The Chicago Cubs, a Major League Baseball franchise that’s played 101 seasons since its last championship, is teaming up with Toyota Motor Corp., the automaker facing more than 200 lawsuits.
The partnership between the world’s biggest carmaker, which recalled more than 8 million vehicles since last year, and the team legendary for its inability to win another World Series, gained the backing yesterday of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.
While the panel approved a Toyota sign to go atop Wrigley Field’s left-field bleachers, local political tradition may put the brakes on the Cubs and the automaker’s plans. Chicago aldermen defer to each other on zoning matters, and Tom Tunney, who represents the city’s Wrigleyville community, opposes the nearly 60-foot tall advertisement.
“It is not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood,” Tunney told the landmarks commission. He urged the Cubs’ new owners, led by Incapital LLC chairman Thomas S. Ricketts, to “step back” and consider developing a master plan for ballpark signage rather than a piecemeal approach.
Ricketts brought along Baseball Hall of Fame member Ernie Banks, known as Mr. Cub, to make the case that the sign is a key to winning a title while maintaining the viability of the team’s 96-year-old home.
“It’s more than just a sign to us,” said Ricketts, who led an ownership group that acquired the team and Wrigley Field last year from Chicago real estate magnate Sam Zell for about $900 million. “It’s a multimillion-dollar revenue opportunity.”
The Cubs haven’t won a championship since 1908 and haven’t appeared in the World Series since 1945. Toyota is coping with more recent history.
The automaker last year began recalling some of its Toyota and Lexus models after receiving reports of unintended vehicle acceleration resulting in accidents. Last month, the company agreed to pay a record $16.4 million fine, levied by the U.S. Transportation Department, following a federal investigation into the pace of the company’s defect disclosures and recalls.
Toyota at the same time recalled its Lexus GX 460 sport utility vehicle after the U.S.-based Consumer Reports magazine said it could roll over in certain driving conditions. The company, which has been named in more than 200 lawsuits, has denied wrongdoing.
“We consider it a privilege to have such a visible presence at Wrigley Field,” Detroit-based Toyota spokesman Curt McAllister said in a phone interview.
The ballpark, built in 1914, is the second oldest in the major leagues, next to Boston’s Fenway Park. With a seating capacity of 41,160, Wrigley last year drew more than 3 million fans.
Chicago gave the privately owned structure landmark status in 2004.
More than 100 people packed a City Hall meeting room for yesterday’s landmarks hearing. Purists criticized the plan.
“There’s nothing nostalgic about encouraging me to buy a Toyota,” said Matt Garard, 24, who is studying comedy at Chicago’s Second City improv school and theater. “If I want to buy a Toyota, I know where to get one.”
Ricketts told the panel his ownership group had invested $10 million in stadium repairs and upkeep between the end of the 2009 season and the start of the current campaign.
Tunney, after the hearing, said the 360-square foot area of the sign mandates that its addition to the park be reviewed by the City Council’s subcommittee on buildings and then the entire 50-member body.
Cubs General Counsel Michael Lufrano questioned whether the council’s review was required.
Ricketts dismissed Tunney’s suggestion that a more comprehensive plan was needed. The sign, which will stand 16 feet above the top of the bleacher seats, will likely be the only one erected in the outfield, Ricketts said.
The ballpark has long attracted litigation, including a fight over the installation of lights that ended in 1988. In 2004, the team settled with property owners along bordering Sheffield and Waveland avenues who charge admission for fans to watch games from rooftop bleachers.
Under that 20-year accord, the building owners are to remit 17 percent of their revenue to the ballclub. Ricketts told the landmarks panel that the sign was sited to not obstruct those views.
Though many who attended the hearing voiced support for the Toyota ad, Cub fans such as Garard lamented the further commercialization of Wrigley.
“This sign will mark the beginning of the end of the integrity of our ballpark,” he said.
To reach the reporter on this story: Andrew M. Harris in Chicago at +1-312-443-5926 or firstname.lastname@example.org.