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Happy 100th, Wrigley Field! A few memories

Wednesday - 4/23/2014, 6:46pm  ET

Baseball fans are seen at the 100th anniversary of the first baseball game at Wrigley Field between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs, Wednesday, April 23, 2014, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

ANDREW SELIGMAN
Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) -- Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs, marks the 100th anniversary of its first game on Wednesday with a matchup against Arizona. The ballpark that opened as Weeghman Park on April 23, 1914, has hosted millions of fans and been the scene of some of baseball's most indelible moments. Some stars who graced its friendly confines offer their memories:

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Mike Ditka has a question.

"Can you name another championship that was won there?" he asked.

Well, an iconic Chicago franchise won its share at Wrigley Field, and it's the one that Ditka played for and coached.

The last time a team won a major title at Wrigley Field, Ditka was a star tight end and the 1963 Bears knocked off Y.A. Tittle and the New York Giants 14-10 in the NFL championship game.

"Papa Bear" George Halas was the man in charge. Hall of Famer Bill George led the defense back then. And in that final game, Ed O'Bradovich set up the go-ahead touchdown with an interception and Richie Petitbon sealed it with a pick in the end zone in the closing seconds. That gave Chicago its eighth and final title under Halas.

The Bears also won NFL championship games at Wrigley in 1933, 1941, 1943, and Ditka was the head coach when the 1985 team won it all, with Walter Payton, Jim McMahon and that dominating defense. The team was long gone from the old ballpark by then, having moved to Soldier Field in 1971. But Ditka has fond memories of the old home, quirks and all.

"It was a great place," he said. "The fans were close to you. They did a great job with it. It was what it was. It was a baseball stadium. It was fine. The accommodations in those days, the locker rooms, everything in those days was fine. There was not a problem with it."

It was just, well, different. The gridiron was wedged in a north-south direction from left field toward home plate with no room to spare.

The south end zone was cut off in one corner by the visitor's dugout, which was filled with pads for safety, and was only 8 yards deep instead of the regulation 10. One corner of the north end zone came almost right up against the left-field wall, another hazard for the players.

The locker room was hardly spacious for a baseball club let alone a football team. In that sense little has changed at Wrigley, although newer clubhouses have been constructed since the Bears moved out.

"We had 40-some players at that time so it wasn't quite as hard -- and five coaches," Ditka said. "It wasn't like you had a staff of 20."

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There's something comforting to Mike Veeck every time he goes to a baseball game in Chicago, whether it's on the North Side or South Side.

He feels a connection to his past, to his dad and grandfather.

"To be able to sit in the bleachers where your dad did something and where relationships that lasted more than a lifetime where forged, it's quite a feeling," Veeck said.

The Veeck family has strong ties on both sides of town, with his dad, Bill Veeck Jr., having owned the White Sox on two occasions after working for the Cubs, and his grandfather having served as president of the National League club.

As Wrigley Field turns 100, it's worth noting that the Veecks played big roles along with the Wrigleys in shaping the way the game was marketed and presented. Whether it was cleaning up the ballpark and creating a more family-friendly atmosphere or embracing the idea of broadcasting games on radio, they helped transform the fan experience.

Then there's the ivy. That was Bill Veeck Jr.'s idea.

He had it planted at the base of the new brick outfield walls in 1937, the same year the Cubs replaced the ground-level bleachers with elevated brick bleachers and installed the famed scoreboard above them.

"He worked for the Wrigley family, and there wasn't much that he and the Wrigleys could agree on after my grandfather died," Mike Veeck said. "The one thing they could really agree on was the horticultural display that now is arguably one of the most famous."

P.K. Wrigley "loved the vines, supported it, and Dad got a chance to install the scoreboard."

Bill Veeck Jr. went on to own the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns in addition to the White Sox, and Mike Veeck went to work for his father on the South Side in the 1970s.

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