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Today in Chicago Cubs history: The very first WGN-TV baseball telecast

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70 years ago today, the longest TV/MLB team relationship began.

Courtesy WGN-TV

Almost all of us grew up with some form of Cubs baseball on WGN, whether it was local broadcasts in the Chicago area or the national cable/satellite version on WGN America that became popular across the country beginning in the 1980s.

It is not an exaggeration to say that WGN-TV’s telecasts of Cubs games created three or four generations of Cubs fans, largely due to day baseball. With games starting at 1:30 or thereabouts most weekday afternoons, coming home from school to watch the end of a Cubs game became a treasured ritual for me, and I’m sure for many of you as well.

It all began 70 years ago today, April 16, 1948, with a telecast of a preseason (yes, the season started later in those years!) game between the Cubs and White Sox from Wrigley Field.

Larry Wolters of the Tribune reported on the broadcast, to be hosted by Jack Brickhouse:

The baseball shows, directed by Don Cook, will be relayed with the aid of the station’s new mobile unit from the ball parks to the transmitter atop the Daily News building. Special telephone circuits will also be employed.

Three of the latest image orthicon cameras will be used by WGN-TV. One of them will include the $7,500 zoomar lens, so called because it zooms quickly into focus, enabling the cameraman to change from distance shots to closeups at the flick of a finger.

At Wrigley field, the zoomar camera will be placed outside the foul line in left field; another camera will patrol around third base and the Cubs dugout, and a third will be on the ramp next to the press box. Brickhouse will be stationed in the press box section, using a video monitor for reference while talking.

(Side note: The “image orthicon” camera became known in the business as an “immy.” From that, the television award now known as an Emmy was named.)

WGN-TV was still several years away from stationing a camera in center field for that pitcher/batter shot we now know as traditional. That’s a WGN creation, in fact, and as I noted in this 2016 article here, it was invented for a Little League game broadcast:

Back in the early days of televised baseball, TV producers and directors always assumed that the best view of the pitcher and batter was from overhead -- the behind-the-plate upper deck shot. But in 1954, WGN televised some Little League games from Thillens Stadium on the North Side. 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 -- it clearly showed movement on pitches, the pitcher and the batter in their confrontation, and 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.

WGN innovations made their broadcasts the best in the business, for decades supervised by producer Jack Rosenberg and director Arne Harris.

As I wrote last week, we now know the date the photo at the top of this post was taken, a couple of months after the telecast of the Cubs/Sox exhibition game. The Cubs lost that game to the White Sox 4-1 in front of 9,233 at Wrigley on a frigid afternoon. One week later, the Cubs had their home opener against the Cardinals, the first regular-season telecast from Wrigley, which I wrote about here a few years ago in one of the offseason history series.

It doesn’t seem likely that any future broadcast relationship between a channel and a sports team will last seven decades, as the WGN/Cubs attachment has. And, I’m sure you know that this relationship will end after the 2019 season. After that the Cubs will create their own television channel and move all the games, now spread among three channels, to one place.

That will be convenient, and provide extra Cubs programming as well, but nothing will ever be quite like the old days of coming home from school and watching the Cubs on WGN-TV.