Mr. Wrigley's Ball Club: Chicago and the Cubs during the Jazz Age

Mr. Wrigley's Ball Club: Chicago and the Cubs during the Jazz Age

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by Roberts Ehrgott

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Chicago in the Roaring Twenties was a city of immigrants, mobsters, and flappers with one shared passion: the Chicago Cubs. It all began when the chewing-gum tycoon William Wrigley decided to build the world’s greatest ball club in the nation’s Second City. In this Jazz Age center, the maverick Wrigley exploited the revolutionary technology of

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Chicago in the Roaring Twenties was a city of immigrants, mobsters, and flappers with one shared passion: the Chicago Cubs. It all began when the chewing-gum tycoon William Wrigley decided to build the world’s greatest ball club in the nation’s Second City. In this Jazz Age center, the maverick Wrigley exploited the revolutionary technology of broadcasting to attract eager throngs of women to his renovated ballpark.

Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club transports us to this heady era of baseball history and introduces the team at its crazy heart—an amalgam of rakes, pranksters, schemers, and choirboys who take center stage in memorable successes, equally memorable disasters, and shadowy intrigue. Readers take front-row seats to meet Grover Cleveland Alexander, Rogers Hornsby, Joe McCarthy, Lewis “Hack” Wilson, Gabby Hartnett. The cast of characters also includes their colorful if less-extolled teammates and the Cubs’ nemesis, Babe Ruth, who terminates the ambitions of Mr. Wrigley’s ball club with one emphatic swing.


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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Eig

“Roberts Ehrgott does first-rate work as a baseball historian and storyteller in his addictive, entertaining Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club. He captures 1920s baseball and Jazz Age America in all its swinging, sweaty, booze-soaked charm. A real winner.”—Jonathan Eig, New York Times best-selling author of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig and Get Capone
Curt Smith
“Apologies to Sinatra, Chicago was ‘baseball’s kind of town’ in the 1920s. Roberts Ehrgott’s new book, Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club, beautifully etches how Chicago was the pastime’s capital. . . . In time, radio, then SuperStation television, helped the Cubs become perhaps the first America’s Team. It began in the Jazz Age Twenties, as this wonderful book shows.”—Curt Smith, author of Voices of the Game and Mercy! A Celebration of Fenway Park’s Centennial, Told through Red Sox Radio and TV
Donald Honig

“This is ‘Big League Baseball, Chicago-Style.’ This fast-moving, impeccably researched book regales us with tales of the Cubs’ most hard-hitting, hard-living ball club during some of the most raucous years in our history. Mr. Ehrgott fits all together, from Wrigley to Hornsby to Hack Wilson, even including a cameo by Al Capone. One of the best and most compulsively readable ‘Team’ books in any sport.”—Donald Honig, author of The Fifth Season: Tales of My Life in Baseball
Glenn Stout
“I wasn’t sure the world needed another Cubs book, but the answer is it does. Roberts Ehrgott has written a wonderful portrait not just of a team but of a time and place. A book for anyone who seeks to understand the Cubs or the city of Chicago.”—Glenn Stout, Seymour Award-winning author of Fenway 1912 and series editor of The Best American Sports Writing
Mark Jacob
“Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club is a joy to read—exhaustively researched, yet lifted by the facts, not weighed down by them. It’s difficult to believe that Ehrgott wasn’t in Chicago for the events he writes about, considering how vividly he describes the ballpark scene and the Second City atmosphere of the era.”—Mark Jacob, coauthor of Wrigley Field: A Tribute to the Friendly Confines
Chicago Tribune - Scott Simon

"Roberts Ehrgott has written a graceful, engrossing account of an era in which the Cubs, while already falling short of winning the World Series, built a national following in the age of flash, flappers, mobsters, molls, bank runs and breadlines."—Scott Simon, Chicago Tribune
Tampa Tribune - Bob D'Angelo

"[Mr. Wrigley's Ball Club] is a smartly written, well-researched look at the Cubs from 1925 to 1932."—Bob D'Angelo, Tampa Tribune
Boston Globe - Bill Littlefield

"What sets the book apart from many set in baseball is how Roberts Ehrgott handles the context in which the fun and games transpired. In the '20s, Chicago was certainly the Cubs, but it was also Al Capone, and, as Ehrgott writes, "Chicagoans venturing to other parts of the country and abroad learned that their city was becoming a byword for mayhem and violence." . . . Chicago's dizzy baseball hopes and dreams seem especially poignant against the background of the onset of the Great Depression."—Bill Littlefield, Boston Globe
Seamheads - Terry Keshner

