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Free Lunch

There is such a thing for sports reporters working at Wrigley Field. And when the lights go on, it's free dinner.



It's not meant to be a secret that major league baseball clubs feed the media every day of the season--it's just that most people don't know it. At least that's the opinion of Ed Quinn, the man in charge of the kitchen crew at Wrigley Field's pressroom. "It's not really something you'd publicize," Quinn muses. And "Writers probably don't go around saying 'Hey, I had a free lunch at Wrigley.'"

Quinn's previous experience in the restaurant business hadn't completely prepared him for work in the Wrigley press eatery. "The day I started here, I was looking for the cash register. I asked what we charge and was surprised to find out that this service is totally complimentary."

Like most major sports teams, the Cubs have been giving away food, and sometimes drink, to the press for years. Unlike most, however, they have been able to get by with free lunches, as opposed to dinners, until the lights went on last month. The first free dinner at Wrigley--carved roast beef, mashed potatoes, and vegetables--was served on August 22, before the third scheduled night game. (Anticipating a media onslaught, Cubs management went with boxed lunches for night games one and two.) Despite all the interest in trivia that surrounded those first few night games, no one paid much attention as Wrigley's streak of free lunches--surely one of the great records of sports history--became frozen in time. Perhaps that's because no one can remember when the first free lunch was served.

"I have no knowledge of that," said sportswriter Bill Gleason, whose newspaper career began in 1942 as a Chicago Sun copyboy. "It was probably almost from the time that organized baseball began. The owners desperately wanted free publicity and did whatever they could to make sure that writers came to the ballpark and wrote their daily stories. Back then, entertainment reporters were called critics. First, there were theater critics. Then, because a lot of people were talking about baseball, newspaper editors said why not have baseball critics. Today, legitimate theater has to buy big ads in the papers. Sports teams get it for free."

The Wrigley pressroom, which was called the Pink Poodle until it was painted white some years ago, "just isn't what it used to be," lamented Harry Caray. "No one goes there anymore. There was a time when you could go there after games and talk baseball. The managers, coaches, scouts, lots of people went there. But now, why they don't even serve beer!"

"For years," said Gleason, "writers and broadcasters went to the Pink Poodle after a game to have a drink or two." He recalled one memorable day in 1966, when "Leo Durocher was talking about this trade he'd just made with the Phillies. He was waving his arms and loudly proclaiming that center fielder Adolfo Phillips could run like a deer. He said though that he didn't know much about the pitcher. 'Sometimes he starts, sometimes he relieves. I don't know what I'll do with him,' Durocher said. Of course, he was talking about Ferguson Jenkins.

"When Dallas Green came in, the first thing he did was to put the Pink Poodle bartender in a regular concession stand," Gleason remembered. "Then there was no drinking after the games. Then there were open bottles and you had to serve yourself. Finally, this was stopped. It wasn't the press but the Cub employees who were abusing the liquor."

The now-dry pressroom is located on Wrigley's second floor, just past the reception area in the Cubs' executive offices. The place seats maybe 40. On a slow day, the Cubs feed about 100 people, three quarters of whom are media. When the club is hot, perhaps 200 people partake.

The Tribune Company bought me dinner before night game number five. I hadn't been in the room since last season, and I asked a fellow sitting at my table if the fancy menu board I'd noticed had been up all year or just since the evening cuisine began.

"Gee, I don't know," said WBBM radio reporter John Morales, looking up for a moment from the baked chicken breast on his plastic plate. "I'm always too busy homing in on the food to notice."

Morales abruptly dropped his plastic fork, stood, and dashed out the door. Soon he was back saying that he'd found out that Cubs management was rehiring the coaching staff for 1989. While devouring the first of two helpings and monitoring WBBM newscasts on an earphone, he boasted that the news was on the air eight minutes after he'd called the desk. Marty Rodick, an out-of-town radio reporter who attends sports events around the country and sends reports to a westcoast network, spoke authoritatively on the subject of free food. "If you invite somebody to your house, youre going to offer them a drink, right? You're not obligated to offer 'em a drink, but it's a courtesy. "There's only one pro team I know of that doesn't feed the media," he said. "The Philadelphia 76ers. Their public relations man says they're not obligated. The owner figures that this saves him $18,000 a year. The city was so embarrassed that they put out potato chips and pop for us. That gives me a bad attitude about Philadelphia. Here are the people sending out the message. We glorify them. And they won't even put out something to make our job a little easier. Sad.

"What I like about the Cubs is the variety of salads," said Rodick. "Many pressrooms don't have salad bars. Seattle must have the worst food in the history of sports. People actually wait on you at Dodger Stadium. They bring you drinks and dessert. The best food in baseball though is at Comiskey Park. That's a classy dining room. They even have cloth napkins."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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