clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Building A Cubs Champion: "The Chicago Cubs Are On The Air!"

That's the signature phrase Vince Lloyd used to use when introducing WGN radio broadcasts, for more than 20 years from the mid-1960's through the mid-1980's.

This post is going to be far shorter than yesterday's, and there's a reason for that -- one thing the Cubs have always been ahead of virtually every other team in doing, is pioneering new things in baseball broadcasting and telecasting. Did you know that WGN-TV was the first to use a center field camera? In the early 1950's, it was assumed that the best view of the pitcher and batter was from overhead -- the behind-the-plate upper deck shot. In 1954, WGN, which did other local events, televised some Little League games from Thillens Stadium (no, I am not making this up). Because of the tight quarters there and no place to put a camera behind the plate, they installed one in center field.

They quickly discovered that this shot was like gold -- showed movement on pitches, showed the pitcher and the batter in their confrontation, and with zoom lenses made the action far more close-up than with the overhead shot. When they began using this at Wrigley Field, it was quickly copied by other local and national baseball telecasters.

Innovations like this and the fact that WGN-TV telecast more games in the 1950's and 1960's than any other station, carrying home games for both the Cubs and White Sox until 1967, made WGN-TV the best baseball broadcaster in the country. P. K. Wrigley got virtually everything wrong in his stewardship of the Cubs after 1945, but one thing he did was right -- telecasting all the Cubs' home games created two or three generations of fans. Many baseball owners were horrified when they learned that Wrigley was going to do this -- they feared that if people could watch at home for free, why would they come to the games?

Wrigley may not have known baseball, but he knew marketing, and he was right. Watching the games at home made people want to go to the ballpark. Each telecast was a two-plus hour commercial for the Cubs -- and Jack Brickhouse would shill nearly every day for people to "come on down, plenty of seats available!" In the early years -- the 50's and early 60's -- this didn't translate into huge attendance gains, largely because the team was awful -- but there was an audience ready to dive in as soon as the team got good, including me, a junior-high kid in the late '60s.

The same thing happened when the Cubs and WGN went national in the early 1980's. Having the Cubs as one of only two teams on national cable -- and in the 1980's, when the other one, the Braves, were a bad team -- created a legion of Cubs fans nationwide, some expatriate Chicagoans, some (including, I know, some regular BCB'ers) who had never lived in Chicago.

They haven't always made the best selection of broadcasters -- none of us will ever lament the Davey Nelson or Joe Carter Eras in Cubs broadcasting -- but the Cubs were always there for their fans, creating memories, whether it was Vince & Lou on the radio, or Jack or Harry or Steve on TV. Even now, virtually every Cub game -- with the exception of the silly Fox blackouts -- is available nationwide, if you are willing to pay for cable or satellite delivery.

So what's next? I expect the new owner of the Cubs, whoever it is (and whether or not he keeps the 25% ownership the Cubs have in Comcast SportsNet or sells it off), to investigate the possibility of starting a 24/7 Cubs network, like the Yankees' YES Network in New York. That'd carry most of the Cubs games -- given the fact that WGN is drifting away from baseball, it seems logical, although YES does produce some games carried on New York broadcast TV -- and other shows relating to the Cubs, probably replaying games so that people who miss a day game could see it at night, and perhaps also negotiating with the Bulls or Blackhawks to carry some of their games (as YES does with the New Jersey Nets).

The YES Network is probably THE primary reason the Yankees have outspent every other team over the last ten years. It has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for the Yankees, and since this money is not subject to MLB's revenue sharing agreements, the Yankees keep it all to themselves. It hasn't stopped Yankee ticket prices from heading through the stratosphere -- check out some of the new Yankee Stadium ticket prices -- and the Yankees stayed home this October, but there's no doubt that their plan is to do whatever it takes to develop revenue sources that will continue to allow them to compete each and every year.

The Cubs, with limited room for advertising at Wrigley Field (and though I suspect they may try to figure out how to put a video board in, as I wrote yesterday, they may not be able to do so), would be well served with such a TV channel; it could generate huge amounts of revenue, far more than they get now, and allow them to increase player payroll to keep it among the top ranks of baseball. They've got a first-rate TV broadcasting team in place in Len Kasper and Bob Brenly, that could be together for many years, and Pat Hughes is one of the best radio play-by-play men in the business. I know that Ron Santo is a hot-button topic for many here; Ron is almost 69 years old and not in the best of health, and I suspect that he may retire soon, especially if he is elected to the Hall of Fame this coming winter.

When we look back at this period in Cubs history 20 or 25 years from now, we will, I think, see it as the dawn of a glorious era. It's hard to think of that now with the crashing playoff defeats of the last two years. But what has happened since 2003 is just prologue, I believe, to making "the next millennium ours", as my old T-shirt said. Building a broadcasting empire second to none will be a major building block in that future.