George Will loves baseball. George Will loves the Chicago Cubs. George Will loves to write.
This much is clear in his latest book, A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred, a passionate and meandering attempt to chronicle the history of the beloved Chicago Cubs ballpark.
I write “attempt” because it is nearly impossible to capture the full history and character of a venue as storied as Wrigley Field in 200 pages. But Will, best known as a conservative political pundit, tries his darndest to squeeze a century of history into this bite-sized treatise, which comes off feeling more like a rambling essay than a shaped narrative.
That’s not to say the essay isn’t worth a read. Much like the game of baseball, Will’s writing captivates the reader as it starts and stops and saunters through the story not only of Wrigley Field, but of Chicago, the Cubs, and America as a whole. The excitement of a boy from Champaign, Ill., writing about the ballpark of his favorite team is evident as he opens the book with a missive on “the lost youth of central Illinois” looking north to Wrigley Field.
This is clearly a labor of love for Will, akin to a very well-researched journal entry (or blog post, if Will were a blogging kind of guy). Baseball junkies, Cubs fans in particular, will enjoy Will’s musings on everything from Hack Wilson’s career to Heileman’s Old Style lager to Ladies Day at the stadium. But A Nice Little Place on the North Side isn’t likely to resonate with the casual fan outside the state of Illinois.
Baseball fans want to be transported to Wrigley Field. We want to be in the ballpark, to see the ivy, to hear the crack of the bat, to feel the breeze off of Lake Michigan. What we get instead is a hopscotch history of the city of Chicago and the Cubs with a side of Wrigley Field.
One can’t talk about Wrigley Field without discussing “the braided histories” of Chicago and the Cubs, but do we really need a detailed rundown of the trial of Violet Valli, who plugged shortstop Billy Jurgens in 1932? Or how the Cubs fared during the “harebrained experiment known as the College of Coaches,” when Philip K. Wrigley substituted an eight-man committee for a manager? For a short book these diversions seem like time wasters.
Will is at his best when discussing his primary subject head on. The genesis of Wrigley Field’s ivy-covered outfield wall is fantastic, as is the scene that unfolds when Jackie Robinson first came to town with the Dodgers in 1947. And the chapter on how ballpark attendance relates more to beer prices than winning percentage is most illuminating. Such stories let the reader relate to Wrigley Field not just as a ballpark but as an actual character.
Will peppers the book with an abundance of unexpected and entertaining historical connections that will no doubt prove valuable if you ever find yourself competing in a Chicago Cubs trivia contest. Did you know that Ronald Reagan once did radio for the Cubs? Or that Jack Ruby sold programs at Wrigley Field? These less conventional facts prove more enticing to the casual fan than Ernie Banks’s slugging percentage from 1955 to 1960.
Like a runaway train traveling downhill, A Nice Little Place on the North Side picks up speed as it rolls along. Despite wandering for much of the first 100 pages, Will’s musings come into focus toward the end, when he makes the case that baseball is not just a game, but serves the bigger societal purpose of unifying disparate communities. Unfortunately, we have to wade through some tedious innings to reach this ultimately satisfying conclusion. But that’s similar to the flow of a baseball game, isn’t it?