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Cubs, WGN potential split conjures up memories

Legendary Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray jokes around prior game 1996 against HoustWrigley Field.  —Sun-Times Library photo

Legendary Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray jokes around prior to a game in 1996 against Houston at Wrigley Field. —Sun-Times Library photo

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Cubs local broadcast ratings on Ch. 9

2010: 3.8

2011: 3.2

2012: 2.6

Updated: November 7, 2013 10:19AM



Like many Chicagoans, I have fond memories of running home from elementary school to catch the ends of Cubs games with Jack Brickhouse and Lloyd Pettit on WGN in the 1960s — hearing Brickhouse give us the happy (or unhappy) totals, watching the ‘‘10th Inning’’ show and listening to Brickhouse sign off while stray fans popped paper cups by stomping them with their feet in an empty Wrigley Field.

Me and a million other Cubs fans.

‘‘Over the years, even in retirement, I’ve run into countless people who say to me, ‘You know, when I was in school . . .’’ said Jack Rosenberg, the longtime sports editor of WGN television. ‘‘And I’d say, ‘You can stop. You got home in the fifth or sixth inning and we were always there.’

‘‘And they’ll say, ‘How did you know I was going to say that?’ I said, ‘Because I’ve heard it literally thousands of times over the years.’ And I’m very flattered to have been a part of it. It’s been an incredible part of all our lives, and we really hope that we’re on ’GN television when the Cubs finally [win the World Series].’’

While the hope is that the Cubs will win a World Series in our lifetime, the chances of that glorious season being on WGN is in doubt with news that the long-running and indelible relationship between the Cubs and WGN could end after next season.

In a not-unexpected move, the Cubs have exercised an option in their television contract that allows them to explore other options after 2014. WGN could be one of those options, but in today’s market, with the Cubs in need of maximizing every revenue stream possible, it’s possible a new deal could be too rich for WGN’s blood.

That would be a shame to those of us who grew up with Brickhouse and Pettit and Harry Caray and Steve Stone. The reality is that times have changed. By the time I flip through cable channels to find out whether the Cubs game is on WGN or Comcast or WCIU or wherever it is these days, the Cubs are usually down 5-1 and I quickly flip to ‘‘American Pickers’’ or ‘‘Pawn Stars.’’

But once upon a time, WGN and the Cubs were one and the same. The Cubs have been on WGN literally since the advent of regularly programmed television in 1948. Ray Rayner, ‘‘Romper Room,’’ ‘‘Bozo’s Circus,’’ ‘‘Garfield Goose’’ and ‘‘Family Classics’’ are long gone. But the Cubs and WGN have endured from one generation to the next.

‘‘To people of my gener­ation, baseball never would be the same without WGN television’s involvement,’’ said Rosenberg, a fixture in the Cubs television booth with Brickhouse and later Caray from 1954 to 1995; it was his typewriter that created the familiar ambient sound on Cubs broadcasts all those years. ‘‘Obviously I’m partial, but I think ’GN television has been a part of everybody’s life who is a sports fan.

‘‘It would be a tremendous loss because WGN and the Cubs have been synonymous forever. In the embryonic days of television, we were there. We were with the Cubs in the beginning stages of radio much, much earlier. It’s been a tremendous partnership, a family deal of sorts. Let’s hope that there could be some meeting of the minds before this is all hashed out.’’

Stone, who played for the Cubs from 1974 to ’76 and broadcast Cubs games on WGN with Harry Caray and Chip Caray from 1983 to 2004 — and still calls White Sox games on WGN — is hopeful the Cubs can work out a deal with their longtime broadcast partner.

‘‘It was one of the really great times of my life,’’ Stone said. ‘‘It’s not a fait accompli yet, as I understand it. WGN will have an opportunity, and I’m pretty sure they’re pursuing that opportunity to maintain a presence of the Cubs on the air, which would be a wonderful eventuality for WGN and the fans of Chicago.

‘‘That being said, it is a business. If the Ricketts family can get a much better deal someplace else or starting something on their own . . . where they get a tremendous increase in revenue, I don’t think anyone can blame them for moving on.’’

That won’t make the pain any less for those of us who grew up on Cubs baseball on WGN. The Cubs started putting their games on television in the 1950s when few other teams did. While most teams considered televising games ‘‘giving away the product,’’ Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley saw it as promoting the product. And even when other organizations caught on, the Cubs and WGN stayed way ahead of everybody else. The Cubs were broadcasting 140 or more games every season on WGN when most other teams were televising 40 or fewer.

And, as Rosenberg noted, ‘‘You never had to look in the paper to see what channel the game was on.’’

It was a different time indeed. A gloriously different time.

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkPotash



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