It might be very difficult to believe in 2019, but during most of the 1960s the White Sox were often thought of as the No. 1 team in Chicago. They had outdrawn the Cubs every year since 1951 (save one oddity, 1958, likely because Ernie Banks’ first MVP season was a draw and the Sox were out of contention that year by June) and had a better record than their North Side rivals every one of the 17 seasons from 1951-67.
The White Sox had grown tired of being “second banana” on WGN-TV to the Cubs. The station was carrying only about 60 White Sox games a year, mostly weekend afternoons with the occasional weeknight game, not wanting to disrupt its usual evening schedule. White Sox owner Arthur Allyn signed a five-year deal with WFLD-TV to carry “up to” 129 games and also try to start a network of TV stations across the Midwest.
With Sox games gone and improved technology allowing less-expensive transmissions from away cities, WGN decided to increase its Cubs schedule:
1968-81: The Golden Age
(NOTE: In 1981, 140 games were scheduled, but only 92 of those aired due to the strike.)
This is the broadcast era many of you likely remember so well. The Cubs were a good team, at least through the early part of this era, and again toward the end. You could watch nearly every game; scattered West Coast games and the occasional game from Montreal (where transmission and crew costs were higher, at least in part because the Canadian dollar back then was actually worth more than $1 US) were the only ones not seen. In that era, WGN producer/director Arne Harris was generally at the helm in the broadcast truck:
Harris directed Cubs games on WGN-TV from the early 1970s through 2001, when he passed away suddenly the day before the season ended. Perhaps more than any other WGN-TV Cubs director, Harris’ style is the one you likely remember in creating the fun TV atmosphere that made you feel like you were at Wrigley Field, from his famous “hat shots” to putting shots like this on the air and prompting Jack Brickhouse to say “Deuces wild!”
On Opening Day 1971, a famous walkoff Cubs home run was hit by Billy Willams off Bob Gibson:
The voice on that clip is Jim West, who had been hired by WGN to replace Lloyd Pettit on Blackhawks games after Pettit had decided to retire from broadcasting. West, as you can hear, wasn’t really well-suited for baseball and left WGN after 1976. From 1977-80, Jack Brickhouse, doing mostly solo work, was joined in the fifth and sixth innings by Lou Boudreau, who moved over from the radio side. In 1981, Milo Hamilton, who had broadcast White Sox games on radio in the 1960s, paired with Brickhouse in the booth. It was also in this era that WGN temporarily cut back on camera operators on weekdays, setting the center-field camera on a fixed, locked shot and using only three operators.
Here are Brickhouse and West, along with future Cubs broadcaster Steve Stone, then a pitcher for the ballclub:
(Sleuthing the photo: It was taken August 25, 1975, when Stone did a pre-game interview on the field. The Cubs lost 11-4. Check out those wacky 1970s-era ties and Stone’s 1975 hairstyle, too, as well as the uniform, with the pullover jersey and pants with no belt.)
Some very famous games were shown on WGN-TV in this era and as videotape became less expensive, TV stations (and individuals!) were more willing to save things they thought historic.
On July 28, 1977, the Cubs and Reds played a 13-inning game won by the Cubs 16-15. The lead changed hands five times and the game was finally won by a single by Dave Rosello, scoring Rick Reuschel. On that date, the Nielsen rating increased from 22 at 4:30 p.m. to 29 at 6:00, half an hour before Rosello’s game-winning hit. That translates to more than two million people watching the game.
In the days when a local TV sportscast was all we had for highlights (ESPN was still two years away from existing!), here are 10 minutes’ worth from that game:
WGN in the 1970s was very protective of their highlights, which they felt would increase the ratings of their local newscasts. In this era WGN would not permit other local TV stations to air highlights of Cubs games. Thus you would frequently see a line of cameras from the other local TV stations on a catwalk near the old press box (in the area where the left-field suites are now), recording highlights for their own use. This practice ended when Tribune Company bought the team and Major League Baseball got more involved in the distribution of highlights to places like ESPN.
An even more famous game happened May 17, 1979, when the Cubs lost to the Phillies 23-22. Here’s what I wrote about that game here earlier this year on its 40th anniversary, and here’s the entire game, a great snapshot of WGN’s 1970s era Cubs coverage.
Here’s a bit of serendipity from the final home game of the 1981 season broadcast on WGN-TV. It was the second game of a doubleheader against the Phillies, who were headed to the postseason. The Cubs were awful that year, but in that game they blew out the visitors 14-0. The Cubs led 13-0 by the sixth inning and Phillies manager Dallas Green — surely you remember him! — cleared his bench. One of the Philly subs was a September callup from Triple-A, a skinny kid playing shortstop. With two out in the top of the eighth, he got his first major-league hit:
The game was so out of hand that Jack Brickhouse and Milo Hamilton never even mentioned Ryne Sandberg’s name, or that this was his first MLB hit. You can see Phillies first-base coach Ruben Amaro signaling for the ball to be saved. (I hope Ryno still has it!)
Check out the next Phillies hitter after Sandberg, too, seen briefly at the very end of the clip.
One last note about WGN-TV in the 1970s, and this one is personal. I was a WGN-TV production intern in the fall of 1976, and was assigned to work two games in the WGN-TV booth with Jack Brickhouse, a highlight of my internship. These are the games: a 4-3 walkoff win September 22, 1976 and a 5-4, 10-inning loss September 23, 1976, both against the Pirates. It was great fun and working with some of the legends of Chicago broadcasting will be a memory I’ll cherish forever. (And as a sign of how things have changed with the Cubs, the total attendance for those two dates — 5,507 — is about the capacity of the current Wrigley Field bleachers.)
Things with WGN-TV and the Cubs changed further when Tribune Company, which owned the station, bought the Cubs in 1981. More on that in Part 4 tomorrow.