In 2021, Major League Baseball TV rights are sold for many millions (or even billions!) of dollars and zealously guarded by rightsholders. In some cases it’s even difficult for fans to watch their team’s games because TV channels can’t reach carriage deals with providers.
That wasn’t the case in the early days of television. With only a few broadcast channels on the air and lots of time to fill, many channels looked to live sports, including baseball, as a way to fill several hours of airtime for many summer afternoons and evenings.
The result, at least in Chicago, was Cubs games being carried on multiple TV channels at once. Because Cubs home games from Wrigley Field were exclusively played in the daytime back then, TV channels knew they could fill up a couple of afternoon hours, at least. At one point there were three Chicago TV stations carrying Cubs games, as I explained in this 2015 article:
The year was 1949. The Cubs were coming off a 90-loss 1948 season that marked their first last-place finish since 1925.
And yet, no fewer than three Chicago television stations wanted to carry their games. WGN-TV had begun its slate of Cubs TV games the previous year along with WBKB-TV, and in 1949 WENR-TV, then the ABC-owned station in Chicago, also televised the full slate of Cubs home games. In an essay titled, “Philip K. Wrigley: Contrarian,” George Castle wrote: “There were times when the Cubs game was the only telecast on the three channels on summer afternoons.”
WENR, who used Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby as an announcer (by most accounts, he was awful), soon dropped out of Cubs TV broadcasting along with WBKB, leaving the field to WGN-TV.
The reason I’m telling you all of this today is because I follow a Twitter account called “Chicago TV Guides,” which each day posts photos of pages from old local TV guides with listings from today’s date from some year in history.
Today, they posted this listing from May 19, 1951, 70 years ago today:
#OTD in 1951— Chicago TV Guides (@ChicagoTVGuides) May 19, 2021
The Frank Sinatra Show, Your Show of Shows, Beat the Clock, Jack Carter Show, Sing it Again, Roller Derby, Wrestling from Chicago, Your Hit Parade, more...
Chicago TV Forecast. May 19, 1951 pic.twitter.com/qTgatKl7BP
In addition to all the shows noted in the tweet, there’s Cubs baseball on two channels:
Chicago, as you likely know, no longer has a Channel 4. That was a CBS station at the time; with several mergers of film and TV companies in 1953, Chicago’s allocation to Channel 4 was eliminated and CBS moved to Channel 2.
Joe Wilson, the announcer listed for Channel 4 (WBKB)’s coverage, was better known as “Whisperin’ Joe Wilson” due to his soft-spoken style. His catchphrase was, “I don’t care who wins as long as it’s the Cubs,” which didn’t happen often in those days.
Also note that a postgame show was scheduled at 3:30 (for a 1:25 game start!) on WGN-TV, and 3:40 on WBKB, the latter titled “Associate Scorecard.”
For that particular game, the channels were likely able to hit their time benchmark for those postgame broadcasts, as the Cubs’ 2-1 loss to the Phillies was completed in two hours, five minutes in front of 20,811 at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs actually got off to a reasonably good start that year, and at the end of May were 19-17 and just three games out of first place. A 3-11 skid panicked management into the infamous Andy Pafko trade, and the 1951 Cubs wound up 62-92, the third time in four seasons the team had lost 90 or more games.
But the exposure on television of the ballclub would continue, with the afternoon games available to kids coming home from school helping to create several generations of Cubs fans.
Thought this was an interesting slice of history from 70 years ago today.