Wry, sly and dry persona a core value for Frick Award winner Hughes

By  on December 8, 2022

Pat Hughes probably merited the Ford Frick Award simply for being on duty and keeping his composure as the only Chicago announcer ever to call a Cubs World Series clinching out.

Pat Hughes' Ford Frick Award truly celebrates a lifetime achievement of smooth-as-silk announcing.

Pat Hughes’ Ford Frick Award truly celebrates a lifetime achievement of smooth-as-silk announcing.

After all, radio was in the hands of hobbyists and experimenters – the Marconis of the world — in 1908, the last Cubs world’s championship. Commercial radio did not start ’til 1920 and the first baseball game was not aired ’til the next year, in Pittsburgh.

But even if the Cubs had blown Game 7 in 2016, Hughes surely deserved the top broadcaster’s honor given out by the Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement. Few can match Hughes’ smooth-as-silk baseball voice or his wry, dry and sly sense of humor around boothmates such as the two Rons, Santo and Coomer.

Hughes beat out former Cubs colleague Steve Stone and a host of other contemporary announcers for the 2023 Award on Wednesday, Dec. 7, hard on the heels of his induction into the Cubs Hall of Fame under the left-field bleachers. He is truly one of the golden voices of our time.

We go back to his first season in Chicago in 1996, when Hughes had to maintain interest as the Cubs, a marginal contender at mid-season, lost 14 of their final 16. An announcer had to keep it interesting until the last out on the final day. As Harry Caray advised the newcomer then, a Cubs voice does not just sign up for winning seasons, which were then at a premium at Wrigley Field.

Those memories and more flowed in a phone conversation, the day after receiving his Ford Frick honor, that was as much congratulatory as interrogatory.

“It’s as good as it gets,” said Hughes, who said his emotions ranged from “shock” to being “on Cloud Nine. You work hard, you really don’t think about the award while you’re (on the air). It’s such a lofty achievement.”

In July 2012, Hughes was in Cooperstown for Ron Santo’s posthumous induction into the Hall of Fame.

Chicago Baseball Museum President David Fletcher spotted Pat on a Saturday afternoon before Santo’s Sunday induction standing by himself behind the left-field fence at Doubleday Field. Hughes was watching Tim McCarver give his speech as the 2012 Ford Frick winner.

“Pat, that is going to be you someday giving your Hall of Fame speech,” accurately predicted Fletcher. Pat just shook off this compliment and just said he was lucky to do what he loved to do. And now, 10 years later he will be giving that speech.

Hughes now is second in all-time seniority among full-time Cubs announcers with 27 seasons, eight less than Jack Brickhouse, since he was hired to replace Thom Brennaman. He grew up in Tucson and San Jose, with a youthful San Francisco Giants orientation. He cut his big-league broadcast teeth in Minnesota and Milwaukee before taking the big job at Wrigley Field.

But like the architectural additions and updates to Wrigley Field starting with lights in 1989, Hughes seems like he’s always been a part of the ballpark, perfect timing and cadence on home-run calls and ground balls alike.

Pat’s an all-time personal favorite, and not just because of his dulcet tones. We share the exact same birthday – May 27, 1955. Maybe we were twins separated at birth where Pat got the great voice and I got the loud voice. Then-Cubs media relations director Sharon Pannozzo made sure we both celebrated our 50 birthday together in the upstairs press dining room in 2005. I was simply honored to gloam on to some of his birthday glory as an ink-stained wretch.

We worked in adjoining areas in Wrigley Field for 15 years – Pat in the cramped radio booth, me in the main press box. I knew early on to keep our dealings relatively brief. Hughes was a stickler on preparation, going over statistics pre-game in the booth almost like he was in another zone. His concentration powers with so many people wanting to say hello and get a piece of him almost qualify him for the Ford Frick Award alone.

But we had enough discourse beyond joking about our shared earthly debut – sorry, the Cubs lost 7-5 that day – to realize we both loved baseball from the ground up, including its history. Hughes was forced to use his youthful imagination more than me with only nine Giants games televised each season, all from Los Angeles, in the Bay Area, while I had an embarrassment of riches with more than 140 Cubs games available starting in 1968.