"Roberts Ehrgott takes us back to the days when the Cubs were kings and Chicago was a growing, thrilling, dangerous melting pot of Al Capone, speakeasies, "flappers" and vaudeville in his meticulously researched and extremely well crafted new book."—Terry Keshner, Seamheads
Library Journal
The Chicago Cubs of the 1920s were perennial pennant contenders, featuring a slew of powerhouse hitters, e.g., Rogers Hornsby, Hack Wilson, and Gabby Hartnett. The Wrigley family, of chewing-gum fame, owned the club and was innovative in its fan-friendly approach (starting a Ladies Day, for instance). Sportswriter Ehrgott relates how these years saw the start of baseball radio coverage and the increased influence of advertisers and sponsors. The Chicago of Al Capone (who attended Cubs games) and Prohibition is the backdrop. The book concludes with Babe Ruth’s famous “called shot” in the 1932 World Series: the swaggering Cubs were swept.
VERDICT A fun read, if not on a new subject, full of anecdote and color. Recommended for fans of the Cubs or Chicago or baseball history. —PK

(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews
A baseball historian recaptures Chicago's most notorious era and the city's love affair with one of baseball's most colorful teams. As the 1920s crashed into the unforgiving wall of the Depression, chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley assembled a team so wondrous as to outdraw even Babe Ruth's Yankees. Clever team president Bill Veeck supercharged ballpark attendance, perfecting the idea of Ladies' Day and helping to pioneer radio broadcasts of games. The Second City couldn't get enough of this team of assorted alcoholics, teetotalers, brawlers, carousers, fitness buffs and gamblers that captured two pennants and featured numerous eventual Hall of Famers: Joe McCarthy, Rogers Hornsby, Grover Alexander, Gabby Hartnett, Kiki Cuyler and Hack Wilson. Former Saturday Evening Post editor Ehrgott draws memorable portraits of these immortals and lesser Cubs like Jolly Cholly Grimm, whose ashes would one day be spread on Wrigley Field, and shortstop Billy Jurges, shot (not killed) by his showgirl lover. Other Windy City personalities--corrupt Mayor Big Bill Thompson, first citizen Al Capone and iron-eyed commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis--enliven a bulging narrative that effortlessly emerges from a world where Hupmobiles cruised the roads and Jelly Roll Morton's hot jazz filled the air, where flappers crushed on athletic gods and disgruntled fans tossed mildewed lemons at slumping players, where mob hits were common and pro football still a novelty, and where sporting legends like Jack Dempsey's Long Count arose alongside Ruth's called shot in the 1932 World Series. That home run crushed the Jazz Age Cubs' last chance for a championship, but as Ehrgott deliciously demonstrates, it barely dented their lasting, slashing swagger. An absolute must for any baseball fan's library.

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By Roberts Ehrgott


Copyright © 2013 Roberts Ehrgott
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-6478-6


The Capital of Baseball

Chicago's bid for grandeur has failed.... [Chicago], it now seems certain, will never be first. —A. J. Liebling, Chicago: The Second City, 1952

"Chicago is still the second city." —John Lindsay, mayor of New York, 1969

The bases were loaded with two outs in the home eleventh inning at Wrigley Field on September 13, 1931, while the crowd roared for the sacrifice of the solitary youngster standing at the center of the diamond. The threats to that forlorn figure, Boston pitcher Bruce Cunningham, had mounted batter by batter: a one-out double, an intentional walk, then a desperate lunge by the second baseman to stop a sharp drive and hold the Cubs' lead runner at third base. The right-handed Cunningham intentionally walked the next batter through the inning, filling the last available base. Cunningham now had to record an out, any out, by strikes, force, fly, or tag to preserve the 7–7 tie. Cunningham in particular needed this stop. The howling of the Wrigley mob may have been only a vicarious release, but Cunningham, 3-11 on the year after three unremarkable seasons in the big leagues, might soon need to find another livelihood, and there weren't many of those available in late 1931.

