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“W” = “Who’s Buying?”: A Brief History of Beer at Wrigley Field

Posted by lizgaribay on April 13, 2010


Spring is here and every year that reminds me of one thing: baseball. I love it. I love the game and I love my Cubs. I’ll blame my mother for this one. She was a Cub nut. I can still picture her ironing in front of the TV set that always seemed to be tuned in to WGN. She would scream in sync with Jack Brickhouse….Hey! Hey! Every day, without fail, the Cubs would be on in our living room. And not only do I blame my mom for this addiction, but I thank her and love her for it.

I sat and pondered – what is my favorite bar to watch a game? As much as I racked my brain, I came up empty-handed. No where – no bar – anywhere. And the reason for that is because my favorite place to watch a game is Wrigley Field. I love that place. It’s my happy place. I can’t think of another place I would rather be. And so in thinking about this more, I believe it’s safe to say that Wrigley Field could technically be considered the world’s largest bar. But what’s the mystique…is it the team, the franchise, the actual place? Dunno, but what I do know is that I’m not alone – baseball and the Cubs are a deep part of the culture here in Chicago. In what other town would it be okay to take the afternoon off because you have baseball tickets? None, zero, zilch.

While I love everything Cubs and Wrigley, I’m no expert. So I turned to my good pal, Stu Shea, who is, in fact, a Cubs and Wrigley Field guru. This kid knows his stuff. So, thanks to Stu for being the first guest blogger on Tales, Taverns, & Towns. Enjoy, and when you’re done, be sure to go out and buy his book – it’s a quality read!

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“W” = “Who’s Buying?”: A Brief History of Beer at Wrigley Field
By Stuart Shea

And so begins another baseball season at Wrigley Field, aka “The world’s largest outdoor bar.” It’s difficult to think of a better place to watch baseball and enjoy a few beers on a sunny day (or even a rainy one).

The Chicago Cubs’ operations have been fine-tuned, corporately sponsored, and slicked up almost beyond recognition from those even of 20 years ago. Whereas in earlier years fans could only buy beer—one kind, one size, one price—they can now enjoy several types of beer as well as hard liquor in various combinations.

But buying a beer at the ballpark is one privilege Chicago fans haven’t always enjoyed.

While the White Sox had sold beer at 39th Street Grounds up until 1910, they never sold it at Comiskey Park. The Cubs did not allow the sale of beer either at West Side Grounds or at Wrigley Field (opened in 1914, but known as Weeghman Park until 1919). It’s likely that the city of Chicago disallowed sales of beer at the park both to protect the establishments in the area and, more important, curtail public drunkenness.

Once prohibition was repealed in January 1933, the Cubs and White Sox agreed to sell the new 3.2 beer in the stands. Several major league clubs, however, did not vend the 3.2 beverage, refusing to allow even low-grade alcohol in the park until the Volstead Act was repealed in December 1933.

At Wrigley Field in 1933, only draft beer was sold, and fans had to purchase it from kiosks underneath the grandstand. While you could get popcorn, peanuts, and even cigarettes from roaming vendors, no cries of “beer here!” were to be heard. Later, vendors were allowed to roam the stands selling beer.

Long after the 1930s, though, the Cubs continued to covertly sell 3.2 beer as the “real thing,” a policy which eventually became a problem. On May 6, 1970, the Chicago Daily News reported that the team sold only the less-potent brew to its fans—without disclosure—as a “crowd control gesture.” This was the case even as Sox fans were able to drink full-caliber 3.8 beer on the South Side.

Crowd control was a big thing for the Cubs then; their 1970 home opener had ended in an on-field riot, forcing the team to put up the basket on the outfield wall that remains today. But eventually the Wrigley Field menu came to include “real” beer after some local government lawyers began mumbling about taking legal action.

Fans weren’t usually the most dangerous people at the park, though. During the 1930s, mob boss Al Capone liked to attend games at Wrigley Field. As a haven for gamblers, Wrigley was also a frequent hangout for local bootleggers—which is not to say the park was necessarily a safe haven. Joe Fusco, point man for Capone’s beer operations, was arrested at Wrigley Field May 21, 1933. Cops nailed Danny Stanton, an on-the-lam beer runner, waiting in line to enter Wrigley to watch the Bears play in October 1936.

In 1934, William Walker, new Cubs president, banned (newly legalized) hard liquor outright but allowed beer sales both from taps and in bottles. For many years, it was impossible to get hard liquor at Wrigley until the sales of whiskey and tequila were introduced (as ingredients of mixed drinks) in the 2000s.

Now, the Captain Morgan Club sits at street level, indicating that little, if any, demarcation exists between beer and hard liquor at Wrigley Field. In fact, two frozen drink kiosks, one in the bleachers and one behind home plate, offer margaritas, daiquiris, and mai tais.

Not long after the re-legalization of liquor in the U.S., the beer industry began to change, with expansion-minded companies buying out local breweries. Improved transportation and refrigeration technology, and mass production of beer, allowed the bigger breweries to spread Budweiser, Falstaff, and Miller across the nation, eroding once-proud local brands.

Over the years, the Cubs have had several different beers sold at the ballpark. Local brands like Atlas and Prager were in vogue, but by the 1950s and 1960s, national labels such as Hamm’s, Heilemann’s Old Style, and Budweiser were edging out the local brands and, in addition, were the only companies able to afford advertising on WGN’s broadcasts.

For many years Old Style was the one beer sold at Wrigley Field. Today, in order to suck business away from local bars, the Cubs are obligated to offer a much wider selection of domestic and imported beers—even a gluten-free alternative.

Given the rising popularity of craft beers and smaller breweries, Wrigley field is likely to feature more independently produced and local malt beverages in the near future. These better-tasting and higher-priced brews are better for fans, better for local business, and better for the bottom line.

Now, who’s got the first round? They’re about to announce the lineups.

Stuart Shea is the author of Wrigley Field: An Unauthorized Biography, the full story of Major League Baseball’s second-oldest park, published by Potomac Books. You can find out more about it at http://www.amazon.com/Wrigley-Field-Unauthorized-Stuart-Shea/dp/1574889419/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1271205418&sr=8-1

3 Responses to “W” = “Who’s Buying?”: A Brief History of Beer at Wrigley Field

  1. EsseQuamVideri says:

    I love some good Wrigley lore… especially when wrapped in a tavern envelope. Thanks!

  2. JamesFinnGarner says:

    I like the beer. Now, when are they going to improve the quality of the FOOD?

  3. Pingback: Chicago, IL (Wrigley Field and Goose Island Brewing) « Ballparks and Brews

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