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At the End of Tunnel, Wrigley to Get Lights

February 26, 1988|BOB SECTER and WENDY LEOPOLD | Times Staff Writers

CHICAGO — One of the last links to major league baseball's early years was all but severed Thursday when the Chicago City Council voted to revoke a ban on night games at Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs.

The 29-19 vote clears the way for the Cubs to install lights and begin playing their home games after dark this year for the first time--more than a half-century after the rest of baseball began doing so. The vote came on a day that the Cubs, not coincidentally, were awarded the 1990 All-Star game.

State anti-noise restrictions still prohibit night games at Wrigley, but legislative leaders have pledged that they would scrap those barriers once the city approved night games.

The council action was a victory for The Tribune Co., the media conglomerate that has pressed for night baseball since it bought the franchise from chewing gum magnate William Wrigley in 1981.

Tribune officials recently threatened to move the team to a suburb if they did not get their way.

But the vote left irate residents of the Wrigleyville area surrounding the ballpark crying "foul." They say night games will rob residents of scarce on-street parking spaces and turn the peaceful, tree-lined neighborhood into a summertime haven for drunks staggering out of the ballpark and nearby bars.

Vowing to go down swinging, opponents have threatened everything from a last-ditch lawsuit to block the addition of lights to a move to force a referendum on whether to vote the precinct around the ballpark dry. Technically, that would not stop the Cubs from playing at night, but it would keep them from selling beer--an essential lubricant for many die-hard fans who have suffered with the team through a long procession of losing seasons.

"Lights will mean total chaos," moaned Dennis Kowal, who has lived less than a block from the park for 43 years. "We wouldn't have no rest, no peace."

Kowal was one of more than a hundred Wrigleyville residents, many wearing yellow T-shirts and buttons proclaiming "No Lights," on hand to witness the council action. After the vote, they hooted "No lights!" and "Dry precinct!" as aldermen filed out.

Despite the uproar, the team did not get carte blanche to play whenever it wants. The council action limits the Cubs to eight night games in the 1988 season and then to no more than 18 regular-season games a year in the next 13 seasons.

But even that was too much for some neighborhood residents, who said the Cubs in recent years had set club attendance records and did not need night baseball to draw bigger crowds.

"We've managed to get the best attendance for the worst team," said Charlotte Newfeld, a member of an anti-lights group called C.U.B.S, short for Citizens United for Baseball in Sunshine.

Though the showdown on lights has been simmering for years, in the end it came down to a struggle between clout and tradition, and was fought with all the subtlety of a beanball war. When support for lights seemed to be wavering in the council a few weeks ago, The Chicago Tribune, the flagship publication of the Tribune chain, accused aldermen in print of being "boneheads" and "political bums." Pretty soon, the newspaper said, opponents would be left with nothing but a "hole in the ground" where the 73-year-old ballpark now stands.

Chicagoans like their baseball brimming with tradition, if not with victories. The White Sox of the American League play in Comiskey Park, built in 1910, the oldest ballpark in baseball. It does have lights, however.

Wrigley Field, built in 1914, is probably baseball's most striking throwback to the charm of its early years. The field is covered with sod, not artificial turf, the walls are covered with ivy, the scoreboard is still hand-operated and the seats are close to the field. Instead of being ringed by parking lots, the stadium is lined by turn-of-the-century apartment houses that allow residents to watch games for free from lounge chairs on their roofs.

The Cubs had been planning to play night games and had even begun to install the super-structure for light standards, but World War II stopped construction. After the war, William Wrigley promised area residents he would not disrupt their lives with night baseball.

But all that changed when the team changed hands. In addition to the newspaper, the Tribune Co. owns the television and radio stations that air most of the team's games. During weekdays, nighttime broadcasts command higher advertising revenue than daytime broadcasts.

The Tribune Co. was also under pressure from other major league baseball owners and television networks who feared low ratings from daytime games if the Cubs, who finished last in their division in 1987, should reach the playoffs or World Series.

A few years ago, National League officials had discussed forcing the Cubs to play potential postseason games elsewhere if they did not get lights.

Underscoring the financial impact of lights to other teams, major league baseball owners Thursday voted to award the 1990 All-Star game to the Cubs--but only if the game could be played at night.

Such actions only reinforced claims by opponents of night baseball that the council was being railroaded by moneyed interests trying to fatten their profit margins.

"Is it need or is it greed," charged Alderman Bernard Hansen, who represents the Wrigleyville area in the city council. "It's real easy to see. It's greed."

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