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Marquee at Wrigley Field a beloved relic

Sign has welcomed Cubs fans to historic ballpark for last 80 years

CHICAGO -- It stands out on the corner of Clark and Addison, its bright red color and bold white letters welcoming you to the home of the Cubs.

That home, Wrigley Field, is many things -- its iconic scoreboard, lush green ivy and 100 years of memories -- but the moment you know you've truly arrived at the Friendly Confines is the first glimpse of the marquee above the main entrance.

The marquee hasn't been a part of Wrigley Field's entire 100-year history -- this season is only its 80th -- but it's as much a part of the ballpark's fabric as the sound of organ music and smell of Old Style.

How a simple sign has become so beloved is through the passage of time, much in the same way Wrigley Field has endeared itself to baseball fans.

"It feels authentic to people," said Stuart Shea, author of "Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines." "It feels authentic because it's so different. It's the same reason why people feel the way they do about Wrigley Field. It stands for the way we romanticize the past, and it's a living monument to the past."

Commissioned by the Federated Sign Company of Chicago and installed in 1934, the marquee's initial purpose was advertising, Cubs historian Ed Hartig said. The Cubs relied heavily on day-of-game ticket sales -- holding 25,000 of the then-40,000-ticket capacity for such sale -- and used the marquee to promote that day's game.

The marquee, at first colored fern green, originally read, "Wrigley Field, Home of the Cubs," and featured the same cascading soft curved lines still seen today.

Although placing an elegant marquee at the main entrance makes sense, the sign did not fit the corner of Clark and Addison in 1934. A coal yard sat across Clark Street, sending smoke and dust into the air. Train tracks were also across from the ballpark, making the area surrounding Wrigley Field's main entrance anything but distinguished.

"It was not a glamorous place," Shea said. "The intersection was loud. There was pedestrian traffic, automobile traffic, trains. So it was kind of interesting that they chose to put it there. Obviously, they needed to have something, because it was the main entrance to the ballpark, but putting something so beautiful there is surprising in retrospect."

The marquee was painted dark blue a year or two after its installation, and by 1939, "the" was swapped for "Chicago" and the marquee's message has since read the same, except in autumns through 1970, when Chicago's NFL team called Wrigley home and "Cubs" was swapped for "Bears."

The marquee received its familiar coat of red paint in the mid-1960s, and it has seen other changes throughout the years. The electronic message board was added in the early 1980s, the Budweiser logo appeared beneath it for a few seasons in the '80s, and other banners have surrounded it over the past few years. It has also read "National League champions" following the Cubs' pennant-winning seasons, and for about a week in 2010, it was painted purple when Northwestern hosted a football game at Wrigley Field.

But at its core, the marquee has remained nearly constant. And as the corner of Clark and Addison grew from industrial to modern and the area surrounding the ballpark evolved, the marquee became a more alluring piece of Wrigley Field.

It was, and still is, a billboard. Its first purpose was to promote games. Today, it continues to do that, as well as advertising everything from the team on social media to allowing fans to wish someone a happy birthday. But just as Wrigley Field is more than a ballpark, the marquee is more than a sign.

"It's one of the most memorable parts of an arena in American sports," Shea said. "It's right up there with the monuments at Yankee Stadium."

Today, amid the thousands of fans bustling around the ballpark before a game, the must-have picture at Wrigley Field is in front of the marquee. Not a day goes by where a fan isn't posing in front of it -- whether it's before an afternoon matinee in August or a blustery winter day in January.

"It's crazy. It's really been the last 30 years or so that it took off," Hartig said of the marquee photo phenomenon. "It's just something that's uniquely identifiable to Wrigley Field. You've seen this sign on the opening of TV shows. It's been used in movies. It's just been a very simple, very visible presence that says, 'This is Wrigley Field,' and not any other ballpark."

And just as Wrigley Field as a whole is romanticized for its authenticity to the national pastime, the marquee represents the ballpark's nostalgia on the outside.

"It's been here longer than some of us have been alive, and in a country that embraces the past, it's a piece of history," Shea said. "We care a lot about our history -- our sports history, our cultural history -- and the marquee serves that purpose in a lot of ways."

And while Wrigley Field has seen numerous and sometimes drastic changes throughout its 100-year history -- with more on the way in the coming years -- the marquee has experienced only slight modifications.

"A lot of the ballpark has constantly changed, but the marquee -- it's changed, but it's still the same marquee that was there when your grandfather went to a game," Hartig said. "It's something that's always been there. It's part of the whole fabric of being a Cub fan."

Cash Kruth is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @cashkruth.
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