Author: George Castle - CBM Historian

At other end of its rock existence, WLUP-FM upended baseball conventions with Disco Demolition

 

The terrible swift sword cut through the offices of WLUP-FM in Chicago the other day.

In radio, whether in 1968 or 2018, if a format or ownership change is announced, the sword of management cuts through quickly, without warning, and usually with no mercy. At the famed 97.9 rocker, morning man Mancow Muller went to bed on a Monday thinking he’d continue for awhile even through parent company Cumulus’ bankruptcy, which uprooted the White Sox and Bulls from Cumulus-owned WLS-AM a few weeks back.

Two weeks’ notice, a graceful departure, is not the standard in radio. Very few cashiered personalities are allowed to have even a brief good-bye party. Many are told at the end of an airshift they are finished. The bosses, throwing people under the bus to protect themselves, don’t want any brickbats thrown at them by the program hosts they are tossing away. Muller, who in previous on-air incarnations had the late Jack Brickhouse guest in a positive, respected manner, discovered on Tuesday morning WLUP was purchased by a company re-formatting the station to Christian rock. Like all other WLUP jocks, he did his last show, packed up his belongings and left without comments as TV cameras waited at the front door.

A favorite dial destination for two generations of rock fans, WLUP’s history was not fully explored in its business obituaries that made up major news in Chicago media. Former star Steve Dahl said it took God to knock rock off WLUP. He suggested “Highway to Hell” be its final song.

WLUP, nicknamed “The Loop” and named after the heart of Chicago’s signature image, became a rocker in 1977 after its previous life as WSDM — “Smach Dab in the Middle” of the FM dial at its frequency. At one point years before, its gimmick was an all-female staff of deejays.

Steve Dahl in all his glory revving up the crowd on Disco Demolition Night. Photo by Paul Natkin.

Steve Dahl in all his glory revving up the crowd on Disco Demolition Night. Photo by Paul Natkin.

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1969 Cubs Bleacher Bum still enjoyed World Series away from Wrigley Field

 

I just can’t get over the stark fact Randy Anderson relayed in a conversation the other day, when a hint of spring in the air suggested the second season since a Cubs World Series triumph was weeks away.

Randy Anderson, adorned in his yellow Left Field Bleacher Bums helmet, displays a copy of the famed 1969 Cub Power album — still unopened.

Anderson, still possessing his 1969 Left Field Bleacher Bums helmet, did not attend a game at Wrigley Field in the title season. Admittedly a people person who loved going to the bleachers for the relationships and simple ambience of the time, he instead enjoyed the long delayed-and-deferred championship in the company of friends at The Nil Tap sports bar on the Northwest Side.

I still can’t believe an authentic Bleacher Bum, as much a part of the ’69 Cubs as their four Hall of Fame-bound stars, couldn’t count as one of the 3 million-plus in the stands in ’16. Yet Anderson knows things have changed, mostly for the better, in how the Cubs are run and how they spend their money. In contrast, they have moved backward in the quality of fan now attending games.

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

 

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

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

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.

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

 

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.

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Peter Bourjos must untangle outfield logjam to make Chicago Cubs

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.

Peter Bourjos has another, albeit iffy, chance to play in his family’s hometown.

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.

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The two faces (and hairstyles) of Oscar Gamble with Cubs, White Sox

Ballyhooed top prospect promoted prematurely vs. rent-a-free-agent.

Close-cropped hair in a conservative organization vs. baseball’s most luxuriant Afro playing for original rebel Bill Veeck.

Perceived speed demon center fielder vs. locked-in designated hitter.

Oscar Gamble belts home run for ’77 South Side Hit Men Sox team. Leo Bauby collection

Over a span of eight years, Oscar Gamble dramatically changed how he was presented to the public as a raw rookie Cub and veteran White Sox. The 18th player from the fabled 1969 Cubs and surprisingly the second middle-of-the-lineup staple (after Jim Spencer) of the equally storied 1977 South Side Hit Men to pass away, Gamble made news for the final time the other day with his death at 68.

