Wrigley's Scoreboard Peers Into Baseball's Past

Monday, June 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) — For a generation of baseball fans accustomed to scoreboards that explode, flash and show Technicolor replays, Wrigley Field's green hand-changed beauty is almost mystical.

It looms over center field just as it has since the day it went up in 1937, green panes opening and closing with every hit, run and inning's end. Occasionally, someone's head pops through a pane. For the most part, though, the manual operation occurs behind walls of steel, a magical remnant of baseball's past.

``There's always been a big mystique about the scoreboard. Everybody wants to know what's back here,'' said Fred Washington, part of the three-man crew that works the scoreboard.

``There's no trickery to it. It's just a hand-changed scoreboard. Three guys come up and do a day's work.''

There are only a handful of manual scoreboards left in the majors. Wrigley and Fenway Park, the two oldest parks, have them. So do some of the newer ``retro'' parks, like The Ballpark in Arlington and Houston's Enron Field.

And when Bill DeWitt Jr. and his partners bought the Cardinals in 1996, they put a manual scoreboard in Busch Stadium.

``I like the old ones myself,'' said Brian Helmus, the ``chairman of the board'' as the senior member of the Wrigley crew.

``Some people like the exploding scoreboards and they like to see the replays. Everybody here loves the old scoreboard. At least that's what all the fans say.''

Work begins long before the game. There are more than 300 panes in the scoreboard, divided among six NL games and six AL games, showing team names, pitchers' numbers, the score by inning and the final scores.

Only the numbers for the batter, strikes, balls and outs are electronic — and even saying that is somewhat of a stretch. The numbers are eyelets, small pieces of metal that flip open and closed, filling the scoreboard with a loud, clacking sound.

On game days, the crew splits the board in three. Helmus runs the second and third floors, keeping track of four AL and four NL games. A printer on the second floor spits out the running scores around the league — as well as whatever else is going on in the world of sports.

He's been doing this so long he can tell just by the sound whether the box coming over the printer is for a baseball or NBA game. He can even hear the difference between minor and major league games.

Down on the first floor, Washington is responsible for the score of the Cubs game and the NL game above it. Darryl Wilson changes the hits and the two AL games on the bottom of the board.

Just before the game begins, Washington removes three panes in the middle of the scoreboard so he and Wilson can see the game. If there aren't any other games, Helmus wanders down to lend a hand.

Watching the game from the panes is kind of like looking through a child's ViewMaster. Everything but the outfield looks small and far away. A radio on the table behind their seats is tuned to the game for backup, but the crew still manages to keep pretty good track on its own.

When a line drive rocketed toward deep left field on a recent windy afternoon, nobody even stirred.

``Any other day, that's gone,'' Helmus said just as Dave Martinez caught the ball at the wall. Washington nodded.

The crew has worked together so long — Helmus has been in the scoreboard since 1990 and the other two followed a year later — they quickly settle into a rhythm. Whenever they hear the crack of a bat, they lean forward in their chairs.

If it's a hit, Helmus — Wilson is out sick this afternoon — gets up and changes the plate. If a run scores, Washington rises, finds a plate with a yellow number, puts it in place and secures it with the turn of a latch.

The steel plates that fill the panes vary in shapes and sizes. The ones used for runs and hits weigh three pounds and are about 2 feet high by 1 1/2 feet wide; the plates for the team names weigh 10 pounds and are about 2 feet high by 4 feet wide.

When the inning ends, Washington gets up again. If no runs were scored, he simply turns the blank pane already in place so the ''0'' on the other side shows. If runs were scored, he takes out the pane with the yellow number and replaces it with a white-numbered pane.

``It's very primitive up here,'' Washington said. ``But it's an awful lot of fun.''

When there's downtime, the crew watches the bleacher crowd out the windows. They can spot the regulars, like Marv who always sits in the top row of the middle section. Or Carmella, who's got to be in her 90s by now but rarely misses a day.

``Everybody is always offering drinks, money, their girlfriends to come up here,'' Washington said laughing.

When the last out is called, Washington puts up the final and heads to the roof to raise the win-loss flag — a white flag with a blue ``W'' for a Cubs win, a blue flag with a white ``L'' for a loss. He also turns on a light that fans can see from the nearby train, blue for a victory, yellow for a loss.

After the day's games are cleared and the scoreboard is blank again, Washington locks up and goes down the bleacher stairs.

``It's pretty neat. You've got a nice seat and you don't miss any of the action,'' Helmus said. ``I couldn't possibly see them changing it.''