wasn’t much longer than its term had been at Lakeshore Park – seven years – but it was memorable, because the Cubs’ forerunner won back-to-back National League pennants during its first two seasons at that location, 1885 and 1886. It was also there that the team’s longstanding rivalry with the St. Louis Cardinals began (they were the Brown Stockings at the time), a sometimes bitter competition that continues to this day.
By 1890, the former White Stockings were known as the Colts, and this name change happened while the team was at the first West Side Park. The small field was oddly bathtub shaped, and its foul lines were allegedly as short as 216 feet. It also included an oval cycling track or velodrome, bicycling then being all the rage among the ‘wheelmen’ of the era. The ballpark could hold only 10,000 fans, however, which was ultimately the deal breaker, and it was abandoned after the 1891 season, during which the team split its schedule between West Side Park and South Side Park. During the 1892 season, the team played its home games at South Side Park only. The site of the first West Side Park is now home to the Andrew Jackson Language Academy at 1340 W. Harrison St.
The second (and more important) West Side Park
The new West Side Park was considerably larger and opened in May 1893. That season’s home games were split between there and South Side Park. The team moved to the new West Side Park full time in 1894. Here, home plate was in the northwest corner of the park near Polk and Wolcott. At first, a line of apartment buildings ran along the south side of the block (on Taylor Street) near right field, preventing the wooden structure from completely enclosing the playing field. It took a few years, but eventually those two-flats and three-flats came down. Even so, it took several more years and more seating to get the park to the full capacity it had in later years. Nevertheless, the club came into its own at the second West Side Park; the only crosstown World Series in Chicago (1906) was played there, and it was there, too, that the beloved Crosstown Classic was born, pitting the Cubs against the Chicago White Sox in post-season play during years when neither was playing in the World Series.
On August 5, 1894, a section of West Side Park was severely damaged by fire – during a game. The team had a home game against the Cincinnati Reds. A fire of debated origin spread through the first-base side stands, and terrified fans in that section pressed against a barbed-wire fence separating the stands from the field, trying to get away. Several players tore open the fence, allowing fans to escape, thereby avoiding what could have been a terrible death toll. Instead, there were few injuries, the fire was put out, and the blackened area was roped off. The following day, the burnt section was fenced off and the season resumed. Yet despite this near tragedy and the memory of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the club’s owners rebuilt West Side Park in wood (yes, go ahead and say it: cheap bastards).
Those owners would be the much (and fairly) maligned, notorious Charles W. Murphy and his absentee partner, lawyer and politician Charles P. Taft, who also owned part of the Philadelphia Phillies, was the brother of U.S. President William H. Taft, and stayed home in Cincinnati, having no interest in baseball. The Cubs to him were just another investment. As long as the team made money for him, Taft was content to remain a silent investor and allow the obnoxious Murphy to run things. And run them Murphy did – right into the ground, very nearly. Murphy didn’t spend a single cent on the park or on his players and managers that he didn’t have to; his attitude was that any money spent on maintenance, improvements, managers or ballplayers was money taken directly out of his pocket, and that couldn’t be allowed … so he cut the club’s expenses and salaries to the bone (except for his own) and kept them that way. Thus, Murphy and Taft made money even when the club was losing and attendance fell.
Though sturdy and suitable enough when first built, West Side Park slowly and steadily deteriorated under Murphy’s reign as club president, until it was one of the most dilapidated in Organized Baseball (the two official major leagues plus the officially sanctioned minor leagues). After 1900, there were perennial promises – never truthful and never intended to be – that a new stadium would be built for the next season (could that have been the origin of the phrase ‘Wait until next year’ that so bedevils the Cubs?). Despite four National League pennants between 1906 and 1910 and the World Series championship in 1908 (when the Cubs still weren’t known as the Cubs yet), still the promise of a new ballpark on the West Side remained empty and unfulfilled.
