Chicago Baseball History
By George Castle
Better late than never.
For too many years the White Sox radio home has been signal-constricted, on directional-east-at-night AM-1000 whether named WCFL or WMVP, on degraded WLS or at the nadir, the network of low-wattage suburban AM stations (WTAQ La Grange) and an Evanston FM outlet in 1971-72.
Only the team’s varying tenures on AM 670, be it WMAQ or The Score, offered a night-time skywave in all directions. But the announcement of their move to WGN-Radio on 720 AM is the best radio deal the South Siders could have come up with in the 21st century.
To be sure, the 720 frequency is not quite the blowtorch 50,000-watt clear channel of Franklyn MacCormack’s “Meister Brau Showcase,” John Mallow’s “Music Unlimited” or Jack Taylor’s “Music for Squares” of mid-20th century. A Las Vegas station also operates on 720. The signal is still far better than the after-dark radiation on 890 AM of WLS, the station that kicked the Sox off its airwaves. Only 40 miles north of its Tinley Park, Ill. transmitter, right by Interstate 80, WLS fades just enough to allow its 890 frequency to permit reception of all-news WCBS, at 880 AM, out of New York — formerly impossible in WLS’ “Rock of Chicago” era
Better yet, WGN still has a panache from its No. 1-rated heyday, when only the half-hour “It’s Milking Time” farm show with Orion Samuelson and Bill Mason separated MacCormack’s 5:30 a.m. signoff from the 6 a.m. start of Wally Phillips’ all-time popular drive-time show. WGN may forever be associated with the Cubs, its meal-ticket programming most of the time from 1958 to 2014, when Theo Epstein’s rebuilding program hit hard at ratings and ad cash flow. Many critics laugh at WGN bailing out just before the Cubs surged upward — but all North Siders’ broadcast outlets took a ratings and revenue beating going through 2014. Both Tribune Co. suits in the early 1990s and later Cubs president Andy MacPhail new the team’s broadcast outlets, under common ownership with the team, would be hurt by a complete rebuilding program, and opted not to engage in the teardowns.
Radio color man Darrin Jackson returns to the outlet that broadcast his early Cubs career in the 1980s. He’ll surely offer a different sound than Harry Caray doing the middle three innings.
The Sox and WLS were an ill-fit, anyway. Parent Cumulus Broadcasting’s bankruptcy put the rights deal out of its misery. The station’s legendary background was Top 40, incompatible with baseball. That yielded to all-talk in 1989 without a big news or sports base. WLS did not hold the rights to a major Chicago sports team since the 1930s. Listeners were not attuned, so to speak, for sports on the (less) Big 890.
The Sox on WGN, AM-720? Far stranger things have taken place as the internet, in which consumers expect free content — often un-vetted — anytime, anywhere, on any device small and smaller, has roiled all forms of media. Programming, formats and familiar, big-name personalities and managements have been coldly sacked. Strange bedfellows have popped up.
Even with right-wing Sinclair Broadcasting closing in to assume ownership of all Tribune Broadcasting properties, WGN still has the format base to boost the Sox. News-talk programming without a political bent can feature Sox personalities and coverage outside the play-by-play. The station will feature a year-round Sox show. Cross promotion and piggybacking is possible with Blackhawks and Northwestern play-by-play.
The Sox are part of WGN’s ancient history anyway. The station carried games in Bob Elson’s prime from 1927 to 1943, when commitments to the Mutual Broadcasting System’s afternoon bloc of children’s programs prompted WGN to drop play-by-play. The Sox moved to WJJD, with Jack Brickhouse filling in for an Elson absent due to World War II. Elson returned as Sox broadcasts first were aired on a combination of smaller stations, then for a long tenure on WCFL and its nighttime directional signal that could not be heard in DeKalb. Meanwhile, the Cubs went to WIND for a 14-run before returning to WGN for its memorable run.
Other Chicago teams have called WGN home. The Bears have had two different runs on the station. The Bulls’ first radio outlet in 1966 featured home games only with the familiar team of Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau at the mic. Hawks home games aired in the late 1960s, with a young Rich King producing, signing on for the second period at around 8:15 p.m. due to owner Arthur Wirtz’s paranoia about too much free exposure of the Chicago Stadium contests. College teams have cast their fortunes going back decades with WGN.
