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A History Of Night Games At Wrigley Field, And Why Cubs Want More Of Them

By  Ariel Cheung and Tanveer Ali | July 31, 2017 8:50am | Updated on July 31, 2017 2:15pm

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WRIGLEYVILLE — It wasn't so long ago that there were no night games at Wrigley Field.

Patrick Lenihan remembers those days fondly.

"We were prepared to live with Wrigley Field, but when I moved here, Wrigley Field was very different," he said. "It was this neighborhood ballpark with a character to it. But the Cubs said, 'Well, we don't like that character.'"

Here in Lakeview long before the lights were, Lenihan wasn't shocked when the Chicago Cubs last week asked for permission to host more night games at Wrigley Field, asking for an increase of 11 that would bring the club in line with the average Major League Baseball team.

"We knew that the Cubs would continue to up the ante," Lenihan said. "This is an issue of responsibility."

More money makes the club more competitive for future World Series titles, said Cubs spokesman Julian Green. And the more money spent at Wrigley Field, the more tax revenue for the city and, theoretically, the neighborhood — a sum which the Cubs put at $81 million per year.

RELATED: Rahm To Cubs: 'Live With Consequences' Of Booking Concerts Over Night Games

But to neighbors like Lenihan, it means more nighttime traffic, frequent parking violations, rowdy revelers in their yards and trash littering the place they call home.

It's been an arduous journey to the current state of night games and concerts at Wrigley Field, and some of the finer points of the tale have been buried amid rapid change at the historic ballpark. 

Here's a look at how it all began:

A night game 70 years in the making

Back in the days of Ron Santo and Ernie Banks, no lights existed at Wrigley Field, one of just a few U.S. stadiums located smack dab in the middle of a largely residential neighborhood. At best, the team could play a handful of games that started late Friday afternoon and wrapped before sunset.

Longtime owner P.K. Wrigley tried to install lights in the 1940s, but his plans were foiled when the U.S. entered World War II. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Wrigley donated the steel meant for the lights to the war effort.

Eventually, Wrigley settled into firm opposition to night games, refusing to disturb neighbors and happily honoring the status quo over the course of decades. And although one team did get to use portable lights at Wrigley back in 1943, it wasn't the Cubs.

RELATED: In 1945, The Cubs Weren't The Only Pennant-Winning Ballclub Wrigley Owned

Soon after the Tribune Co. bought the Cubs from the Wrigleys in 1981, the idea of night games was revived. In response, Gov. James Thompson signed legislation effectively banning night games at Wrigley Field in 1982, with the City Council banning the use of lights — even before 8 p.m. — one year later.

The Cubs sued Thompson and the city in 1984 but failed to sway the court.

In his ruling, Circuit Judge Richard Curry said night baseball would harm the neighborhood's "peace and tranquility" in exchange for television royalties and accused the Tribune Co. of being greedy and behaving in a way that was "repugnant to common decency."

"The game of baseball may be everybody's business, but the business of baseball is greed," Curry wrote, according to a Tribune report. "On the basis of an alleged necessity to play championship games at night, they ask for a reversal of the status quo which has existed at this ballpark for 70 years. They ask 55,000 neighbors to forgo a community free of nighttime distractions."

Neighbors fought efforts to revive the plans as the Citizens United for Baseball in Sunshine (C.U.B.S.), including with now-iconic "No Lights at Wrigley Field" memorabilia that regularly goes up for auction and has a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

"We wanted to know if the city was prepared to deal with the different element [night games] would bring in than the people who go to day games," said Lenihan, the group's vice president. The Lakeview residents felt the evening games would herald an influx of "more of the partiers and the people who want to hang out at bars," he said.

Lenihan, who has lived four blocks from the ballpark near Grace Street and Wayne Avenue since 1980, said they feared the laid-back neighborhood would turn into an entertainment district, but with a seasonal aspect that would leave neighbors adrift and streets abandoned in the offseason.

A sign from the Citizens United for Baseball in Sunshine hangs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. [Flickr/Ewen Roberts]

"It seems good for the restaurant — it allows them to jack up their prices for when Cubs fans eat there," Lenihan said. "But come September or October, they'll realize, 'Why are we staying open?' and cut their hours. They no longer see the residents of the neighborhood as their [main] customers."

The neighborhood group even spawned some local celebrities. U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) launched his political career after helping to form C.U.B.S., and spins one heck of a yarn about the "magical" aspect of seeing his first day game in 1969.

At first, their efforts were successful, and Cubs officials eventually said the issue was "dead."

But when the team suggested moving out of Wrigley Field to build anew in the suburbs, the Council budged, with the first night game played on Aug. 8, 1988. Eighteen night games were allowed each year, and lights were installed to illuminate the field on evenings.

Why neighbors don't light up over night games

Wrigley Field is closer to residential blocks than ballparks like Guaranteed Rate Field, which is surrounded mostly by parking lots, Armour Square Park and the Dan Ryan Expy., or other ballparks like Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati or Soldier Field Downtown, which both are bordered by bodies of water on the city's edge.

On the left, homes are located much closer to Wrigley Field than those in Bridgeport near Guaranteed Rate Field, which is surrounded by parking lots and the Dan Ryan Expy. [Google Maps]

While the quaint location is great for aesthetics, it also means the club regularly does battle with the city to relax restrictions designed to keep neighbors happy.