The opposing teams on this bright September afternoon were a collective fifty games or so from first place; only the Cubs' need to remain in the first division to share in World Series proceeds provided any plausible suspense, yet thirty-three thousand Chicagoans howled as if the pennant were on the line. The third-place Cubs—17½ games from first place and mathematically eliminated from contention, and the perennially downtrodden Braves, 7-24 in the last month—nonetheless faced a crowd whose size the 1930 World Series had not matched. Cunningham and the sixth-place Braves were fortunate if they saw so many Boston fans in a full week. In fact, that afternoon in Boston, the two Sox teams were playing before seven thousand; Redland Field in Cincinnati had attracted just eight thousand fans. New York City could claim more fans for the day, but with two mostly empty venues: ten thousand at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, and twenty-five thousand at Yankee Stadium, supposedly more than seventy thousand in capacity.

Seven other major league parks with empty seats and blasé late-season customers, yet young Cunningham had to pitch in the epicenter of a sports madhouse, before a hoarse rabble in full cry for the 143rd game of a home team also-ran. Still, in the capital of baseball a half-dozen radio stations and their hundreds of thousands of listeners were following each pitch and every play of the Cubs' eleventh—the one-out double by Les Bell, two intentional walks, the second baseman's marvelous stop.

Across the sprawling city the announcers' voices squawked through windows and doors still open in the warm late-summer afternoon, down quiet side streets and alleys, inside stores and barbershops and the ice cream parlors that fronted for the ready availability of beer. No other program—no music, no comedy, no soap opera, no news—aired during the Cub game. The flat Midwestern deliveries of the play-by-play men were the common denominator of a city where sociologists had recorded the presence of at least twenty-eight spoken tongues. The broadcasts reached not just the 7 million residents of "Chicagoland"—the city and its suburbs—but an audience of millions more in a six-state swatch of the upper Midwest. Cub games had created the world's first electronic village, a daily monopoly of the airwaves rivaled at first only by the World Series, heavyweight title fights, presidential inaugurations, and appearances of Charles Lindbergh.

Confounding the scoffers who predicted that this total broadcast immersion would cripple the ball club's attendance, the Cubs' radio coverage had touched off the greatest boom since the arrival of Babe Ruth in New York more than a decade earlier. By 1931 the capital of baseball had outdrawn the "House That Ruth Built" four summers running. Two years earlier, in the last halcyon summer of the Roaring Twenties, Mr. Wrigley's turnstiles had recorded 1.5 million visits, more than the major leagues would see until the Depression and World War II had run their course. Despite the ever-deepening Depression and the club's unexpected fall from contention, Wrigley Field's 1931 attendance count handily exceeded, at 974,688, anything most teams had dreamt of in the fattest years of the Jazz Age. Each year in this new capital of baseball, one of every four National League customers passed through Mr. Wrigley's turnstiles.

The crowds of this boom time might storm the gates and even the field in midgame; express disgust or jubilation by littering the field with pop bottles, fruit, or straw hats; and watch the rise and fall of fabled careers and batting records. Friend or foe found himself razzed or cheered according to standards that shifted as quickly as the breezes off Lake Michigan, a few blocks to the east. But at any moment a hero or a villain could turn things around with a lovely wind-blown drive into the right-field bleachers, a county fair–style structure of scaffolding and planks whose first row met the playing field behind a cyclone fence only 320 feet from home plate, the famous ivy-clad walls yet unforeseen. After Labor Day, especially in the heat of a pennant race, a decisive home run signaled a seasonal ritual: flinging the passing summer's straw hats—"skimmers"—onto the field with a flick of the wrist, a Jazz Age Frisbee toss that jumbled the field with mounds of hats and halted games while the ground crew hauled them off.

The noise could reach its highest decibels in the bedlam of the Cubs' unprecedented Ladies Day carnivals, when the complimentary admission of women left proportionately many fewer men on hand. Wrigley Field's female fans were the most numerous and enthusiastic assortment of sportswomen yet witnessed in the modern world. Reaching numbers of twenty thousand and higher, their riotous Friday afternoon presence often dwarfed the day's paid attendance in any other major league park. The women poured into the ballpark every Friday the Cubs played at home, applauded foul balls enthusiastically, adopted and discarded favorites, and hounded the chosen ones for autographs; the boldest flappers forwarded their phone numbers to the dugouts. Massing in the streets outside the park, willing to charge the gates if necessary, Chicago's womenfolk had forced management to adopt an elaborate advance distribution system to cope with the onrush.

Saturdays and Sundays brought yet more women, this time paying customers who had learned baseball on Friday afternoons or by listening to the broadcasts during household chores and now attended with spouses and families. Aided by the female reinforcements, the park sold out frequently on weekends, and latecomers, in their Sunday best, might have to settle for standing-room-only admission, lining up behind ropes that Andy Frain's resplendent, paramilitary ushers stretched deep in the outfield, sweltering under the summer sun—up to four thousand souls, a typical weekday figure in several other major league parks.