All kinds of new media have fractured the landscape. No one can predict what sports broadcasting will look like in the early 2020s, when the Cubs were projected to dip into a cash cow from their own TV network. Whoa, not so fast. Through the seeming chaos, baseball teams always make sure they still have a big-time, legacy AM radio outlet if possible. See the case of the St. Louis Cardinals, who partially owned a lower-wattage AM station before returning the broadcasts to their rightful home on KMOX, AM 1120, bigger proportionally in its market than WGN ever was in Chicago.
The concept will require some getting used to. But anyone other than the most media-disseminated Millennial knows his/her way to 720 on the AM dial. Any port in a storm — yet the Sox have safe harbor at WGN.
You can root as hard as possible for outfielder Peter Bourjos, possessing firm Chicago roots coursing through his veins, to make the Cubs in spring training.
Problem is, you can’t wish away the logjam of competition in front of him. And the likelihood of Bourjos continuing his wandering ways after being cast out of Angels (Los Angeles type) paradise remains.
A year after the White Sox seemed poised to bring Bourjos back to his family’s roots as at least a backup center fielder, the personable speedster signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs. At first glance, you’d figure Bourjos is a commodity the Cubs don’t have in abundance — a swift man on the basepaths who can come in for defense in the late innings.
Check the latter. The Cubs already have an under-utilized gifted gloveman in center in Albert Almora, patiently waiting his turn to claim a regular’s job while Joe Maddon experiments with others in the outfield.
Here’s Bourjos’ dilemma: the Cubs already need to thin the herd a bit in the outfield. Maddon is already five deep there.
Many armchair GMs wanted Kyle Schwarber traded for pitching in the off-season. Such a move was never likely to take place. Schwarber’s left-handed power bat is too appealing to just deal away. In a season where Schwarber had to fight for five months to push his average above the .200 Mendoza Line, he still slugged 30 homers. The only other home-grown Cub to accomplish that feat since Billy Williams was catcher Rick Wilkins, a one-hit wonder in 1993. Realizing the pressure was on, Schwarber worked like a madman in the off-season to shed excess weight and come in semi-svelte, better to have more mobility in left field since his catching days appear over.
If Maddon wants to spell Schwarber against lefty pitchers, he has switch hitters Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ to play left. Zobrist, pride of downstate Eureka, Ill., will have to outright retire to not get at least some playing time from old Tampa Bay patron Maddon. But the manager also knows Zobrist’s second-base opportunities are also diminished due to Javy Baez’s emergence as an elite defensive infielder.
Almora has more than earned the majority of starts in center, even if he is still weaker against right-handed pitchers. Maddon can always slide over Happ for starts against the tougher right-handers, but Almora is deserving to prove his worth against those pitchers, too. Jason Heyward is yet another center-field option.
Heyward’s overblown contract — Theo Epstein is a fallible man, after all — ensures him the majority of starts in right. Again, Zobrist and Happ can be used for right-handed switch-offs if Heyward continues his offensive flame-out and needs to sit against southpaws.
The outfield gets even more crowded if Maddon follows Cubs legend Randy Hundley’s advice and gives Willson Contreras, a potential big run producer, a break from catching with a few left-field starts against southpaws.
The only way Bourjos breaks through this logjam is through injury or slump. A surprise 24-homer producer in 2017 who forced his way into center-field duty, Happ is not beyond being demoted to Triple-A if he has a cold spring. Schwarber accepted a short demotion with class in mid-season in 2017.
Early projections have Bourjos competing with infielder Tommy La Stella for an extra spot. But La Stella has a built-in advantage batting lefty — crucial for pinch-hitting duty — while being able to play second and third. Multiple-position versatility is a near-must with Maddon. Bourjos can play all outfield positions, but they seem covered. Although not as swift as Bourjos, La Stella still can pinch-run.
I’m allowed a bit of personal advocacy. I went to a community college with Bourjos’ father, Chris Bourjos, a longtime pro scout who once had a cup of coffee as an outfielder with the San Francisco Giants. Peter was born in suburban Chicago before the old man got tired of winters and moved to Scottsdale. Smart man, if you can tolerate 110 to 120 in the summer.
