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'A Century of Wrigley Field' a paean to beloved park

Heading into centennial season on North Side, 100 years of memories are catalogued

Wrigley Field is baseball's most cherished ballpark. Just try to disagree.

There may be diverse opinions on which venue is the best -- Boston's Fenway Park has claimed for itself the distinction of most beloved. But the old yard at Clark and Addison on Chicago's North Side, where baseball has been played since 1914, still stands apart.

Just in time for the centennial season comes "A Century of Wrigley Field: The Official History of the Friendly Confines." Published by Major League Baseball and the Chicago Cubs, it's a coffee-table volume that will delight the believers and persuade those who don't get it yet.

Naturally, there are hundreds of spectacular photographs -- all pulled together by the narrative written by veteran Chicago journalist Alan Solomon. It would be hard to imagine a more fitting author. When he was eight, Solomon got his first baseball glove. It was a Hank Sauer -- the 1952 National League MVP Award winner with the Cubs -- model, which he still has. He was also a vendor at Wrigley, Comiskey Park and Soldier Field to help pay his way through college -- and covered the Cubs and White Sox for the Chicago Tribune from 1988 through 1994.

That the author found this assignment more pleasure than business is obvious. For example: There was only one choice to write the foreword and, sure enough, it was done by Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub. Solomon and Banks met at Harry Caray's restaurant to discuss the Hall of Famer's role. The session was supposed to last maybe a half-hour.

"We were talking and being polite with each other, and it just took on a whole different tone at a certain point," Solomon said. "I'm a travel writer, and he asked me if I had been to Argentina. And I said, 'Sure,' that I really liked Buenos Aires. And he broke into song, 'Don't Cry for Me, Argentina.' We sang the whole song together. Later, in a different context, we sang 'The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow' from 'Annie.' The whole song. It became a two-hour session, and when it was over there were hugs."

Solomon infuses his writing with that same joy, and the end result is remarkable. There is the history, of course, which is broken down into eras and includes such diverse events as home football games for the Chicago Bears, championship boxing matches and concerts.

This is seamlessly interspersed with sections on Wrigley Field legends, short separate stories of franchise stalwarts -- including Banks, Mark Grace, Greg Maddux, Ryne Sandberg, Billy Williams, Lee Arthur Smith, Rick Sutcliffe, Kerry Wood, Ron Santo, Sammy Sosa and Ferguson Jenkins. There are pages devoted to "My Friendly Confines," reminisces from celebrity Cubs fans like actor Jim Belushi, former Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps and singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett. Plus, there are also examinations of what are called "Signature Elements," such as the ivy, the scoreboard and the Wrigleyville neighborhood.

And, again, the pictures. Some of the most fascinating are when photos from the same location show how much has changed and how much hasn't over the years. Take the iconic scoreboard, for instance. It's virtually the same as it was when first constructed in 1937 -- except that a clock and flags have been added at the top. Another shows fans lined up behind the bleachers.

Change is a highly-charged word when it comes to Wrigley Field, but this book clearly demonstrates that it's not the time capsule that many believe it to be. The most wrenching change was the installation of lights in 1988. But the book demonstrates that the ballpark has always evolved over the years, including three major renovations in the 1920s and '30s.

Now, the venerable old park is about to be remade again. Modern amenities, including a large video board, are going to be added. The traditionalists fret, but Solomon is confident Wrigley will remain timeless.

"You sit in that ballpark and it's not hard to imagine great players having played there," Solomon said. "It doesn't look the way it looked when Babe Ruth hit his called shot. The bleachers weren't up until 1937, he hit that home run in [the World Series in] 1932. But the grandstands are the same. You look around and the ballpark is the same. The buildings across the street beyond the bleachers are the same.

"You look at the pictures in the book and show those buildings, and without rooftop seating, they're the same buildings they were 40 years ago, 50 years ago, 70 years ago. I think it will always have the magic. It will be different. My greatest fear, personally, is not so much the signage but the noise factor. If they start sounding like an NBA arena -- with constant blaring rock music and light shows and things -- that will take away from the ambiance.

"Wrigley Field will always be Wrigley Field as long as they don't do something horrible like take down the vines or add a second deck in the outfield, that sort of thing -- which is not going to happen. Even the video board, that's not that horrible. And people will have their own history then. The kids today, that will be the Wrigley Field they grew up with. And hopefully they'll have it for another 30 or 40 years."

Paul Hagen is a reporter for

Chicago Cubs