Murphy's Bleachers Overlooking Wrigley Field
Just beyond the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, few places are anywhere near as well known as Murphy's Bleachers. Thanks to the vision of Jim Murphy, Murphy's Bleachers became nationally known as THE place to go before and after Cub games for fans and players alike, especially those with bleacher tickets. Jim's transformation of the bar from a beer-in-a-pail joint to a beer garden extraordinaire. As such, Murphy's Bleachers provides the ideal surroundings to commiserate after Cub losses, enjoy a couple (or eight) Old Styles straight from the can, leer through beer goggles at the opposite sex, and to chide fans of the opposition as they make their way back to the buses that brought them here. While things quiet down after baseball season, Murphy's continues to provide neighborhood types with a great place to hang out and watch the Bulls, Bears, Blackhawks, and Wolves, and to dream of summer and anticipate "next year" when the Cubs are sure to win it all.
Murphy's Bleachers is located across the street from the entrance to the Wrigley Field bleacher section, at the corner of Sheffield and Waveland Avenues. The saloon, not to be confused with other Lakeview bars like Monsignor Murphy's or the now-defunct Gunther Murphy's, is a figurative anchor to Wrigleyville as, beyond this point, you won't find any more sports bars until you reach Michael's on Broadway. Jim Murphy purchased the bar in 1980 and applied his namesake to it. Previously, the place was a dive bar known as "Ray's Bleacher's," which was opened by Ray Meyer in 1965 and became renowned as the ancestral home of the original "Bleacher Bums" who mysteriously surfaced during the Cub's race for the pennant in 1969 and disappeared the next year when the Cubs tanked early. Prior to that, the establishment was known for a short time as "JB's Bleachers," and a drive up hot dog stand-turned-tavern named "Ernie's Bleacher's" that sold beer by the pail in the 1930's—ah, the good old days.
"What used to be an atmosphere that you could describe as scrapyard garage, now has been remodeled to what I would describe as war-zone utilitarian. Murphy put in brick floors, indestructible walls, and did his remodeling work in materials such as stainless steel and cement. You must understand that, when the bleachers empty, a place that sells beer a dozen steps across the street suffers an invasion similar to that suffered by many small villages when Attila the Hun had heartburn."
– Dennis McCarthy, The Great Chicago Bar & Saloon Guide (1985)
To find the place on game days, just close your eyes and walk towards the loudest sound you hear, which will undoubtedly be the din coming from the beer garden at Murphy's (and not from across the street). Otherwise, just keep your eye out for a one-story building with a red brick facade with forest green awning, dominated by a large green sign depicting the bar's logo and baseball players in brass and copper relief. The original wooden Murphy's sign has since been moved around the side, just over the metal shutter entrance to the side beer garden. During busy times, you'll need to have your ID ready as the bouncers will card you as you navigate around those milling about in the street, between the blue-painted Chicago PD sawhorse crowd barriers, and through the horde barely held back from spilling into the street by a small picket fence that forms the beer garden perimeter. In warmer times, the front section of the beer garden is the most popular spot to congregate as you are sure to find immense enjoyment from fans entering the game, many of which are already loaded or well on their way, and it's a good place to try to spot the 15 people you're meant to meet up with. The only seating to be found here is on the stoop of the building next door, whose first floor is part of the bar itself even though people live upstairs (which must be rather unpleasant for the tenants during the 18 Cubs home night games).
If the front beer garden is too crowded, which it inevitably will be, you can either try to plow through the crowd and into the main bar or you can skirt around the side and enter via the northern beer garden portal. In winter, just stroll through the front door and you'll not likely have to navigate around anyone. Once inside Murphy's Bleachers, you'll find a long room with exposed brick walls, a red clay-tile floor, old-fashioned ceiling fans, a miniature replica of Wrigley Field, and a worn wooden bar that runs along the south wall. Here, Cub fans pile up to place their beer orders in summer and regulars pull up a stool to watch the TV in winter. The area behind the bar features a brass spittoon used for tips and a giant, ancient wooden cash register that looks like it was pulled from Marshall Field's when they originally opened in 1907. The rest of the main bar is choc-a-block with neon beer signs, inflatable beer paraphernalia, incongruous stone lion bass relief, and features absolutely nowhere to sit during summer. Come in, place your order (if you're fortunate enough to attract the attention of one of the barkeeps), drink your beer, and then get the hell out is the order of the day.
As you make your way towards the john and past the middle bar with its walkup cooler, you may notice a small brick staircase with black wrought iron railings (hold on!). This will take you up to a relatively unknown upper room with a wooden floor and white cement ceiling that is actually the first floor of the building next door. This area features a small wooden bar, autographed Randy Myers and Mark Grace jerseys mounted in plexiglass cases on the wall, a large sign that ticks down the days until opening day like they have over at Yak-zies on Clark, two wooden cocktail tables, a wall that sports old Cubs team photos (including the World Champion 1907 and 1908 Cub teams), and a fireplace to warm your bones from October until June (literally). If the mood strikes, this is a good place to work on your laptop as Murphy's offers internet access.
