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In appreciation of WGN-TV on the occasion of their final Cubs telecast, part 4

Here’s the era where the Cubs put together their national fanbase.

Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Jack Brickhouse retired as Cubs play-by-play man at the end of the 1981 season. WGN-TV felt that it was the right time to switch to a new announcer, because Brickhouse was 65, the team had just been sold and they had Milo Hamilton in place for the previous couple of years, a seemingly obvious replacement. Here are Jack’s two on-air farewells, first, from the last game he broadcast at Wrigley Field September 27, 1981, then, from the last game of that season, October 4, 1981.

Everything seemed to be set up for a smooth transition, except it didn’t work out that way, not for Milo, anyway. The White Sox had also been sold in 1981, and their new ownership didn’t want Harry Caray around. When Harry became a broadcast free agent, the new Cubs ownership jumped at the chance to put him on WGN-TV and signed him to an initial two-year deal. Caray and Jack Brickhouse celebrated this together at the news conference announcing Harry’s hire:

Walter Kale/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Nowhere to be seen in that photo was Hamilton, who was said to be blindsided by the hire. It was the second time in Hamilton’s career he felt he’d been aced out of a job by Caray — it also happened in St. Louis in the mid-1950s. Hamilton and Caray awkwardly shared the booth for a couple of years before Hamilton went on to become a beloved broadcaster for the Houston Astros through 2012 — but Milo never let go of his grudge against Harry.

Truth be told, when Caray was first hired by WGN to broadcast Cubs games it didn’t seem like a fit. Caray’s tell-it-like-it-is approach to baseball broadcasting had been loved by White Sox fans and it wasn’t thought initially by some Cubs fans that he’d work out, in comparison to the rah-rah style of Brickhouse.

But when Harry was paired with Steve Stone in the booth in 1983, something clicked. Stone would gently smooth over Harry’s rough edges as well as provide accurate analysis, and the two got along famously. With WGN-TV now all over national cable after first being uplinked in 1978, this was the era when baseball fans outside the Chicago area got their taste of the Cubs. It didn’t hurt that this happened in just the third year of Caray’s tenure on the North Side:

I was at that game in Pittsburgh. 5,472 people sounded like 10 times that many.

Also in 1984, NBC acquired exclusive rights to their “Game of the Week” broadcast. Before then, if NBC carried a Saturday game, the local station could also air it. With network exclusivity, in 1984 there was a Cubs home game not televised by WGN-TV for the first time since 1947. It turned out to be a game that became legendary, called by NBC’s Bob Costas and Tony Kubek:

From 1982 through 1997, viewers all over the USA could see almost the entire Cubs season on WGN-TV:

1982-97: The Cable Era

Year Games
Year Games
1982 145
1983 147
1984 147
1985 146
1986 146
1987 150
1988 150
1989 150
1990 145
1991 149
1992 144
1993 142
1994 100
1995 124
1996 143
1997 143

(NOTE: In 1994, 137 games were scheduled, but only 100 aired due to the strike. More on this in Part 5 tomorrow. The 1995 season was shortened to 144 games, 124 of which were televised on WGN-TV.)

In the 1980s, with WGN-TV on national cable, viewers all across the country began watching Cubs games in great numbers.

One of those out-of-town viewers in that era was Adam Dubbin, who is now a writer for our SB Nation Tigers site Bless You Boys:

It was the summer of 1990 that I watched the Cubs and WGN all summer. I also had the Andre Dawson connection that bonded me to the Cubs of that era — he went to high school with my parents. That might have been the X factor between the Cubs, White Sox and the Braves on TBS. There was also something inherently lovable about the Cubs, though. Maybe it was Harry Caray and Steve Stone that I liked, or that so many day games were broadcast during the era. The Cubs definitely had the edge.

Chris Kyle, who runs our SB Nation Astros site The Crawfish Boxes, has a similar story:

My brother and I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, which is deep South Texas. Even down there basic cable carried WGN and I remember coming home from school and finding a Cubs game on. While I was usually more disappointed that Rescue Rangers wasn’t on, my brother would watch every time there was a game. He’s been a lifelong fan ever since and celebrated the 2016 WS win as if he were a Chicago native. None of that would have happened if it wasn’t for how far WGN reached. It truly is sad that they will no longer carry the games.

Writer mhatter106 of The Crawfish Boxes told me a similar story:

I think the first time I had my own place that wasn’t a dorm in college, my roommates and I got basic cable. But it wasn’t even really cable. It was super basic. Just the channels you’d get over an antenna but through a cable line. But WGN was in there for some reason, so I watched a fair amount of Cubs.

