The proposed Toyota sign at Wrigley: A wrong turn for baseball’s real-life Field of Dreams

Blair Kamin

March 19, 2010

Before I tell you why it’s a really bad idea to clamp a big, red Toyota sign on the back of the left-field bleachers at Wrigley Field, let’s look at Wrigley’s latest architectural bright spot.

The gently curving lines of the ballpark’s graceful exterior used to be marred by the concrete panels that had all the elegance of a parking deck. Yet at the behest of the new Cubs owners, the Ricketts family, many of those panels are gone. In their place is chain-link fencing — nothing fancy, to be sure, but it’s painted a rich, dark green that evokes the Field of Dreams inside and will give fans new views of the city from inside the park. The change is perfectly in keeping with Wrigley’s Chicago-style matter-of-factness—honest, straightforward and ruggedly handsome.

But that Toyota sign? It would be as out of tune with Wrigley as last year’s free-agent bust, Milton Bradley, was out of sync in the Cubs’ clubhouse.

Cubs executives insist that the sign would be a “tasteful” addition to the ballpark. And, to be sure, it would be better than a conventional highway billboard — an opaque horizontal sign plopped atop a fat pole. Yet if you break down the Cubs’ plan, you can see how much visual damage it would wreak on a revered, 96-year-old city landmark:

COLOR: The illuminated Toyota sign, all 360 square feet of it, would be bright red, a color that has one purpose: To stand out. Wrigley’s primary hues are a soothing green, a shade on display in the ivy on the outfield walls and the center-field scoreboard.

That color is soft, just as Wrigley’s curving geometry is soft, a quality that underscores the “park” in “ballpark.” Yet the Toyota sign, with dimensions far bigger than ads already on Wrigley’s walls, would introduce a jarring contrast with the ballpark’s lush green setting. The green of BP (as in British Petroleum) would be better than Toyota red, but the sign plan has more fundamental problems.

CONTOURS: In a city of skyscrapers, Wrigley forms a horizontal antidote, especially the sweeping, uninterrupted lines of its grandstand and bleachers. Those contours are a legacy of the ballpark’s brilliant 1937-38 renovation by Chicago architects Holabird & Root. The city’s 2004 landmark law for Wrigley expressly identified them as features to be protected.

How would the proposed Toyota sign “fit in” with these graceful outlines? Like a Class A bush leaguer at the major-league All-Star Game. The sign would rudely interrupt the ballpark’s horizontality, with its top  rising 38 feet above a springboard in the left-field bleachers. Think of it as a giant red Jack in the Box.

VIEWS: Unlike U.S. Cellular Field, which walls itself off from the South Side, Wrigley feeds on the energy of the city around it. Views of the rooftops around the ballpark from inside the park are among its great charms. City landmark officials made sure to safeguard those sightlines as they oversaw the Cubs’ well-executed 2006 bleacher expansion. Yet the issues raised by the proposed Toyota sign will be far less easy to resolve.

In a bit of Cubbie hardball, the sign would partially obscure the rooftop ad for a casino on a building across Waveland while not blocking the sightlines from rooftops that pay a share of their ticket revenue to the Cubs. This approach could backfire. City landmark officials will evaluate the Toyota sign proposal’s impact on views from the ballpark looking out, a concern shared by the area’s alderman, Tom Tunney.

The casino ad may be garish, but when the Toyota sign is layered over it, the view will be even worse–as pretty as a sign-heavy commercial strip. And Wrigleyville neighbors can’t be happy about seeing the back side of the sign as they drive down streets like Kenmore and Waveland. “Chicago already has an Ogden Avenue,” Tribune reader James Kozicki of Western Springs e-mailed me. “No need to try and duplicate that at Wrigley Field.”

Why get rid of one eyesore, Wrigley’s concrete panels, and replace them with another?

The answer, of course, is money. The Cubs would reportedly reap up to $2.5 million a year from the Toyota deal. Yet the team’s perennial cry that it desperately needs cash is beginning to wear thin. The Cubs had the third highest payroll in baseball last year, but they still flopped on the field. Their ongoing futility suggests that the real issue is not whether the team has enough money, but how well they spend it.

In recent years, the Cubs have looked to Boston’s even-more-ancient Fenway Park as a model for Wrigley’s reinvention. And why not? The Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and 2007 after renovating a ballpark whose capacity is even smaller than Wrigley’s. But the two parks ultimately differ: Sharply contoured Fenway is plastered with signs. Wrigley, baseball’s graceful grand dame, offers relief from commercial clutter.

The point is: Let Wrigley be Wrigley. If the Cubs don’t get that, the city should remind them.

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