For two franchises just eight miles apart but stereotyped as being light years distant in so many other ways, the Cubs and Sox have shared almost too many players to list here. Gamble is on that last, and impressive compared to most others. His even 200 homers, including a team-leading 31 for the ’77 Sox, prove some of the initial overheated evaluations as a teen-age Cub were correct. Gamble was yet another talented player snared by the keen scouting eye of the legendary Cubs scout and Negro League icon Buck O’Neil.

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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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Good guy Jim Thome punches express ticket to Hall of Fame

A patient man at the plate, Jim Thome did not have to wait one extra second to gain entrance into the Hall of Fame.

Move over, Leo Durocher. Nice guys do finish first. And on his first year of eligibility, Thome finished third when voting totals were  announced Jan. 24 after Chipper Jones and Vladimir Guerrero to garner nearly 90 percent of the vote. All-time closer Trevor Hoffman slipped in as the fourth 2018 inductee.

Thome was  baseball fan who mimicked childhood idol Dave Kingman’s swing long before he slugged the first of 612 career homers. But after already touring Cooperstown with father Chuck Thome, he’ll enjoy sports’ greatest museum in his next visit as a fan as much as a fresh inductee.

“There were so many, many things,” he said in a teleconference about the Hall’s top attractions. “Walking through the front doors gives you chills enough. Going into the basement and putting on the white gloves and touching Babe Ruth’s items…and Lou Gehrig’s. The Hall of Fame is so magical. It’s the greatest place there is. One day doesn’t do it justice. You need to spend two or three to truly understand the great things in their place. It’s truly special.”

Jim Thome (right) and fellow former Sox Mike Huff at the Bulls/Sox Academy in Lisle, Ill. in 2013

Character should count for a lion’s share of an inductee’s votes. Thome is the pride of Peoria, who grew up as a Cubs fan in the central Illinois city and starred for the White Sox from 2006 to 2009. He had baseball good-citizen status in gobs.

 

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Public got what it wanted, PEDs and all, in McGwire-Sosa HR race

The flip of the calendar to 2018, the pending Hall of Fame announcement and a couple of long-form YouTube videos got me thinking about the Great Home Run Race of 1998, now tainted by PED accusations.

Twenty years have zipped by at warp speed since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated a generally contented public, existing in a boom economy and terrorism-light environment that hasn’t been replicated since. Covering Sosa from my then-assigned pressbox seat at Wrigley Field and in a handful of games in Milwaukee seems it took place last month.

The recriminations have been heavy ever since about how this race was fueled with McGwire and Sosa both achieving home-run totals that previously were straight out of science fiction. There is never more head-shaking and hand-wringing than when the new Cooperstown inductees are announced. At this writing, a true Clean Gene, Peoria’s Jim Thome, is an odds-on favorite to win the writers’ vote. Thome missed by one season playing on the White Sox with Frank Thomas, yet another natural strongman who decried players who apparently inflated their numbers by chemical means.

Fans just wanted to pack their cares away and watch Sammy Sosa slug during the Great Home Run Race of 1998.

And Major League Baseball itself is no longer policing the internet with secret-police zeal. Entire vintage ballgame telecasts are now routinely posted on YouTube. I couldn’t help but tune in again to the warm September weekend when Sosa slugged his 60th homer in a wild Cubs’ 15-12 comeback victory over the Brewers. Slammin’ Sammy, as he was fondly called in this different era, went beyond the outer limits with his 61st and 62nd in another rally-cap special, an 11-10 triumph in 10 innings, the next day. Sosa’s second, Maris-busting clout started a two-run ninth inning rally. Factoring in the Brewers’ 13-11 win on Friday, that may have been one of a handful of three-game series in which all teams scored in football-sized double-digit numbers in every contest.

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