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Review Tue Mar 10 2015

Review: Before the Ivy: The Cubs' Golden Age in Pre-Wrigley Chicago

BeforeTheIvy.jpgThe Cubs ownership had been battling with the neighborhood over a noise ordinance during its ballgames over the past few seasons. At one point matters became so heated the team owner threatened to move his team elsewhere.

Around the same time, renovations to the stadium were being finished off, which would update the old gem to a more state-of-the-art facility that would rival any other ballpark in the league. Of course, money would be an issue, which, ultimately, caused the team to break up its veteran squad in favor of rebuilding a winner from the ground-up.

Sound familiar? It should if you've been paying attention to the Northsiders over the last handful of seasons. But it turns out this kind of thing had been happening over a century ago -- well before stepping foot onto Wrigley Field -- to a team once defined by a dominant pitching staff and a string of world championships.

Laurent Pernot brings to life in his new book, Before the Ivy: The Cubs' Golden Age in Pre-Wrigley Chicago, a chronological history lesson of the Cubs (White Stocking, Colts, Orphans, etc.) from its days on the South Side, West Side and even on the very spot where Millennium Park sits today, to just before moving into the team's current home at Clark and Addison.

Pernot, a Parisian, came to Chicago in 1988 as a foreign-exchange student and happened upon one of the most exciting teams in franchise history: the 1989 "Boys of Zimmer." That team of Ryno, "The Hawk" and "Wild Thing" captured his imagination so vividly, he's been on board every heartbreaking thrill ride ever since.

But as with so many things we love, there must be a history lesson in order to understand what it is that got us here in the first place. Before the Ivy does just that, taking the reader to a time just after the Civil War and at the dawn of the second Industrial Revolution when labor laws didn't exist and the thought of having a beer at a ballgame was unheard of.

If you've watched any of Ken Burns's "Baseball," especially the first two DVDs, you'll see some of the still images used in the documentary in your mind while reading along to Pernot's history lesson. Ballplayer uniforms resembled something you'd see in a Georges Seurat painting, as they perspired in the midsummer heat with onlookers acting as a wall in the outfield between that of outside and inside play.

The dawn of the game is explored with debates raging between Rockford's very own Al Spalding and Abner Graves as to who actually created the game of baseball. Spalding claims it was Henry Chadwick, the "Father of the Game," while it was Graves who credited Abner Doubleday, the very same man who fired the first Union shot at Fort Sumter.

Nevertheless, as the game became more refined, it was then the leagues that would argue by way of keeping teams from jumping from one to the other. Of course, money played a role in all of this, and teams from Chicago (the White Stockings), Boston, New York, Rockford, Cleveland, Philadelphia and, yes, Fort Wayne, IN, started in the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NAPBBP) in 1871.

That year, the White Stockings finished in third place, but had more important matters on the horizon than building a contender. The team and city had to deal with rebuilding everything, due to the Great Chicago Fire. (You think things are bad now, Cubs fans?)

Ultimately, the team would rebuild, chronicled in full detail in a chapter aptly named "The Phoenix," and the NAPBBP would eventually become the National League we all recognize today, plus or minus a few teams. Names like Cap Anson in the 1880s and 1890s; Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown and Frank Chance at the dawn of the century appear along the way; all while winning league titles in between.

Pernot's book isn't just a trip a handful of decades ago, when our fathers or grandfathers were adjusting the bunny ears on the television or finding the right spot on the back porch for the radio to come in clearly in order to catch their favorite stars of the game. It's back to a time so delicate where the balance of interest in the game relied so heavily on those who promoted it by way of barnstorming across the country as well as weeks-long trips across the ocean to foreign lands.

You begin to realize that baseball, despite its imperfections with those who played it and ran it (same goes for those of today), still remains constant throughout all these years. Gambling always has existed and so has the abuse of power, the abuse of alcohol and drugs, the ability to walk the fine line of cheating and playing clean, and yet, here we are, awaiting another season to begin for a team that has withstood ballpark renovations, angry neighbors and an inflated budget.

Pernot's book gives the reader a feeling of nostalgia, even though none of us were around during the Rutherford B. Hayes administration. If it's one thing Tom Ricketts needs to keep in mind in order to sleep better at night, amid the delayed construction, inflated contracts and noise from the rooftops, it's that history has a way of repeating itself.

All of this happened before the ivy and before there was a Wrigley Field, and that includes dominance within the league on the field of play. Perhaps one day history will repeat itself with another pennant.

Before the Ivy: The Cubs' Golden Age in Pre-Wrigley Chicago is available for order from Amazon and University of Illinois Press.

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