And TJ Gorsegner, managing editor of our SB Nation Twins site Twinkie Town, grew up watching the Cubs on the outskirts of the Chicago area:

I grew up in a family of Twins fans, so cheering for the Sox was never an option, but the area I’m from is pretty evenly split between Cubs and Sox fans out in rural Ogle County, Illinois. The WGN superstation was one of our satellite channels, and living in the cornfields, that was one of my main sources of entertainment. I was a bit of a baseball-obsessed kid, and would watch any game I could, especially Cubs day games. The cycle of playing Little League, watching Cubs, talking baseball with my friends is a large part of who I am, and 100 percent would not have happened if the superstation hadn’t carried Cubs games.

In 1987, Harry Caray suffered a stroke shortly before the season began. WGN-TV hastily scrambled to put together a roster of 32 “guest” announcers who would do the games with Steve Stone until Harry was well enough to return. I give Stone a tremendous amount of credit for his work with announcers as varied as Ernie Harwell, Mike Royko, Brent Musburger, Bob Costas and most famously, actor Bill Murray on April 17, a game at Wrigley Field against the Montreal Expos:

It’s not shown in that clip, but at one point the crew got Murray’s mother in the booth and Stone asked her, “Mrs. Murray, was Bill raised by wolves?”

In 1989, a fun moment happened on WGN-TV when Andre Dawson hit a home run onto Waveland on September 21 off Terry Mulholland, then with the Phillies. Look who comes up with the ball:

The resourceful WGN crew located the mailman and brought him into the broadcast booth for an interview with DeWayne Staats, who at that time did the middle innings on TV and the rest of the game on WGN radio:

In 1991, Harry called the last play of the season, a ground ball to first base as the Cubs defeated the Cardinals 7-3. The play and the game were routine, but what Harry said after the game definitely wasn’t:

“Sure as God made green apples, someday the Chicago Cubs are going to be in the World Series, and maybe sooner than we think.”

That brief statement was remembered by so many that bushels of green apples were left on Harry’s grave site when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016.

1998 was to be an important year in the history of WGN-TV and the Cubs. For the first time, part of the Cubs/WGN schedule went to Tribune’s CLTV and in 1999 to Fox Sports Chicago. Thus the WGN-TV slate was cut:

1998-2014: The Shared With Cable Outlets Era

Year Games
Year Games
1998 92
1999 90
2000 65
2001 71
2002 65
2003 69
2004 67
2005 69
2006 72
2007 68
2008 60
2009 62
2010 58
2011 63
2012 61
2013 67
2014 71

Both WGN and the cable outlet had hired Chip Caray to work alongside his grandfather in the booth beginning with the 1998 season. Both men looked forward to it, but sadly, Harry passed away February 18, 1998, just a few days before he was scheduled to leave for spring training. Chip took over as play-by-play voice alongside Steve Stone.

Here are a couple of videos from the first Wrigley Field game of 1998. Here’s WGN-TV’s tribute:

And, the moment of silence held at the ballpark that day:

Some didn’t like Chip. I thought he called a competent game and he and Stone made a pretty good broadcast team. In 2004, though, there was friction between the ballclub and the broadcast booth as some players didn’t like the justifiable criticism they were getting from the broadcasters. Neither Chip Caray nor Steve Stone was actually fired, but both departed after the 2004 season.

Len Kasper replaced Caray on play-by-play and Bob Brenly came in as the new analyst in 2005. Thus 2019 is Len’s 15th year as the Cubs’ TV play-by-play voice. Only Harry Caray (16 seasons) and Jack Brickhouse (34 seasons) have held that position longer.

In 2008, on the 60th anniversary of WGN-TV’s broadcasting of Cubs games, the channel produced a telecast which began in old-fashioned black and white, then inning-by-inning added features to bring things into the modern era. Here’s that entire game:

Also in 2008, WGN-TV had the privilege of broadcasting Carlos Zambrano’s no-hitter, the first for a Cub since 1972. The game against the Astros had been moved to Miller Park in Milwaukee from Houston due to Hurricane Ike. It was played on a Sunday night, which normally would have meant a TV blackout due to ESPN’s Sunday night exclusivity.

But WGN-TV was permitted to broadcast the game locally just to the Chicago market, and they got a gem. Here’s the final out:

That was the last no-hitter broadcast on WGN-TV. Cole Hamels’ 2015 no-hitter against the Cubs was carried on ABC7 Chicago. WGN-TV broadcast eight no-hitters involving the Cubs, all but Maloney’s by Cubs pitchers. They didn’t carry Sandy Koufax’ perfect game in 1965 — sadly, there’s no TV record of that game at all.

Tomorrow’s fifth and final installment of this series will include WGN-TV’s last years as a sports broadcast outlet as well as a count of the total number of Cubs games that have been televised on the channel.