Commentary

Fond memories of football at Wrigley

It's been four decades since Bears played at Wrigley, but memories haven't faded

Updated: November 19, 2010, 2:07 AM ET
By R. D. Rosen | Special to ESPNChicago.com

The announcement last April that football is returning to Wrigley Field on Nov. 20, 2010, for a showdown between Northwestern and Illinois would have awakened fond memories of attending Bears games there in the 1960s, except that those memories never fell asleep. Not a month of my adult life has gone by -- and not a week during football season -- when I don't mentally screen a montage of my beloved Bears highlights from Wrigley. It's my petite madeleine, the involuntary memory that evokes what it was like to be me.

The movie opens with a POV shot of my dad and me walking toward Wrigley from our far-flung parking space. Suddenly, the titanic scoreboard emerges from behind the dying foliage, looming over the residential neighborhood. Its unfamiliar pairings of teams (Green Bay and Philadelphia? Cleveland and Washington?), and the blank "Yards To Go" sign where "Batter" recently reigned, all make my heart pound beneath my plush-lined corduroy coat, three intermediate layers and long johns.

[+] EnlargeGayle Sayers
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireGayle Sayers was one of the Bears marquee players in their days playing at Wrigley.

In a minute or so, I will rise out of a grandstand tunnel to see the perfect, sunlit gridiron that has been shoehorned into the park's "friendly confines," to quote WGN's Cubs and Bears play-by-play man Jack Brickhouse. His upbeat yet urgent call of the game this afternoon ("Out of the huddle they come, Wade under center, Galimore and Casares in a twin set behind him, Farrington split wide left, Morris wide right, with Ditka slot right. Here's the snap …") will spill from thousands of transistor radios in the stands.

It is Sunday, Oct. 22, 1961, and the resurgent San Francisco 49ers are in town with the talk of the league, their new "shotgun" offense, with which they have averaged 39 points a game in their four easy, early-season victories. (Their only loss has come at the hands of the even more resurgent Packers, who, under Vince Lombardi, are on the way to their best record since 1941.) I am bursting with anticipation as I watch pigeon-toed Bears quarterback Billy Wade warm up on the near sideline and 49ers QB Billy Kilmer warm up on the other, his silver helmet flashing in the sun. He has been running wild from the shotgun formation, gaining over 100 yards in each of the past three games. All week I've been hearing on the news that Bears defensive guru Clark Shaughnessy has something up his sleeve, and, sure enough, using a complex scheme way over my 12-year-old head, the Bears prick San Francisco's bubble 31-0, a defeat from which the Niners would not recover that season.

Wrigley Field may be the scene of my most productive day as a fan (just a few months before the 49ers game, I caught foul balls off both Ron Santo's and Gus Bell's bats in the same Cubs game), but it's the Bears games I cherish: Unitas' last-minute touchdown pass to Lennie Moore in 1960 to lead the Colts to a 24-20 victory over Chicago; the 9-1 Bears stuffing the 8-2 Packers 26-7 on the Sunday before John F. Kennedy was assassinated; Dave Whitsell's fourth-quarter return of an Earl Morrall interception for a touchdown on the last day of that season, clinching the Bears' title; and Gale Sayers' six-touchdown game in 1965 against the 49ers in the mud and rain as I huddled in the upper deck along Wrigley's first-base line with Jon-e Handwarmers in my mittens.

This past month, on the cusp of football's return to Wrigley, a new self-published book has come along that documents the Bears' last decade there. In "Pro Football at Wrigley Field" former freelance photographer Ron Nelson collects hundreds of his black-and-white shots, most taken at field level, of Bears games between 1961 and 1970, the year the NFL required its teams to play in venues that sat 50,000 or more, necessitating the team's shift to aloof, colonnaded Soldier Field.

With a few exceptions, these are not magazine cover-worthy photos, but rather random memories in a football family album. The majority of photos are intimate game-action shots taken with a telephoto lens, but there are numerous sideline and pregame shots that show George Halas, George Allen, Lombardi, Sayers, Mike Ditka, Paul Hornung and countless other greats and not-so-greats in unguarded moments that call to us from the rough-and-tumble days before the National Football League Players Association was recognized and the professional game became the province of multimillionaires on and off the field.

