In 39 years, Cubs fans have seen big-league jump in Opening Day prices

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It used to be when you went to Wrigley Field, the team wasn't very good -- but the food was even worse.

At least you got what you paid for. "Lunch well -- and economically," the Cubs used to proclaim above the concessions menu on their cardboard scorecard. That was only half truth in advertising. Economical it was.

Such is the story of 40 consecutive Opening Days I have attended at Wrigley Field, continuing today. The first, on April 6, 1971, saw Cubs' Fergie Jenkins and the Cardinals' Bob Gibson duel to a 1-1 standstill into the bottom of the 10th before sweet-swinging Billy Williams broke it up against Gibson with a home into the right-field bleachers.


And get this: None of these 1971 greats had yet passed the $100,000 salary barrier.
And so, concession and ticket prices reflected that different economic reality. Now a fan empties his wallet or inflates his credit-card bill when he queues up for vittles and spirits at 96-year-old Wrigley Field. Someone has to foot the bill for $18 million-a-year players batting .228.

In 1971, the only two Wrigley concession items deemed worthy of purchase were the tasty Borden's "frosty malts" chocolate desserts at 25 cents and small grilled sausages called "smokie links" at 45 cents. A portable cart down the right-field line in the grandstand cooked some of the links. Their descendants, offered by Levy Restaurants, Wrigley's concessionaire, are now $3.50 for a malt cup and $4.75 for an Italian sausage.

The loser in this pocket book ball game? The fans. Adjusted for inflation, those same treats should cost $1.32 and $2.38 respectively.

At least the quality of the food at Wrigley has improved over 40 years. In 1971, bleacher fans said cynically that the ballpark hot dogs tasted like they were "boiled in toilet water." Legend had the beer being watered down, and resembling "panther pee" (the Bleacher Bums used a more colorful term). And the slices of "Pro's Pizza," provided by a company started by Cubs star Ron Santo, were supposedly so mediocre the cardboard box in which they came tasted better.

Other ballpark staples -- if you dared eat them -- of 1971 are still offered today. The 40-cent hot dog is now $4.25. A 60-cent Vienna corned beef sandwich is now a "Chef Carved Sandwich" at $9. The 50-cent hamburger has inflated to $6.25, a 45-cent brat is $4.75, and a 45-cent barbecued beef sandwich has now morphed into a $6.50 barbecued pulled pork sandwich. The 25-cent French fries are now $3.75. Meanwhile, a 35-cent ham sandwich has been transformed into a $6.75 sub sandwich. Pro's Pizza, 40 cents for a slice of cheese and 50 cents for sausage, is now a standard $4.50 for either, minus the cardboard. Bags of peanuts, once 15 cents and 25 cents, are now $3.75. The 15-cent popcorn has zoomed to $4.

All beverages have dramatically skyrocketed in cost. The 15-cent coffee is now $3. That might sound cheap compared to Starbucks, but the inflation adjusted price for 1971's cup of Joe would be 79 cents today. Coke and Fresca, coming in two sizes --15 cents and 25 cents -- are now $3.75 for a medium cup, the same price for a lemonade that once was 25 cents. A 55-cent cup of Heileman's Old Style beer is now $6.25.

What's more, apparel on sale at the ballpark also is subject to sticker shock. The $1.50 and $2 baseball caps are now $35 for an "official" cap, a 350% price jump when adjusted for inflation. (Others, described as "adjustable and fitted" by Levy, now cost $15 to $35). Cubs T-shirts selling for $2 are now divided into an $18 to $35 range for youths and $20 to $59 for adults. Cubs sweatshirts were $3 for kids and $3.50 for adults, but now they come with hoods for $49 for kids and $56 for adults. And the Cubs jacket, then $9.50 kids and $12 for adults, now is offered for between $39 and $79 for kids and $75 and $129 for adults.

Yet despite the dramatic rise in concession prices, they still don't compare with ticket-cost inflation.

The $1.75 I paid for a grandstand seat for the '71 opener now ranges from $14 to $36 for the most in-demand games against the Cardinals and White Sox. I also sat frequently in $1 bleachers, which gradually increased in price in 25-cent increments throughout the 1970s. The bleachers, probably the most popular seats of any ballpark, range from $22 for weekday games in April, May and September to $54 for the in-demand contests. Box seats were a uniform $3.50 in 1971, but now have different pricing tiers based on date and location. Prime box seats in the infield range up to $100 for the best games. The very top pricing is $315 for a "dugout box" next to the field.

And a fan from 40 years back might also mourn a number of junk-food items that have gone the way of the passenger pigeon. Cheese sandwiches, milk, orange soda and taffy applies, all 25 cents, are no longer available. Neither is Schlitz, the beer that made Milwaukee famous and provided entertainment when Cubs manager Leo Durocher implored a colleague to "have another Slitz" in a 1969-vintage TV spot.

And kids can no longer get a 75-cent autographed team photo or $2 plastic batting helmet. Baseball, after all, has become much more than a national pastime since 1971. It is now big business.

George Castle is host of the baseball-nostalgia radio talk show "Diamond Gems."

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