Bourjos earned a slew of web gems with impossible catchs and home-run thefts in center for the Angels. But then a gentleman named Mike Trout arrived. Torii Hunter was still locked into big money in Anaheim, so Bourjos became the odd-man-out. He went to the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies before seemingly landing with the White Sox last spring.
But he ended up traded to Tampa Bay before Opening Day. The Sox went with rookie Jacob May in center out of the gate. He did not last long. Charlie Tillson, a north suburban product, would have taken over, but got hurt. Adam Engel could catch anything in center, but had Schwarber-style problems at the plate. Bourjos would have been a short-term hole-plugger for the rebuilding Sox and would have come home. But fate always seems to have only Plan B or C for Bourjos.
Sounds like Plan C with the Cubs. So that’s why I’m breaking Jerome Holtzman’s admonition of “no cheering in the pressbox” with another Holtzman-ism, “a doff of the chapeau” for Bourjos.
Baseball Under Glass
By George Castle
Part of my job, say, in 2004-06 was to chronicle the ongoing comebacks of Cubs pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. World Series hopes, continually dashed, had rested on their formerly lightning-distributing right arms.
Both Wood and Prior came back, all right, though not in the form the Cubs envisioned. Through more surgeries and innumerable towel drills, Wood got lean and mean through workouts and organic foods, transforming himself into a good late-inning reliever starting out his 30s. Prior kept attempting comebacks for a half-decade after he threw his final pitch as a Cub in 2006. None of his comebacks got him back to the big leagues, so at a young age, Prior became a minor-league pitching coach. He’s now bullpen coach for the Dodgers.
Almost any major sports figure has some kind of comeback story, on or off the field/court/ice. I’ve gathered up some good ones in, what else?, a new book, “Champions.” And for the first time since my inaugural book, “I Remember Harry Caray” in 1998, they’re throwing a party to launch the project.
If you can’t get out to spring training on Feb. 22, you have an alternative. At 7 p.m. on that day, you can meet living examples of comeback stories from near and far in sports at Osteria Via Stato, 625. N. State St., just off Ontario Steet, in Chicago’s River North restaurant belt. Signed copies from yours truly and all the profilees will be available along with drinks and some good food. Tickets are $79 with VIP admission at $179, available at www.signaturestrength.org/events.
Cubs voice Pat Hughes, the longest-serving radio play-by-play voice in Cubs history, will emcee the event. Two Hall of Famers are headliners — the Cubs’ Fergie Jenkins and the ageless Marv Levy, only NFL coach to take his team to four straight Super Bowls. All-time Chicago Bull Bob Love will be in the house.
Lending some glamour to the party will be Victoria Arlen, the youngest talent ever hired by ESPN. Arlen is a former “Dancing with the Stars” contestant and model, and a gold medalist in ParaOlympics swimming competition.
A 2008 U.S. Olympic volleyball gold medalist, Scott Touzinsky, and former Chicago Sky player Imani-McGee Stafford will be on hand to describe what it’s like to go to work via the vertical leap. Former New York Mets catchers Barry Lyons and Ed Hearn likely will be asked by me to pay their team’s long-standing debt to the Cubs and Jenkins from 1969.
And if you have aches and pains, comeback-facilitator Dr. Richard Lehman, a top sports orthopedist, will be on hand to dispense his wisdom.
After Hughes, all of the above are profiled in “Comebacks,” my 15th book. The Cubs have a big representation with Prior, Kyle Schwarber and former North Siders Rich Hill, Chris Krug, Tom Gamboa and Casey McGehee. Still more comeback stories are told in the book through the experiences of Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, a former star Dallas Cowboys linebacker, and Moran Samuel, a female Israeli basketball player-turned-disabled medalist rower.
Common theme for all was not giving up. Schwarber was the classic case. Severe knee injuries in the third game of the 2016 season seemed to shelve the then-husky slugger until 2017. But with vastly improved workout facilities in the new Cubs clubhouse, the support of his teammates and their admonition there’s no crying in baseball, Schwarber rehabbed well enough to serve as DH in the Cleveland games of the Cubs’ World Series triumph. In a true Fall Classic that came down to the final out, Schwarber’s bat made a big difference.
