Visitors on the roof: The rooftops at Wrigley
Note: This is a post of a longform story Tim did for a magazine class at Northwestern. The news might be a bit old, but the facts of the situation still hold pretty true. It’s an in depth look at the bleachers by Wrigley.
VISITORS ON THE ROOF
The steps are all tight turns and a bit dizzying. At every landing there are windows that show you rising above the L, right by the Addison stop next to Wrigley on the North Side of Chicago. It’s a sweaty four-story climb up the back stairs of Murphy’s Rooftop Bleachers. Now imagine the climb while carrying cases of beer, coolers of ice and trays of food for a large group, as bartender Bridgette Begley told me. You never need a workout when that’s your job, we joked. But it’s a good deal, she said, because you might have to drag beers and your body four floors up–but the view is pretty great.
There’s a sweeping panoramic of the ball field. Murphy’s Rooftop looks straight down into Wrigley’s right field porch, which has a short outer wall that runs low until it intersects with the iconic center field bleachers. The green-blue tight packed seats of the grandstand dot a U-shape and everything looks old-fashioned. To the right you can see a big blue painted pennant smacked on the outside of the stadium, impressive and lettered “Chicago Cubs.” It hangs over the neighborhood.
For the uninitiated: it’s a Cubbies tradition to watch games from bleachers on roofs, peering into the stadium. They mostly look somewhat like club-level seating at stadiums across America, except they’re stacked neatly atop residential gray-stone buildings across the street from Wrigley. Some have two-levels of seating, stadium style seats or Plexiglas guard walls. Others have circular patio furniture you might find on any deck across the country and most of the buildings house tenants who just happen to have a roof with stadium-style accoutrement. It’s a quaint, residential, loudly raucous, old-style, new-age part of the Cubs tradition and also not really part of the Cubs. And, moreover, it may be going away.
Tom Ricketts, owner of the Cubs since 2009, along with three siblings, had an ambitious $500 million plan to renovate Wrigley Field, and modernize the facility. Plans to add to the stadium were always going to be a problem for the rooftop seating that relies on a good sight line and unimpeded viewing. But negotiations left hope for a resolution that would be decent for both sides—since the rooftops were already signed to a contract with 10 years remaining that agreed to paying out 17 percent of revenues to the Cubs. Yet, as things do, talks seem to have fallen apart and the Cubs dealt what looks like a deathblow, or at least a heavy-handed punch. The club is going with their original renovation plans (plus an additional $75 million of accompaniments for good measure), including four LED signs, an expanded courtyard area outside the stadium, a 2,400-square foot videoboard in right field and a 3,990-square foot video scoreboard in left field. These things will certainly put a significant damper on rooftop views. And a fight might be on the way. The rooftop owners will likely sue. “It seems like it [is heading towards a lawsuit], but it hasn’t happened, there are still negotiations,” said Beth Murphy, co-owner of Murphy’s Rooftop and spokeswoman for the Wrigleyville Rooftops Association.
For their part, the Cubs point to legal rights to expand. The contract between the rooftops and the Cubs, released by CSNChicago.com, has a section (6.6 if you’re interested) stating that the team cannot erect obstructions of the view, but that “any expansion of Wrigley Field approved by governmental authorities shall not be a violation.”
The team seems ready to move on. Ricketts said in a video released by the Cubs: “We’ve spent hours negotiating with the rooftop businesses. We’ve gotten nowhere in our talks with them to settle this dispute. It has to end. It’s time to move forward.”
The club has even threatened to move out, saying they are investigating other options in the city and in nearby Rosemont. It could be the end of the line for the rooftops, even if, for their part, they are not giving up the fight.
But what makes the rooftops unique? And if this proves to be it—or the beginning of the end—what will the Cubs, Wrigley and the neighborhood be left without?
This isn’t a plea to keep the rooftops alive, nor is this an apologist’s manifesto, blaming Wrigley (and, by extension, the rooftops) for the Cubs non-maximized-revenue and thus, lack of success. There’s a lot of moving parts to this story that litters Chicago news outlets, and my take doesn’t really matter amongst that stream. Rather, I just want to take you to Wrigleyville, off the staccato-stopping Red Line, where a stadium sort of sneaks up on you, and the rooftops I saw with Bridgette Begley blend into the ivy-strewn walls.
If anybody knows ballparks it’s Joe Mock, webmaster of baseballparks.com, a site that reviews ballparks, and writer for USA Today. He’s been to every major league stadium and 202 of the 203 minor league venues, and he’s making his way to Grand Junction, Colorado this year to remedy that.
“I never get tired of going to ballparks,” Mock said. “I guess I’m meeting my calling.”
On Wrigley: “I cannot fathom a better setting for a baseball stadium.”
