(MCT) — The season the Cubs last went to the World Series, I screwed up my courage to ask Clyde McCullough for his autograph. Just back from service in World War II, the burly catcher was holding court on the sidewalk in front of Wrigley Field, a big cigar perched in his mouth. Players hung around after a game then.
"Sure, kid," he said.
The scrap of paper he signed is long gone, but the memory of his words still sets my heart to thumping, especially during the countdown to opening day. When I pass Wrigley Field, my mind's eye pictures the two of us — a tall ballplayer and a scrawny 11-year-old — in front of a backdrop that is, for me, frozen in time. Of course, Wrigley Field isn't the same as it was in 1945. Lights have been added; the bleachers have been expanded.
More changes may be coming, since the team's owners are asking the city to relax the landmark designation that restricts some alterations to the ballpark. Without even seeing a detailed proposal, I am tempted to say, "No way!"
That's neither rational nor good journalistic practice. A reporter should gather the facts before rendering judgment, a responsibility I pledge to honor when the time comes to write a news story about the issue.
But my heart of hearts is different, and others probably feel the same way. That makes the forthcoming struggle over Wrigley Field different from other preservation battles.
When the fate of another building is being decided, experts debate whether it's good architecture. Scholars testify to its historical importance. But for many, the parts of history we see firsthand remain with us like freeze frames of a movie. When mine involve Wrigley Field, they're emotionally freighted.
Recalling Cubs right fielder Bill Nicholson taking three great practice swings — the crowd chanting, "Swish, swish, swish" — is like flipping over an old snapshot to find it dated: "This was the year I took Shirley S. to a Loop restaurant to celebrate eighth-grade graduation." First baseman Phil Cavarretta and my high school prom date are like images pasted side by side in a photo album. Cavarretta came to the Cubs from Lane Tech High School just down Addison Street, where I went, too.
It's not only ballparks that have that hold over us. Bungalows and three-flats can, too. The one where you grew up may be indistinguishable from others in the block. But to you, it's not just bricks and mortar but also a repository of memories. Yet they're mostly too personal to share. You can't say to a bartender: "Do you remember when my folks enclosed the back porch?"
But you can ask: "Do you remember when shortstop Roy Smalley threw a surefire double-play ball into the dugout?" He might. Maybe it was when his dad came home from the Korean War. A ballpark, especially a nitty-gritty one like Wrigley Field, is a storehouse of collective memory.
It's also a place where fans go to watch a ballgame, not to make memories. Maybe years later, they'll remember the experience coated with nostalgia, as I do. But coming through the turnstiles, they're focused on grabbing something to munch on and seeing a few homers knocked onto Waveland Avenue. Yet the impulses pull in opposite directions. The lines at the concession stands are long, and the numerous vendors obscure somebody's view of a key play. The obvious solution is more food stands, fewer vendors prowling the grandstands.
Yet a vendor throwing a hot dog to a customer a bunch of rows up, and fans passing his money down, is like a sacrament to me. Some years, it was the best pitching seen in Wrigley. And while it's a mystery that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has never cracked down on the bullpens located right on the field, between the foul line and the stands, it's part of the game that cycles on an endless loop through my memory: An outfielder chasing a high fly, keeping one eye on relief pitchers and catchers scrambling to get out of his way.
Take any of that away, and with it goes the Wrigley that anchors my psyche. Ditto, if a Jumbotron impinges on the majestic scoreboard whose operators watch the game through unused slots in the inning-by-inning matrix where they hang scores that in other parks are posted electronically. Besides, seeing many Cubs plays a second time can't be good for your mental health.
Now, some say that baseball is a business that needs to keep its product up to date. I can understand that. Others note that, like all other things, even the most notable of buildings change. The Pantheon at Rome was converted from a pagan temple to a church; Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was a church before becoming a mosque. I've been to both without the slightest impulse to scream: "How could anyone do that?"
Maybe that's because I'm neither a Christian nor a Muslim. Being a Chicagoan, I've got a Chicagoan's sense of what's holy — like a 99-year-old ballpark at Clark and Addison. I need tangible evidence of what happened there to know how I got from what I was to what I've become. I'm not alone. Lennie Merullo, a Cubs shortstop in 1945, was spiked during the series and stitched up in the Wrigley Field clubhouse. On the golden anniversary of the series, he told me how he picked at the scab, determined to keep it from healing cleanly.
"Even now, 50 years later, I'll stare at that scar," said Merullo, then 77. "And I'll say to myself, 'You were there, Len. You played in a World Series.'"