With Wrigley All-Star Game on Horizon, A Look Back

It’s been a lifetime since the Cubs have hosted an All-Star Game at Wrigley Field. No, literally—I’m a ripe old 24, and this season marks 26 since the light standards shone down on Sandberg, Dawson, and their All-Star peers in July of 1990. That drought will reach 28 years by the time the Cubs can make a bid to host the 2019 game, a possibility that Commissioner Rob Manfred alluded to a little over a month ago. In those comments, Manfred suggested that the Cubs would jump to the top of the list of possible host locations once renovations on the old ballpark were completed. With the overhaul timeline looking like a five-year project, 2019 is just about the earliest that the club could host the Midsummer Classic once more.

With the 2016 season almost upon us—two weeks away, never soon enough—I thought it might be a fun to take a mental trip to the first two All-Star games held at the Friendly Confines. The two games happen to be an interesting study in a decade-and-a-half of major changes for Major League Baseball. So let the sweaty, lazy air of summer wash over us as we steel ourselves against Mother Nature’s cruel vengeance this first week of spring.

Jackie Robinson was notably absent in the 14th installment of the All-Star Game on July 8, 1947, at Wrigley. For the first 13 games, the managers of each team had selected the players for their clubs, but fans received the ballot for starting players for the first time in 1947, selecting two of Robinson’s teammates—including the antagonistic Dixie Walker—as starters. Two more Dodgers position players made the roster as reserves, an example of fans’ reluctance to embrace Robinson, despite the infielder’s brilliant June and July that season.

Two Cubs made the roster, but only as reserves: Phil Cavarretta, selected to his third game, and Andy Pafko, his first. The two Cubs would not be tasked with facing Bob Feller, the American League’s presumptive starter, due to Feller’s back injury, nor with squaring off against replacement Yankee hurler Spurgeon Chandler, a veteran who suffered an elbow strain less than a week before the game. Rather, Tigers’ ace Hal Newhouser got the ball from AL Manager Joe Cronin, with Ewell Blackwell of Cincinnati opposing him for the NL. As it was, the American League was slightly favored, their starting lineup boasting five Hall of Famers-to be, including Ted Williams and Joe Dimaggio, to the National League’s paltry two.

Wrigley’s first All-Star exhibition remained scoreless until the fourth, when Johnny Mize swatted a solo home run into the right field bleachers. Two innings later, Dimaggio rolled into a double play that scored White Sox shortstop Luke Appling, knotting the game at one, and the seventh featured the AL manufacturing another run in the form of a Stan Spence RBI single.

Pafko had replaced center fielder Harry Walker in the field in the top of the fifth, and subsequently singled in the bottom half of the inning off of Francis “Spec” Shea (a gem of a nickname, if I may say so). He strode to the plate in the bottom of the eighth, with his club down one, and grounded out to short. Cavarretta pinch-hit for the Dodgers’ Bruce Edwards two batters later, striking out in his only at-bat. The National League fell, 2-1, in an admittedly boring exhibition. Perhaps the most interesting (if also morbid) thing about the game was reported the next day in the Chicago Tribune—a 60-year-old man named Edward Connell died of a heart attack at the ballpark.

While the 1947 exhibition was a bit of a snoozer for everyone but Connell, the 1962 game at least featured some scoring. One of the quirks of the early-’60s games was that there were two of them each year; from 1959-1962, a pair of games featured the game’s best players, no doubt a ploy to snag more money to line owners’ pockets. That season, the first game was held on July 10 at D.C. Stadium (later R.F.K.), and the National League topped the American League 3-1. Three weeks later, they faced off again at Wrigley, with three Cubs on the roster.

Ernie Banks, in his age-31 season and first full year at first base, garnered his 11th consecutive selection. Joining Mr. Cub were outfielder George Altman, in his second and final All-Star game, and Billy Williams, just off a Rookie of the Year campaign in 1961, playing in his first Midsummer Classic. The Cubs’ three players were all at very different points in their career: Banks was entering his long decline, after a decade of transcendence; Williams was just beginning his Hall of Fame career; and Altman was in his last dominant season before he fell off a proverbial cliff. A few short seasons later, Altman found himself in Nippon Professional Baseball, the first big American star to succeed in Japan, a subject on which I wrote last month. Notably, while the 1947 game didn’t feature a single black player in the first season of the reintegrated major leagues, all three Cubs in the ’62 game were African-American players.

Thunderstorms threatened to derail the second All-Star game at Wrigley, with temperatures sitting in the balmy lower 80s for most of the day. It would be two and a half more decades before Wrigley Field finally received light standards, so getting the game in before the storms was imperative. Luckily, they were able to sneak in the game, broadcast on TV and called by none other than Vin Scully. The center field batter’s eye relented to the onslaught of baseball fans, and it was occupied by bleacher creatures for reportedly the first time in a decade. Hitters complained that they couldn’t see the ball in batting practice, but their grievances would prove moot.

Like the 1947 game, scoring started somewhat slowly, and the AL led 4-1 heading into the seventh, behind home runs by Pete Runnels and Leon Wagner. That inning, Ricky Colavito, who started for the American League in place of Mickey Mantle, clobbered a three-run home run to left, scoring Roger Maris and Brooks Robinson. The National League wouldn’t recover. However, Banks did manage a surprising triple in the bottom of the eighth in front of his home crowd. Williams stepped into the box next, and grounded out to short, scoring his teammate.

For some more perspective on how the game had changed since the 1947 All-Star game, take a look at the box score for that eighth inning.

Four Hall of Famers toed the batter’s box chalk for the NL, including two men who had been signed by their clubs from Negro League teams. Likewise, the fourth inning featured an almost incomprehensible pair of substitutions: Hank Aaron replaced Willie Mays in center, and Frank Robinson took over for Roberto Clemente in right. 15 years after Jackie Robinson’s debut, all major league teams had integrated (although some more slowly than others, with the Red Sox the last, a mere three years before the 1962 game), and black players starred for a host of clubs in both leagues.

Should the Cubs host the All-Star game again in 2019, it would be another chapter into an interesting history dating back to 1947. The chaste (and white) 1947 game, the shaggy 1962 game with its slugging and bevy of top-tier Hall of Famers, the soggy 1990 game with its Home Run Derby—all capture specific moments in baseball history that illuminate unique historical trends. It remains to be seen what a future All-Star game at Wrigley would be like, but the hallmark will be the coming renovations. Kris Bryant’s inevitable two-homer showing will look a lot better with a backdrop of a beautifully rejuvenated Wrigley Field.

Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports.

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