Cubs 101 Pt 6 - Phillip Knight Wrigley - The "Knight" actually stands for "nightmare"
By the time of his passing, Philip Knight Wrigley -- known most commonly as "P.K." -- had owned the Cubs for something like 45 years. In that time he'd taken a Cubs team that reached the World Series 4 times in a 10 year span and turned them into a laughing stock with an epic World Series drought that continues to this day, more than 30 years since his death.
Cub fans commonly blame the championship drought on "the Goat Curse." But the reality is that there is no voodoo responsible. All the blame instead needs to fall solely onto the shoulders of P.K. Wrigley. But to be fair, he gave us something to be proud of. If only it was a competitive team.
Wrigley as Wonderland
The Cubs had been playing in Wrigley Field - or Cub Park as some called it - for more than 15 years when P.K. inherited the team. But it was through his marketing vision that Wrigley Field became the shrine that it remains to this day. Through his direction the park became the attraction. Ivy was planted on the outfield walls, lights remained banished from the park, and the term "Beautiful Wrigley Field" became a part of the Cub fan vernacular.
Wrigley also employed Otis Shepard - best known for designing Wrigley's Gum ad campaigns - to design not only the look inside the park but the look of the Cubs.
In other words, Wrigley's key concern with the Cubs was to make them look good. Unfortunately for Cub fans, he failed to consider just how awesome they'd look if they were World Series Champions.
And so instead the Cubs were a team where the fans were sold on the look. Come to Beautiful Wrigley Field and enjoy a lovely Sunday picnic! While you're there with your friends and family there will also be a baseball game on - not that the outcome of the game matters.
That was P.K.'s problem. For him baseball didn't matter. The only reason he held onto the team was out of some odd sense of loyalty to his dad William, the baseball man of the family.
Wrigley didn't want to spend a lot of money on things without some kind of visible result. He didn't want to hire the best scouts, or to sign prospects to meaty contracts. Wrigley would make a habit of selling his top young players to other interested teams. He'd come around slowly about integration, missing out on opportunities at some of the finest Negro League talents available. He'd also put his faith in Jim Gallagher, a general manager who apparently knew less about how to run a baseball team than the average fan in the stands (and was consistently hosed as a consequence by opposing teams).
And perhaps worst of all, he'd invest in one crazy idea after another. From spending $20,000 on a professional wrestling manager used to put hexes on the opposition to developing the brilliant concept of the College of Coaches (which we'll cover another time) it was one terrible idea after another with Wrigley.
Thanks to the century of losing and the dogma about Beautiful Wrigley Field, these days Cubdom is about as bipolar as was Wrigley's ownership style. There are fans like us who want one thing and one thing only out of the Cubs -- a World Series Championship -- and there are fans cultivated by Wrigley who only want to enjoy a beautiful afternoon in a timeless shrine where they happen to play baseball 80-odd times a year.
But the truth is that, while Wrigley made a landmark out of the former Weegman's Park, he also crippled an organization that could have been as successful as any other in baseball. He was the curse, the nightmare, the problem the team has yet to overcome. His legacy is a long shadow, his ineptitude at baseball has tainted the Cubs even now, and until they win a World Series it will be the legacy of P.K. Wrigley that defines the team more than anything else - even more than a Goat Curse, a black cat, or a Bartman.
P.K. Wrigley was a genius, when it came to producing and selling confections. The gum empire he inherited from his dad flourished to become the most successful gum company in all of human history. Wrigley Gum stuck to what was, at the time, a progressive business model - big investments in the physical plants where the product was produced, along with the machines used in the process. Equally big investments in advertising and marketing. As far as his product line, he stuck to the basics, and poured all his resources into his core brands. As far as "idea men", well, he didn't have any or need any. P.K. himself was a voracious reader where it came to operations management, and he made most if not all of the decisions for the Gum Empire.
Unfortunately, he ran his baseball club in exactly the same way. All of his resources were spent on the physical plant, advertising and marketing, and all sorts of "state of the art" medical and health initiatives that he read about in the non-baseball related material he favored. He fancied himself an innovator - but where his tinkering with machines served him well with gum, his ideas did not translate for the Cubs. In a time where the successful organizations hired "baseball men" and built farm systems, Wrigley could not bear to hire anything but "yes men" to run his baseball operation, A real baseball man would have to tell Wrigley that he should hire more scouts and spend less money on fancy medical machines, and no self-respecting control freak is going to allow anyone to tell him what to do.
What Kurt is trying to say, above, is if you love Wrigley Field, the anachronism, the shrine, the little slice of baseball's Glorious Past that it is, then you must thank P.K. Wrigley, in whichever realm of the afterlife which he resides. For part of the reason why all the great fields of the past - Crosley, Briggs, Shibe, Ebbets, even Comiskey - do not exist in the present is because they were not maintained and lovingly enhanced in the manner that Wrigley Field was. If it were not for P.K., the Cubs would have moved to some "ball mall" in the Western suburbs when the Tribune bought the team in 1981, and we would probably all be complaining right now that we should have a nice, new, 'retro' park downtown like nearly everyone else has.
Of course, if it weren't FOR Wrigley Field, there wouldn't be a demand for all of these 'retro' parks everywhere else, for they themselves all owe a debt to it.
But if you're like me, and you love the Cubs themselves more than their park, then P.K. are two initials you can't stand to see together. According to legend, it wasn't the Cubs that Leo Durocher was referring to when he allegedly noted "Nice guys finish last", but he might as well have been. Wrigley went out of his way to sign personable, white sluggers who couldn't run or play their positions, while ignoring most of the black talent or, in the cases of Lou Brock, Bill North, Bill Madlock, and in a way, Fergie Jenkins, pissed away the talent he had.
While I love Wrigley Field and am grateful for P.K. Wrigley's preservation of the park, I loathe how he managed to keep us in the second division for the vast majority of his reign. To hell with him.
Coast to Coast Tickets has great prices on Cubs bleacher tickets online!