|Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Source: wikipedia.org|
If there is anyone who wants to understand how Chicago’s north lakefront became one of the nation’s foremost urban destinations, pushing the city as a whole toward global city status, you cannot underestimate the role and contribution of one of the city’s most treasured institutions — the Chicago Cubs.
As a Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox fan, I hate even thinking this, but it’s true. Let me explain by offering a little history.
Let’s go back to the 1940s and ’50s, and understand a little bit about the Chicago’s economic and social profile at the time. Coming out of World War II, Chicago began to prosper as much of America did, as industrial production ramped up and goods were being sold to a happily consuming public. Back then, the North Side and the South Side were more united economically than they are today, but if you were to draw one distinction between them at the time, it might be that the North Side had more of the managerial class living in it, while the South Side had more of the laborer class within its boundaries. A fairly significant distinction to be sure, but one without exceptional income disparities. The presence of the managerial class may have given the North Side some commercial development advantages, but differences at the time were more social than economic.
Most Chicagoans, and overwhelmingly most non-Chicagoans, today tend to assume the dominance of the Cubs over the White Sox in terms of popularity and attendance, but that wasn’t always the case. Throughout much of their early history, the Cubs and Sox were roughly even in attendance, with probably the biggest factor in determining which team was more popular being won-loss record. I gathered some historical ballpark attendance data for major league baseball teams from ballparksofbaseball.com, and found some interesting long trends. Here’s a chart of Sox and Cub attendance between 1945, when WWII ended, and 1964:
During a relatively prosperous time for the city, the Cubs and Sox attendance was relatively even, with a slight Sox advantage. Over the period the Sox averaged just under an estimated 14,000 fans per game, while the Cubs averaged just under 12,000. Sox attendance trended upward, with a peak coming during and immediately after a World Series appearance in 1959. The Cubs, meanwhile, trended downward, initially living off the success of its 1945 World Series appearance but sliding thereafter.
Now let’s look at what happened over the next 20-year period:
Again, Sox and Cub attendance is roughly equal again, but this time with a slight Cubs advantage. During this period the Cubs averaged about 15,500 per game, while the Sox averaged about 14,500. The Cubs got a boost in 1969 and a few seasons afterward due to some on-field success at the time, and the Sox had some historically bad years — and bad attendance — at the same time. Both teams took steep attendance drops due to the 1981 player’s strike, when about one-third of all games were lost, but rebounded well. Still, all things being equal, they’re pretty even.
But let’s look at what happens from 1985 onward:
The Cubs consistently beat out the Sox in attendance over the next 29 years. The Sox averaged about 23,000 fans per game between 1985 and 2013, but the Cubs zoomed up to over 32,000, making them one of the most successful teams in baseball. The Cubs even outdrew the Sox the year of (2005) and the year following (2006) the Sox winning the only World Series championship this city’s seen since 1917. The last time the Sox outdrew the Cubs was in 1992. Surely the Cubs had some good years, and the Sox some bad ones, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. What exactly happened here?
Enter change on the North Side, and the Cubs/WGN fabulous marketing strategy. The two worked in concert.
Let’s revisit the economic and social profile of the city over the last 50 years. As we all know, the manufacturing sector of our national economy has declined precipitously over this period, and that sector happens to be the one that offered the greatest employment to South Side and south suburban residents (read: Sox fans). Meanwhile, the North Side and north suburbs (read: Cub fans), less dependent on manufacturing, transitioned well into the next economy. The North Side is blessed with the eds and meds institutions that came to form the heart of economic growth since the ’60s, and became the home of many who worked in financial services, with the Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade.
But what do the Cubs have to do with this?
The Cubs have had a long-standing relationship with WGN radio and television here in Chicago, going back a century. On the radio side, WGN has long been the voice of the Cubs to the entire Midwest, broadcasting games that could be heard on 720AM as far as Minnesota and Wisconsin, and Indiana and Missouri. The Cubs developed a loyal following not just on the North Side, but throughout the Midwest. The Sox enjoyed a lot of success, but in the early years after WWII, it could said that the Sox were the city’s team, and the Cubs were (one of, along with the St. Louis Cardinals), the Midwest’s team.
Fast forward several decades. Starting in 1969, the Cub mythology begins to grow, and television becomes a bigger part of it. Chicago kids would come home from school to watch day baseball games. Plays by David Mamet were being written about bleacher bums. At the same time, the economies of north and south were continuing to diverge. Institutions like DePaul and Loyola University, Children’s Hospital, and others, were attracting more of the Midwest’s best and brightest to study and work.
But the 1980s is when the real and enduring change happened. WGN became a cable television superstation, and now Cub games were broadcast nationally. Throughout the ’80s, especially with Harry Caray at the helm in the broadcast booth, every game was a celebration of what Chicago, and specifically North Side Chicago, had to offer. A jewel of a ballpark, day baseball, views of sailboats on Lake Michigan and a dramatic skyline nearby — all of this became not just a Midwestern phenomenon, but a national one. Suddenly, it wasn’t just Midwestern kids who dreamed of moving to big city Chicago. It became national.
The Cubs’ success in 1984 and 1989 solidified the shift. Even though the Cubs did not reach the World Series, the Cubs had become integral into everything about this part of Chicago, which would become where the global economy was located. The Cubs are tied to the economy of Global Chicago.
Would the Cubs trade their role in building Chicago for a World Series? I honestly don’t know.