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Horsehide History: Nine innings with a top baseball researcher

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By Marc Spiegler

Ballparks, like nightclubs, hinge on ambiance. For all its chrome and steel, the new Comiskey Park lacks Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” cool; it seems more like a mall gone wrong. As gleaming curio stands and laughable LED graphics start to invade Wrigley Field, even its strong history has started to erode. Without the stadiums to set the proper mood, choosing your game-day compatriots becomes all the more pivotal. Go with the people who yell “Charge” on cue and you might soon wonder why you’d scream about a game whose very owners deep-sixed the World Series. Go with the uninitiated (or, worse yet, foreigners), and you’ll find yourself attempting to explain the mystique of a game where men with banker’s physiques pull down millions for failing 70 percent of the time.

Looking to tap into the game’s history, to recapture its romance, I tracked down Richard Topp. A short, buoyant man, Topp represents a peculiarly American breed: the baseball nut. Half historian, half obsessive, these types track the game like Philip Marlowe on a steamy case. No detail escapes notice. No fact goes uncatalogued. In the late sixties, these aficionados banded together to form SABR, the Society of American Baseball Researchers. Topp joined SABR after finding errors in the first Baseball Encyclopedia; from 1989 to 1990, after quitting the hotel business to focus on sports research, he served as SABR’s president.

But baseball is a hard mistress, rewarding persistence with irony. “I’ve seen a few thousand games; I remember the St. Louis Browns, the Philadelphia As, the Washington Senators and the Brooklyn Dodgers. I’ve seen history,” Topp says. “But I’ve never seen a no-hitter. In 1960, I came to see a Sunday doubleheader between the Cubs and the Cardinals. After three innings of the second game, my friends wanted to go home. So I went with them, not realizing that when I got home, Don Cardwell of the Cubs would be pitching a no-hitter, and I had missed it.”

On a gray Saturday, we make a pilgrimage to Wrigley Field, where a sea of green seats surrounds us. On the field, the game unrolls in languid limpness, the ballplayers showing all the earnestness of porn stars aping passion. It would be a boring game most any day, seen with most any man. But the modern Wrigley pales particularly badly in the context of Topp’s unrolling history lesson. Pointing down the left-field line he begins, not with baseball, but with football. “When football games were played at Wrigley Field, they laid the sideline between the visiting dugout and the warning track. At both ends, the end zones were just 8 yards deep. To the north, the end zone was only 18 inches from the wall. To the south, the corner was cut off because it ran into the visitors dugout.”

Looking toward the mound he quickly debunks Wrigley’s hoariest legend, Babe Ruth’s 1932 World Series “called shot,” in which the Bambino supposedly predicted a home run on the next pitch, then delivered. “Sixteen papers carried reports of that game, and only one of them mentioned it. And that was in the sixteenth paragraph,” Topp says. “He was actually taunting the Cubs for only voting [ex-Ruth teammate] Mark Koenig a half-World Series share.”

A foul ball jumps over in our direction, and Topp laughingly recalls the stupidest SABR project ever. “These two guys in Houston got a plan of the Astrodome and tracked every foul ball and home run for an entire season. They plotted where each ball landed and then calculated your chance of getting a ball depending on what seat you were in. It was so stupid, we had to give them a prize.”

Along similarly ludicrous lines, Topp tells the tale of the shortest home run in Wrigley history: “Back in 1915, they still used to play games with two umpires. One umpire got sick; so the single umpire stood behind the mound with a little pyramid of balls. When one of the Cubs hit a line drive into the pile of balls, they went all over. As the Brooklyn Tip-Tops scrambled to find the ‘game’ ball, the Cub player ran all the way home.”

Topp’s talk teems with such oddities, like the park in Blue Ridge, North Carolina. Built on a spacious country plot, the minor league field sported titanic dimensions: a 900-foot left-field line, 1,200 feet to center, and a comparatively short 600 feet to right-field corner. But why build a park along such gigantic lines: “Why not?” Topp says, laughing heartily. “It was a great pitcher’s park.”