Wrigley is his top-rated ballpark. It has a private section on his site, under the heading “Wrigley Field – the park that is in a league all by itself.”
To Mock, the appeal of Wrigley is where it sits and how it speaks to baseball fans, and the rooftop bleachers are one of the features that makes it a singular place. It can’t be faked. Modern stadiums have tried to model patio seating off the rooftops, if efforts to make the atmosphere more homey.
“When a ballpark tries to get too cute, and they try to manufacture that…it’s not the same,” Mock said.
Murphy’s setup atop the roof is pretty barebones, compared to some of the more modern places, and it hints at the homey origins of the rooftops. There is a set of bleachers you might find at any high school ball field, a wooden bar to the back, a refrigerator and on top of the roof that covers the bar—a light-up sign emblazoned with the likeness of late Cubs announcer-icon Harry Caray. It’s a small setup and the minimalism is by design.
“I like to think, we kind of stay truest to that tradition of what people do up there,” said Murphy’s Bleachers co-owner (and Beth’s stepson) James Murphy. “I think we were the last ones to put up metal bleachers (in 1998, according to Beth).”
“You know, like, you throw a company picnic and we provide the burgers and the beer.”
Indeed, that is how the whole rooftop experience (as it looks today) got started.
“I think the rooftops are a model of human ingenuity,” Beth Murphy said.
Friends invited friends and it became an exclusive club of those able to watch from the roofs. You would have a cooler of beer, a barbeque and a decent view of the game. At first, it wasn’t truly monetized, in fact, James Murphy pointed out that homeowners used to sell third-story window views before the rooftops became big.
The first group to make the rooftop experience into a profit scheme (and also go bankrupt) was the Lakeview Baseball Club on Sheffield in 1984. The timing was no coincidence. 1984 was the season the Cubs finally returned to playoffs after a 39-year playoff drought. The roster featured notable names like Ryne Sandberg, Larry Bowa, Gary Matthews, Rick Sutcliffe and Dennis Eckersley, and the season was chock full of surprising and smart trades (always good for fan morale). When the team is doing well the stadium fills and there is demand for more seating options. The rooftops were able to fill that demand.
Murphy’s, like most of the rooftops, used to function as a social hangout. James’ father was a former gang crimes detective and his mother a schoolteacher. They bought real estate in the North Side, fixing up one floor at a time, while living on another floor. It was a nice fix-and-flip process. Then the family bought the bar that became Murphy’s Bleachers and the Cubs started winning.
“My dad and mom bought the building in the ‘70s and they’d have people over to hang out up there,” James Murphy said. It took a winning team to make the rooftop commercial and even then, it was mainly a place for stadium overflow, according to the Murphy family.
“When the Cubs weren’t popular the rooftops weren’t full,” Beth Murphy said. “Only, I would say, in the 2000s, did the rooftops take on their own identities.”
The rooftop seating was primarily sold in one big chunk to a group of fans. What began with lawn chairs and coolers became double-decks, sprinkler systems and reinforced structures. James Murphy pointed out that some of this was city regulation. The rooftops are subject to rules akin to those on a small theatre, with some additions since the rooftop adds specific dangers.
Some renovations, especially on the more audacious rooftops, surely, were also about profit and an improved viewing experience. Either way things grew to the point that rooftop seating near Wrigley became ubiquitous and professional looking. As an East Coast transplant and life-long baseball fan taking in Wrigley for the first time last summer, the first thing I did on Waveland Avenue was look up.
Emily Weinstein, now a North Side resident but originally from Tennessee, said the rooftops stood out to her as well.
“Everyone knows about them,” she said. “Besides the stadium itself, they’re the second thing you notice.”
And when the team is winning, which is not always the case, the neighborhood turns into a community all abuzz, the rooftops, stadium and bars alike.
“In addition to being dependent on it, we’re all Cubs fans, we get caught up in it when they’re good,” James Murphy said. “The buzz around the stadium, during a year when they are winning, where there’s exciting new players coming up, is unbelievable.”
That’s not say the rooftops are all about the games. Baseball is involved in the experience, but it isn’t necessarily the entire thing. In a stadium there is one way to look. On the rooftops there are televisions, bars, people, space to mingle and noise all around.
“It’s lighthearted, everyone is having a good time,” Weinstein, who has watched a game from the rooftops several times, said.
The rooftops rely on the Cubs in a lot of ways but it is not an experience entirely based on the team either.
Caitlin Mauer lived in the North Side of Chicago, “and like many north Chicagoans, got brainwashed into loving the Cubbies,” she said. It took a Groupon offer (Weinstein used a similar LivingSocial deal for $80), but her and a large group of friends eventually jumped on the chance to watch a game from the rooftops, something she relishes after returning to the East Coast.
