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The story of the Cubs introduction to Catalina begins with the arrival of
William Wrigley Jr., self-made chewing gum king, on the baseball scene in
1916. That year, Wrigley bought a share of Chicago's National League entry,
and over the next five years steadily increased his stake. Wartime
privations hit some industries hard, but chewing gum thrived. Not only was
Wrigley able to take over the Cubs, but in 1919 he unburdened the
distressed owner of Catalina Island of the property for some $3 million,
The Cubs and Catalina became Wrigley's twin passions, and by the spring of
1921 he had arranged a marriage: the ballclub would train on the island in
preparation for his first season as principal owner. With sportwriters
sending dispatches back to frigid Chicago chronicling the Cubbies island
frolics, Catalina seized an advertising bonanza as a new vacation mecca.
Though Wrigley's association with the Cubs lasted just 16 years, his impact
has been lasting, exemplified today by the venerable ballpark on the North
Side of Chicago bearing his name. And for three decades his influence was
felt every February, when Cubs players from all over the country would
travel west for Spring Training on the "Isle with a Smile," Santa Catalina.
Baseball has no modern equivalent of William Wrigley. By the time of his
death in 1932, he ranked, with Jacob Ruppert and Horace Stoneham, as one of
the game's most influential owners. His players revered him and fans
responded to his efforts with record-setting gates. He was almost
universally esteemed and today, 64 years after his death, the worst thing
anyone can say about him is that he loved Rogers Hornsby too much.
As a boy, Wrigley sold soap door-to-door from a two-horse wagon. Propelled
by enthusiasm and charm, he claimed he could "sell pianos to the armless
men of Borneo." After years of giving away free gum with purchases of soap,
Wrigley realized that gum was what his customers really wanted. Starting
from scratch, Wrigley went into business and sold enough chewing gum to
amass one of America's largest fortunes. Still, he remained throughout his
life the same big-hearted, back-slapping jolly bartender of a man who had
first come to Chicago in 1891.
Catalina before Wrigley was largely undeveloped. After taking over, Wrigley
brought the island to life. In Catalina's one real town, Avalon, he
installed street lights and sewers, erected hotels and built the world's
largest dance hall, the Avalon Grand Casino. Within a decade he had
invested six times the island's price on improvements. But most of Catalina
remained untouched, with its mountains and bays protected and virtually no
When the Cubs first stepped off the steamer onto the Avalon wharf in 1921,
they were struck by the rugged beauty of the place. Over the years they got
to know it intimately, because Cubs managers liked to use the rough terrain
and mountain trails for conditioning. The island is home to mountain goats,
and winter-softened Cubbies often suffered long workouts hiking along goat
paths. Third baseman Randy Jackson complained of shin splints, and Hall of
Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett anguished, "I hope they've got banked turns in
the National League infields, because one of my legs is shorter than the
other from trying to navigate those damn hills."
A typical spring visit for the Cubs began in mid-February, when pitchers,
catchers and rookies arrived. The rest of the team followed a week later.
Around March 10 the Club would break camp and sail for Los Angeles for a
couple of weeks of exhibition games in California.First stop was L.A.'s
Wrigley Field, home park of the Los Angeles Angels (Wrigley's Pacific Coast
League team), for a half-dozen or so games. The Club would then move slowly
across the Southwest, playing a game each day in towns along the way before
finally heading north from Texas.
After deciding to bring his Cubs to Catalina for Spring Training, Wrigley
built a diamond and a practice field in Avalon, with the ballfield's
dimensions matching those of Wrigley Field in Chicago. Ringed by eucalyptus
trees, the field was located below Wrigley's mountainside country club,
which housed the players' locker rooms. Like the windows and rooftops on
Waveland Avenue in Chicago today, the clubhouse patios provided a sociable
left-field perch for viewing the field below.
Wrigley was a familiar face at the ballfield, usually sitting in the
bleachers to watch the workouts. For Wrigley, all business stopped when the
Cubs were playing. He traveled on road trips with the team and rarely
missed a home game. His love of the game was genuine. As a boy, he had
worked from age 10, and had felt envious of those able to attend baseball
games. As an adult, he evened the score.
Though he was an attentive owner, he didn't try to run things himself.
Shortstop Woody English remembers Wrigley's first words to him when he
joined the Cubs in 1927: "He called me over and said, 'Woody, I'm not going
to tell you how to play baseball, that's your business. But if there's
anything else you need help with, you let me know.'"
Cubs players had real affection for their owner. It helped that they were
better paid than most other Major Leaguers. Wrigley admired his players and
treated them accordingly. He fostered personal relationships with his
players. Springs on Catalina always included social functions-fishing
trips, barbecues at Wrigley's mountaintop mansion, mountain goat rodeos
with players wielding lariats. All helped solidify Wrigley's status among
The Cubs spent their weeks
on the island playing mostly inter-squad games. The regulars versus the
goofs, they were called. The games were free and well attended by island
residents and visitors. Every spring day a steamer arrived carrying
tourists on day trips, with the Cubs the chief attraction.