Sneaking into Cubs clubhouse

No matter. When Pat and brother John were able to get out to Candlestick Park as middle-schoolers, they went further than I would have ever gone. The Hughes brothers continually tried to sneak into the visitors’ clubhouse down the right-field line to meet all the greats. They were thwarted until one day in mid-July 1967 when they gained entrance with the Cubs in town. Hughes remembered a pleasant conversation with Billy Williams and an amazing sight of big-cheese Cub Santo with his muscles. Little could he envision his future encounters with Santo would be much closer, and far more hilarious. Pat and John then beat a hasty retreat when manager Leo Durocher entered the room.

Ron Santo at his Park Ridge pizza parlor around 1967. Cubs roommate/buddy Glenn Beckert is at right. Santo's experiences were fodder for on-air byplay with Pat Hughes.

Ron Santo at his Park Ridge pizza parlor around 1967. Cubs roommate/buddy Glenn Beckert is at right. Santo’s experiences were fodder for on-air byplay with Pat Hughes.

Exposed to such announcers as the Giants’ Lon Simmons and the Dodgers’ Vin Scully via night-time broadcasts on blowtorch KFI-Radio, Hughes developed an affinity for the craft. Years into his Cubs tenure, he began an off-season business of producing CDs of Hall of Fame baseball announcers. He was a rookie in the project. I was happy to help by recommending Steve Leventhal’s Internet FM studio in far north suburban Lake Bluff, Ill., which then produced my syndicated Diamond Gems programs. Leventhal recalled how meticulous, prepared and organized Hughes was in the production process as was his style for the game broadcasts.

Hughes found out from the get-go at Wrigley Field that his predecessors enjoyed revered emeritus status when they visited the ballpark. Lloyd, Jack Brickhouse and Lou Boudreau were all still alive in 1996, so there’d always be comparisons. Fortunately, no one, consciously or otherwise, copied one another. Chicago fans always welcomed different styles so long as you were talented, and Midwest-homey.

The Ford Frick Award was the second honor for a Cubs announcer this week. Lloyd, gone 20 years in 2023, will be inducted in May into the Silver Circle of the Chicago/Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. More about Lloyd in a coming post.

“Vince Lloyd was much more ‘rah-rah’ in style than Pat, and that’s not a criticism,” said Al Yellon, editor of the BleedCubbieBlue.com blog and a Cubs fans since 1963. “It’s more a function of the times Lloyd broadcast in, when local broadcasters were much more fans of the team they called games for than they are now.

“He had signature calls that resonated with fans (‘Holy mackerel!’), and he and Lou Boudreau made an outstanding radio team for nearly two decades. He was a big part of the soundtrack of my childhood.”

Hughes stayed true to himself while blending in with the center-of –the-country broadcast sensibilities.

“Pat has a calm demeanor on the air that feels welcoming, as if he’s your best friend sitting down to chat about the game with you,” said Yellon. “He’s got some signature calls as well (‘That’s got a chaaaaance… gone!’) and his professionalism is beyond compare.

“He could have gone over-the-top as the first Cubs broadcaster ever to describe the team winning the World Series on radio, but he just did it in the style he’s always used — low-key and friendly. Pat is a treasure and I hope he stays with the Cubs for many years to come.”

My own Hughes highlights were his byplay with Santo. Opposites did attract. Santo, as emotional and raw as Hughes was cool and polished, was hardly a broadcast natural despite a good voice when younger and experience being interviewed for broadcast. I think Hughes stepped up to use Santo as his foil after learning how to react to a funnyman in Uecker. Remember, “Mr. Baseball,” who matched wits with Johnny Carson so many times on “The Tonight Show,” was a sight-gag expert, catching batting practice fly balls with a tuba during the 1964 World Series in St. Louis and ruining a Cardinals team photo by holding hands with Bob Gibson in the first row.

“After they passed out the World Series checks, they deducted from Bob’s check the amount of damage (to the tuba),” mused Hughes.

Bob Uecker trying to catch batting-practice fly balls with a tuba in St. Louis during the 1964 World Series. Uecker's unique sense of humor rubbed off on Pat Hughes during their pairing in the Brewers' radio booth.

