"EHRGOTT, ROBERT. Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club: Chicago and the Cubs during the Jazz Age.Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013. Pp. ix+485. Notes, photographs, additional source comments, bibliography, and index. $34.95 hb.
Five years after purchasing a minority stake in the Chicago Cubs in 1916, chewing gum magnate William Wrigley had controlling interest in the team and the financial means to make the North Siders an annual contender for the National League pennant. In Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club: Chicago and the Cubs during the Jazz Age, Roberts Ehrgott crafts an exciting narrative about the Cubs’ rise to national prominence in the late 1920s and early 1930s, contextualized in the culture, music, economics, and crime of Chicago of the period. Along the way, Ehrgott tells the story of visionary owner Wrigley, ingenious general manager Bill Veeck, Sr., and a cast of players and managers whose rise and sometimes fall were inextricably tied to the fortunes of the Cubs and excesses of the Second City. With impeccable research and encyclopedic knowledge, Ehrgott transports the reader back to the 1920s with the sounds and sights around Wrigley Field (called Cubs Park at
the time), the north side of Chicago, and beyond. More than just about baseball, Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club reveals a symbiotic relationship between the baseball team and the city. The reader learns about Wrigley’s almost maniacal desire to win a championship and how he spared no expense doing so. On his personal paradise of Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles, he established a utopian spring training facility with unparalleled amenities. Ehrgott reveals Wrigley’s passion for his team, his emotional investment, and his sincere interest in making the club the country’s finest.
Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club uncovers the drastic and substantial changes occurring in society and sports in the late 1920 and early 1930s. The Cubs’ success and heartbreaks mirrors the country’s confidence after World War I and its struggles with economic collapse as the Great Depression wreaked havoc in Chicago. With the White Sox floundering since the “Black Sox” scandal and World Series fix in 1919, Cubs Park became a national showcase for baseball. Wrigley and General Manager Bill Veeck ushered in a modern era as they embraced radio broadcasts as a way to market the teams well beyond the traditional
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borders of the north side of Chicago. From 1926 to 1932 the Cubs led the National
League in attendance, setting a league record with almost 1.5 million in 1929 (about 100,000 less than the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers had combined). In an effort to attract and keep female fans, Wrigley and Veeck offered Ladies Day at the park where it was not uncommon to have 20,000 female fans clamoring for tickets often necessitating police to keep order.
Above all, Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club is an engrossing story about the Cubs’ players and managers. Ehrgott captivates and holds the reader’s attention by portraying the players and managers as “everyday” people with whom fans can associate, cheer after a win, and boo after a loss. Some struggled with alcohol, became entangled in sexual controversies (one was even shot by a lover), fought with teammates and opposing players, and could be the hero and goat in the same game. In the days long before the exorbitant salaries of the
post-free agency era, players seemed like approachable gods whose greatness and folly were viewed daily. Wrigley took a chance on Joe McCarthy, a career minor league manager who guided the team to the 1929 pennant. A player’s manager, McCarthy was charged with motivating a group of annual underachievers and then keeping them together once the team acquired Rogers Hornsby in 1929, baseball’s most egotistical and divisive superstar.
Under McCarthy’s mentoring, Hack Wilson, the diminutive 5-foot-6, 200-pound outfielder, developed into the National League’s most prodigious slugger and arguably baseball’s biggest attraction other than Babe Ruth. The Cubs of the era were a veritable soap opera with sensations and controversies, perhaps captured best by a photograph of catcher Gabby Hartnett posing with Al Capone at Comiskey Park, where the Cubs and White Sox played their annual City Series when neither team was involved in the World Series. While “could-have-beens” is an ageless phrase in sports, Ehrgott reveals a kind of heartbreak unique to the Cubs’ century-long championship drought without falling into sentimental brooding. The informed fan already knows that the Cubs lost the World Series in 1929 and 1932, but Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club is not about the wins or losses; rather
it is about a team, its players and manager, owner and general manager, who together captured the attention of nation."—GREGORY H. WOLF (North Central College)