The iconic Wrigley Field scoreboard is the bow of a fateful ship.
You may have heard about the passengers. They are dreamers, squint-eyed miscreants, gamblers and young innocents. They sit in first class boxes or in the distant shadows of the stern, but their destination is the same.
They are all looking for the port of happiness, a place where baseball is played in late October.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Wrigley Field scoreboard.
The ship sets sail again on April 5 when the Cubs open their season against the Washington Nationals.
The intrepid sheet steel scoreboard was built in 1937 under the watch of Cubs General Manager Bill Veeck, Jr. The scoreboard exterior was originally red brown, the color of a sunset at sea. “The Cubs played a lot of 3 o’clock games,” Cubs historian Ed Harting said. “The sun reflected off the scoreboard and back toward home plate. Green knocked the sunlight down, so [owner] P.K. Wrigley painted it green in 1944.”
Wrigley owned the Cubs between 1932 and 1977. The flourishes such as the “W” and “L” flags atop the scoreboard reflect Wrigley’s Naval roots. In 1914 he graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. – not far from the stomping ground of Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein – and joined the Navy. Wrigley served at the Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago and the family loved sailing.
Veeck, Wrigley, Ricketts, all their names appear on this manifest of destiny.
Veeck loved the big board
Veeck was so attached to the scoreboard and the bleachers – which also celebrate their 75th anniversary this season – he spent the last summers of his life in the mid-1980s sitting in center field. Every spring and summer since 1937, the manually operated scoreboard is filled with numbers made of metal plates.
And then the numbers, like people, are cast to the winds over a rough sea.
Brian A. Bernardoni is one of those people.
By all rights he should not be aboard this crowded vessel.
Bernardoni, 44, grew up in Little Italy. He lives with his wife and four daughters in southwest suburban Justice. His grandmother, Emily Kwaitek, played softball at Wrigley in 1933 during the Century of Progress world’s fair.
For the past 40 years Bernardoni’s father, Alan, has worked second shift as a United Airlines machinist at O’Hare International Airport. “The only way I could stay out of trouble after school was turning on Cubs day baseball,” he said.
Bernardoni is Senior Director of Government Affairs and Public Policy for the Chicago Association of Realtors. Since 1998 he has been an ambassador guide at Wrigley Field.
“The conundrum for Bill Veeck was actually getting the scoreboard up,” Bernardoni said. “It’s argued the scoreboard is one of the most over-engineered parts of the ballpark. The power lines go deep into the sub-structure. That was built to sustain significant wind load.” Hartig added, “Think of it as a three-story hut. There’s openings on the end for air flow, but other than that you’re in the elements. It is very basic.”
Hartig calcuated that there are are 318 openings (not framed windows) on the scoreboard, including four openings for umpire numbers.
Scoreboard workers move up and down a ladder to install the numbers. A Cubs spokesman said that on a weekend of full games across baseball as many as four workers are inside the scoreboard. On afternoons when the Cubs are the only game on the schedule, two men work the scoreboard. The scoreboard operators are also members of the grounds crew. With minimal ventilation, the temperature is about 20 degrees warmer inside on a summer day than it is on the playing field.
Bernardoni said Boston’s Fenway Park is the only other manually operated scoreboard. No batted ball has ever hit Wrigley’s. “Roberto Clemente went left, Bill Nicholson went right,” he said.
On Opening Day 1952 golf legend Sam Snead teed off at home plate with a nine iron and hit a golf ball off of the scoreboard. Beranardoni said, “You’re talking about 600 feet, with height and distance. That’s 200 yards.”
Paul Dickson has written the comprehensive biography Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick due later this month from Walker & Company ($28). He wrote that the scoreboard debuted for the Cubs’ last home series on Oct. 1, 1937. It took 150 men one month to build the scoreboard. The Chicago Herald and Examiner said the scoreboard “proved a disappointment, because the score-by-inning figures are too small.” It cost $100,000 to build the scoreboard, according to Dickson’s book. It cost $250,000 to open Wrigley Field in 1914.
“There was a young engineer and Veeck never gave the name,” Hartig said. “He came in with the design and magnetic eyelids no one had ever seen before. Veeck said, ‘Fantastic, build it!’ And the guy had never built anything in his life. The morning to start the project Veeck goes to find the guy and he’s nowhere to be found. But they had the design. So Veeck got some engineers from local colleges and they put it together.”
The previous Wrigley Field hand-operated scoreboard featured advertising. Wrigley’s Doublemint gum twin elves danced atop the ground-level scoreboard that stood in the current scoreboard’s space. Cubs slugger Hack Wilson did hit a home run off this scoreboard in 1926. After the Cubs victory over the Braves, Wilson was arrested at a friend’s apartment for drinking beer in violation of Prohibition law.
When Veeck owned the White Sox in 1960 he plugged in by installing the major league’s first exploding scoreboard, again above the center field bleachers. “He got that from a pinball machine,” said Mary Frances Veeck, 91, who often accompanied her husband in his outings underneath the Wrigley scoreboard. “He felt if you could have the scoreboard explode, that would make the whole world happy and laughing. It was the same effect as the sounds of Handel’s Messiah, which he used.”
The Wrigley Field scoreboard has been silent for 75 years.
A white Art Deco clock was added atop the Wrigley Field scoreboard in 1941, and that also was painted its current green in 1944. “The clock came in at about a ton and a half and it was added to service the Bears [who played at Wrigley until 1971],” Bernardoni said.
Since the Ricketts family assumed Cubs ownership in 2009, a flat-screen televsion set was put in the scoreboard and interior lighting was improved for the workers.
Although a new 70 foot LED scoreboard will debut in the right-field corner on opening day, Bermardoni believes the old battleship will be around for a long time.
“The scoreboard is built to last forever,” he said. “It will last as long as the Ricketts will maintain the ballpark the way they are doing it. It’s an iconic part of the park.”
And for Cubs fans, it is life’s muster drill.