Beyond the stairs to the upper room are the bathrooms, which inevitably feature very long lines. These prove to be so woefully inadequate when the Cubs are in town, that two port-a-potties can be found outside, in the back and under the El. The lines here aren't that much shorter and you have to leave your beer behind as the piss houses are actually located on City of Chicago property. Otherwise you'll be spending the night at the Addison and Halsted police station. A window to the kitchen can be found around the corner from the toilets, next to a stone griffin-like creature holding a shield mounted upon the wall and a framed Brian McRae jersey (why?), and across from the inevitable Golden Tee machine. Just as a side note, it may be amusing for you to know that many Cub fans may have never actually stepped foot inside Murphy's even if they have been there a dozen times. This is a testament to how popular the beer garden is. Personally, it was several years before I stepped inside, and that was to hit the can, and it was even longer before I visited when the Cubs weren't playing that day.
An additional, rather elegant wooden bar that was imported from Ireland can be found all the way in the back at Murphy's Bleachers in summer. This area is closed in winter because it actually lies under a plastic roof that was part of a 1982 extension of the rear structure of the bar. During Cub games, this is a great place to belly up for a beer as well as to get yourself a burger, hot dog, chicken sandwich or brat from the kitchen located opposite (soup and chili are available on colder days). For less discriminating tastes, the hot dogs are the next best thing to those found at Wrigley, especially if you can't afford bleacher tickets which are often scalped for $60 to $100 apiece ($20 face value) – particularly since the Chicago Tribune has started to sell Cubs tickets directly to a subsidiary, which then resells the tickets as a scalper for much more than face value. It is similar thinking that I believe keeps the Cubs from being a winning organization.
Anyhow, a lesser known beer garden can be found to the right of the back bar. Here, you have a better chance of getting a seat at one of the circular metal hot dog stand-style tables, but they don't have any televisions in this area so won't be able to watch the game. There is yet another bar located just beyond this open area, which offers a few barstools and a solitary TV that may or may not be working. All in all, I must say that, while Murphy's is a great place to go before and after Cub games, actually watching the Cubs game here is not recommended. There is a shockingly low number of televisions throughout the bar and it is not uncommon to see other games being broadcast on other channels. In addition, there is not a single TV located in the front or side beer gardens. While other Chicago saloons, and those not even proclaiming to be sports bars, often have several televisions including a couple outside in their beer gardens, they are conspicuously absent at Murphy's. Perhaps the management would just like us to drink our beers there and just shut up.
In my opinion, the best place to hang at Murphy's is in the side beer garden. Here, you've got a few metal patio tables and chairs (don't expect to find a seat there – ever), two elevated wooden side bars serving beer out of the can, easy access to the internal bathrooms and port-a-potties, an ATM, and wooden planters strategically placed around the perimeter to decorate the fencing-in of the local livestock. The rooftop beer garden directly over the bar might be the best place to be, but it only appears to be open for private parties and special events as it never seems to be open. In addition, Murphy's Bleachers offers rooftop seating. Originally opened in 1984, just in time for the playoffs with the San Diego Padres, the Murphy's rooftop was one of the first in the area and features an enclosed pavilion, bathrooms, two stairways, and a Comiskey Park scoreboard pinwheel that was donated by Chicago talk radio personality Steve Dahl (the blue and white lights of which were rearranged to form a Harry Caray memorial caricature in 1998). Wherever you congregate, be sure to have yourself a can of Old Style. Beer at Murphy's isn't cheap, priced at $4 a can for most domestics and $5 (?!?) for a can of Rolling Rock. However, during road games, you can often find $5.50 pitchers of Bud and Bud Light. Don't expect anything short of a fully inflated price during game days. Why? Because they can (no pun intended).
As one might expect, Murphy's attracts both die-hard and weekend Cub fans alike from the surrounding neighborhood, the suburbs and from Iowa – the latter of which are delivered to Wrigleyville on a caravan of coaches. No matter where they're from, they all share one thing in common: drunkenness. You'd be hard pressed to find as many people staggering around with half-lidded eyes on Cub game days (outside of Wrigley Field, of course). The crowd is predominantly 20's and early 30's but you'll find your fair share of middle-aged folk. Murphy's Bleachers has even been a favorite place after the game through the years for players, including Mark Grace, Rick Sutcliffe, Keith Moreland, Jody Davis, Randy Myers, and the late Bill Veeck, who was responsible for planting ivy on the outfield walls at Wrigley Field (Veeck was also the man behind sending a midget to the plate and the exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park). Murphy's has also played host to both ESPN and Kevin Matthews broadcasts. Most people hang out in groups at Murphy's but, with plenty of the social lubricant coursing through the veins, you'll find that the people there are pretty friendly and ready and willing to get into any baseball related conversations – particularly with fans of the opposition (of which Murphy's shamelessly panders to with banners, particularly lowly Cardinal and Brewers fans). The resulting atmosphere is that of a popular college bar, especially considering that the staff moves out all the furniture on game days and pulls down the memorabilia on the walls, reducing the bar into a bare-bones drinking den.
