A Chicago Tradition, Rich Paschall, Sunday Night Blog
If you watched the National League baseball playoff games, or the World Series, you may have noticed many Chicago Cubs fans with white flags. No, they were not trying to signal surrender. The flags have a large blue “W” in the center, signifying a Win for our local heroes. With a little clever marketing and the help of social media, #FlytheW began to appear everywhere. Cubs fans were buying up these flags for their houses, their cars and to take to the ballpark. While it was only a minor thing in recent years, it has exploded into a giant marketing gimmick this year.
It is not something new to the guys who run the old mechanical scoreboard in center field. Yes, the big metal board is still out there and an iconic part of the ballpark. No modern digital board can replace it, although we have added those during the recent outfield renovation.
Soon after the old scoreboard was finished in 1937, the team adopted the practice of flying a flag after the game to signal whether the team won or not. A blue flag with a white “L” would signify a loss. There were important reasons for these flags.
Before the era of hand held devices with sports apps, before even the transistor radio, a main way for fans to learn the outcome of the game, was to look up at the scoreboard. If you did not catch the game on the radio or find the score in the afternoon papers, the Daily News or the Chicago American, you could see the result flying from above Wrigley Field. Before television, and before the internet, you might want to know what color flag was raised after the game of the day (no night games for us until 1988).
I am not sure exactly when I was lucky enough to own a transistor radio, but before that it could be hard for us to run down the result of the game. We lived close enough to the park to ride our bikes to the field to see the flags. People going home on the Howard-Englewood “L” train (now the Red Line) could look west from the Addison stop to see if the team had a victory. It was important way to spread the news to the North Siders.
For most years of my young life we were more likely to find the “L” flying over the park. Whether we were in the park or just hanging around outside, it was a rare day when we saw the white flag go up. With every blue flag came the belief that tomorrow, or at least next year, we would begin to see the “W” more often.
If the need to signal the neighborhood with the outcome of the game has long passed, the tradition of flying the flag remains. When the game is over, all the little pennants with the National League team names on them are taken down and the “L” or the “W” rises. On double header days, you might find both flying at the end of the games. Double headers, of course, are now a rare occasion.
This year we have been treated to many Wins in the “Friendly Confines,” as former MVP Ernie Banks used to call the park. Local flag makers had trouble keeping up with the surprising demand for W flags big and small. We have taken a long standing practice at the park and turned it a national phenomenon for our national pastime.
Longtime Chicago broadcaster Harry Caray (11 years with the White Sox, 16 years with the Cubs), hoped to see that “W” over a World Series. He did not live to see it, but he promised us it would happen. He died at the age of 83 or around that (another story) and saw many flags fly over the park, but not the most important one. A statue of Caray is now outside the park.
Some years, he was much more popular than the “loveable losers” the Cubs had on the field. It seemed unfair he missed out, so a long time sponsor arranged for the flag and Harry to make to Cleveland for the final call. You can fly the “W” now, Harry. We finally made it.