Bob Uecker trying to catch batting-practice fly balls with a tuba in St. Louis during the 1964 World Series. Uecker’s unique sense of humor rubbed off on Pat Hughes during their pairing in the Brewers’ radio booth.

Oddly enough, Pat once showed me a bundle of cassettes of his Brewers radio work with Uecker. He thought of tossing them out. I quickly protested that no broadcast archives should ever be destroyed. Too much, especially at WGN, has been deep-sixed. I asked Pat to give me the cassettes, and he complied. I still have them. No doubt there’s a treasure trove of byplay between the two greats.

‘Like he was shot’

Early on, Hughes knew had the most unique partner of his career in Santo. On Sept. 23, 1998, Santo was in a state of shock with his famed “Oh, no!” moan after Brant Brown dropped Geoff Jenkins’ fly to left that would have been the game-ending out, enabling the host Milwaukee Brewers to rally to beat the Cubs in a crucial wild-card race game. Hughes observed Santo drooping “like he’d be shot.” Minutes later, Cubs manager Jim Riggleman had to console Santo in the locker room.

The byplay between Hughes and Santo was sublime. One Saturday afternoon as the Braves were blowing out the Cubs in Atlanta, Hughes went to his “B game” to keep the audience entertained. He challenged Santo to come up with names of animals that had three letters. Santo struggled, but Hughes was a veritable Wild Kingdom. “Gnu” was his best beast. I was riding my bike at the time through a forest preserve path and nearly fell off laughing hysterically.

Memories of his old partner make Hughes laugh today. When reminded of the three-letter critter story, Pat immediately recited some more: “Elk…and cow.” I responded, “sow,” and he agreed that was a good one.

Of course, the most comical incident was Santo’s hairpiece catching fire from an overhead heater in the radio booth at Shea Stadium. After everything negative that happened to Santo, including death threats, in New York, that probably was the capper.

One day Hughes decided to shift the butt of humor to me. As we both shared a table with Santo in the Wrigley Field press dining room, Hughes suddenly got up and prepared to exit stage-left. “Now, George, tell Ronnie about 1969,” he urged, rushing out of the blast zone. I didn’t know what to say, and I sure wanted to dive under the table. The laughter over the phone in 2022 indicated Pat knew he had pulled a good one, potentially riling up Santo at my expense.

Hughes was just the right person to deliver a heartfelt eulogy to Santo late in 2010 when the lifelong side effects of Type 1 diabetes finally overwhelmed “This Old Cub” at 70. But the semi-tragedy was Santo not gaining entrance during his life to the Hall of Fame from the different forms of the Veterans Committees. I was there at Santo’s Scottsdale, Ariz. home in 2003 when he expected to get the call, amid a swarm of media and cameras, and all he received was a let-down phone call and condolences.

Santo never gave up hope even after the 2003 and subsequent disappointments.

“Everywhere he went, people would tell him, ‘You belong there,'” Hughes said in 2011. “Many of them were ballplayers and contemporaries. No, I don’t believe he ever lost hope.”

Santo finally gained entrance posthumously late in 2011, riding the guilt of voters over the omissions with 13-season Cubs teammate Billy Williams, a committee voting member, leading the closed-door lobbying. Fletcher did some pre-vote canvassing and identified 12 “yeas” for Santo. Fletcher spoke to Hughes the night before with the hopeful news.

“It’s a wonderful thing for Ron’s family, the Cubs organization and their fans,” Hughes said upon hearing the final vote. “At the same time, I won’t lie to you – there are some bittersweet feelings as well. As overjoyed as many of us are today, we ask ourselves, ‘Why didn’t this happen 10 years ago?'”

So now the Pat and Ron Show will be re-united in Cooperstown, albeit in different wings of the Hall of Fame.

Two men — Pat Hughes and George Castle — each born on the same very day May 27, 1955 square off at the launch of Castle’s book "Champions" in February 2018. Pat Hughes is in constant demand to emcee events.

Two men — Pat Hughes and George Castle — each born on the same very day May 27, 1955 square off at the launch of Castle’s book “Champions” in February 2018. Pat Hughes is in constant demand to emcee events.