Occasionally, outside competition would visit the island. The PCL Angels
were regular visitors, and more than once the New York Giants contested the
Cubs on Catalina. Joe E. Brown, one of Hollywood's biggest names in the
1930s, put together teams of movie stars to take on the Cubs. They were a
popular attraction, though not much of a test.
With Wrigley's efforts to glamorize the island, Hollywood celebrities
became frequent visitors and Catalina a featured location for movie making.
Cary Grant, Clark Gable (Mutiny on the Bounty was filmed there) and Errol
Flynn (whose rumored rendezvous with a 15-year-old was an island scandal)
were among the stars who might be spotted on Catalina. Buffalo were
imported for one picture and they now roam wild. Natalie Wood's 1981
drowning off Catalina put the island back in the national spotlight.
One spring, a workaday radio man named Ronald Reagan accompanied the Club
during Spring Training. Assigned to acquaint himself with the Club for the
coming season's broadcasts, Reagan spent several weeks on Catalina, often
taking uniformed workouts with the team. Among other diversions, Reagan
found time to visit a Hollywood studio and sit for his first screen test.
That was in 1937, and one wonders how the world might be different today
had the Cubs been training in Florida.
On baseball matters, Wrigley deferred mostly to General Manager Bill Veeck,
Sr. When Wrigley took over the Club, Veeck was a Chicago sportswriter. His
harsh criticism of the Cubs caught Wrigley's eye. Wrigley said something to
the effect of, "If you're so smart, you run the team!" and handed him the
reins of the Club. It was an inspired choice. Veeck soon brought in Manager
Joe McCarthy, and before long the Cubs were contenders. And, of course,
Veeck's son, Bill Jr., would go on to become one of the game's most
flamboyant and innovative owners.
With Veeck running the show, the Cubs made steady progress toward the top
of the National League. Wrigley's willingness to invest money made it
possible for Veeck to assemble a core of Hall of Famers (Hack Wilson, Kiki
Cuyler, Hartnett and Hornsby) in the 1920s that led to a pennant in 1929,
and three more in the '30s. From 1922-39, the Cubs suffered only one losing
season. In 1927 the Club became the first NL team to draw more than a
million fans and repeated that feat in '28 and '29.
After the 1928 season, Wrigley went over Veeck's head to acquire Hornsby at
the astounding price of $200,000 plus five players. Hornsby was Wrigley's
favorite player and the Rajah rewarded him with an MVP season in 1929. But
Veeck threatened to quit, and he stayed only when his boss promised never
to meddle again. Hornsby took over as manager in 1930, but after Wrigley's
death in 1932, Veeck got rid of him.
So it was with the happy confidence of success that Cubs players would
start their preseason rituals on an island in the Pacific. Thus their fond
memories of Catalina: "We kind of fell in love with the beauty of it,"
remembers English. "I spent 11 birthdays on the island, and I really
enjoyed it out there. Even Hornsby loved it, even though there weren't any
Bill Jurges, 88, spent 10 preseasons on Catalina and describes it as "a
great place to train." He remembers that big-name bands-like Harry James
and Jimmy Dorsey-would play on weekends at the eight-story Casino where the
ballroom could accommodate 5,000 dancers. The Cubs would import girls from
the mainland to provide partners for the dances, although wives and
families were welcome on the island and often accompanied the players.
Wrigley died in 1932 and Bill Veeck Sr. a year later. The foundation of
talent that they left behind would last the decade, but it eventually
dissipated. P.K. Wrigley, William's son, took over, but he had little
passion for baseball. Out of loyalty to his father's love of the Cubs he
didn't sell the Club, but he never succeeded at building a winner (after
the war, the Cubs fell into a 30-year slump). P.K. honored his father's
memory by keeping Wrigley Field, baseball's most beautiful showcase,
spotless, comfortable and sunlit. In 1937, he and Bill Veeck Jr., then the
Club's treasurer, planted the outfield ivy, now a symbol of tradition for
all baseball fans.
The Cubs left Catalina Island in 1952. Several years of bad weather led to
the move, capped in 1951 by the first snow the Cubs had seen on the island.
P.K. also had interests in Arizona, and he chose Mesa as the Cubs new
training site, where the Club still trains today.
In 1975, the Wrigley family ceded 86 percent of the island to the Santa
Catalina Island Conservancy, a non-profit foundation charged with
protecting the island's land and wildlife. P.K.'s son, Bill, still has a
home on the island. His grandfather's palatial mansion is now a bed and
breakfast with a view of the bay, and the old casino has been restored to
its 1930s splendor. The ballpark is gone, but the country club is being
renovated for a 1997 reopening, featuring a Cubs-themed restaurant and bar.
The Wrigley Memorial, featuring a botanical garden and the Wrigley
Mausoleum, has become one of the island's tourist attractions.
Despite the renovations, there are fewer and fewer people left who
remember the Cubs' years on Wrigley's island. If ever baseball's
late-winter regimen of calisthenics and conditioning was held on Elysian
Fields, it was on Catalina.
Thanks to Catalina Islanders Stacey Otte and Audry Bierold
for their help with this article.
©1998 Spring Training Inc.This article first appeared in the 1997 issue of Spring Training.
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