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In appreciation of WGN-TV on the occasion of their final Cubs telecast, part 2

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It all began April 23, 1948.

Courtesy WGN-TV

As noted in Part 1 of this series, the Cubs and WGN-TV began their 72-season odyssey together with a broadcast of the Cubs’ home opener April 23, 1948, a 1-0 loss to the Cardinals. Here are the TV listings from that day’s Tribune, the very first time a Cubs game was listed as being televised on Channel 9 (it was also shown on WBKB, then Channel 4. How and why Chicago once had, but no longer has, a Channel 4 is a book-length story).

During the 1940s and 1950s, WGN-TV carried home games of both the Cubs and White Sox. Here are the WGN-TV game totals for Cubs games each year through 1957.

1948-57: Beginnings

Year Games
Year Games
1948 78
1949 77
1950 78
1951 77
1952 77
1953 77
1954 77
1955 78
1956 80
1957 78

Through 1968, when some games at Wrigley were simply called for darkness and replayed in their entirety, I’ve added those to the total, as the replays of tie games were also carried on WGN. Jack Brickhouse was joined by Harry Creighton in the broadcast booth through 1955. Vince Lloyd, who had hosted the “Lead-Off Man” pregame show since 1950, joined Jack in the booth in 1956 when Creighton departed.

1958-67: On The Road, and In Color

Year Games
Year Games
1958 78
1959 79
1960 88
1961 78
1962 85
1963 85
1964 86
1965 88
1966 86
1967 95

In 1954, WGN-TV was responsible for an innovation in production techniques that resulted from a setup for, of all things, Little League games televised live from Thillens Stadium on the city’s North Side. (Yes, Little League games — TV stations carried just about anything live in those days!)

In those days, most TV stations, including WGN, used a three-camera setup: One on the first base side, one behind the plate, one on the first-base side. But at Thillens, with a cramped setup, there wasn’t room for that. Many years ago, WGN-TV director (later program manager) Jack Jacobson told me, “The stands [at Thillens] were so close to the field that we couldn’t get a camera far enough behind the plate to get a decent shot of the pitcher and batter. So, out of necessity, we just put a camera in center field. It worked so well that pretty soon we started using it on the Cubs games.”

So the center-field shot which is now a staple of all televised baseball games was discovered almost by accident. Here’s a setup of TV cameras in the left-field corner of Wrigley Field, very close to the location where I now sit in the bleachers:

Courtesy WGN-TV

Mike Bojanowski and I had a detailed look at that photo. We agree that this photo was very likely taken April 23, 1948, the day of the first WGN-TV telecast from Wrigley Field, based on the crowd size, the ivy, the center-field bleachers not having a space for a hitters background, and the teams listed on the scoreboard.

Technological change was also starting to happen in the broadcast industry in this era, allowing TV broadcasts to be sent to all parts of the country via microwave links. The first Cubs road telecast on WGN-TV was from St. Louis August 30, 1958, a 3-1, 10-inning win over the Cardinals. And color Cubs broadcasting — see the photo at the top of this post! — began with Opening Day 1960 at Wrigley Field, a 10-8 loss to the Giants on April 22. (I don’t have confirmation, but I believe the photo at the top of this article was taken on that day.) All games from Wrigley Field were broadcast in color beginning that year.

Here’s a newspaper ad for a road game, from 1960 or 1961:

If that seems like a late time to start a game — that would have been 8:45 p.m. Eastern time — many teams started night games that late in the early days of lights. Reason: The lights, with less lighting strength than they have today, wouldn’t take full effect until it was completely dark. Many night games started at 8 p.m. local time as recently as the late 1970s. (Also possible because most games didn’t run three hours or longer in those days!)

It’s believed the earliest surviving videotape of a Wrigley Field broadcast — saved in black and white, the only type of videotape available back then — was the final out of Don Cardwell’s no-hitter on May 15, 1960 against the Cardinals:

WGN-TV added several road Cubs games to its slate each year through the 1960s, as shown in the table above, generally when they didn’t conflict with White Sox home games, which they were also carrying.

In 1962, a portion of a Cubs game from Wrigley Field was shown in Europe as part of the first-ever USA/Europe TV link:

That video, as far as I know, is the earliest surviving color videotape of a game at Wrigley Field. The Tribune reported:

The action showed Tony Taylor of the Phillies flying out to George Altman, Cubs right fielder. Johnny Callison, Philadelphia outfielder, singled to right field — the longest single in baseball history because it stretched all the way to Rome, Vienna and Stockholm.

Fifteen years later, Tribune columnist Peter Reich revealed that both of those hit balls were somewhat orchestrated by plate umpire Tony Venzon. Venzon had talked about the intercontinental telecast with Jack Brickhouse before the game and apparently decided to take matters into his own hands.

After the game, Brickhouse told Venzon, “We sure were lucky that both of those batters decided to swing when we were on Telstar.” Venzon replied, “Lucky, hell! That was my doing. I told them each when they came up to bat, ‘Fella, you’d better swing at anything this guy throws, because if it’s within three feet of the plate, I’m gonna call it a strike!’ I mean, I wasn’t gonna let baseball look dull and uninteresting to people in Europe who’d never seen a game before, was I?”

Another early-surviving color videotape of a WGN-TV game is the last couple of innings of Jim Maloney’s no-hitter against the Cubs August 19, 1965, the first game of a doubleheader. This video is fascinating, as it includes the commercials, which are a time capsule in their own right. Someone at WGN probably decided to begin this recording as the chance of a no-hitter increased, and once it happened, it was saved:

(Incidentally, the second game of that doubleheader was also notable. The Cubs trailed 4-0 going into the bottom of the eighth. Billy Williams hit a three-run homer in the eighth and in the ninth, Don Landrum hit a two-run walkoff homer. Too bad that video wasn’t also saved.)

The other voice besides Brickhouse in that 1965 video is Lloyd Pettit, better known for being the WGN-TV Blackhawks play-by-play man back then. Pettit had taken over in the Cubs TV booth for Lloyd, who switched to radio play-by-play after the tragic death of WGN Radio’s Jack Quinlan in a car accident during spring training 1965.

You’ll note the increase in the number of games in 1967. The Cubs had emerged from their 20-year losing slumber and contended that season. Some mid-July road games from St. Louis were added to the schedule, and that was the most Cubs games televised over WGN-TV to that time.

Also in 1967, WGN created what became known as the “WGN Continental Chicago Cubs Baseball Network,” a chain of Midwestern TV stations that at its peak in 1969 included stations in Rockford, Champaign, Peoria, Springfield, Moline, Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Rhinelander, LaCrosse, Wausau, Fort Wayne, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, South Bend and Omaha.

On July 24 and 25, 1967, this network allowed one of the largest audiences ever to watch a non-nationally televised baseball game to see the battle for first place between the Cubs and Cardinals. An estimated 1.6 million people in Chicago and a total of 3.5 million witnessed those two games, which saw the Cubs win on the 24th to tie for first, and then lose the next day to fall one game back.

All of this changed when a fateful decision was made by the White Sox at the end of 1967 that affected the TV futures of both teams for decades to come. That story in Part 3, tomorrow.