Moreover, the portly, overstuffed Murphy – who apparently denied himself nothing – was implicated in a ticket sales scandal over home-game tickets for the 1908 World Series (it was said he cooperated with scalpers in illegally pushing up the prices of series tickets by making them repeatedly unavailable at the West Side Park box office and other official sales sites, despite advertisements that they were there for purchase). How the fans howled! And then almost immediately after the 1909 World Series ended, Murphy proceeded to dismantle the winning Tinker to Evers to Chance roster that had made that World Series title possible, dumping all three players within a few short years. That just made the fans despise him even more.
In truth, C.W. Murphy was equally despised by players, managers and fans alike. He was so loathed by even his fellow National League owners that, unable to bear him for a moment longer, in February 1914 they forced him to sell his shares in the Cubs to his partner Taft. And so he did … or so it seemed: although Murphy agreed to sell to Taft and signed papers saying as much, Taft followed Murphy’s bad example and failed to pay him for most of the shares until several years later – thus effectively leaving the team in Murphy’s hands and retaining Taft as the absent figurehead. This just infuriated people further, but nothing more could be done without a lawsuit, which the league never brought (and probably never even considered: they had bigger fish to fry re: the insurgent Federal League).
Worse, the purposely distant Taft was either unwilling or unable to sell the Cubs to anyone else in Chicago. One reason may have been that he was asking the absurd at the time price of $1 million (which, of course, he never got – not even when he finally sold the Cubs to Charles Weeghman, aka ‘Lucky Charlie’, a Chicago lunchroom-chain mogul and millionaire, in early 1916). Meanwhile, Charles Comiskey had built the White Sox a new park in 1910, and Weeghman had built his North Side stadium in 1914 – designed, like Comiskey’s ballpark, by architect Zachary Taylor Davis and erected in concrete and steel. By that time, the Cubs were at last called the Cubs, but not until after the last World Series they’d ever win during the 20th century. (Note that we leave open the possibility the Cubs could yet win a Series sometime during this century – although we aren’t betting that will happen any time soon, given their perverse penchant for remaining perennial losers, the schlemiels. And we don’t believe in the Billy Goat Curse, either; excuses, excuses …).
In 2014, the Chicago Cubs celebrated their 100th anniversary as a major league baseball team under that name – but someone else played at Wrigley Field first in the brand-new park, for two seasons (1914 and 1915): the upstart Chicago Federal League team or ‘Chi-feds,’ which eventually came to be known first as the Tinkers (after then player/manager Joe Tinker – yes, the same Tinker who had famously played for the Cubs), then as the Whales. The new field was first known as Weeghman Park because club owner Charley Weeghman was the man who got it built (and helped organize the rebel Federal League). During that time, West Side Park was on its last legs, though the fans didn’t realize it yet; they only knew that it was by then a dumpy, decrepit place to see a game and probably a firetrap, too.
Two years later, as part of a deal to dismantle the short-lived Federal League, Weeghman bought the Cubs and brought in new investors, among them chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. Soon enough, Wrigley bought out Weeghman’s shares; Weeghman had simply lost too much of his fortune to supporting the Chi-feds and to the 1914-15 recession, which cut into his lunchroom profits as well as the team’s attendance at home games. Bill Wrigley, in turn, became an enlightened ball club owner (unlike, alas, his hard-nosed son P.K. Wrigley, who saw the team strictly as a business proposition and hewed closer to the ‘skinflint team owner’ stereotype, one that was to be seen repeatedly among Chicago sports teams over the next century).
When the Cubs left West Side Park in early 1916, pro baseball ended forever on the West Side of Chicago; and once they moved to the North Side, the Cubs never won another World Series. More to the point for Cubs fans, they’ve never yet won a Series as the Cubs or at Wrigley Field. Which really raises the question (again) as to why the (bleep) some fans like them so much. Perhaps it’s less the Cubs that the fans like and more the historic field itself and the experience one has there. But that’s a tale for another time and place – one that doesn’t belong in discussions about Route 66.
To learn more about the Federal League and the Chicago team that occupied Wrigley Field first, I recommend that you read Sean Deveney’s excellent book, Before Wrigley Became Wrigley from Skyhorse Publishing. His grasp of facts and writing are lucid and colorful enough that even those who don’t enjoy baseball (like me) will enjoy reading about this forgotten part of Chicago history.
Until next time,
your Route 66 historian, Marie