When Wrigley Got Lights

What will a professional sports team owner do to score a publicly-funded stadium deal? Threatening to move out of town is a classic tactic. But how about holding out on a ballpark upgrade and getting sued by the team’s own shareholders? That’s less common.

Philip Wrigley, heir of the Wrigley gum fortune and then-president of the Chicago Cubs, found himself on the receiving end of this exact lawsuit in 1968. Cubs minority shareholders asked a state appellate court to force Wrigley to install stadium lights, claiming that his failure to do so was harming the team’s revenues compared to the rest of the league. With the exception of the Cubs, every MLB team increased ticket sales by scheduling night games. 

The shareholders claimed Wrigley failed to act in the best interests of the corporation. According to court records, Wrigley staunchly opposed the lights, “not because of interest in the welfare of the corporation but because of his personal opinions ‘that baseball is a daytime sport’ and that the [lights] would have a deteriorating effect upon the surrounding neighborhood.”

As the case unfolded, Wrigley admitted that “he would be willing for the team to play night games if a new stadium were built in Chicago.” In other words, Wrigley wasn’t totally opposed to nighttime baseball. After all, if the city offered to construct a new ballpark and it happened to have lights, no owner would turn down that deal. Although team owners have developed a number of strategies to win public stadium funding, including avoiding routine maintenance, forfeiting revenue by refusing to install lights is in a league of its own.

Wrigley won the battle, but lost the war. The court ruled in his favor, deciding that his business judgment was within the bounds of the law, and that judges should not interfere with the internal affairs of the corporation. They concluded that Wrigley’s refusal to follow the League’s trend towards night games didn’t rise to the level of “irreparable” harm to the shareholders.

Twenty years after the lawsuit, the Major League gave the Cubs an ultimatum: install lights or play postseason home games elsewhere. No longer owned by the Wrigley family, the Cubs management relented. The Cubs played Wrigley Field’s first night game in August 1988, a full 40 years after the only previous holdout—the Detroit Tigers—had started playing under lights.

Philip Wrigley never got his new stadium, but Chicago taxpayers and Cubs fans are better for it. The current owners did seek over $200 million from the city in 2010, but city and state officials refused due to budget constraints. Though the renovations received federal historic preservation tax credits, private funding covered the majority of costs—perhaps proving that the White Sox and Bears didn’t really need Chicago’s subsidies either.

This story shows that a city can keep its hometown team without caving to owners’ demands or jeopardizing its financial future with exorbitant subsidies. There’s more to be done to curb stadium subsidies, but Wrigley Field’s future is bright—in more ways than one.

Photo by Blake Guidry