While the bleachers and the overflow teemed with the humble and the late arriving, the grandstands held a cross-section of Jazz Age Chicago. Amid a sea of straw hats, the inevitable flask of moonshine liquor, perhaps produced by a snappy dresser wearing spats, emerged, and from time to time knots of hard-faced men in snap-brimmed panamas invaded the box seats, the kingpin of the moment safely in their midst.

Most games though, the inhabitant of another box, just behind the Cubs' dugout along the third-base line, commanded attention. There, three or four days each week during the club's lengthy home stands and his own visits to his privately owned 58,000-acre Pacific island, sat the team's chief cheerleader, a double-chinned older gentleman clad in bowtie, three-piece suit, and expensive skimmer: William Wrigley Jr.—"Bill" only to the public, never to his face—a free-spending overachiever, dreamt of owning the greatest baseball team in the world. A perfectionist, he monitored the condition of his plant in minute detail, ever vigilant for the signs of dirt or disorder, insistant that even his team's uniforms were the pride of the major leagues. Not shy about leaping to his feet for an exciting play or proudly passing out cigars after a home run, he monitored his prized athletic thoroughbreds up close, pampered them, encouraged them. In the six years since Mr. Wrigley had retired from active control of his eponymous company, the world's premier seller of chewing gum, Mr. Wrigley's ball club and the great surge in attendance had caught the baseball world by surprise, complete with the Ladies Day crowds SRO and sellouts, not to mention frequent hurling of hats and fruit. Wrigley, in close alliance with his trusted baseball man, William Veeck Sr., snapped up athletes as he had his semitropical island—Santa Catalina Island, floating like a cloud off the southern California coast, where he presided while his players trained each February and March, the lord of an estate inspecting his chattel, feeding and sheltering them, sponsoring their honeymoons, providing them entertainment and introductions to Hollywood's stars, starlets, producers, and agents.

Wrigley made sure no payroll in the National League exceeded his and that his expensive player acquisitions made a splash in the newspapers. After years of extravagant offers and dealings, his top sluggers earned as much as Lou Gehrig (though not Babe Ruth himself). Wrigley's charges owned large stretches of the record book untrod by even the Bambino of New York. Mr. Wrigley openly hankered to own the greatest ball club in the world, and he would see that they played in its baseball capital.

By September 1931 Wrigley's promotions, his ambitions, his hirings and firings, his dissatisfaction with ordinary definitions of success, had created a participatory baseball democracy in which the humblest fan expected a say and a ball club that occupied a central place in the national conversation. The shirt-sleeved folk booing in Mr. Wrigley's ballpark were a cloud on the horizon, harbingers of change—soon to become foot soldiers in something called the New Deal, when the culture would turn on Bill Wrigley's chums and allies—Hoover, Coolidge, Big Bill Thompson, Samuel Insull, Andrew Mellon. The voters would eject them from the seats of power, and an army of business regulators and prosecutors would treat them much as they did the murderous Al Capone, going to trial downtown in a few weeks. Wrigley's death, only four months off, would spare him this spectacle. His son and successor, the reticent, cautious Philip, would personify a new business paradigm, conserving as well as acquiring, stepping carefully, avoiding flamboyant risk-taking and braggadocio.

In September 1931, none of that was obvious, or inevitable. Depression or not, pennant race or not, Wrigley's customers were out in force on a warmish Sunday afternoon, on the edge of their seats, still following every twist of their team's fortunes and its politics. That said, the wild pennant races of the past three Septembers had not repeated themselves in 1931; the streets around the ballpark were no longer blocked with ticket seekers, no temporary bleachers were going up for a World Series, and the more recent losses and disappointments and controversies were yet fresh in the minds of Cubs' fans. That itself was not necessarily good news for Wrigley and his favorite Cub.

Pat Pieper, the Cubs' field announcer, was surprised to see the Cubs' player-manager, Rogers Hornsby, calling his on-deck batter back to the dugout. It seemed an odd move: the scheduled batter was a capable hitter and a favorite of Hornsby's—why not let him face the right-handed Cunningham?

