From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs long history on the radio
As the Cubs embark on a new relationship with CBS Radio WBBM-AM 780 this season, we look back at the team’s unique role in baseball’s earliest broadcasts and how a few forward-thinking executives helped change the way the game reaches out to fans. The following can be found in the April issue of Vine Line.
A spin of the knob and a static-filled turn through the radio dial in 1920 didn’t offer much in the way of compelling entertainment. One might catch a farm report, the sounds of a pianist playing at Chicago’s Drake Hotel or some healthy-lunged soul reading the newspaper from cover to cover. Radio was largely staid, uneventful and untapped.
But in 1921, considered the year commercial radio was born, listeners could tune into something much more exciting for the first time—professional baseball.
The first crude broadcast trickled out of a Pittsburgh-based station to little fanfare, but just three years later, the power of baseball hit the airwaves in Chicago, where an intrepid ballclub owner and his savvy marketing counterparts used it to spur a revolution in sports. With owner William Wrigley Jr.’s foresight, the Cubs created a model of publicity, fandom and team ubiquity that reached people well beyond city limits. While many owners still feared airing games would be bad for the sport (and their bottom line), the Cubs became a pioneering force that helped revolutionize how the game has been consumed by the public ever since.
“It was definitely the Cubs who acknowledged this was a medium, a way, for not taking away from attendance, but for making better fans,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig. “[With radio], the Cubs went from the middle of the road to leading the National League in attendance year after year.”
In 2015, for the first time in nearly six decades, Cubs baseball will be broadcast exclusively on CBS affiliate WBBM-AM 780, after a much-talked-about changing of the guard from longtime partner WGN. Even with television’s high-definition visuals and the Internet vying for fans’ attention, radio remains a local media force, especially among serious fans hungry for information about their beloved club. While comparatively quaint, listening to a game on the radio can still be sublime.
“It’s a local jewel, an iconic brand,” said Rod Zimmerman, senior vice president at CBS Radio Chicago. “We believe in what they’re doing on the North Side.”
Implausibly, there once was baseball without broadcasts. No game calls, no player interviews, no commercials, no lucrative rights deals. At the turn of the 20th century, people who could afford to attend games were the only sure revenue stream upon which a team owner could rely, and fans were courted in now unfathomably low-tech ways.
“You became a baseball fan by playing it or by watching your local team contest against the adjoining community,” said John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian and the author of the Our Game blog. “And there were the sporting papers.”
Written accounts of major and minor league games courted baseball’s relatively small fan base, but actually attending a tilt in person was prohibitively expensive. A 50-cent ticket in the late 1800s was not far off, inflation-wise, from what seats fetch today. Plus, stadiums didn’t yet have lights. Mid-afternoon game times catered to bankers and brokers, and, of course, city dwellers who could easily access the ballpark, Thorn said.
In Chicago, the game crowd was often inebriated, always rowdy, and generally inhospitable to women and children. In short, it took some effort to be a fan.
But Harold Arlin, engineer for Pittsburgh’s KDKA, the first commercial radio station in the country, changed all that at an otherwise uneventful game between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on Aug. 5, 1921. As the teams battled it out on the field, Arlin rested his jury-rigged equipment and a homemade microphone on a wooden plank on the arms of his seat and, over the drone of the crowd and occasional equipment failures, broadcast the first radio game in Major League Baseball history.
While there is no recording of this initial broadcast, Hartig’s research found it was far from smooth. Arlin didn’t know much about baseball, and the frequent dead air and lifeless call made for some uninspiring listening. But the essential concept worked. The following fall KDKA became the first station to broadcast a World Series game and, later, a college football game.
Radio in those days was fledgling, and stations such as the newly established WGN in Chicago did not discriminate as to what they were willing to put on the air.
“They were sort of desperate for content,” Hartig said.
Airing the occasional big-ticket sporting event worked well enough that in 1924, WGN tapped A.W. Kaney to broadcast the opening game of the Cubs-White Sox City Series from the roof of what is now known as Wrigley Field.
“We go back 90 years with the Chicago Cubs on WGN,” said Jack Rosenberg, WGN sports editor from 1945-99. “To the very beginning of radio.”
Wrigley, team owner and head of a chewing gum empire, was a big—if not the biggest—player in creating the baseball-on-the-radio phenomenon. He and Cubs stockholder Albert Lasker, known as the “father of modern marketing,” recognized there was something to be gained from broadcasting games.
A handful of local stations, such as the Chicago Daily News-backed WMAQ and the Chicago Tribune’s WGN, began covering the Cubs with Wrigley’s encouragement. Typically WGN would air weekend and holiday games, while WMAQ carried midweek affairs. The head of WMAQ, Judith Waller, pressed Wrigley for exclusive rights to the games in 1925—a prescient move in those experimental times—but the Cubs owner, according to Hartig, figured more outlets would serve his club better, so he invited all local stations to cover the team.
