It may look like just another plant, but the power of the Wrigley Field ivy never was more apparent than it was recently.
The potential loss of some ivy and bricks to expand the outfield doors for relocated bullpens led to some major blowback from the mayor’s office, forcing the Cubs to scrap part of their revised proposal to renovate the 100-year-old ballpark.
But even that wasn’t enough for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to pass the plan at their June meeting, so the Cubs likely will have to wait another month for a shot, delaying the start of construction on a 30,000-square-foot clubhouse and other components of the renovation.
It may seem ridiculous to some, but for love of ivy a massive $375 million project once again has been put on hold.
The controversy began two weeks ago when the Cubs announced a revised renovation plan that proposed to double the width of two large doors in left and right fields — known as the Under Armour doors because of the ads on them — from 12 to 24 feet.
Both areas currently are being used as batting cages, and the idea was to give the relievers a view of the field during games. The Cubs already had gained city approval for the widening of three smaller doors from 5 to 10 feet.
Last winter the Cubs began a long-term project of replacing the original bricks, which they said have deteriorated, beginning with a section of left field.
Though the removal of some ivy and bricks was not stated specifically in the new plan, the Cubs couldn’t expand the doors without taking both out, which landmark provisions protect. Once the media highlighted the significant removal of ivy and bricks, Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the Cubs a new plan would need to be reviewed, prompting their decision to eliminate enlarging any of the doors.
So how did vines become so powerful?
And would the loss of a few really affect anyone’s enjoyment of a day at Wrigley Field?
The ivy’s hold over lifelong Cubs fans is a riddle wrapped in a mystery around a copper wire. It has been creeping up the outfield walls every spring since Bill Veeck supervised the planting near the end of the 1937 season, after he suggested the idea to owner Philip Wrigley, referring to old Perry Field in Indianapolis as his inspiration.
In a Tribune interview 30 years ago, Veeck recalled being down on his hands and knees, stringing Boston and Baltic ivy along copper wires.
“The ivy was part of the whole basic philosophy started by the Wrigleys,” he said. “Before the road trip I told Mr. Wrigley, ‘The next time you come home, you’ll have vines.’ It was the only time they’ve used lights at Wrigley Field.”
The ivy is so synonymous with the Cubs that a couple of Pennsylvania buddies were arrested in September for sneaking into the park at night to steal a few precious leaves. They got off with probation and were forbidden to enter the ballpark for one year.
“If the Cubs aren’t any better, that may not be a bad thing,” their attorney, Kevin Halverson, joked after their hearing.
The Cubs aren’t any better. But more than 2.5 million fans are expected this year to watch games at Wrigley, with the ivy-covered walls one of its allures.
“It’s just the tradition here,” Cubs outfielder Nate Schierholtz said of the ivy. “It’s a 100-year-old ballpark and kind of a neat thing.
“Once the ivy blooms it gives the park a lot of character. It’s just different than anywhere else.”
As old ballparks were demolished and replaced, Wrigley became one of the last links to a seemingly more innocent era, and the ivy became a symbol of its timelessness. During a trip to Wrigley in 1999, Cardinals player Joe McEwing, now a White Sox coach, said he loved going out early to Wrigley because “it’s like the ivy is talking to you.”
The ivy even was credited with an assist in a Cubs victory over the White Sox in 1998 when it swallowed Magglio Ordonez’s shot to the wall, giving him a ground-rule double and sending a Sox runner back to third. Cubs pitcher Terry Mulholland theorized a squirrel he called “the reincarnation of Harry Caray” hid in the ivy and held onto the ball.
The Cubs had an outfielder in the early 1940s named Lou “The Mad Russian” Novikoff, who was afraid of the ivy because of his fear of spiders. Head groundskeeper Roger Baird said the ivy is sprayed for insects but added: “Everyone is afraid of spiders, but spiders are good. They eat other bugs.”
Schierholtz, who plays right field, said he never has seen any spiders in the ivy.
“I’ve seen a few rats in the batting cage,” he said. “But not behind the ivy. In the ivy, all I’ve seen are balls dropping out from b.p.”
Former Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson, now with the Marlins, agreed there’s nothing to fear when reaching for a ball.
“I haven’t pulled Andre Dawson out of there or anything,” he said, referring to a commercial in which Kerry Wood pulls Dawson out of the ivy.
The ivy came in late this year because of the bitterly cold winter, after arriving before opening day in 2012, the earliest in recent memory. It usually looks its best in late October when turning colors, though the only time the Cubs have been playing at its peak was during the 2003 National League Championship Series.
Baird said some of the original ivy Veeck planted remains, with vines 2 or 3 inches thick. It’s part of history, which is why its importance is magnified.
“The ivy has been here forever,” Baird said. “And hopefully it will be here for quite a while.”