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In appreciation of WGN-TV on the occasion of their final Cubs telecast, part 5

This is it. After tonight, there will no longer be any Cubs games on WGN-TV.

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Len Kasper and Bob Brenly broadcasting on WGN-TV from the bleachers in 2011
Courtesy WGN-TV

No other TV channel has aired the games of a professional sports team for as long as WGN-TV has — 72 consecutive seasons — and likely none ever will. Tonight’s Cubs/Cardinals game from St. Louis will be WGN’s 7,115th — and final — Cubs game telecast.

How do I know that exact number? I counted them. Every single one of them. Well, not one by one — I had a number of sources and methods, and I’ll get to those in a bit. First, consider this: that’s about one-third of all the games that have ever been played by the Chicago National League Ball Club (as Jack Brickhouse always would remind us they were officially called), even though television didn’t enter the picture until the franchise’s 73rd season. Put another way: Since April 23, 1948, when the first WGN-TV game aired, the Cubs have played 11,430 games, including tonight. 7,115 games is 62.2 percent of that, so nearly two-thirds of all the games the Cubs have played since that 1948 home opener have been seen on WGN-TV.

I have a couple of contacts at WGN-TV, one of whom is a keeper of station history. Neither had any idea exactly how many games WGN-TV had carried, so I realized if I wanted to know, I’d have to count them myself.

How did I do this? I approached this project with a bit of trepidation. I knew many schedules, both released by the Cubs and published in newspapers over the years, had TV games listed. Over the last decade or so I had press releases that listed the televised game totals and channels for those years. I thought I might be able to get the entire total from those.

But as I found when I looked at various sources, that wasn’t entirely true. Here is a photo of the top of a box I have kept that’s full of old pocket schedules and giveaway magnet schedules dating back to the 1980s:

I wound up dumping the entire box on the floor and going through what I found.

Some of these schedules have TV games listed and some of them don’t. Those were helpful, to a certain extent. Old media guides had some info, but oddly, in a place where you’d figure the team would put all the information anyone would need, occasionally this info wasn’t there. Many of the media guides from the 1980s and 1990s simply said “most games on WGN-TV.” That wasn’t helpful.

I have also saved quite a few newspaper schedules from the mid-1970s until recently. Some of these had TV games listed, others didn’t.

Several friends of mine helped out by sending me photos of old calendar pages and schedules they’d kept that I hadn’t.

Then I went to the Chicago Tribune archive that’s available to anyone with a Chicago Public Library card — a great resource if you live in the city, and one I’ve used often for Cubs history pieces here. That was productive, but there were some years in the 1980s that even the Trib didn’t have this info — surprising given the 1980s were the first decade the paper owned the team. You’d have thought promoting their own ballclub would be something they’d want to do, but oddly, they didn’t, except for daily TV calendars. I wasn’t going to go through decades of daily TV calendars.

Fortuitously, I stumbled across the American Radio History website, which has an online archive that includes a treasure trove of old broadcasting industry magazines and annuals. A magazine called Broadcasting (later Broadcasting & Cable) published, many but not all years, a list of MLB television affiliates, how many games they covered and rights fees.

This story’s getting a bit too long so I’ll simply tell you that the years then fell fairly easily until I was left with one: 1994. That year was doubly difficult because I couldn’t find a team or newspaper schedule or broadcasting industry list, added to the fact that a third of that season was cancelled by a labor dispute. I needed to see a schedule so I could find out exactly how many games were scheduled but not aired because of the strike.

In 1994, Major League Baseball debuted something called “The Baseball Network,” a sort of primitive precursor to the current MLB Network, at least in terms of game coverage. Starting after the All-Star break, MLB arranged to broadcast games regionally on various nights on either NBC or ABC local stations. Sometimes the Cubs were involved, other times not.

At last, my friend Kasey Ignarski, co-author of “Cubs By The Numbers,” sent me a 1994 schedule with WGN-TV games indicated:

You can see some games on that schedule indicated as not televised at all. That’s not entirely correct — this was a WGN-TV schedule, so it only listed WGN (and CLTV) games and not those planned for The Baseball Network. With this, I could see how many games were originally scheduled, and how many got cancelled by the strike. I also found that the Tribune published a weekly schedule of TV games each Monday in 1994 and this corroborated what was on the schedule published above.

Another thing that schedule tells us is that the last Cubs game not televised at all by any channel was Monday, July 25, 1994, a 6-2 loss to the Pirates at Pittsburgh. That was a “Baseball Network” regional date, and the Cubs/Pirates game was not included in their game selection that night. Every regular-season and postseason Cubs game since has been televised. After 1994, Fox-TV picked up national broadcasts.

A final note to the count of 7,115 games: Although quite a number of games produced by WGN-TV aired on CLTV or WCIU-TV in recent years, I did not count those. The total of 7,115 includes only those that actually aired on WGN-TV itself.

After the Ricketts family bought the Cubs in 2009, they retained the existing television deals, with one exception. The contracts had been set to expire after 2022, but there was an opt-out after 2014 where the team could terminate all TV agreements after the 2019 season with the idea that they’d begin their own TV network at that time. They chose to do so, and that’s where we are now, with the team’s Marquee Sports Network set to begin broadcasting in spring 2020.

