George Will has said he maintains his job as a writer to support his baseball habit. In case you don’t know, Will is one of the foremost conservative writers in modern times. He is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative to the point he quit the Republican party when cow-towing to the party’s current standard bearer became more important than standing up against his egregious attacks on the foundations of our democratic republic.
[Read this book if you love baseball, Chicago, the Cubs, or Wrigley Field.]
Fortunately, Will brings that same steadfastness to baseball, the Chicago Cubs franchise, and the place it has called home for over 100 years, Wrigley Field. In his book, A Nice Little Place On the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred,” George Will, a life-long Cubs fan, gives a thorough, entertaining, wide-ranging history of the franchise known as “The Loveable Losers,” and the structure that sometimes acts as a 10th player on defense. And he does it in a way that emulates a day in the stands at Wrigley: no overt concern for a formal structure, the conversation seamlessly hopping from one vignette to the next separated only by the same graphic depicting the ivy covering the outfield wall. You’re not concerned with how fast or slow the book reads – though the pages do turn quickly – and you are never fully sure (or care) where the larger story is going. All you know is that you are enjoying yourself. Indeed, Will details how P.K. Wrigley intentionally designed a day at Wrigley Field to be more about the experience than the game or its outcome, and how that contributed to the decades of futility for which the organization has become infamous.
Will elegantly leads the reader through the structure he has plotted in his head, much like a storyteller in a bar across the street before the game. In fact, if you are familiar with George Will’s speaking style, you can almost hear him holding court, the wise sachem of the Cubs who was present at the creation and has had a box seat view to every twist and turn leading to the present day. The author weaves a universe of characters and events together with an intelligence and wit laced with the heavy exasperation build into a Cubs fan’s DNA. He wrote the book two years before the franchise would win its first World Series title in 108 years, so it’s understandable.
[A summer day game, the epitome of the Friendly Confines experience.]
Will only strays from the base paths for added background or in-depth explanation to underscore a story. Unfortunately, this distracts from the book more than it adds to it. The added history, often political in nature, is thinly attached to the topic. Longer stories about Ronald Reagan being a Cubs announcer on his way to the presidency, or Mayor Cermak being assassinated while riding in a convertible in Miami with FDR, feel like an unnecessarily long pitcher’s mound conference, and are as unfulfilling as ketchup on a hot dog.
In Will’s defense, however, what good storyteller doesn’t wander afield now and then only to return to the main story? Given his accomplishments, the fact that political writing is his bread and butter, and the informal nature of the book, the transgression can be largely forgiven. Will is a baseball and political enthusiast, though never a zealot. Like many, including this writer, he bemoans the encroachment of superfluous spectacle throughout the game, especially between innings. But he’s not so obsessed as to whine – as some do – about the lights that first made night games possible in 1988.
If you love baseball history, the Cubs, and the ballpark, you will thoroughly enjoy this book. In fact, that is why my BFAM (brother from another mother), Joe, gave it to me. He knows I am all of the above, especially because of the four years I spent living just a few blocks from the stadium some fans have traveled to as if on a religious pilgrimage. If you are apathetic to those things but love good storytelling and skillful writing, you will find what you seek. If none of that interests you in the slightest, skip it.