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Wrigley always special for Selig

Commissioner holds vivid memories of storied Chicago ballpark @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- Everybody remembers their first game at a Major League park, right? Commissioner Bud Selig is no different.

Selig has treasured memories from a trip to Wrigley Field in May 1944, when he was a 10-year-old growing up in Milwaukee. He had listened to the Cubs play on the radio, with Bert Wilson and a young Jack Brickhouse at the microphone, and had attended American Association games at Borchert Field on Milwaukee's North Side, but had never seen Wrigley until he walked into it that day.

"I had an uncle who had a tailor shop [in Chicago], and I was already a baseball fan," Selig said. "My parents took me down and we went to the ballgame. What a thrill that was to me … Wrigley Field, when I walked in there, I'll never forget the thrill. The green grass, the ivy, everything. It was exactly like I thought it would be. That's always my feeling about Wrigley Field. You know?"

Selig has made hundreds of trips to Wrigley through the years, driving down I-94 from Milwaukee. He'll be there again on Wednesday, joining Ernie Banks and dozens of other former players, along with representatives of the Cubs' ownership groups, past and present, in commemorating the ballpark's first game, played by the Chicago Federals on April 23, 1914.

The Commissioner was also in Boston on April 20, 2012, when the Red Sox celebrated 100 years of baseball at Fenway Park.

No other Major League sport has had venues remain viable this long. "Absolutely amazing," Selig said. "Only baseball can produce this wonderful history, tradition."

Selig knows that it hasn't always been easy for franchises to operate in older ballparks, but he believes there is something special -- or even "unique," to use his choice of words -- about ballparks that stand the test of time.

"It probably is trite to some people, but I believe this," Selig said. "I believe when we call Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and old Yankee Stadium cathedrals, they are our cathedrals. That's a fact."

As a historian, Selig knows as much about the Ted Williams era or Babe Ruth being sold to the Yankees as anyone. But when he walks around Wrigley Field before the Cubs play the D-backs on Wednesday afternoon, it will be a more personal experience. Selig will be flooded with recollections dating back to his childhood, his years as a young adult and his tenure as the Milwaukee Brewers' owner.

When Selig was 3 years old, his mother, Marie, a Ukrainian immigrant, began taking him and his older brother Jerry to Minor League games at Borchert Field. He supported the Cubs as his de facto hometown team until the Braves moved to Milwaukee from Boston in 1953.

Selig was in Wrigley on May 18, 1947, when the Brooklyn Dodgers' Jackie Robinson broke the color line at Chicago's Major League parks.

"We rode down, Herb Kohl and me," Selig said, referring to the former U.S. Senator. "I'll never forget it. We met a cousin of mine who was a professor at the University of Chicago. Little did I realize I was sitting in on history."

Selig continued making the trip to Chicago to see games, but changed his allegiance, rooting for the Braves.

"I love Wrigley Field for a lot of reasons, just like I love Fenway Park," Selig said. "You know why? When I go there now, when I'm driving there, it's the same drive I took 50, 60 years ago, 70 years ago. … We used to always come down when the Braves came to Milwaukee. That was big. Oh, boy. It wasn't a fair fight because the Braves were damn good."

Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews combined to hit 86 home runs at Wrigley Field, and Selig witnessed his share of them. "Hank Aaron," he said. "Man, did he hit in the ballpark."

When Selig was attending the University of Wisconsin, he and some friends drove from Madison to Chicago for a Braves-Cubs doubleheader on a Sunday in 1954. He described it like it happened yesterday.

"It was Hank Sauer day, second year Braves were in Milwaukee," Selig said. "Big doubleheader. Remember how Sunday doubleheaders were at Wrigley? Very festive occasion. A band played on the field between games. They called it 'Thank Hank Day,' and Joe Adcock hit a fly ball to left field. I'm a college kid. I'm with some of my friends. Hank came over, bases loaded for Milwaukee, and Hank dropped the ball.

"There were a lot of Milwaukee fans there, and they were yelling -- I'll never forget it, it struck me as so amusing -- they were all thanking Hank for dropping the ball with the bases loaded. But that wasn't the reason they were having Thank You Hank Sauer Day."

Baseball wasn't meant to be funny. But sometimes it just turns out that way.

After the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, Selig said that Wrigley Field again became for him "my only link to baseball."

During a 20-minute interview, Selig frequently paused and let the names of some old Cubs roll off his tongue, sometimes with a comment, sometimes standing alone.

"Remember the Cub outfield of Ralph Kiner, Hank Sauer and Franky Baumholtz?" he said. "Baumholtz was actually a good little player. I'll tell you one thing -- he covered a lot of ground between Kiner and Sauer."

Among the other names Selig mentioned: Walt "Moose" Moryn, Andy Pafko, Roy Smalley, Lennie Merullo, Bill Serena, Bob Ramazzotti, Bill "Swish" Nicholson, Lou "The Mad Russian" Novikoff, Gene Baker, Randy "Handsom Ransom" Jackson, Dick Drott, Kenny Holtzman and Moe Drabowsky.

You could almost see Selig picturing the faces and the exploits of the players he named.

"Man, oh man," he said over and over.

Selig chuckled when he thought of Pat Pieper, the former West Side Park vendor who served as Wrigley Field's public address announcer until 1974.

"Oh my God," Selig said, going into his imitation of Pieper's signature phrase. " 'Get your scorecard and pencil ready.' The more I sit here and talk about it, my history of Wrigley Field is unbelievable."

Selig sees no irony in celebrating the history of a ballpark where the home team has never won a World Series, and one where one hasn't been played in 69 years.

"The only thing I can say about this, and it will sound trite again, but there is no question Cub fans are intensely loyal," Selig said. "I've heard all the theories, and having been there hundreds of times, there's no doubt in my mind that will change. But nobody can really question the loyalty of Cub fans."

Wrigley Field is at the heart of that loyalty.

"I mean this in the most meaningful of ways," Selig said. "Wrigley Field is a constant. It's history. Everything about it means so much to so many people, and I'm one of them."

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Chicago Cubs