I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. And the only church that truly feeds the soul, day-in day-out, is the Church of Baseball.Bull Durham
In the religion that is baseball, of which I am a fairly fanatical follower, its cathedrals are the stadiums of Major League Baseball, magnificent structures holding tens of thousands of faithful worshippers come to pay homage to America’s game. Two icons stand above the rest in the pantheon of these stadiums: Boston’s Fenway Park and Wrigley Field in Chicago. It is the latter I have come to see on pilgrimage.
Wrigley Field was built by Charles Weeghman in 1914 as Weeghman Field, to be the home of the Chicago Whales of the Federal League. When that short-lived league folded the following year, Weeghman joined forces with chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. to purchase the Chicago Cubs, and the two moved the team to the now-called Cubs Field. In 1918, Wrigley purchased the controlling interest in the club, and in 1926 renamed the park after himself. It has been Wrigley Field ever since.
For devotees of the Church of Baseball, the sights and smells of the stadium before a game begins are religious rites, sacred acts, full of ceremony and meaning. Fresh cut grass and grilling hot dogs fill my nostrils as incense. The ground crew carefully chalks the foul lines, installs the bases, and wets down the infield with practiced movements and the careful dignity seen by altar boys in churches worldwide. Parishioners begin to take their seats; some close their eyes in the sun in somber prayers of thanks at being in such a holy place.
I need to see each nave, each little chapel of the cathedral, and arriving early (about 90 minutes prior to game time) allows me free access around the stadium. Ushers are accustomed to pilgrims like me. “It’s my first time here,” I tell them. “I’ve waited forty years and I want to make the most of this day.” They smile the knowing smiles of those who, despite being in this sacred place daily, still feel the spirit within them, asking if they can take my photo in front of the altarpieces. I happily oblige, and move on to another corner for a new view.
As visitors who frequent churches can easily recognize the spires of Cologne’s cathedral, or the tower (Giralda) of the Seville Cathedral, so too the faithful of baseball know the distinct features of Wrigley Field. The main entrance marquee is as known to me as the twin towers of Notre Dame, dating from 1934. Inside, the outfield walls are covered in ivy, as iconic as anything in the universe. Here, brave outfielders crash into the thin plant layer over hard brick, risking bodily injury to provide worshippers with the faith-affirming experience of seeing a home run robbery. Balls will get stuck in the ivy, and Wrigley Field has unique rules that turn these lost baseballs into ground rule doubles. Call it a regional religious custom.
The main altarpiece is the hand-cranked scoreboard. Installed in 1937, it is one of only a couple left in existence, a remnant of the early days of a growing religion. In its 80+ years of life, the scoreboard’s clock has never lost time, a miracle if ever there was one. Over the scoreboard are flagpoles with the standings of the three divisions of the National League, honoring the faithful from around the country.
I am here on a Friday afternoon, a typical Chicago 1pm start. For decades, Wrigley Field only hosted day games. Lights were finally installed in 1988, but the franchise still leans toward early start times in homage to the traditions of the past. Chicago summers are hot and humid, but my seat in the back of the lower level is shaded by the deck above, and Chicago’s ever-present wind cools me. Today’s game features the Cubs (long-since eliminated from playoff contention) and the Kansas City Royals (another team well out of it), and yet the fans are as devoted as ever. This season, the Cubs traded away most of their recognizable players, but that doesn’t seem to have any effect on the intensity of Cubs faithful. It’s worship at its purest, a love that outlasts even the fan favorites.
Wrigley Field is special. For devotees of the Church of Baseball, it is even more so. Even if you are not one of the baseball faithful, it is a worthwhile excursion on any Chicago itinerary.
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