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Ivy helps give Wrigley Field iconic look

One-of-a-kind feature rooted in ballpark's rich history

CHICAGO -- On an early May morning, Cubs head groundskeeper Roger Baird is standing on Wrigley Field's center-field warning track looking at a green patch of ivy around the 400-foot sign.

It's been slow to bloom following another harsh Chicago winter and an unseasonably cool spring. But as the city experiences its warmest day yet and buds are scattered along the outfield wall, Baird is confident results will be seen within a couple of weeks.

Less than two weeks later, more ivy has begun to green during the Cubs' current homestand. And with Memorial Day and the unofficial start of summer one week away, it shouldn't be long before Wrigley Field begins to look and feel more like its iconic self -- with the ivy playing a major role.

"To me, this is gold, and I think it's gold to a lot of people," Baird said. "Everybody's got their opinion on it. I sort of like it. Some people say, 'Tear it down and put in padding.' But it's part of Wrigley, come on.

"The field looks 100 times better when this is in full bloom. The ivy, the green grass, and the brick and the red warning track, it all blends in. I think it's just real nice."

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Former Cubs president Bill Veeck claimed in his autobiography that he and grounds superintendent Bobby Dorr planted the ivy the night before the final home series of the 1937 season.

That is a myth, those who have studied Wrigley Field's history say.

Here are the facts: During the 1937 season, the Cubs re-did the outfield -- moving and then installing a new scoreboard, ripping out and replacing old bleachers -- and also focused on beautifying the ballpark. Part of the plan, headed by owner P.K. Wrigley, was to make the ballpark greener and reinforce the idea that Wrigley Field was "a park and not a stadium," Cubs historian Ed Hartig said.

Veeck had seen two Minor League ballparks with ivy on the walls -- one in Indianapolis and another in Pasadena, Calif. -- and he suggested the idea to Wrigley, who approved.

After discovering photos taken by photographer George Brace, Hartig found one of the ivy being planted under the direction of Elmer Clavey, owner of F.D. Clavey Ravinia Nursery, which sold the ivy to the Cubs. Scrawled on the back was the date Sept. 4, 1937 -- nearly a full month before Veeck's claim.

So while Veeck did lead an overnight session on Sept. 30 to add to the existing ivy, he did not oversee the original planting.

"It was not some secret project. The Cubs had already announced they were doing it," said Stuart Shea, author of "Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines." "So Veeck was just writing for effect, as he often did, and it's just become one of those Wrigley Field things that feels more like a legend."

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Baird has a seven-man crew that keeps Wrigley Field's playing surface pristine. Once the ivy is in full bloom, two of them are assigned to its care.

They begin by boarding an electric lift near the left-field foul pole and trimming the ivy all the way along the outfield wall. They clip the top and around the outfield doors, distance markers and advertising logos. They also tuck in any loose vines to keep the ivy as tight to the wall as possible.

It's truly manual labor, all done by hand.

"They normally get it done in eight hours," Baird said.

Why the constant maintenance? If the grounds crew didn't trim around the distance markers and signs, they would be covered by ivy in about 10 days, Baird said. If the top wasn't trimmed …

"By the end of the year, it would probably be like four rows into the bleachers," Baird said.

Baird and his crew tend to the ivy as much as they do the field. The last time the turf was redone, Baird added about 18 sprinkler heads specifically for the ivy, after previously having none. When the Cubs replaced part of the left-field wall -- which was nearing 100 years old -- this offseason, the crew removed and reattached the ivy with "extreme care."

During the summer, when the ivy is at full bloom, it grows about eight to 18 inches away from the wall, with six- to eight-inch leaves. So in the fall when people across the country are raking their yards, so, too, is the Cubs' grounds crew.

"You look at the wall and say, 'Well that ain't that many leaves,'" Baird said. "But when it starts sticking out 18 inches, you might have five leaves in one area and they all come tumbling down. Somebody's got to pick those leaves up. For about three weeks straight, we're just constantly [picking them up]. First thing in the morning, that's our job."

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Every ballpark has its quirks. Wrigley Field has many, with the ivy among them.

The rule is simple: If a ball is lodged in the ivy -- visible or not -- the outfielder can throw his hands up and the batter is awarded a ground-rule double. But once an outfielder reaches for the ball, it's in play.

Then there's playing hits off the wall. Early in the season, when there's no ivy, a ball off the wall will better carom, so fielders play it as they would any other wall. But when the ivy is fuller and the carom less, players have to anticipate the ball dying near the wall.

As for balls in that grey area -- where they don't know whether it's going to be a home run, die at the warning track, or something in between -- it's just like anywhere else, even with a brick wall waiting beyond the ivy.

"The way I play is, if I feel like I can catch it, I'm going for it -- whether it's a cement wall or a padded wall," Cubs outfielder Chris Coghlan said. "I'm just going to try to hope for the best."

Or as Cubs outfielder Ryan Kalish said of the ivy/wall combination: "It's soft if you're nice to it."

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The stories are plentiful, Hartig says.

Lou Novikoff thought the vines were poison ivy when he roamed the outfield from 1941-44.

Another Cubs outfielder, Hank Sauer, hid his chewing tobacco in it.

And Jose Cardenal, an outfielder for the Cubs from 1972-77, was once caught on a WGN camera trying to hide a ball in the ivy -- just in case he lost the original.

The shenanigans. The disappearing balls. The false sense of padding. The confirming of seasons.

Love it or hate it, slam into the brick wall it hides or shy away, Wrigley Field's ivy is simply one of a kind.

"What's so unique about baseball is the parks can have their own character," Hartig said. "Every football field is the same, every basketball court is the same. Baseball's always been one where you can have a little bit of charm.

"I remember the first time I went to a game. I was 5 years old, it was July, the ivy was in full bloom and it was colorful. It really adds to things."

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