“I think the rooftops are a unique aspect to Wrigley – just last week I was at a home Orioles game,” Mauer said. “Their stadium is similar to Wrigley’s, with low walls and a downtown-neighborhood feel… I immediately caught myself looking into the outfield for rooftops, and was disappointed not to see them.”
Rooftop viewing, at least historically, is not completely unique to Wrigley. Shibe Park, the Philadelphia Phillies’ old stomping grounds, used to have visitors on the perilously steep roofs of rowhomes along the side of the stadium.
The rooftops of Wrigley aren’t exactly the same of those at Shibe, however. In a lot of ways, the Wrigley rooftops are lounges, much like, again, club-level (or even luxury) seating in stadiums. They are also akin to setups like Wrigley Field’s own Budweiser Patio. They do not, however, pay out like luxury suites, or patios in a stadium because the Cubs get just 17 percent of revenues. And those Groupon or LivingSocial deals irk the Cubs, according to Beth Murphy, because the team sees the offers as competition because the rooftops used to be for almost exclusively for groups. Ricketts, in his video to Cubs fans, also points out that team’s facilities are behind the pace of other major league clubs and division rivals. It’s hard to argue when batters have to warm up with a pull down mesh screen–not a full batting cage–just a few feet from the clubhouse television. Hell, even Sluggers, a bar down the street from Wrigley, has batting cages.
Boston’s historic Fenway Park, the only stadium in the conversation with Wrigley, according to Mock, helped bring in $310 million of revenue in its 100th year in 2012. That’s second to only the Yankees. The Cubs brought in $266 million in 2013 and ranked as the fourth-most valuable team in the MLB, according to data collected by Forbes.
The Red Sox invested in modernizing, but preserving Fenway when a new ownership group took over in 2002. In the 10 years leading up to the park’s 100th birthday, the club added seats (including premium spots atop the iconic “green monster” wall), high definition video displays (one 38 feet tall), and amenities throughout the stadium. The changes helped drive profits, boost tourism and Boston won World Series championships in 2004, 2007 and 2013. Mock also said, however, that Fenway isn’t a neighborhood park quite like Wrigley.
2014 is the Cubs 100th year in Wrigley. The Red Sox renovations are seemingly a model for Wrigley’s planned renovations. That is, if the team doesn’t leave the century-old park.
“If the Cubs convince me, and I think they have convinced me, that we need to make these changes to keep Wrigley,” Mock said. “If that’s what it comes down to, then make the changes.”
I walked the streets surrounding Wrigley the other day, doing a bit of stalking/reporting. The news had just been released about Ricketts and the rooftops, and I knew that everything seemed to have changed. But standing and watching, it’s not like the streets were on fire. It was a Thursday afternoon, warm and pleasant. Wrigleyville was in a lunchtime lazy rush, and nobody was answering me about the rooftops; I bet because everyone was asking about the rooftops.
Wrigleyville tenants walked their dogs, pushed baby carriages, talked on cellphones, brokered real estate deals, unconcerned with the stadium seating on the roofs of their buildings. I talked with a few but not much came of it. In the plaza in front of Wrigley a television reporter talked with a man in baggy basketball shorts. The reporter breezed off in his Prius after taking notes in the front seat. I wager he was writing about rooftops. Down Waveland Avenue, a sightseeing trolley made a wide right turn. The driver talked over the intercom and a singular passenger listened.
Leaned against a pole, I watched tourists file along. Then Monty Kol, an older gentleman, ambled by. I asked him if he had a few minutes to talk. He told me sure, but he had to be going—he would have talked all day, in truth. Around his neck hung a camera and he snapped with purpose. Taking shots down the lane, of the old-time murals, the bleachers, and of things that caught his eye. He was on a road trip from Columbia, Maryland. But he grew up listening to the Cubs on the radio in the late ‘40s and ‘50s and rattled off names that nobody remembers.
When I approached Monty, he had been looking up at the rooftops, his old-fashioned Cubs hat pulled down low. I asked him about the rooftops and Wrigleyville. His eyes got glazy and he talked about Memorial Stadium, where his hometown Orioles used to play.
“I’m an old ballpark fan,” he said. “I like them in neighborhoods like this.”
What Monty said reminds me of something Joe Mock told me.
“Baseball is nothing without its history,” Mock said. ‘There’s a special bond between baseball fans and the place their game is played.”
When I talked to Monty he looked around slowly at the place the Cubbies play and so do I, every time I go to Wrigley.
“We’re losing too much of our culture,” Monty said. “This is unique.”
The sun was shining in Chicago, and there was Murphy’s, and the rooftops with profitable metallic bleachers, and with Monty’s words spinning in my ears—well—it’s nice to think about baseball and how things used to be.