Chicago Baseball History Feature

Daily WGN Cubs-Sox baseball telecasts in 1948 spurred TV’s growth

Too bad a WGN engineer did not set up a kinescope — a film made directly off an internal feed of a TV broadcast — in 1948 to preserve even a snippet of  “Good Ol’ Channel 9’s” first season of WGN-TV baseball telecasts that have continued uninterrupted into the present day.

Such a highlight would have been the topper on WGN’s impromptu April 16 special marking the 70th anniversary of the station’s first ballgame, a Cubs-Sox pre-season affair at Wrigley Field. Executive producer Bob Vorwald and crew did a yeoman’s job putting the two-hour show together in a few hours after the vintage highlights were originally scheduled to be scattered through The Leadoff Man and the Cubs-Cardinals game, both postponed by frigid weather.

Vince Lloyd (left) and Jack Brickhouse were staples of WGN’s Cubs telecasts when the station still competed for baseball viewers against WBKB-TV in 1951.

The elongated version of video highlights and a film (not an actual kinescope) off a TV monitor of Stan Musial’s 3,000th hit in 1958 caused my own postponement of other programming, such a DVR of James Comey’s ABC interview. That’s how precious Jack Brickhouse’s 1969 play-by-play of the entire Henry Aaron at-bat concluding Ken Holtzman’s strikeout-free no-hitter and Ron Santo’s heel clicking: “C’mon, Nijinsky, let’s have it…that’s it. Hah. There you go Ronnie…weeee!”

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In 48th year as Cubs season ticket holder, Haddon soldiers on through Wrigley Field future shock

No matter what unusual sights she witnessed or good people she encountered, Carol Haddon made her seat right next to the Cubs dugout appointment viewing, as she has done from three different locations at Wrigley Field since 1971.

A honor on the field would not be as impactful as an invitation to sit with Wrigley Field’s 75-year-old Grand Lady on Thursday, April 12, to take in the unique atmosphere of the 104-year old ballpark from her front row and (off-) center vantage points.

Carol Haddon in her new seat next to the enlarged Cubs dugout on April 12, 2018.

But as we met during a 70-degree noontime, we both could see we’re not in 1971 anymore. Or 1969, when now-Glencoe, Ill. resident Haddon zipped down from Skokie via the Yellow and Red Lines and got choice game-by-game seats from a friendly box office. So friendly, in fact, that on cold days she’d be welcomed into the office for a “hot toddy.”

And we seem a century removed from Haddon and mother Ruth Stern journeying all the way from the Chatham neighborhood on the far South Side via bus and Jackson Park L in the mid-1950s to see the Cubs and their matinee idols on Ladies Day. An afternoon at Clark and Addison, even in those losing years, seemed so stress-free compared to dad Rudolf Stern’s childhood in Dusseldorf, Germany. He had gotten out just in time prior to the onset of the Holocaust.

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45,777 jammed Wrigley Field for Cubs’ 1978 home opener like few other first games

I wish time travel worked in real life to go back to a favorite Cubs home opener.

I’d beam back to 1978 Omaha and invite the teen-age Tom Ricketts to cut high school and fly to Chicago for one day to attend a Cubs home opener.

Tom Ricketts (right) would have had a different perspective on the mob scene at Wrigley Field had he been old enough to attend SRO games played by (from left) Fergie Jenkins, Randy Hundley and Rich Nye — and the record-busting 1978 home opener.

Ricketts would understand the Cubs’ fan mentality even better, get at its roots, than on his 21st century daily excursions all around Wrigley Field to chat with paying (a lot) customers dressed in team garb, enjoying their once- or twice-annual outing as if it were a rock concert.

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White Sox hit hardest in media-coverage cuts

Where is Bill Veeck when you need him to complain about media-coverage cuts?

If the longtime Baseball Barnum was alive and still ran the White Sox, he’d be pounding his peg leg on his desk, dialing up Chicago Tribune editors with his cigarette dangling from his mouth and would rant and rave—sans any cuss words– far unlike his more genteel Hinsdale upbringing.

Bill Veeck was the type who’d be screaming bloody murder if the largest newspaper in town did not cover the Sox.

Although Veeck grew up in the Cubs organization, for which his father William, Sr. served as all-powerful President, he created a lot of noise in his two tours heading up the Sox ownership group. One loud tactic was measuring newspaper column inches of Cubs and Sox coverage to show the former team had a huge advantage.

What would Veeck think now that the Chicago Tribune, overstaffed back in his time, laid off Chris Kuc, its Sox beat writer, leaving the team temporarily uncovered near the end of spring training?

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Michael Kopech born too late to get the rush act like former White Sox phenoms

Michael Kopech is a man out of his time.

The White Sox’s flame-throwing prospect, from all accounts, is ready for the major leagues. By the standards of the 1970s, Kopech — after 155 strikeouts in 118 1/3 innings in Double-A Birmingham — would start the season in the Sox rotation. But since the date registers 2018 and a series of Collective Bargaining Agreements have codified service time, Kopech will likely cool his heels for a short time in Charlotte before the call to G-Rate Field.

Sox GM Rick Hahn does not want to rush his cache of prize prospects gathered from all over baseball and foreign shores anyway. And if Kopech’s aim catches up to his golden arm, the Sox brass want control of him for a full seven years from his big-league debut. Should he break camp with the Sox, he’d be contractually beholden on the South Side for just six seasons. Delaying the full season accrual of service time is now a fact of life for the best young players.

Bart Johnson’s high-kicking style added the illusion of speed to his fastball.

Kopech, turning 22 near the end of April, would have loved to play in the early days of the Marvin Miller-run Players Association if a fast track to the majors was free of such hindrances. However, he would not have favored the rock-bottom rookie salaries ($12,500 in 1969, for instance) or the near-servitude status of the players to their bosses.

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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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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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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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