Pieper had been at his job ever since the Cubs moved into the park in 1916. His main tool was a green, fourteen-pound megaphone that measured some three feet long and eighteen inches across at the bell; an assistant helped him tote it down each foul line and bellow the lineup changes to the grandstands and box seats. The bleacher customers, not to mention the reporters in the press box, had to cup their ears or rely on word of mouth to keep track of changes. Trying to read the back of a player's uniform was no help, for the Cubs had not yet adopted numbered jerseys.

Yet before Pieper could reach his first station, even the bleacher dwellers recognized who had swaggered from the dugout, swinging two bats over his head. For Cunningham, high on the mound, it was a disconcerting sight: wielding the bats was Mr. Wrigley's prize superstar, the Cubs' leading RBI man, their player-manager, and by most lights, the greatest right-handed hitter who had ever stepped into a major league box. As the club's player-manager, Hornsby was the self-same party who had decided that in this instance baseball's lefty-righty rule need not apply.

Little that Cunningham and the Braves had experienced prepared them to see thousands of angry customers leaping to their feet as one, shaking fists and jeering; then came a spirited reply loudly approving the manager's choice. Cunningham might have harked back to the ancient history lessons still taught in that day, Blues and Greens demonstrating in the imperial Circus, factions that could turn on their fellow citizens—or upon the imperial box itself. Civil war had broken out in the capital of baseball. While Pieper tried to announce the expensive pinch hitter through his cone, the great Rajah, taking no heed of the commotion, strode to the batter's box, stepped in, and cooly awaited Cunningham's first delivery.

With the bases full, Cunningham was free to take his full windup again. Hornsby let the first pitch go by, a called strike. He did not complain; umpire baiting was not among his faults, and for someone of his stature in the business, star and umpire more or less collaborated on the scope of the strike zone. The stone-faced Texan presented Cunningham and all pitchers with unique problems. Thrice a .400 hitter, owner of one of the highest career batting averages ever, he had done the most, aside from Ruth himself, to launch baseball's Golden Age, the era of the lively ball. But unlike Ruth and others of the new breed, he represented the old order in both his attitudes and his play; off the field, he was surly and cold—"wintry-souled," in the words of one historian—to rivals and teammates alike, though assuredly not to Mr. Wrigley. Disciplined and relentless, the Rajah never overswung or forced himself to pull the ball for distance; at all times he was willing to take pitches to the opposite field. "There's only one batting rule," he said. "Keep your eye on the ball."

As long as a warm lakeward breeze cooperated, the dimensions of Wrigley Field, with its right-field bleachers some 320 feet off, favored an opposite-field hitter like Hornsby. On a pleasant day like September 13, 1931, any overgrown fly ball could reach those bleachers.

Chicago in 1931 was still a turbulent boomtown, the country's most diverse in the years after World War I. After the startling half-century of growth that followed the great fire of 1871, its population had mushroomed another 25 percent in the 1920s. Those born abroad and their children made up two-thirds of the city's population: "the largest Lithuanian city in the world" or "the third largest Irish city in the world," depending on who was counting. Many other inhabitants hailed from farms or small towns in the hinterlands of the Midwest and the South. Chicagoans, said one who knew them well, were the type who "eat with a knife instead of a fork, who take a bath on Saturday night, who play an occasional game of pinochle, and who cuss at the traffic cop who doesn't let them park in the Loop." Many lived in apartments or shotgun-style cold-water flats; even those with hot water might bathe no more than once or twice a week. Après bath, even the best-scrubbed fan had only perfume or cologne for further defense: deodorants and antiperspirants were not yet in widespread use—making the sights and smells of Wrigley Field's bleachers, to consider one example, even more problematic.


Excerpted from MR. WRIGLEY'S BALL CLUB by Roberts Ehrgott. Copyright © 2013 Roberts Ehrgott. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Donald Honig
“This is ‘Big League Baseball, Chicago-Style.’ This fast-moving, impeccably researched book regales us with tales of the Cubs’ most hard-hitting, hard-living ball club during some of the most raucous years in our history. Mr. Ehrgott fits all together, from Wrigley to Hornsby to Hack Wilson, even including a cameo by Al Capone. One of the best and most compulsively readable ‘Team’ books in any sport.”—Donald Honig, author of The Fifth Season: Tales of My Life in Baseball
Jonathan Eig
“Roberts Ehrgott does first-rate work as a baseball historian and storyteller in his addictive, entertaining Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club. He captures 1920s baseball and Jazz Age America in all its swinging, sweaty, booze-soaked charm. A real winner.”—Jonathan Eig, New York Times best-selling author of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig and Get Capone

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