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Chicago Celebrates A Century Of Baseball At Wrigley Field

When the first pitch is thrown between the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday, it will mark the start of the 100th professional baseball season at iconic Wrigley Field.

The ball park on Chicago's North Side, known as the Friendly Confines, opened as the home of the Chicago Federals 100 years ago this month.

The Cubs moved there two years later, and in all that time the Cubs have never won a World Series. There hasn't even been a World Series game played at Wrigley since the end of World War II.

A unique aspect of Wrigley Field is its location — tucked away in a North Side neighborhood, and not in some centrally located downtown area or an island in a sea of parking lots.

Waveland Avenue, just outside the ball park, is surrounded by bars and restaurants and souvenir shops, but it's also surrounded by single-family homes and small apartment buildings. There's an elementary school just a block and a half away, and right across the street is a very busy Chicago firehouse.

"We love it. It's what makes this firehouse special. It's why I like working here," says Capt. John Giordano of the Chicago Fire Department's Engine 78, a lifelong Cubs fan. "Fifty years — I used to walk to the ball park when I was a kid. I grew up in Lincoln Square."

Lincoln Square is a neighborhood about a mile and half from Wrigley, and Giordano remembers going to every game he could with his buddies when he was kid.

They were all-day games then; Wrigley didn't get lights until 1988. After the games, youngsters would lift up all of the seats and clean up the cups from the aisles in exchange for a general admission pass to the next day's game.

Those days are long gone, but Giordano says Wrigley Field and the neighborhood still share an integral link.

"You know, people live here. People live right across the street," he says. "People come home from work when the games are on. People are walking off the train to go home while people are walking off the train to go to the ball game at the same time, so it's a different environment around here."

Many fans consider Wrigley Field hallowed ground. And it is, in more than just a baseball sense. Because before Wrigley Field was built here, there was a Lutheran Church and seminary on these grounds. Rick Reardon calls Wrigley Field a spiritual place.

"My spirit, it lifts when I walk up the steps and I see the field," Reardon says. He's been coming to games since he was a boy, often with his family, growing up just a couple of miles from Wrigley. His grandparents lived even closer.

Sitting at the Murphy's Bleachers bar right across the street from the ballpark, 54-year-old Rick and his 53-year-old sister, Julianne Reardon, reminisce.

With their parents and grandparents now gone, the brother and sister say they feel their presence at Wrigley Field. They say Wrigley is an intimate place, where you can sit almost on top of the field.

"It's a pure baseball place," Julianne Reardon says. "They don't have a lot of signage, they don't have a lot of stuff going on. You go there to watch the game."

Her brother Rick agrees: "It's real baseball."

Inside Wrigley Field, 73-year-old Darrell Windle can't contain his excitement to be back inside.

"I'm overwhelmed. I'm overwhelmed by this stadium every time I come here," Windle says.

The day before the home opener, it's a bitter cold, blustery and rainy day, yet Windle, a retired banker who's been an usher at the ballpark for the past 19 years, doesn't see clouds of misery.

"I see the green grass and I see the scoreboard that's been there since 1937," he says. "I see the rooftops across the way and how unique they are, and look over toward the lake and see the fog rolling in and rolling out. How many ballparks can you see something like that?"

Windle doesn't see years of failures on the field — the stranded base-runners, the strikeouts and the miserable play — what he sees at Wrigley is intergenerational bonds.

"Practically every game, I will have a father sitting in my section helping his 7-year-old son keep score," he says. "And probably 50 years ago, that father who's now helping his son was helped by his father, and it's so neat to see."

The ballpark itself isn't in the greatest shape; part of the outfield brick wall had to be replaced over the winter. A few years ago, crumbling concrete fell from the upper deck, and the men's rooms still have troughs instead of urinals.

The team's owners want to do a massive renovation of Wrigley Field and put a winning team on the field.

Whether that's accomplished, Cubs fans, for reasons only we understand, believe this place is magical — quite remarkable when you consider the past century of the Cubs' box scores.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.