Kudos go to Dr. David Fletcher, president of the Chicago Baseball Museum, for running interference to chat with Schwarber in Urbana, Ill. early in 2017 for that chapter.
Krug is an uncredited comebacker, from way back. The journeyman catcher ran afoul of new manager Leo Durocher in 1966 when The Lip thought Krug was fraternizing with the then-wife of Bill Wrigley, son of the Cubs owner. Krug was banished from the organization. But two decades later, he built the famed Field of Dreams in Iowa while hobnobbing with Kevin Costner on the movie set. Durocher was in tortured retirement in Palm Springs at the time.
The night also will be a chance to preview an upcoming book I’m doing with Jenkins on the 1969 Cubs on their 50th anniversary. Everyone knows the alternately uplifting, then depressing narrative of that landmark, franchise-altering season. The challenge for Fergie and me is to tell “why” and explain how the modern Cubs were born out of that feast-and-famine journey.
So don’t sit at home as the winter doldrums prevail. Drop by and get some stimulation if you need to craft your own comeback effort. Hopefully, we’ll see you at Osteria Via Stato.
- Marv Levy – National Football League Hall of Fame coach
- Bob Love – Former all-time leading Chicago Bulls player; current Bulls Director of Community Affairs
- Fergie Jenkins – National Baseball Hall of Famer
- Victoria Arlen – ESPN on-air personality; model; gold and silver medalist; former “Dancing with the Stars” competitor
- Scott Touzinsky – 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist (volleyball)
- Barry Lyons – 1986 World Series Champion
- Ed Hearn – 1986 World Series Champion
- Chris Krug – Built the iconic Field of Dreams
- Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson – Super Bowl XII champion; Pro Bowl player with the Dallas Cowboys
- Imani McGee-Stafford – Olympic gold medalist in women’s basketball
- Kyle Schwarber – Member of the 2016 World Series Champions Chicago Cubs team
- Tom Gamboa – Professional baseball coach including Team Israel at the 2017 World Baseball Classic
- Rich Hill – Pitched in the 2017 World Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers
- Moran Samuel – Won several Olympic medals for rowing representing Israel
- Casey McGehee – National League Comeback Player of the Year in 2014
- Mark Prior – 2003 Baseball All-Star
- Dr. Richard Lehman – Medical Director of the U.S Center for Sports Medicine
Rick Hahn could have experienced a far worse reaction during SoxFest, and it would be understandable. Human nature prompts impatience.
But the pride of Winnetka and cerebral Sox GM had properly communicated from Day One that annual patchwork simply would not suffice anymore, and a total teardown-and-rebuild would be the only way for his listing franchise to proceed. That’s why Hahn was cheered and backslapped wherever he went.
Just be upfront and open about your intentions. Don’t hype it up with “all-in” proclamations. And some of sports most discerning, if not outright critical fans, will cut you plenty of slack.
Fans would not take to middling free agents brought in for hole-plugging and money-wasting. But the best prospects in baseball? Now, that will go a long way.
Two historical precedents show how the Sox handled rebuilding in different ways, and got different fan reactions. Nobody but the most avid senior fans are left from the first example, but fortunately Hahn figured it out on his own with support from chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.
Finishing the team record 106-loss season in 1970, the Sox were irrelevant in Chicago. They drew fewer than 500,000 fans in ’70. Only the semi-senile Leo Durocher-fueled Cubs collapses that year, and the doozy in 1969, prevented the Sox from moving through sheer lack of interest. Fortunately, in his first year as owner, John Allyn realized the pitch-and-putt style favored by his brother Arthur of the past decade just could not continue.
John Allyn thoroughly cleaned house. Gone were GM Ed Short, manager Don Gutteridge, longtime radio play-by-play voice Bob Elson and other symbols of boring, losing baseball. Swept in were de facto GM Roland Hemond, positive-mental-attitude manager Chuck Tanner and broadcaster Harry Caray. Allyn let all know he was not in it for incremental change.