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Wrigley Field greats still marvel at park

Updated: April 23, 2014 11:15PM

Andre Dawson believes Wrigley Field rejuvenated his career in 1987 and helped set him on a path to the Hall of Fame.

Dick Butkus cherishes Wrigley Field because it was the place where his pro football career was validated.

Countless others collected their own memories watching from the bleachers or the upper deck of a playground that turned 100 on Wednesday.

“It’s a field, just like when you’re a kid and you played on a field,” said another Cubs Hall of Famer, Billy Williams. “I left home [Whistler, Ala.] in 1956, and I didn’t know if I would make it to the major leagues. The chance to come to Wrigley Field, it was a joy.

“So many greats played here, and the history made here is still housed here.’’

Wednesday was about commemorating the centennial of the park named Weeghman Park when it opened. The party included appearances by past sports greats and a salute to the park’s first game, between the Chicago Federals and Kansas City Packers of the Federal League. The Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks wore throwback uniforms.

But the celebration was more about what has endured at Clark and Addison.

“The mystique is about how much the fans love the club and how other players love the city,” Dawson said. “There’s just something about it. The intimate angles, how close the fans are. You’d walk around and saw, ‘Wow.’ It had that unique character.”

South Side native Butkus didn’t get to Wrigley Field until his pro career started, but he delighted in seeing fans close enough to shower the Green Bay Packers with less than welcoming words.

“We had a locker room that was too small for a basketball team and the field tilted [for football dimensions] and they had to paint some of the grass. But to me, it meant I was a pro. And a pro could play anywhere.”

Williams feels intertwined with the park. His retired number flies on the right-field foul pole, and his likeness is in a statue outside the park.

“When you look at those two things, it connects me to Wrigley Field,” he said. “We were here for a long time, and it makes us intertwined with what’s going on today.”

Commissioner Bud Selig was on hand. He remembered his first visit to Wrigley Field as a kid coming from Milwaukee in May 1944.

Ex-Cub Ryan Dempster also was at the game, wearing his Boston Red Sox World Series ring from last season.

“I thought we had the teams that could do it [here],” he said of the 2007 and 2008 Cubs. “It just didn’t happen. That’s for a reason, but what that reason is I don’t know yet.’’

Kerry Wood, who pitched one of the greatest games ever, striking out 20 Houston Astros on May 6, 1998, was expected to attend but didn’t. Wood still works with the organization, a team spokesman said, but he couldn’t make it.

Those who did hugged the place with words.

“It’s hard to explain it, it really is,” Dempster said. “Everybody who ever puts on a major-league uniform should be so lucky to be able to put on a Chicago Cubs uniform and play at Wrigley Field. It’s that special.”

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