Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club, Chicago & the Cubs During the Jazz Age
The Cubs used to be good. Seriously. You just have to reach really far back.
It was a time before the Internet, Twitter, TV and World War II. It was the Jazz Age, when America was putting the First World War – “The Great War” – behind it, drinking gin despite Prohibition, enjoying new things like radio and movies with sound and dancing through the 1920s. It was a far different time in America and Chicago’s North Side team had much better results than it has had recently.
About the only things the Cubs of today and the Cubs of eight or nine decades ago have in common is being more popular than the White Sox and, of course, playing at Wrigley Field.
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, Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club, Chicago & the Cubs During the Jazz Age from University of Nebraska Press.
Ehrgott’s book takes us back to the days when baseball, boxing, college football and horse racing dominated the sports pages and the NFL, hockey and basketball lived only on the fringes. The 1920s come into focus through Ehrgott’s research, which details how the Cubs connected with fans by reaching out to women (“Ladies Day” was a dominant draw at Wrigley in the 20s and 30s) embracing a nascent medium called radio (while teams like the White Sox did not) and, most of all, by winning.
But even great research and illuminating details will suffer on the page if not presented in a rich, embracing narrative and this is what makes Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club shine. Reading this book is like watching the movie “Titanic” in that we all know how it’s going to end. Anyone who follows baseball knows that the Cubs of the 20s and 30s never end up winning the World Series (or at least they know now) just as we all knew the big ship was going to sink. (Sidebar: the Titanic was built, sailed, sank, became legend and was turned into a bunch of books and movies and had its 100th anniversary and the Cubs have still not won a World Series in all that time.) But it’s the journey that counts. It’s the struggle of those onboard and the heartbreak that stays with us, not the finale.
In Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club the principle characters are legends of the game such as Hack Wilson, Kiki Cuyler, Bill Veeck, William Wrigley, Rogers Hornsby, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Babe Ruth and Joe McCarthy but there’s also a picaresque supporting cast of lesser-known, and often forgotten, names such Art Shires, Lena Blackburne, Riggs Stephenson (aren’t these names great?) Charlie Grimm, Bill Jurges and Violet Popovich.
Perhaps the true stars of Ehrgott’s 375-page effort (with more than 100 pages of footnotes. Journalists, take note: always know where your information is coming from, check it again, then one more time, and then write it.) are the people of Chicago and the city itself.
In the 1920s Chicago was living high even though it was, in some ways, the city’s most shameful hours. Al Capone and other gangsters ruled the city along with corrupt politicians and satisfaction through a bribe and justice via a bullet were Chicago law, a way of life that still bleeds into the city today. But the people of Chicago loved baseball and lived and died with the Cubs, the Sox and, as Ehrgott deftly points out, the American Giants of the Negro National League.
In the 1920s Chicagoans made the Cubs an integral part of the decade-long American party. They were the sound track to a celebration of prosperity. Ehrgott leads us into Chapter Four with this quote, “Get a horn and blow loud for Chicago…Put on a big party! Let the jazz band play! Let’s show ‘em we’re all live ones!” attributed to none other than city’s mayor, William Hale Thompson.
But once the Depression hit in 1929, the Cubs became more of a calming hymn to a city that was sinking into despair. As Ehrgott writes on page 361, “The Depression had unquestionably wounded Chicago with greater intensity than it had any other major metropolitan area. The city’s unemployment rate, at nearly 50 percent, easily doubled the national average…” When the Cubs won the ’32 pennant 150,000 joyous Chicagoans turned out to celebrate less than a mile, as Ehrgott details, from a “Hooverville” full of people without a job, money, a home, and dwindling hope.
Ehrgott’s book relays such facts and describes these scenes in a nuanced, analytical fashion that lets history speak for itself and doesn’t crowd the reader with needless comment or interpretation. He lets the truth of the day tell the story. The past reaches out to us through the crack of a bat and the grumbling of an empty stomach.
If there is a message in Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club perhaps it is that baseball can accompany us in good times and help us in bad times but, in the end, it’s a diversion, a pastime. It unites us, divides us and captures us but it cannot save us. Heroes on the diamond provide entertainment and inspiration but they should not furnish our identity. They cannot put value in our life, or food on our table.
Baseball is a violin playing softly, clearly, thunderously and continuously through America’s years. The times change, but the game doesn’t. Yesterday’s ghosts only haunt us if we let them. Otherwise, they laugh with us. They smile at a game that we cannot let go.