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If the Cubs don’t spend this offseason, Chicago baseball fandom could head to the South Side

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Just because the Cubs have been the most popular team in Chicago for half a century doesn’t mean it will always remain so.

Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Since the Cubs and White Sox are meeting again this weekend, it got me to thinking about the long history of the two franchises and how they have gone up and down in popularity among Chicago baseball fans over that shared history.

We stand, I believe, at a possible crossroads in time where the White Sox have a chance to hugely increase their popularity in Chicago, perhaps at the expense of the Cubs.

To understand why, here’s a bit of the history of baseball in Chicago and its back-and-forth between the Cubs and Sox since the dawn of the 20th Century.

The Cubs and White Sox have competed in the same city for 120 years, ever since the American League became a major league in 1901. The Sox, in fact, co-opted their name from the original moniker of the Chicago National League franchise, the “White Stockings.” The NL franchise had abandoned it prior to 1900, and the Sox claimed it, hoping they’d get some older fans of the older team to follow them. It was shortened to “White Sox” in 1904:

Headline editors at the Chicago Tribune sports department immediately began shortening the name to “White Sox”, and the team officially adopted the shorter name in 1904. The name change to the White Sox was brought on after scorekeeper Christoph Hynes wrote White Sox at the top of a scorecard rather than White Stockings.

(Also, suppose the original NL Chicago franchise had NOT abandoned their original nickname. We’d all be White Sox fans now.)

The new team was immediately successful, winning the first AL pennant in 1901 and by 1906, as you surely know, the Cubs and White Sox met in the World Series for the first (and to date, only) time. The Cubs had been a juggernaut through the NL that year, winning a (still) MLB record 116 games. The Sox were a good team known more for their pitching, and shut down the powerful Cubs in October, winning the Series four games to two.

To this day the Cubs franchise is still looking for revenge.

Meanwhile, the Cubs put together three more pennants and did win two World Series over the next four seasons. The White Sox fell on a bit of hard times, a near-.500 run from 1909-14, but they outdrew the Cubs in all of those years and by the time they won the World Series again in 1917, they nearly doubled Cubs attendance — 684,521 to 360,218.

That was the only real measure of team popularity in those pre-radio, pre-TV days.

And then came the Black Sox scandal, and the White Sox roaming for decades mostly out of contention. Even so, as late as 1925 the Sox still outdrew the Cubs, 832,231 to 622,610.

The Cubs, though, followed that with their first truly extended run of contention and pennant-winning in the 20th Century. In the 14 seasons from 1926-39 the Cubs won four NL pennants and contended in almost every one of those seasons, with attendance peaking at 1,485,166 in 1929 before the Depression made baseball games unaffordable for many. (FWIW, it’s a statement of how long a bad stretch the Cubs had post-1945 that the 1929 attendance record wasn’t broken until 1969!)

The Sox, meanwhile, became an afterthought. They had nine straight losing seasons from 1927-35, bottoming out at 49-102 in 1932 when they drew 233,198 to the Cubs’ 974,688. Chicago truly was becoming a Cubs town, even though the Cubs lost all four World Series they played in from 1929-38.

This continued through the 1940s. Even though the Sox had some winning seasons then, the 1945 Cubs pennant and the end of World War II brought Cubs attendance back over a million — big numbers in those days! — peaking at 1,364,039 in 1947, then third-best in franchise history and also third in the NL. The Sox drew better, too, but their top attendance figure in the 1940s was 983,403 in 1946 as they suffered through several more losing seasons in a row from 1944-50.

It was in that time frame and just after when two things happened that would first vault the White Sox into popularity for nearly two decades, and then give that city popularity back to the Cubs for about the last half century.

The first was the Sox suddenly turning into winners. They had 17 straight winning seasons from 1951-67, contending every year and winning one AL pennant. They outdrew the Cubs in all but one of those years (1958, probably because of Ernie Banks’ first MVP season and the then-World Series champion Milwaukee Braves drawing fans to Wrigley for their 11 games there).

The second was WGN-TV. Cubs and White Sox games were both on WGN in those days, almost all home games, but the Cubs began to establish a fandom among kids who could see all the day games on TV when they came home from school, while the White Sox played an increasing number of night games.

