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

By on April 17, 2018

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!”

Only a handful of photographic images exist of that first season of WGN baseball. Most famous is a shot of the original mobile unit outside the right-field wall on the sidewalk, which Al Yellon and his BleedCubbieBlue.com have tracked down to July 1, 1948 at the start of a Cubs-Cardinals game. Another is a pair of black and white cameras with $7,500 “Zoomar” lenses stationed on the left-field wall in foul territory.

WGN also attempted for the 60th anniversary in 2008 to re-create the video “feel” of a 1948 telecast during a live game. But without any recorded images, the attempt was too slick and too dependent on 21st century technology, not the ad-hoc invent-baseball-on-TV-as-we-go along with all its technical glitches.Participating Cubs employees got some of their history incorrect.

So the following is a primer on how WGN set up literally a 154-game schedule of Cubs and White Sox telecasts for 1948 and its effect on TV’s growth and baseball interest going forward.

WGN was the second station in the Chicago market to sign on with its first regular telecast on April 5 1948. WBKB-Channel 4 had been the city’s original video outlet operating out of the State-Lake Building, starting as an experimental station in 1939 and getting a commercial license in 1943. Yet WBKB operated only a few hours a day, and needed more programming to sell itself as a legitimate media outlet. The post-National League champion Cubs of 1946 provided both the quality and quantity to lure viewers and sell TV sets as production resumed after World War II. WBKB first aired a Cubs game on April 20, 1946.

The following season, the station broadcast all Cubs home games with lead announcer Whispering Joe Wilson, assisted by $35-a-game Brickhouse. The eventual Hall of Fame announcer’s ubiquitous days in Chicago were still in the future. HIred at WGN-Radio out of his native Peoria through the assistance of Bob Elson in 1940, Brickhouse served a short wartime stint in the U.S. Marines in 1944. After his discharge, he did not immediately return to WGN. Brickhouse filled in for a war-absent Elson on Sox radio broadcasts on WJJD in 1945, to his eternal regret missing the last Cubs pennant in his lifetime.

Brickhouse moved to New York for the 1946 to broadcast the baseball Giants on radio. He was a fish out of water in the Big Apple. He returned with then-wife Nelda to Chicago, picking up work where he could find it. In addition to his first stint at baseball TV play-by-play, which included Jackie Robinson’s Chicago debut before a Wrigley Field record paid 47,000 fans on May 18, 1947, Brickhouse starred in several studio shows on WBKB.

When Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick, a huge backer of new media technology, put WGN-TV on the air in the spring of 1948, Brickhouse was hired as the station’s signature, all-purpose personality and “sports service manager.” He helmed an experimental Golden Gloves boxing tournament a month before the official sign-on.

Ballgames were a natural feature, even competing with WBKB. Stations did not mind competing with the same programming, or sometimes the same originating show. In Sept. 1948, ABC-owned WENR-TV had signed on. All three Chicago stations simulcast the Cleveland games from the Lou Boudreau-led Indians-Braves ’48 World Series. Elson handled pre- and post-game show hosting duties on WENR.

The Boston games did not reach Chicago, though. The coaxial cable link to feed network programming had not been completed across the Appalachian Mountains in the autumn of ’48, so no live East Coast shows were  yet available in Chicago. Instead, the likes of NBC set up a jerry-rigged Midwest network with St. Louis’s KSD-TV and Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV as program originators. Harry Caray recalled appearing on KSD as early as 1947. Chicago’s NBC-owned WNBQ (now WMAQ-TV) was only sporadically on the air on Channel 5 prior to Jan. 1, 1949 with offerings like Election Night coverage.

An original WGN setup with two cameras, in this case RCA TK-41 color units, standing side-by-side for coverage of batted balls and baserunners.

Cubs owner Phil Wrigley encouraged the purveyors of the new medium. Wrigley duplicated the broadcast policies of his late father, William Wrigley,, Jr. and Cubs president William L. Veeck, Sr., in welcoming all broadcast comers to Clark and Addison as a means of publicizing the team. As many as seven radio stations, none charged a rights fee, aired the Cubs in the early 1930s. Any willing TV station was similarly invited. Early TV was a money loser, but the baseball telecasts could recoup much of the production costs with the trademark beer, gasoline and cigarette ads.

WBKB and WGN paid Wrigley only a $100,000 construction fee for new broadcast installations. For instance, a hole had to be drilled in the right-field wall to run the camera cables to the WGN truck. And three-seats’ worth of brick wall by the Cubs dugout were removed for camera positions. WGN’s camera was set up to the right of the dugout while WBKB’s camera was installed on the left. Both stations’ Zoomar-lens cameras were side-by-side above the left-field corner. The third cameras were upstairs — WGN’s on the ramp leading to the main pressbox and WBKB’s in the football pressbox behind third base.

