It is not an exaggeration, not one bit, to say that many of you would not be reading these words if it were not for WGN-TV.
This is the first of a five-part series honoring the relationship between our favorite team and the television station that helped create several generations of Cubs fans and produce the huge worldwide fanbase the team now enjoys. This series will run all week and conclude on Friday, September 27, the date of WGN-TV’s final Cubs teleacst.
71 years ago (thus, 72 baseball seasons’ worth), one of the first Chicago television stations decided that it would be good programming to broadcast Chicago Cubs baseball. This was a bit of serendipity. WGN-TV went on the air April 5, 1948 and suddenly had many hours of broadcast time to fill. Baseball games would occupy several of those hours during the day, live entertainment. Beyond that, WGN-TV got lucky. Their application for a license was approved only a few months before the FCC would freeze all TV license applications for four years!
The first baseball game shown on WGN-TV was the Cubs’ home opener that year, April 23, 1948 against the Cardinals. I wrote about that game and broadcast here back in 2012.
Among the most important things I quoted there was from Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley:
We are confident that television, handled with imagination and understanding, will bring baseball closer to vast numbers of Americans. It will result eventually in bringing many more persons to ball parks to get a close-up, personal view of the dramatic scenes and colorful characters they become acquainted with on the television screens.
P.K. Wrigley was an indifferent team owner at best. He wasn’t really a baseball fan and didn’t invest in scouting or players. But he did know marketing from his position as owner of the Wrigley Gum Company. And he realized that if people saw baseball and Wrigley Field on television, they’d want to go there.
This was not a majority opinion among baseball team owners in those days. Broadcast rights — before the TV era, for radio broadcasts — were a very small part of team revenues. Most owners thought that if they put their home games on television, people wouldn’t want to go to the ballpark. Wrigley knew instinctively that it would be precisely the opposite, so he allowed WGN-TV to televise all the home games, largely as a marketing tool, in the days before TV rights fees. WBKB-TV (1948-52) and WENR-TV (1949) also telecast Cubs games, again for the same reason WGN began — to fill airtime. As network programming became more important for those other stations, they dropped Cubs baseball, leaving WGN the sole TV outlet for Cubs games by 1953.
I wrote this article last year about the photo at the top of this post, WGN-TV’s truck parked outside the ballpark. Here’s a larger version:
Until the bleachers were rebuilt in 2005, that’s pretty much what you would have seen walking down Sheffield Avenue (save the truck, which eventually moved to the other side of the park, then inside). Even today, you’ll still see the iconic Wrigley scoreboard if you walk north up Sheffield.
Back to the past: Because the Cubs were playing all afternoon games, it became a ritual for kids in the Chicago area to come home from school and be able to watch the last couple of innings of Cubs baseball on WGN-TV. By the 1960s, kid-oriented shows like Bozo’s Circus (at noon, just before Cubs games began) and Garfield Goose and Friends (after, and occasionally delayed if games went into extra innings) got kids hooked on watching WGN-TV and then sticking around for baseball. In 1959, home game starts were moved back to 2 p.m., allowing even larger portions of games to be seen by kids coming home from school. That starting time at Wrigley lasted only one year, but by then, a lot of kids were locked in to watching baseball on WGN-TV.
That’s how several generations of children in the Chicago area in the 1940s through the 1970s grew up on watching Cubs baseball on WGN-TV and wanting their parents to take them to the ballpark. One of those kids was me. You too, if you are part of those generations.
This phenomenon spread across the country in 1978, when WGN-TV was first uplinked to satellites via United Video. The Cubs continued to play all day games at Wrigley Field until August 1988, and through 2001 had just 18 home night games a year, so kids all over the USA could replicate what Chicago-area kids had done earlier. This helped create a national Cubs fanbase of people who had never lived in Chicago. Some of you are among those who grew up with WGN-TV outside the Chicago area. That, along with the presence of the ultimate salesman, Harry Caray, helped market the Cubs to a nationwide audience.
In recent years, WGN-TV became less important to Cubs fandom. After 1997 a fair chunk of the schedule went to cable outlets Fox Sports Chicago, Comcast Sportsnet Chicago and NBC Sports Chicago, and the connection outside of the Chicago metro area ended after 2014 when WGN America, the cable/satellite version of the channel, ended sports broadcasting on a national basis.
By then the Cubs had a worldwide fanbase, solidified by the World Series championship in 2016.
This coming Friday from St. Louis, WGN-TV will telecast its final Cubs game after 72 seasons. Tomorrow, I’ll begin my complete history of WGN-TV’s broadcasts, beginning with that very first one in 1948.