Wrigley turnout amazes Cubs fans on 100th birthday
Devoted crowd gathers at storied ballpark for special anniversary
CHICAGO -- Matt Shepardson has been to a lot of Cubs games in his life. Regardless of circumstance, there was no way he was missing this one.
Shepardson, 37, a resident of Romeoville, Ill., had surgery two weeks ago to install a feeding tube in his ailing stomach. A finalist in 2008 for the Cubs' Ultimate 7th Inning Stretch Conductor contest, he made it to Wrigley Field four hours before game time in an motorized wheelchair with his wife, Beth, and son, Ryan, to soak in the pageantry surrounding the ballpark's 100th birthday.
"It was completely up in the air, but I said, 'There's no way at all,'" Shepardson said of missing the historic game. "We've done Wrigley to the hospital before, and on the way home, I said, 'If I've got to do it again, I'll do it again, but we're going to be here.'"
Mike Leal, 66, has been to more Cubs games than he can count. Neither he nor the Shepardsons had seen a crowd so large gather outside the ballpark so early. Not for Opening Day. Not for the playoffs. By 10:30 a.m. CT, the corner of Clark and Addison streets were so jammed with fans, it was necessary to use the street to navigate around.
Well, 100th birthdays don't come around too often.
"This is utterly amazing," said Leal, of Ottawa, Ill. "I've never seen a crowd like this out in front this early in the day. To see this is something else. You don't see this in any other town."
The crowd at Clark and Addison was primarily concerned with getting pictures with the Wrigley Field replica birthday cake. Nearby, statues of team legends Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and even Harry Caray sported replica Chicago Federals home uniforms. The Federals called Wrigley Field home in 1914 and hosted the first Major League game 100 years ago Wednesday against the Kansas City Packers.
The first 10,000 fans enjoyed a birthday cupcake, and 30,000 received Chi-Federals replica jerseys. Toss in the ceremonies inside the ballpark and it made for a once-in-a-lifetime experience for fans.
The ceremonies kicked off with a tribute on the video board, in which Cubs legends and Commissioner Bud Selig recognized Wrigley Field's 100th birthday. Everyone was dressed for the occasion, too. Grounds crew members working on the field donned dark blue jackets reading "Weeghman Park" on the back, the name of Wrigley Field from 1914-20 before the Wrigley family renamed it prior to the '27 season. It was called Cubs Park from '20-26.
Following the announcement of the starting lineups, members of the Northwestern University marching band took the the field, as was customary for Opening Day and other special events during the ballpark's first decades. Bears legends Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers walked to first base to begin the "Alumni Take the Field" segment. The Bears played at Wrigley Field from 1921-70.
Banks, Williams and Andre Dawson then joined Glenn Beckert, Ryan Dempster, Bobby Dernier, Randy Hundley, Fergie Jenkins, Gary Matthews, Milt Pappas andd Lee Smith in taking their positions on the diamond to complimentary introductions and warm applause. Sam and Spencer Brown, Santo's grandchildren, took his spot at third.
In the fifth inning, a chorus of 32,323 sang "Happy Birthday" to the ballpark. In the seventh, Dutchie Caray, widow of Harry, led the fans in the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," a tradition made popular by her husband. She was joined by Butkus, Williams and Jenkins.
"This is pretty special," Shepardson said. "I've been to a lot of the marquee events here at Wrigley for the Cubs, and this is exciting to see some buzz around the park."
Randi O'Neill has lived approximately two blocks from Wrigley for the past year, and she enjoys being able to smell hot dogs and hear a roaring crowd when she walks out of her apartment. This game held special significance, though.
"It's been pretty exciting. We've been looking forward to this game for several weeks now," O'Neill said. "We made sure we came to the exact 100th birthday celebration game, so we're pretty excited. The neighborhood's been kind of nuts, but it's cool."
Not everyone had as short a commute as O'Neill. Mike Freestone, 48, drove in from Ohio on Tuesday night, and he is heading back on Thursday. His father's company in Michigan City, Ind., took an annual bus tour to Wrigley Field starting when he was 6. He's been a Cubs fan ever since, and he has had season tickets for the past three years. For him, Wrigley Field was baseball.
"I've been coming here since I was 6 years old, and it pretty much is the same," Freestone said. "I do like the renovations they have planned, and I think it's time to renovate so that it can be around for another 100 years."
That seems to be the way most fans want it: update Wrigley Field, but never, ever knock it down. The ballpark's charm is forever, and its tenants were sure not to disappoint their fans by planning such an elaborate 100th birthday party.
"I said before, it's like a cathedral," Shepardson said. "It's holy ground when you walk into Wrigley, walk on the field, and it -- keeping it true to the form of the stadium -- is really important to the Cubs experience."
Joe Popely is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.