Chicago Baseball History

Yu Darvish signing in better line with Cubs’ luck for free-agent starters

By George Castle

CBM Historian

Any team takes a big risk with a long-term free-agent pitcher signing.

In the Cubs’ mind, Yu Darvish is a decrease in risk than, say, bringing back Jake Arietta.

With sabermetrics and hyper-analysis overwhelming baseball, the wild spending that used to predominate in free-agent starters is gone. That’s the big reason why the market moved so slowly going into spring training. The realization that pitching has a high mortality rate and being on the hook for three, four years of dead money after an arm has gone south keeps most big-league wallets locked with agents demanding as many as seven years.

Fortunately, fate has been kinder to the Cubs in the majority of their free-agent starter signings — much more so than for their closer acquisitions. So if you use as an omen and portent, Darvish won’t blow up in the face of Theo Epstein, who has one big misjudgment on his Cubs record for free-agent pitchers that has been more than canceled out by Jon Lester’s 2016 performance.

Looking back, we asked Al Yellon, managing editor of the popular BleedCubbieBlue.com blog, to rate all the major free-agent signings of Cubs pitchers in history. Amazingly, Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins was the Cubs’ first such acquisition in his return to Chicago in Dec. 1981 after an eight-season absence, as Dallas Green sought to remake the somnolent franchise from the Wrigley family regime.

Odds are with Yu Darvish in coming through on his free-agent deal with the Cubs.

“I had a lot of firsts with the ballclub,” said Jenkins, who is the only Cub to ever win 20 games six years in a row and led the NL in strikeouts with 273 in 1969. He added one more whiff to his total in 1970 to hold the team’s season strikeout record (more…)

WGN-Radio and 720 signal best possible 2018 home for White Sox

By George Castle

CBM Historian

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

Darrin Jackson’s announcing presence will be no stranger to WGN-Radio after his early Cubs career was broadcast on the station.

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.

Sox announcer Bob Elson was a WGN mainstay in radio’s early days, and in 1940 summoned Jack Brickouse from Peoria to work at the station.

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.

 

 

 

Baseball Under Glass

New ‘Champions’ book displays the depth of the human spirit

By George Castle

CBM Historian

Hot off the press will be signed copies of “Champions” at the book launch party.

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.

Fergie Jenkins

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.

Marv Levy

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

 

 

 

White Sox rebuilding, properly communicated, goes over well with critical fans

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.

Dick Allen and his 1972 Most Valuable Player Award

Dick Allen, who completed the Roland Hemond-led rebuild, shows off his 1972 Most Valuable Player Award 40 years later at Guaranteed Rate Field.

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.

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