After 71 years of harmony and profitability, the longest marriage in televised baseball history is officially dead. The Chicago Cubs and their broadcast partner, WGN, have severed ties.
To paraphrase sportswriter supreme, Jim Murray, we all just became ten years older. Our youth has fled.
The Cubs were first seen on WGN on April 23, 1948, and through some choppy ownership changes, that is pretty much where they have been ever since.
But the final curtain fell on Friday, September 27th as the Cubs defeated the Cardinals 8-2 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. For once, a Cub win was a somber moment.
Cy Young Award winner and beloved former Cub broadcaster, Steve Stone, said it all: “For as long as I have been alive, WGN has been showing Cubs baseball…it’s something that’s hard to grasp, actually.”
Much ado about syrupy baseball nostalgia? Just another serving of media schmaltz?
Not really. While MLB’s niche in our cultural landscape has been firmly enshrined — “it’s our game, the American game,” Walt Whitman astutely pronounced generations ago — this story isn’t a fresh update on Frank Merriwell. This story is about the dissolution of a partnership that produced one of the most successful marketing campaigns ever waged.
Name another professional sports team that has lost, at times spectacularly, for 108 consecutive years and still managed to attract a deeply entrenched national fan base.
Not that the on-field product has been completely without talent — Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Hack Wilson and managers like Leo Durocher were all iconic performers. And the recent close, but ultimately disastrous, finishes, particularly in 1969, 1984 and 2003, were heart-stopping seasons.
But, as George Will once pointed out, following the Cubs has been, for the most part, akin to watching the Karamazov family at play.
The one redeeming constant has been Wrigley Field, a honey of an historic ballpark that is the most telegenic field in the majors. Truth be told, however, that grand old dame frayed over time — restrooms that failed en masse, concrete grandstand tiles collapsed like unguided missiles and the city uncomfortably contemplated condemnation.
So, in a gradually decaying picturesque setting, how does one turn uneven, mostly unimpressive, rosters into a group of “lovable losers?” And what kind of shelf life does this appeal have?
Don’t underestimate the role that WGN played — first on radio and then on cable television — in the myth making. The professionals behind the scenes and the voices on the microphones were extraordinary talents, who season after season, transformed mediocrity into engaging viewing.
The on air talent WGN employed included three broadcasting Hall of Famers: Bob Elson, Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray. Steve Stone provided Hall-worthy color commentary, while Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau were featured on radio.
This is an array of solid announcers, perhaps not as eloquent or erudite as the Dodgers’ Vin Scully, but in their own way, all were powerful storytellers who understood the game from the viewpoint of the fan — “heaven lies just past the turnstiles,” is the way baseball historian John Thom characterized that viewpoint. Harry Caray said it simply, “people feel like they’re our friends and we come into their homes and share the game with them.”
Cub ownership — the Wrigley family — early on understood these marketing dynamics (no surprise, they foresaw the potential of chewing gum before others did). From 1916 when William Wrigley, Jr. began purchasing the Cubs, advanced promotion was on his mind.
When the television era dawned, baseball owners were reluctant to show home games for fear of hurting the turnout at the park. Not the Wrigleys. “Like his dad, who recognized what radio could do as a promotional tool, Phil Wrigley did the same in television,” Jack Brickhouse said.
Phillies owner, Bob Carpenter, paid Wrigley the ultimate compliment in 1965: “Phil Wrigley has done a better job of selling baseball on TV than anyone in the majors.”
Eventually, in the 1980’s, the Cubs went nationwide on cable television, and broadcasts by Caray and Stone created a national brand that to this day makes the corner of Clark and Addison in Chicago a must-see destination.
“TV was manna from above…it’s made Chicago the best baseball town in the country, “Jack Brickhouse concluded.
The Chicago Cubs and WGN — what a ride, but now it’s time to change channels.