“Back in the 1930s, research showed that at one point, there were as many as five stations airing Cubs baseball. Eventually, this created new fans,” Rosenberg said. “It was phenomenal. It changed the game.”
So did charismatic broadcasters such as WGN’s Quin Ryan, who opened the 1925 season with a pregame show before the Cubs hosted the Pirates. Ryan knew baseball and delivered the call with enthusiasm and insight. But owners outside of Chicago still saw this new on-air alternative as a potential scourge to the bottom line.
“Radio was slow to take hold in local markets because baseball owners thought it would cannibalize attendance,” Thorn said. “But my thoughts are radio never hurt anybody, anytime, anyhow.”
The conflict between radio backers and detractors divided largely on geographic lines. The rural expanse of the West allowed teams such as Chicago and St. Louis to draw from not only their big-city markets, but from far-distant regions as well.
“As you get from the early 1920s to the late 1920s, there’s essentially a split among owners,” said James R. Walker, author of Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio. “Those hinterland fans were given a taste of the Cubs on the radio. In the East, they were pretty much hemmed in.”
The Yankees’ fan base butted against that of the New York Giants, which tickled the edge of Philadelphia Athletics country, which essentially sat atop Pirates territory. The owners feared radio broadcasts would poach fans from across those already-tensile borders. Philadelphia, however, tended to embrace radio, Hartig said. Another exception was Boston, whose broadcasts could pull fans from western Massachusetts and northern New England, effectively leading to the establishment of what we now know as Red Sox Nation.
But owners still feared easily accessible baseball broadcasts and competition with nearby markets would depress attendance. World Series seats were coveted enough that broadcasting those games was of little concern. But a midsummer snoozer? That could be a problem. In the era of minimal rights fees, teams were making next to nothing on radio broadcasts. It simply wasn’t worth the gamble.
“They weren’t dimwitted. They weren’t Luddites,” Walker said. “They were trying to make a reasoned decision regarding the situation they were in.”
In 1926, American League President Ban Johnson even went so far as to forbid AL teams from broadcasting games, according to Hartig. New York clubs refused to air any games, home or away, until 1939, and the Cardinals were blacked out in 1934 (until attendance nosedived and management reconsidered). The teams that did embrace radio often broadcast only home games, seeing those as a good advertisement for a day at the ballpark.
Wrigley, on the other hand, believed radio was something more and that the Cubs could reach a new breed of fans who were unable to attend games—those at work, mothers at home with kids, etc. Radio would entice these listeners to want to experience the games for themselves and actually be a boon to attendance. Thanks to Wrigley’s well-informed hunch, Cubs business was booming. Attendance-wise, that is. The team itself struggled.
Chicago finished the 1925 season in last place with a 68-86 record. Yet over the next two years, attendance increased 86 percent from more than 620,000 in 1925 to nearly 1.2 million in 1927. Even during the Great Depression, as clubs saw their attendance drop off by up to 75 percent, the Cubs only suffered a 20 percent loss, Hartig said.
While these spikes in popularity were partly traceable to radio, the growth also coincided with team President Bill Veeck Sr.’s leadership and the sweeping improvements he made to the team’s ballpark, roster and marketing efforts. It was a good time to be affiliated with the Cubs, especially as the dismal seasons gave way to pennants in 1929, 1932, 1935 and 1938.
With multiple outlets covering the team, stations thrived on the backs of their broadcasters. WGN’s illustrious history alone includes Quin Ryan and Bob Elson, Jack Quinlan and Lou Boudreau, Harry Caray (briefly), Pat Hughes and Ron Santo, and the list of local legends goes on.
“The announcers, in effect, became part of the family,” Rosenberg said. “[Fans] knew they were going to be there.”
By 1949, Hartig said, 29 stations in 10 states were broadcasting Cubs games, and those broadcasts reached up to 2.7 million homes.
In 1948, the newly minted WGN-TV station broadcast its first Cubs game with future Hall of Famer Jack Brickhouse at the mic. While this didn’t displace radio, televised games changed the profile of the audience. Radio became the preferred option of purists and romantics, or those at work during games, driving in their cars or sitting outside in the yard. Television brought baseball to life, introducing fans to the sights in addition to the sounds of beautiful Wrigley Field. That had a seismic impact on how the action was conveyed and on the ways the league could make money.
But while TV and the Internet are huge drivers for Major League Baseball, anyone spinning the dial to WBBM this season will tell you that radio still matters.
“You use your imagination,” Walker said. “It becomes a much richer experience than watching a television program.”
Baseball on the radio is about nostalgia, simplicity and romance. And in any new relationship—the Cubs and WBBM’s included—it all starts with a little romance.
“It’s the idea of catching a ballgame while swatting away mosquitos and drinking a beer,” Thorn said. “And isn’t that great?”
—By Kerry Trotter