In that 1950s and 1960s time frame while the Sox were winning, the Cubs suffered through two horrid decades. From 1947-66 they had just one winning season and Wrigley Field wasn’t the destination it is now. In 1966 the Cubs lost 103 games and drew just 635,891 while the Sox had 990,016 paid admissions to Comiskey Park.

Then two more things converged to switch many Chicago baseball allegiances. First, the Cubs awoke from their 20-year slumber to contend briefly in 1967. The Sox, meanwhile, looked like they had a strong chance to win an AL pennant that year, just one game out with five to go against the league’s worst teams, the A’s and Senators. But they lost all five of those games and finished fourth.

The second thing was that 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. This was scheduled to start in 1968.

In those days, WFLD-TV, a UHF station, couldn’t be seen in many Chicago TV homes that didn’t have modern TV sets. Meanwhile, the Cubs continued to contend with beloved and popular players, while the Sox faded. In 1968 and 1969 they lost more than 90 games each year and played some of their home games in Milwaukee. In fact, Bud Selig nearly bought the Sox back then. The only thing that saved the Sox from being acquired by Selig and moved to Wisconsin was Art Allyn’s brother John buy out Art’s share of ownership and thus keep the team in Chicago, but that wasn’t looking like such a great deal: In 1970 the Sox lost a franchise-record 106 games and drew only 495,335 to Comiskey Park. Meanwhile, the Cubs’ popularity was booming as they contended every year through 1973.

Despite hiring the popular Harry Caray, for a couple of years the Sox couldn’t even get a major radio station in Chicago to broadcast their games, forcing them to cobble together a “network” of three suburban stations just so they could be heard in the entire metro area.

And in 1978, the Cubs caught a huge break when United Media uploaded WGN-TV’s signal to satellite and it became possible to watch Cubs games nationally, 140+ games a year every year through 1997 and on a lesser scale through 2014.

Meanwhile, the Sox were sold to a group headed by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn. Einhorn had made his money in sports television and had the idea to put Sox games on pay TV, first on an over-the-air scrambled signal and then on a cable channel.

This was indeed the future of sports broadcasting, but for the Chicago market, an idea way ahead of its time. In the early 1980s, Chicago was the least-cabled major market in the USA. Where I lived in the city of Chicago at the time, we didn’t get cable until 1988. So Sox fans who didn’t have access to cable were stuck with watching a handful of games a year left on WFLD-TV; meanwhile, Cubs fans in Chicago and across the country got 140+ games a year with Harry Caray, who switched sides of town in 1982, calling their games on WGN-TV.

And even though the TV landscape has changed over the last 20 years, with all Cubs and Sox local broadcasts now moved to cable outlets, the city’s choice has been clear: Cubs. Even when the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, they didn’t maintain a playoff-contending club for more than that one year (other than their 2008 division title and quick playoff exit that season). If they’d had an extended run of contention, they might have been able to dig into the Cubs’ fanbase. However, once the Cubs won the World Series in 2016 and continued to contend after that, their spot as the No. 1 baseball team in Chicago has appeared to be cemented.

Until now.

I wrote this article two weeks ago laying out four reasons the Cubs needed to spend money this offseason. One of those reasons was the White Sox and their newfound run of contention, with fun and likeable players.

Having thought about that further over the last couple of weeks, it’s entirely possible the Sox are the biggest threat to the Cubs’ dominance of the city’s baseball fans. Beyond the reasons I laid out in the previous article, the Cubs also have to deal with this: The Sox have a TV channel that appears more accessible to some fans than Marquee Sports Network is to Cubs fans, and in some quarters beyond just dedicated White Sox fans, their broadcasters are better-liked for their on-air product.

The Chicago Cubs have been the most popular team in Chicago since the late 1960s, more than half a century, for various reasons, most of which I’ve laid out in this article. But what if the White Sox have a deep playoff run or even win the World Series in 2021 while the Cubs, having sold off their popular core players, lurch to a 100-loss season? Where are the casual baseball fans in Chicago going to go? It won’t be the North Side if that happens.

Jed Hoyer and his baseball ops team, and ownership under Tom Ricketts, are going to have to spend this winter — big time — to put a competitive and possibly contending team on the field in 2022. Otherwise they risk losing that 50-plus year fanbase to the other side of town. This note appears at the top of this post, but it bears repeating: Just because the Cubs have been the most popular team in Chicago for half a century doesn’t mean it will always remain so.