As Chicago prepared to celebrate the New Year in its usual boisterous manner, Charley Weeghman and associates were rushing to close on some property in rapidly developing Lakeview before National League officials could snap up part of it and thwart the Lunch Counter King’s big ambitions. He dreamed of making the high level independent Federal League into a true third Major League, anchored on his recently acquired franchise. To do it he needed to erect a brand new state of the art ball park in a hurry to compete against the White Sox lavish modern digs at Comiskey Park and the Cubs rundown cracker box fire trap, the West Side Grounds.
Before the close of business that day, December 31, 1913, he was the principle owner of a vacant former Seminary conveniently located next to a stop on the north side Elevated line and the busy Clark Street Trolley.
Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary located in then bucolic Lakewood, a Township north of the city, in erected handsome Victorian buildings on the site to house and educate its devout young men safely away from the temptations of the big city. But a real estate boom caused the Township to be absorbed the city in 1889, the year before the Seminary could open its doors.
The El opened in 1900 and with it Lakeview exploded with new development. With it came all of the sin and degradation the Lutherans hoped to avoid. By 1909, despite its relatively new buildings, the Seminary was eager to sell and move to safer and a quieter suburban location.
Weeghman was not the first to recognize the potential for a baseball park at the location. The operators of the minor league American Association (AA) were themselves eyeing the dream of becoming a major league that year. Charles Havenor, owner of the league’s Milwaukee Brewers, and the Cantillion brothers, owners of the Minneapolis Millers knew that the needed a premier location for a Chicago team, so they quickly bought the Seminary property, hoping to turn it over rapidly the AA for a big profit.
The Seminary took the dough--$175,000 and relocated to Maywood. Unfortunately for the new owners, the existing Major leagues successfully blocked the AA’s admission and it looked for a while that they may have a white elephant on their hands.
Enter the Federal League, another minor league that at first was just trying to elevate itself to the high level of the AA. But with the AA damaged, Federal League owners thought they could pull off what the AA had failed to do. Midway through the 1913 season, they decided to make their move.
James A. Gilmore, a Chicago coal baron with plenty of political clout and a kind of ruthless business savvy was brought on a league president. He recruited two men to take over the Chicago franchise then known as the Chiefs which played at the small DePaul University Baseball Grounds. Fish merchant William Walker brought cash and a willingness to be an essentially silent partner. Weeghman, a flamboyant promoter whose chain of lunch counters—sort of primitive fast food joints—was revolutionizing the way office clerks and shop girls ate their quick lunches, was the managing partner with big ideas. He was also a baseball fan and knew something about the game.
By early December he showed he was serious about making his new team big league by signing a genuine star—Cincinnati Red shortstop Johnny Tinker. Suddenly there was a buzz and growing excitement in the Windy City for the team and league.
But Weeghman knew that he could never be big league at DePaul. He planned to launch his new team in April amid all of the considerable hoopla he was capable of generating, but he had to open in a modern new stadium. And the best piece of available real estate in the city for that was in the hands of the disappointed AA team owners.
Negotiations began at once, complicated by stirring opposition from the largely residential neighborhood to a noisy ball park in their midst. Each party knew the other needed the deal. National League officials tried to buy an adjacent coal yard to block the sale. Fed president Gilmore’s political clout, however, trumped even the Cubs. It came down to the wire, but Weeghman finally closed on the last day of the year.
It was not an outright sale. It was a 99 year lease, which meant a continuing revenue stream for the former owners and their heirs. And as a sop to noisy community opposition it came with a $70,000 cap on improvements to the property, hardly enough to erect a small, wooden bleacher park. Weeghman never intended to limit himself to that figure knowing that once he had occupancy, with Gilmore’s political connections, and some generous donations to local politicians he could do anything he wanted.
He had to move fast, however. He secured the services of architect Zachary Taylor Davis, who had designed Comiskey Park in 1910. His instructions were to create a lavish new stadium modeled on the New York Giant’s Polo Grounds. But there was not enough time—or cash—to erect that kind of edifice.
Instead Davis delivered a sleek, innovative concrete and steel plan that called for a single deck covered grandstand sweeping in a continuous arch from right field to near the left field corner. A small press box perched on the roof behind home plate. Due to the irregular shape of the lot—in the first years not all of the Seminary were razed—there was only room for a tiny jury box style bleacher in right field. Seating capacity was a disappointing 14,000, but Weeghman knew that with standing room and seats on the field itself if necessary, double that figure could be accommodated.
Seminary buildings at the corner of Addison and Waveland were razed beginning on February 23, 1914. But the main building, Eliza Hall, was left standing outside of what would be a very short left field fence. Ground breaking on construction of the new field and grandstand was on March 4, only weeks in advance of the planned April 23 home opener.
General Contractor Blome-Sinek swarmed the site with up to 500 men a day in a frenzied effort to open in time. Despite weather and a brief strike in early April, they completed the job just in time.
Every detail of the construction was avidly covered in the Chicago press, part of Weeghman’s relentless public relations campaign. He shuttled reporters and photographer to the site and bought them lunch and drinks.