Santo wasn’t the only baseball type for whom Hughes advocated. He has generously lent his time to emceeing events for media and sports and has contributed multiple forewords to baseball books and offered overall encouragement.

Even with my voluble tones, Pat thought I could have followed in his stead. “You should tried play-by-play,” he told me once. No, I was not in his or his contemporaries’ league. Plus I would have had to start while in college or soon afterward, as Hughes did.

Like a ballplayer, you need to work your way through the minor leagues to gain experience. Hughes put in some time with the San Jose Missions and Columbus Clippers before joining the Twins broadcast team at 28. Few could pull off a Dizzy Dean to proclaim a player “slud” into second base.

A friend of Craig Lynch

Amid a hectic pace that kept Hughes close to home and not pursuing play-by-play jobs in basketball — a sport he played recreationally – in the off-season, he was capable of some real acts of kindness. He befriended blind sportscaster Craig Lynch, who passed away recently. Hughes even attended Lynch’s wedding. He treated Lynch as an equal colleague. Too bad a stiff, humorless, out-of-his-league Cubs official did not pick up on Pat’s style when he tried to cut Lynch’s clubhouse access both at Wrigley Field and in Milwaukee.

The 2016 World Series call and reproductions of Hughes’ Game 7 scorecard were richly deserved for preservation by fans. Always professional, he never contributed beforehand to Cubs fans’ well-deserved neurosis about, in Hughes’ words, “the greatest championship drought in sports history.”

One of his Frick Award competitors was the Red Sox radio voice Joe Castiglione. Prior to Boston’s breakthrough World Series victory in 2004, I repeatedly urged Castiglione to ask his listeners whether they would trade their own star-crossed history for that of the Cubs. Boston only had some 18 seasons under .500 to the Cubs’ 47 or so from 1946 through the early 2000s. I might be off on both numbers, but the Cubs’ total was staggering no matter what the final count.

Mark Grote by the Ron Santo statue outside Wrigley Field. He followed in Santo's stead in the Cubs broadcast booth and played off Pat Hughes' excellence before, during and after games.

Mark Grote by the Ron Santo statue outside Wrigley Field. He followed in Santo’s stead in the Cubs broadcast booth and played off Pat Hughes’ excellence before, during and after games.

Some of Hughes’ colleagues pushed him over the top in the Frick voting as the 47th recipient of the award. The 15-member Frick Award voting electorate, comprised of the 12 living recipients and three broadcast historians/columnists, included Frick honorees Uecker, Hawk Harrelson, Marty Brennaman, Bob Costas, Jaime Jarrín, Tony Kubek, Denny Matthews, Tim McCarver, Al Michaels, Jon Miller, Eric Nadel and Dave Van Horne, and historians/columnists David J. Halberstam (historian), Barry Horn (formerly of the Dallas Morning News) and Curt Smith (historian).

If he had the vote, Mark Grote would have cast in favor of Hughes, too. Now Bears radio sideline reporter for the WBBM-Radio broadcasts, Grote was the third man in the booth in 2016 before being shifted over to football three years later. A young reporter for The Score in Hughes’ early Cubs days, he was fortunate to be promoted to the broadcast team just in time for the Cubs’ sudden rise to glory. Like everything else in life, timing is everything.

“The real talent which Pat possesses is his ability to begin every day anew no matter what transpired the previous day,” said Grote. “There’s nobody better than Pat at meticulously calling complicated and chaotic baseball scenarios. That’s what separates the great from the good.”

The “great” will continue on air well into the 2020s as Hughes has two more years on his contract, while expanding his Cubs profile to some TV play-by-play for Marquee Sports Network. He seamlessly transitioned to the different, less wordy style required of a baseball video announcer.

Pat will turn 70 in 2025, during his next contract. “If healthy, I expect to continue,” he said. “I love Ron Coomer and Zack Zaidman. It’s a great market. There’s so much going for me in this job.”

Hall of Fame induction weekend attendees will hear more about that job when he gives his Ford Frick Award acceptance speech in July. Expect smooth as silk, as always.

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