WBKB stuck with its original Cubs-only arrangement with Wilson at the microphone. Harry Creighton, legendary for his supposed on-air tipsiness, signed on as Brickhouse’s baseball partner. Vince Lloyd began handling WGN’s Leadoff Man interviewing chores in 1950. Meanwhile, WENR jumped in for one year in 1949 with Rogers Hornsby as lead announcer, assisted by Vince Garrity.

But only WGN also included the Sox, then wallowing in the American League’s nether world since the Black Sox debacle and a 100-game loser in 1948. Included in the full ’48 season Sox telecast schedule was the team’s night games. The prime-time telecasts must have been a challenge for the WGN crew. Early TV needed tremendous candlepower for lighting, and the Comiskey Park lights, erected in 1939, may not have been suited for video’s needs. Inadequate lighting at Soldier Field, for instance, prevented pre-1970 color telecasts of the Tribune-sponsored college All-Star Game in mid-summer.

Each of the three stations televising the Cubs signed on with the baseball games. Then they often signed off with just a test pattern until evening programming resumed. The stations had to originate their own local live studio shows without a network link. Newscasts were sparse. The broadcast day usually ended by 10 p.m.

Then, technology advanced, leading to WGN’s eventual monopoly on Chicago baseball telecasts that lasted until 1968. The coaxial cable link from the East Coast was completed in Jan. 1949, permitting daily programming for WNBQ.  WBKB was still locked into its local programming. So WGN signed an affiliation deal with CBS, augmenting its original DuMont Network tie-in that had network programming originating from the Tribune Tower studios. WGN was the first Chicago affiliate for Ed Sullivan’s landmark “Toast of the Town” Sunday-night variety show.

The expanded schedules and seven-nights-a-week network prime-time programming on top of daily baseball and other sports events helped spur TV set sales. Whereas one or two set owners per block might draw a communal audience in 1948-49, the 12-inch round-tube, largely console sets proliferated as the Fifties began. A count of 450,000 sets in the Chicago area in 1950 doubled in the next year in spite of the onset of the Korean War. The “police action” of a land conflict in Asia did not crimp the production and sale of most consumer products as did World War II.

WENR dropped the Cubs after the 1949 season. WBKB continued on with Cubs telecasts for 1950 and 1951, but the station began picking up more CBS shows.. By 1952, CBS offered a regular schedule of daytime programming, so WBKB opted out of the Cubs after six seasons, in much the same manner WGN-Radio dropped baseball in the early 1940s for late-afternoon Mutual network children’s programs. WGN-TV now had baseball all too themselves — with a crucial reduction in carriage. The Chuck Comiskey-Frank Lane-run Sox now forbade night-game telecasts, ostensibly to protect the gate. The honchos wanted to pack the park for those Yankees visits on Tuesday and Friday nights.

Dale Long put a flourish on WGN’s first road telecast with game-winning two-run homer in the 10th inning in St. Louis on Aug. 30, 1958.

Comiskey and Lane simply reflected the attitudes of most owners fearful, like movie-theater operators, of the new medium’s encroachment on business. After an initial full jump into TV in 1948, many baseball honchos pulled back on home-game coverage in subsequent years as the post-war attendance boom faded. Although the Sox permitted WGN to continue to televise all day home games, they now had inferior exposure in the number of games to the Cubs, by now a perennial “second division” inhabitant compared to the emerging “Go Go” teams on the South Side. Later, Lloyd recalled how the losing Cubs drew better ratings than the 90-win quality Sox.

In other markets, baseball teams began televising more road games than home contests. But sated with around 130-plus games per season from both sides of town, WGN management did not incur the expensive line charges for away contests until its first road telecast on Aug. 30, 1958. Brickhouse applied his clip-on bow tie in the sultry 94-degree Sportsman’s Park environs for a Cubs-Cardinals Saturday night game. Thus the station was prepared to quickly assemble the Brickhouse-led road crew for the Sox pennant-clincher, unscheduled in the original lineup, in Cleveland on Sept. 22, 1959. Lou Boudreau, in his second year with WGN, joined the telecast at the scene of his 1948 World Series triumph, while Lloyd stayed behind in Chicago to handle the Cubs-Giants game.

WGN began experimenting with videotape in 1957. Then, as a huge expansion of its new studio color schedule of “Garfield Goose” and 7 p.m. news segments, the station followed Cincinnati’s WLWT by one year in inaugurating local color telecasts of Cubs and Sox games in 1960. The new tinted games required some ad-libbed engineering tactics to prevent the image from washing out when a baseball disappeared into the late-afternoon shadows.

And so we end up in 2018, with WGN having the longest-running association of a TV station with a baseball team in the country. A parting, possibly due to a projected Cubs TV network that is not a sure thing in 2020, would be mind-blowing, even more so than WGN-Radio’s dropping the Cubs rights after 2014 — and now airing the Sox.

The TV station has never operated without a regular complement of Cubs games. Sentimentalists hope that never changes. But in 21st century business, influenced by hand-held “Star Trek” communicators come to life 2 1/2 centuries earlier than expected, what’s up is now down and vice versa. Expect the unexpected.

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