What explains the vividness and durability of these memories for me? Since my deep affection for Wrigley's football days has outlived my love for the Bears themselves, from whose emotional clutches I was finally able to extricate myself in middle age, I've come to realize how much my devotion is really about a sense of place. In the 1960s, most NFL teams still played in baseball stadiums, but in none did the gridiron have to be wedged in so tightly that a small corner of the south end zone was actually clipped off by the first-base line's brick retaining wall. At the other end, the end zone flirted dangerously with Wrigley's left-field wall. At both ends, then, Wrigley's quirks affected the game, forcing revisions of red zone pass routes. While the game of baseball has always been influenced by the dimensions and conditions of its venues (see Baseball Prospectus' "Park Effects"), the gridiron has almost always been sacrosanct. (Although let's not forget that a blizzard forced the 1932 NFL Championship Game between the Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans into Chicago Stadium, where the teams essentially played a precursor to Arena Football).

Football at Wrigley Field implied there was something greater than the letter of the game's laws and geometry, that the park's spirit and beauty, even as the outfield wall ivy thinned and died each autumn, more than compensated for the cutting of a corner or two. Or, for that matter, the havoc it wreaked on the Bears' schedule: The Cubs' tenancy of Wrigley Field through September meant that the Bears usually played their first four games on the road.

There was another reason for my fascination with Wrigley's irregularity. I spent a good part of my childhood devising makeshift baseball and football games to reflect the limitations of various playgrounds, scraps of field and empty lots in my hometown. Left-field fence too close? No problem: Anything hit over the fence is an out. Football field too small? Large oak tree in the end zone? Easy: Play three downs instead of four, no punting, and interference by any part of oak results in replay. I was the master of these improvisations; what I lost in popularity by solemnly dictating rules to my less-fastidious friends, I gained in the sheer pleasure of adapting activity to circumstance. That the Bears field had to be tucked tightly into its home put their games on the same long continuum as our creative scrimmages in the suburbs' dead leaves, snow and slush. It reminded me of how my friends and I had to move furniture aside in our parents' living rooms to accommodate our knee football games.

[+] EnlargeVince Lombardi and George Halas
Vernon Biever/Getty ImagesVince Lombardi and George Halas battled many times at Wrigley Field.

Also, as the regular recipient of my older brothers' outgrown garments, I liked that the Bears wore the Cubs' hand-me-down ballpark each fall. "Meeting rooms were marginal," recalls halfback Ronnie Bull in Nelson's book. "I suspect that Halas was still barely scraping by financially so there weren't many improvements in the structure. We all learned to make do with what was there."

That included a crowned infield from which the outfield sloped down dramatically. Kicker Roger LeClerc remembers that, "Going to the North or left field it was like kicking downhill."

"As a running back," Bull says, "I noticed one thing -- the field was slanted. … If we ran toward the infield, we were running uphill. … It was strange but we all got used to it eventually."

When the Bears left for Soldier Field after half a century in Wrigley (a record for seasons spent in one place that was broken only in 2006 by the Packers at Lambeau Field), they left behind an intimacy with their fans forged over the decades. "The positive energy was palpable," Bull recalls. "Interestingly enough, no fan ever tried to reach down and touch us during a game although they certainly could have done so. There was mutual respect." Let's not idealize the good old days (when a good NFL salary was $12,000), but there is a pernicious, inebriated aspect to fandom these days that we take for granted. I've felt it in ballparks everywhere. The financial and lifestyle disparities between professional athletes and their fans have bred envy, anger and contempt that lurk just behind fans' ostensible team loyalties.

On Saturday, the football field at Wrigley will be laid out from west to east, not south to north, creating just enough room for complete end zones. Forty years after the Bears' last game there, however, there's no improving on the original principle that made Wrigley Field such a magical place for football. We may live in an era of luxury boxes and bling, but we long for intimacy, venerability and connection. More and more of our restaurants look like distressed French bistros from the 1920s, comfort food has made a comeback, recycling and sustainable development are increasingly part of our vocabulary, and our new ballparks now ape the very old ones. Two years ago, in an inspired attempt to fuse different traditions, they even played hockey, for God's sake, in Wrigley Field. In a perverse way, even the popularity of AMC's "Mad Men" speaks to our nostalgia for a simpler (albeit politically and socially regressed) past. American culture can't get much hipper, more ironic, better wired, more artisanal or more economically divided than it is today. We're looking over our shoulders to see where we might be going next.

The Northwestern Wildcats intuitively understand this. On the morning of Nov. 20, the team won't be taking buses to the game. They're hopping public transportation and riding the El train from Evanston to the Addison Street stop to play football where it doesn't quite belong, but where it's never been more at home.

R. D. Rosen, who grew up in Highland Park, Ill., is the Edgar Award-winning author of the Harvey Blissberg series of mysteries and the co-author of the best-selling humor books "Bad Cat," "Bad Dog," "Bad Baby" and "Bad President." He is a Senior Editor at ESPN Books in New York.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE NFL HEADLINES