It was here at Murphy's that Kerry Wood and the Cubs battled valiantly against Roger Clemens and the loathsome Yankees and their $160M payroll, in an attempt to prevent Clemens from his 300th victory on June 7, 2003. This was the first meeting of the two teams since the 1938 World Series. On this day, the place was jammed with obnoxious New Yorkers (I know, an oxymoron) who couldn't believe that there could be a place as cool as Chicago outside of the Big Apple. Many of these same yahoos cheered when Hee Sop Choi got knocked out after falling to the ground and hitting the back of his head following a collision with Kerry Wood as he tried to catch a high infield fly. On a brighter note, Hee Sop recovered (later at Illinois Masonic Hospital) and miraculously held onto the ball even after he lost consciousness. In addition, I met a guy from Portland, Maine, wearing a Red Sox jersey. We bonded in our disdain of the Yankees and, more importantly, of Yankee fans. My friends and I wrapped up the afternoon by celebrating a Cubs victory, thanks to the stellar pitching performance of Kerry Wood and Eric Karros's three-run homer against Juan Acevedo (who was released the next week), by having a photographer from the Chicago Tribune come out to photograph the five of us, as we were posturing to become the Red Eye beer garden reviewers known as, "The Beer Gardeners," at the time. You know, the usual. Sadly, we didn't get the gig but the adventures in beer gardening continue unabated. As the five of us were standing around, two Yankee fans walked straight through our group. After a cursory, "Excuse me,"—an extremely rare event for any New Yorker—I replied that, as long as they were leaving, they were more than welcome to pass.
"I don't think we're here to make SportsCenter. The really good stuff never does. Like leaving Wrigley at 4:15 on a perfect summer afternoon and walking straight into Murphy's with half of Section 503."
– Rick Reilly from his April 12, 1999 article, "Funny You Should Ask" in Sports Illustrated, as part of his response to his son's question, "Dad, why are we here?"
For all of this, you can thank Jim Murphy. Or rather, you can have a beer to his memory. On January 28, 2003, Jim lost the battle against liver cancer at the age of 54. While he was too young to go, he had a full life. Prior to being one of the most notable bar owners of the city and President of both the East Lake View Neighbors community organization and Wrigleyville Rooftop Association, Jim was a Northern Illinois University graduate and former Chicago police officer. Through continual renovations to Murphy's Bleachers and investment in the neighborhood, Jim Murphy helped transform the area from a gang-ridden, drug-infested hole into an area that you feel safe at night and aren't afraid to take your kids for a Cubs game. Many disagreed with his lead in battling the Chicago Tribune over Cub night games in the 80's and bleacher expansion in the early 00's, but at least he was able to create a forum for those in the neighborhood to be heard. "He was a very warm-hearted, giving human being who wanted everybody to be happy and have a good time," commented Mark Grace after Jim's death. Because of his accomplishments in life, the City of Chicago renamed the section of Waveland Avenue that runs past Wrigley Field "Honorable Jim Murphy Way" on April 14, 2003.
"The Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde of bars. a Mild-mannered tavern much of the year becomes a monstrous beast when the Cubs play at home."
– The Official Chicago Bar Guide (1994)
Today, Murphy's Bleachers continues to be one of the primo destinations for any Cub fan and those looking for action after games. While many dislike what often becomes the so-packed-you-can't-get-a-beer throb of humanity, the practice of selling rooftop tickets, the ticket scalping permitted inside the bar, and the occasional fisticuffs, Murphy's can still be a great place to just pause and take in the many things that make this city great, particularly in the summer: the Cubs, Wrigley Field, Old Style, hot dogs, the El, midriffs, and chatting with current and former Cubbies. Opening Day at Murphy's in particular is a tradition for any true Cub fan, no matter how f****** cold it is in April. If you're up for Murphy's but find that it's just too damned crowded, be sure to check out the beer garden action at Bernie's (across from Wrigley Field on Clark Street), Yak-zies on Clark (just north of Bernie's), or Goose Island Wrigleyville (on Clark, south of Addison). For more information, pictures, a catalog of Murphy's merchandise, and a memorial to Jim Murphy, check out the Murphy's Bleachers website. Atta boy, Jim.