In addition, WGN-TV decided to scale back sports broadcasting after 2014. WGN America, which had carried Cubs games nationally since the late 1970s, ceased all sports broadcasting after 2014, which put WGN-TV games on the local broadcast channel only. This was hard for some outside the Chicago area to understand, as they’d been used to seeing games on WGN literally for decades. For those who live outside the Cubs’ TV market territory, they could still watch games by purchasing MLB Extra Innings or, but that was a big change from just being able to turn on your cable box or satellite dish and point it at “WGN.”

Locally, WGN-TV also cut back on sports broadcasting at that time, and over the last five seasons has carried fewer Cubs games than at any time in the past:

2015-19: End of the WGN-TV Era

Year Games
Year Games
2015 45
2016 45
2017 45
2018 45
2019 45

It is a sign of the times that while I’ve had video in each of the previous four parts of this series, there isn’t any for this final edition. Cubs games have been on multiple outlets over the last five seasons: WGN-TV, NBC Sports Chicago, ABC7 Chicago, Fox-TV and ESPN (and the one relocated last week from ABC7 to WCIU). While there certainly have been memorable games and broadcasts, pinning one specific game down to WGN would be pretty much impossible. It’s all part of a huge broadcast landscape which, more and more, is going to online streaming. If you live outside the Cubs market territory shown on this map (and I never fail to use the opportunity to show it if I can) ...

... then you’re watching Cubs games via Extra Innings or and you likely don’t really care which channel it’s on as long as you can see it. The announcers, at least for the locally-produced games, are now working for the Cubs instead of the broadcast outlets and they’re the same no matter what channel the game’s on. Only the on-screen graphics and logos that Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies (who joined the broadcast team in 2013) wear are different:

NBC Sports Chicago

Len and JD will continue in 2020 and beyond as Cubs broadcasters on the Marquee Network, so the broadcasts will look and sound more or less the same.

But they won’t be on “Good Ol’ Channel 9.” And even though I know that everything changes over time and technological and other changes make this departure necessary, this makes me sad, after watching games on that channel for my entire lifetime. I can’t say precisely how many of the 7,115 games I’ve personally watched over the years, but I’m sure it’s well north of 50 percent.

WGN-TV has been part of the life of all Cubs fans (and fans of other Chicago teams, all of whom will depart Channel 9 at the end of September) for 72 seasons, three or four generations worth of broadcasting and life. From Brickhouse to Caray to Kasper, those of us who have watched the Cubs on WGN have been entertained, even in the lean years, and thrilled many, many times. WGN-TV’s broadcasts of live Chicago professional sports will end forever with their telecast of the White Sox/Tigers game from the South Side Saturday evening. The Cubs head to the Marquee Sports Network; all of the games of the White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks will be on a relaunched NBC Sports Chicago beginning next month. After 72 years, there will no longer be any live sports broadcasts on free, over-the-air television channels in Chicago (save for a few regional/national games on WFLD-TV, Fox-32, WMAQ-TV, NBC-5 and WBBM-TV, CBS-2).

WGN-TV will likely have other changes coming in the near future, as Tribune Media’s TV and radio stations, including WGN, were just sold to Texas-based Nexstar. They won’t be managed out of Chicago anymore, so their slogan “Chicago’s Very Own” probably gets retired. It truly is the end of a television era.

WGN-TV’s Cubs broadcasts have meant a great deal to me over the years, and most likely, to you as well. Though Cubs games will still be on your TV, computer, mobile device or wherever you’re watching these days, there’s a lot of sadness that WGN-TV won’t be a part of that anymore. The 72 years, though, will remain in our hearts forever.

In addition to all the broadcasters I’ve mentioned in this series, a big thank you to everyone who put together WGN-TV’s pictures, sound and graphics over the last 72 years: directors Chris Erskine, Jack Jacobson, Bill Lotzer, Arne Harris, Skip Ellison and Marc Brady, countless assistant directors, technical directors, camera operators, audio engineers and video shaders, and longtime producer Jack Rosenberg:

Courtesy WGN-TV

Now that is a press box time capsule! A fedora, a pipe, a typewriter... signs of a bygone era.

Thanks also to the following people who helped me put together this series: Mike Bojanowski, Kasey Ignarski, George Castle, Tim Shockley, Carole Arett, Dave Davison, Holly Swyers, Kris Clark Borsodi and WGN-TV production director Bob Vorwald, who sent over a number of photos of the folks who helped make WGN-TV’s broadcasts great to watch over more than seven decades.

No, thank YOU, WGN-TV, for 72 seasons of amazing, wonderful baseball memories. Here’s hoping your final Cubs broadcast — against the same opponent featured in the first one in 1948 — is a win over the Cubs’ biggest rival.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Including this note and excluding photo captions, headlines, etc., this five-part series has exactly 7,115 words — one word for each of the 7,115 games telecast on WGN-TV.