Meanwhile he also made headlines by salting the team with journeymen big leaguers and top prospects from the American Association. It was apparent that Weeghman would field a real major league quality team.
When it was ready, the field was irregular and angular with extremely short foul lines. The distance from home plate to the right field brick fence along Sheffield Avenue was around 300 feet and left field, hemmed in by Seminary buildings ended at a wooden fence surmounted by a scoreboard not much deeper at the foul line. Left field was not much better, partly because several old Seminary buildings stood between the wooden left field fence and Waveland Avenue. The right and left field walls converged in a corner in deep center field, nearly 450 feet from home plate.
Opening day must have exceeded even Weeghman’s expectations. The team, redubbed for this season only as the ChiFeds while a newspaper contest was held to pick a new nickname opened before double capacity against the Kansas City Packers before a double capacity crowd standing room crowd. In fact some fans stood along in already shallow foul territory and others were crowded on the field deep in that center field niche. They were treated to a spectacular show including 10 brass bands plus twenty pretty young members of the Daughters of the Grand Army of the Republic Relief Corps.
More importantly, the ChiFeds trounced Kansas City 9-1 and went on to sweep the opening series.
But all was not perfect. The close fence down the left field foul line invited an unusual number of home runs in an era when the game as about speed and base running. Alarmed, Weeghman ordered the front porch of the Seminary’s Eliza Hall torn down so that the left field fence could be pushed out 25 feet.
Excited Chicago fans, most of them former loyalists of the fading Cubs, whose once dominant teams had slipped to third place in the two previous seasons and would actually post a losing record that year for the first time since 1902, thronged the new park as the team won a Federal League pennant.
Over the next winter the team got a new and puzzling name courtesy of that newspaper poll—the Chicago Whales. Weeghman also signed popular former Cubs pitching legend Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown who had been fired as player manager of the St. Louis Federal League team in 1914. Most importantly, he had Eliza Hall finally torn down and erected the first real bleachers in its place behind the leftfield wall. The scoreboard was moved to center field.
Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson threw out the first pitch of 1915 before another standing room only crowd. A highlight of the season was a July 29 benefit game for the families of victims of the SS Eastland sinking in the Chicago River five days earlier. Weegham reaped tons of good press by donating the gate and concession profits from the game and the players even took up a collection among themselves. Weeghman also introduced special promotions like the first ever Ladies Days every Friday and the restaurateur’s concessions peddled the best and tastiest food in baseball.
Fan attention was riveted by a close and exciting Federal League pennant race that year, too. The Whales won the league championship, finishing with 86 wins and 66 losses, percentage points ahead of the St. Louis Terriers’s 87–67 record.
The Whales were a huge success story. Unfortunately the Federal League was not. Most of its teams were floundering. Over the winter Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, later first Commissioner of Baseball, brokered a deal between the Federal, American and National Leagues that dissolved the upstart. As the premier property of the Federal League, a side deal was struck in which Weegham was bought out the Cubs for a record $500,000.
He merged the two teams, replacing weak Cubs with the stars of the Whales. The Cubs would abandon their old digs and open the 1916 at Weeghman Park. Nobody mourned the old West Side Grounds, except perhaps the neighborhood urchins who earned free passes by cleaning the stands or could sneak through the porous fences.
Weeghman staged another opening day extravaganza for his new Cubs in 1916 with the team entering the park from a mile long parade behind brass bands to cheering crowds. There were fireworks, a 21 gun salute from Fort Sheridan soldiers, and the presentation of a new live baby bear cub mascot. The team bested the Reds in the opener 7-6 in 11 nail-biting innings.
That proved to be the highlight of the year on the field. Despite the influx of new talent, the Cubs were still a second division team and remained there in 1917,
Then things finally turned around. Behind and pitching star Grover Cleveland Alexander, the Cubs clinched the National League Pennant. But Weegham Field did not host the World Series. The boss rented Comiskey Park because of its larger seating capacity. That proved to be a mistake. Many North Side fans did not make the trek into the alien South Side and attendance was weak as the Cub’s battled the Boston Red Sox led by pitching phenom Babe Ruth. The Cubs lost the Series 4 games to 2.
It was Weeghman’s swan song in active management of the team. He had been selling minority interest in the Cubs to others for some time to help raise capital. The largest of the minority owners was William Wrigley of the chewing gum fortune who ousted him from day-to-day control.
At the same time the foundation of Weeghman’s personal fortune, his chain of lunch counters, was struggling as new competitors, including the Automat entered the completion and thirsty Prohibition era diners suddenly discovered a crying need to have a beer with their lunch in the semi-secret booze-in-a-tea-cup joints that flourished. By 1919 Wrigley completely bought out Weegham and assumed the team presidency.
The ball park was re-christened Cubs Park in 1920. And although the Cubs fielded notably mediocre teams through most of the decade, it remained a popular spot and fans filled the seats. Under Wrigley the park would be expanded and remolded in 1922, ’25, and ’28. The latter upgrade added a second deck to the previously expanded grandstands and raised seating capacity to over 35,000, the largest in the majors. In 1925 the park was renamed for the final time to Wrigley Field.
The rest, as they say, is history.