Book Review: A Nice Little Place on the North Side

NicePlaceNorthSideby Timothy Lane9/4/15
George Will is a long-time Cubs fan, going back to childhood, and like any good conservative has maintained his loyalty regardless of their (usually bad) performance. In this book, he looks at the Cubs and the park that has been their home for nearly a century now.

Wrigley Field was built for the Chicago team in the Federal League, which existed for only 2 years (1914-15); major league baseball does well with 2 leagues, but efforts at a third haven’t prospered. After the team folded, the Cubs took over Wrigley. The Cubs at that time were a generally successful team, arguably the founding team of the National League. The 1906 team had the best record in major league history (though it lost the World Series to their crosstown rivals, nicknamed the “Hitless Wonders”). They won the World Series in 1907 and 1908 (unaware that this would be their last such victory, at least as of now), and a pennant in 1910.

But since then their performance hasn’t been as good. They had a good decade from 1929 through 1938, winning the pennant every 3 years (but only 3 games in the 4 World Series — combined), and also won pennants in 1918 and 1945. But since then they’ve usually been a mediocre or even poor team — and even when they weren’t, they were cursed.

Will is basically telling a general history of the park (and the Cubs), but it’s heavily anecdotal (and he has a lot of nice anecdotes). The Cubs were the last team to put in lights (though they would have done so decades earlier if it hadn’t been for World War II). As it happens, if they had instead been one of the first teams to do so, one of the great moments in Cubs history — Gabby Hartnett’s “homer in the gloaming” in 1938, which won the pennant just as the umpires were ready to call the game due to darkness (naturally, they were swept in the Series by the Yankees) — would have lost its drama.

GeorgeWillNicePlace

But it’s regrettable, given the Cubs’ curse, that Will never mentions, much less explains, the Curse of the Billy-goat. This occurred in 1945, when the Cubs decided not to let a local fan bring his billy-goat to the park during the World Series (as he had regularly done during the season). He cursed them, and not only did they lose the Series 4-3 to Detroit (what the heck, that was as many games as they won in their 4 previous appearances before the curse), but ever since they’ve never made the Series at all. Will shows the results, and how much their fans have expected something to go wrong (and they’ve always been right), but not the explanation.

Will includes plenty of tidbits. There was a Wrigley Field vendor named Jacob Rubinstein who developed a bit of a bad reputation. He later did what so many Illinoisans have done in recent years and went elsewhere. In his case, he moved to Texas after changing his name to Jack Ruby, and eventually became far more notorious than he ever was in Chicago.

Just after completing my contribution on Lust for the Seven Deadly Sins symposium, I read Will’s account of 2 interesting incidents involving women stalking baseball players. One shot and wounded Billy Jurges in 1932, forcing the Cubs to get a new shortstop to finish the season. They chose former Yankee Mark Koeng, who helped lead them to a pennant and was then voted only half a World Series share. His former teammates were most unhappy about this (even though at the time they hadn’t always gotten along with him), which helped make that Series a very hostile encounter (which played a role in what may or may not have been a “called shot” by Babe Ruth). The other shot Eddie Waitkus after he was traded to the Phillies. The injury wasn’t serious — but it inspired Waitkus’s friend Bernard Malamud.

There are plenty of other anecdoates. There was the 23-22 game between the Phillies and Cubs. There was the fan who went after a foul ball that barely made it into the stands (someone else actually caught the ball), depriving Cubs outfielder Moises Alou of a catch — and, ultimately, helping cost the Cubs a pennant. (Will notes that the “Friendly Confines” certainly weren’t friendly for him after that.)

All in all, this is a very interesting book for baseball fans — particularly fans of the Cubs, of course.


Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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8 Responses to Book Review: A Nice Little Place on the North Side

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I can’t remember if it was “Bunts” or “Men at Work,” but I have read at least one baseball book by Will (no political ones) and very much enjoyed it. This one sounds good as well.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I know I read Men at Work, and I think I read Bunts. Of course, I’ve also read many of his essay collections. Will is one of those writers I usually appreciate even when I disagree with him (and I agree with him far more often than not).

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Will is a wordsmith and obviously loves baseball. His snobbery is an interesting mix with the sport of chewing tobacco and groin scratching. His air of soft arrogance plays well as he looks down at a sport that is often about brute power or speed and cherishes the nuance. He’s a nuance guy. And, of course, there is a lot of nuance built into the sport and that can be tacked onto the sport as a spectator.

        In the political realm, his elitism is often harder to swallow.

  2. Steve Lancaster says:

    Ah, the Cubs its baseball as a participatory sport for everyone. There is no better place than Wrigley Field in the 80s with Harry Carey announcing the play by play, hot dogs that have been on the grill since opening day and no one really cares if the Cubs win or lose and the 7th inning stretch, “take me out to the ball game”.

    Will’s book is a nostalgia tour of epic proportions.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I love baseball anecdotes. One of my favorites is this:

      As for umpires’ unwillingness to challenge Williams on calls, Don Larsen, in particular, the Yankee’s famed perfect game World Series pitcher, hated this: “The only thing I didn’t like (about Williams) was no matter what you did, if you threw the ball down the middle of the plate and he didn’t swing, it would be a ball. He more or less umpired his own game.” Virgil Trucks tells a perhaps apocryphal tale about a game between Detroit and the Red Sox in Boston: “Joe Ginsberg was catching and Williams came up and walked on four straight pitches, and Joe’s questioning the umpire about it. On the last one, he said, ‘Bill’—Bill Summers was the umpire. He said, ‘Bill, don’t you think that ball was a strike?’ And Bill said to Joe, ‘Mr. Ginsberg, Mr. Williams will let you know when it is a strike.’”

      I read a very interesting book on Ted Williams a few years back. I don’t remember which one. But they both loved him and hated him in Boston at the same time. Ted could say some controversial things and he wasn’t always loved (by players or fans) when he refused to simply put the ball in play and move a runner over if the situation called for it. Ted would simply walk if he didn’t get a pitch to his satisfaction.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Nearly 50 years ago, I read a series of articles by former umpire Jocko Conlan in Sports Illustrated. He mentioned once calling a strike on Williams and then realizing he was wrong. He also realized that Williams, with his superlative vision, had to know it was a bad call. But he didn’t complain — and as an umpire used to lots of player complaints, Conlan appreciated that.

        Williams didn’t like to swing at balls, but he also preferred not to swing at pitches he was unlikely to hit well. I doubt he always got balls called on those. But it’s true that he walked a lot. He may have been the greatest hitter in baseball history.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I think there are only two things we can be sure of in baseball. One is the Babe Ruth was the greatest player ever. Two, Ted Williams was the greatest hitter ever. No “may” needed in my evaluation. 🙂

          Who was the greatest pitcher? I don’t know. Satchel Paige? Who was the greatest defensive player? Haven’t a clue. But I’m pretty sure about those other two. You can alway make an argument for this or that player. But generally both these fellows start at the top and then one needs to try to find a reason to knock them down a peg.

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