News Local/State

Stars Come Out For Baseball History Panel At Wrigley Field

Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks at Wrigley Field

Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks lectures a group at Wrigley Field on October 15, 2011. (Jeff Bossert/WILL)

For baseball fans, their love for the game goes beyond the current season, and back through its history.  It was that love of baseball history that brought 100 people to Chicago’s Wrigley Field over the weekend.

John Dietrich came to his first Cubs game at Wrigley Field when he was a kid.

“I came here the first time in 1956," he said.  "I was six years old.  Sat in the upper deck, it was a double header against Cincinnati.”

The suburban Lombard resident was back at the ballpark.  Not for a game, but a panel discussion about the game and its history held as part of Chicago Ideas Week.

Panelists made their remarks from atop the Cubs dugout, with their backs to the third baseline.  Dietrich says even after a half century of rooting for the Cubs, the panel taught him things he didn’t know about the stadium, and its namesake, chewing gum magnate PK Wrigley.

“It’s very interesting," he said.  "Wrigley was the consummate businessman.  He got the best naming rights deal in all of pro sports – paid nothing.  Wrigley gum.”

John doesn’t remember the entire lineup at his first game, but one name stands out – Ernie Banks. 

On Saturday, the Hall of Fame shortstop and first baseman shared memories of PK Wrigley, player-manager Phil Cavaretta, and his own major league debut, a 16 to 4 loss to the Phillies at Wrigley in 1953.

“We had lost 10 straight," Banks said.  "So my first appearance walking into this field, we were losing.  So in my mind, I said, ‘you don’t have to win to win, - what do you mean by that?  I say to myself, you can win the respect of the fans, the writers, your family.  That kind of winning lasts longer, even after you’re retired or gone on.”

‘Mr. Cub’ was one of seven guest lecturers who stepped on the small stage to talk about their role in preserving the game. 

Major League Baseball historian John Thorn says his purpose is for everyone to understand how we can use its history to build emotional, social, and cultural connections.  

He’s chairing a committee on the origins of the game, which Thorn says stretch back to before the 1800’.

“Jeffrey C. Ward, with whom I worked I worked happily on Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary ‘Baseball’ said in later years, working on the film and book taught me that while most Americans care too little about their history, the baseball community is different," he said.  "The real meaning of all those apparently impenetrable stats is that the past matters.  Without them, no player would know where he stood, no fan could measure his or her heroes against those who have gone before.”

U of I History Prof. Adrian Burgos (Jeff Bossert/WILL)

Serving with Thorn on the committee to research baseball’s ancestry is University of Illinois history professor Adrian Burgos. 

His emphasis includes Cubans who sent their kids to study in the US in the 1860’s, and started playing baseball back home in the Caribbean, bringing the game back just as Japanese players would many years later.  Burgos notes that baseball at this level was always racially inclusive.

"The experience of playing in the Dominican Republic or in Mexico for African Americans and black players in general was when they got to play for the first time as a professional in an integrated setting," he said.  "I remember the words of Roy Campenella who was asked as he was beginning to integrate baseball – the first black catcher to play in the major leagues about – would the white pitchers pitch to him?  And he said ‘of course – I’ve caught them in Cuba, I’ve caught them in Mexico.  I’ve caught them all over.  Baseball’s baseball.”

Major league Hall of Famer Dave Winfield was also on the panel.  Now an executive with the San Diego Padres, he says baseball’s history provides a context for honoring the heroes of the game.

“Each year we honor the guys and ladies from the Negro Leagues – and they’re getting older," he said.  "And we’re just trying to find ways to make sure that people remember that thread they are in that whole tapestry of baseball in America.   Trying to think of permanent ways to give them recognition and honor while they’re still alive.”

It’s an odd thing in and of itself to be in Wrigley Field in mid-October.   The Cubs division champion teams of 2007 and ’08 didn’t win a single playoff game, and fans don’t need to be reminded of what happened in 2003.  

But for one morning, a visit to the ballpark wasn’t about a curse, or whether Boston Red Sox executive Theo Epstein  is the man to break it.  It’s about the game of baseball, and why we’ve preserved it for more than 150 years.