"Many of us recognized that lights were inevitable in the ballpark," said Lenihan, 68. "The issue then was what would the city and Cubs organization be prepared to do to address the negative impact on the neighborhood."

Starting in 2002, the Council slowly loosened its restrictions, giving the Cubs more night games in exchange for easing traffic congestion, picking up litter and providing money for neighborhood improvements.

The Cubs pledged to pay $3.75 million over 10 years for projects such as street lighting, and recently gave $1 million for surveillance cameras. This season, the Cubs began paying for two off-duty officers to patrol the neighborhood during baseball season. The team spends $750,000 each year on traffic aides posted in the neighborhood on event days.

But the trade-off was "superficial" and "absolutely not sufficient," especially as more night games were permitted, Lenihan said.

"Rather than getting additional police protection, we got what I call 'traffic scarecrows,'" he said. "They do nothing; they congregate with each other, or you see them on their cellphones."

Traffic congestion is now an issue for one in three nights during Cubs season (not counting the playoffs) and traffic pickup beyond the streets immediately surrounding Wrigley Field leaves much to be desired, Lenihan said.

Other neighbors have voiced similar concerns each year at the preseason Cubs community meeting, asking for better training for traffic aides and complaining about Wrigleyville's rampant public urination problem, but the club's neighborhood email surveys — which are sent only to those in the adjoining ZIP codes — return with mostly positive feedback.

In the three decades since the night game ban was lifted, the number of them at Wrigley Field has steadily increased, with additional allowances for stadium concerts that the Cubs have taken full advantage of. As of 2017, they're permitted 47 night events, including eight flex nights if the MLB requests a schedule change for TV broadcast.

Simply put, night games sell more tickets, Green said. A day game against the White Sox last week, for example, would have "likely sold out at night," he said.

The most recent night game ordinance allowed for four concerts, but any more are subtracted from the limit of 35 regularly scheduled night games. With 10 concerts this year at the ballpark, that means six fewer night games. Concerts, though, have the added benefit of the team not splitting revenue with the league — a financial factor that contributed to the recent spike in performances at Wrigley.

The 35-game limit does not include all-star games or games played in the postseason or as tie-breakers. Games rescheduled as night games for unexpected reasons like inclement weather or serious injuries, however, do count toward the 35 game total.

The team faces a fine $300 to $5,000 for each day in violation, the ordinance states. Night games played beyond the limit are also subtracted from the following year's allotment.

Lights at Wrigley Field were added in 1988 and are pictured here during the 2016 World Series. [Wikimedia Commons/Arturo Pardavila III]

The Cubs are the only major league team to still play most of their 81 home games during the day — the average number of night games is 54 — and the team is crying foul.

“We’re one of the few teams that not only has to beat everyone in our division, we also have to beat the city that we play in to try and win games. It’s a very odd situation for us," Crane Kenney, president of baseball operations, said in a radio interview with The Score earlier this week.

"The real answer is at some point, we'd love to not be handicapped, as no other team in baseball is by the number of night games you play," he continued. "You know, we just keep working on it."

Fielding the request are Mayor Rahm Emanuel and 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney, whose comments on the Cubs' latest request for more night games indicate a city unwilling to negotiate — for now at least.

"The ordinance governing evening activities inside Wrigley Field was negotiated by the Cubs, the community, myself and the mayor's office and has another seven years before it expires," Tunney said. "The Cubs have chosen to schedule concerts instead of night games."

Even as Cubs and city officials chummed it up over the grand opening of the long-awaited plaza outside Wrigley Field, there remained some signs of continued dissatisfaction over limits on its use.

"The fact is, it's our property," Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts said at the time. "The right answer is to let us continue to do what we've already discussed."

Crane Kenney, Tom Ricketts, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Laura Ricketts cut the ribbon during opening ceremonies for the Park at Wrigley in April. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

A win-win scenario?

Lenihan said he sees Tunney's opposition to an increase as "genuine," but worries that Emanuel could about-face when he feels the timing is right.

After all, the Cubs used to play 18 night games per season — a fraction of what the night game schedule has evolved into.

"I think it's inevitable the Cubs are going to get the extra night games," Lenihan said. "They might even get more concerts."

But in exchange, Lenihan said he hopes to see more consideration for the neighbors, some of whom, like him, moved to Lakeview decades ago with no idea a 70-year-old rule of thumb was about to change.

A new fee on ticket prices could be used for a fund specifically for Lakeview that pays for more traffic control, more police officers and "real" neighborhood cleanup, Lenihan suggested.

Last year's seven concerts generated $1.89 million in amusement taxes for the city, according to a Cubs annual report, which is still just a fraction of the total economic benefit the team creates for the city, team officials have said.

But the Cubs' victorious 2016 postseason also ran up a big tab for the city: $18.8 million in police and emergency management overtime and cleanup. And the amusement taxes generated aren't neighborhood-specific, but go to the city as a whole, Lenihan said.

Meanwhile, he plans to continue weathering what can sometimes feel like a storm.

"To me, it's not a matter of hand-wringing. I think the change is going to come, and I don't fight it," Lenihan said. "But it's sad that people talk about Chicago being a city of neighborhoods, but it's only a city of neighborhoods until something like this happens."

 

The Cubs and Wrigley Field are 95 percent owned by an entity controlled by a trust established for the benefit of the family of Joe Ricketts, owner and CEO of DNAinfo.com. Joe Ricketts has no direct involvement in the management of the iconic team.