Bored by some more pedestrian play, we climb to the far corner of the third-base-side lower deck. There, Topp looks out toward Clark Street, and explains football’s true significance to Wrigley. In December 1941, the Chicago Bears beat the Chicago Cardinals, forcing a tiebreaker game at Wrigley. That stalled Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley’s plan to install lights, Topp recounts, “so there was all this metal for the light poles sitting outside the stadium. Wrigley had been chosen to lead a scrap-iron drive. He gave all the light poles to the war effort, and there went Wrigley Field’s lights.”

Looking along the left-field wall, Topp recounts the deep influence wielded on this park by a certain Bill Veeck, Jr. Long before becoming the Sox’ wooden-legged, bleacher-dwelling, cigar-smoking owner, Veeck laid out the plans for the Cubs’ first manually operated scoreboard. “A couple years later P.K. Wrigley decided he wanted the most beautiful ballpark in the country,” Topp says. “So Veeck planted ivy along the outfield walls and they created stair-steps in the centerfield bleachers, to plant potted plants and Chinese Elm Trees.” We climb up to the far-right corner of the ballpark, in the upper deck. Looking over the deck, Topp points out where one of Wrigley’s gardens once sat. Now there’s nothing but cold expanses of concrete.

Not surprisingly, Topp’s no big fan of the modern era’s self-styled improvements. “I don’t like skyboxes. They take away the flavor of the game,” he says. “Baseball is meant to be watched in the bright sunshine. Why pay the $60,000 to come over here and sit on a couch and watch the ballgame in an air-conditioned room?” Ironically, Wrigley Field secretly held a skybox precursor. Pointing under the balcony, near home plate, Topp says. “People used to say that P.K. Wrigley never attended games because they never saw him in the owner’s box. But that’s bull. When the Cubs were building the skyboxes, some SABR guys started looking around under the upper deck. They found this little area up in the rafters with seats in it. P.K. Wrigley used to watch games up there, where no one could see him.”

To keep up on the modern game and its anecdotes, Topp maintains a large network of sportswriters who feed him stories. When I mention the rumors that a now-retired superstar forced Cubs management to trade players he thought had bedded his wife, Topp claims he doesn’t know anything about it. But he does offer stories of a ballplayer caught in bed with a certain male mascot, and of a black player who was traded shortly after his white teammate’s wife gave birth to a mulatto baby.

By the top of the eighth inning, the stench of on-field apathy drives us from the park and to the legendary Hotel Carlos, where Cubs players lived from the twenties to the sixties. Walking up Sheffield, I point to an odd structure mounted on a rooftop overlooking the bleachers, a blue-and-white disc as large as a jet’s intake valves. Naturally, Topp knows its origin. “That was a pinwheel on the Comiskey Park scoreboard. It didn’t rotate, but the lights made it appear to rotate,” he says. “When they tore down the old Comiskey Park, they tried to give it to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. But they refused to take it because they didn’t know where to put it. So it was sold off and wound up here.”

A few blocks north we find the Hotel Carlos, where Liberace also lived when he first arrived from Milwaukee. But for all the drama that no doubt swirled in Liberace’s wake, a show girl named Violet Valli upstaged him in the hotel annals. Barely pausing for breath, Topp launches into the story: “On July 8, 1932, Billy Jurges was shot twice by Violet Valli in room 509 of the Hotel Carlos. She was attempting suicide and was overhead by hotel residents saying she’d shoot [Cub hitting ace] Kiki Cuyler too, because ‘He was always interfering.'” Above the hotel marquee, an aged sign still reads, “Transients welcome.”

As we stand at bus stop, I toss Topp the final question: Did the strike kill baseball? “Yeah, I think baseball is dying. It started with expansion teams. From what I can see, basketball is becoming our new favorite sport.” Today, the baseball junkie admits, he cannot name five Cubs players. And Despite SABR types’ down-to-the-belt-loops knowledge of past uniforms, he says with amazement, “I don’t even know what color socks the Cubs and the Sox wear anymore.”

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