What’s expected to be the last Cubs game on WGN-TV is scheduled for Sept. 27, a Friday night game in St. Louis starting the final series of the 2019 season.
Another tradition comes to an end, and a new era will begin.
But unlike HBO and “Game of Thrones,” WGN and the Cubs aren’t hyping their final season together after 72 years. In fact the news release announcing the Cubs’ 2019 TV schedule didn’t even mention it would be last one on what some Chicagoans still refer to as “Channel 9,” even if they’re really watching Channel 192 on their local cable outlet.
It makes sense to downplay the news. Details of the Cubs network have yet to be announced, so it probably isn’t kosher for WGN to start reminiscing about the end of their decadeslong relationship just yet.
Fortunately WGN has 45 games on the schedule, including the season opener March 28 in Texas, so there’s plenty of time to show the old clips we know so well.
Face it: We’ve been hearing about the proposed Cubs Channel for so long it has lessened the impact of the swan song. But it’s still sad to see the Cubs leaving WGN, a partner through thick and (mostly) thin. It’s just another sign that nothing lasts forever. Recall that the Cubs and WGN Radio split after the 2014 season, ending a relationship that dated to 1925.
If you’re a baby boomer Cubs fan, their games may be the only thing left on local TV that was on when you started watching. Fifty years ago, Bozo, Ray Rayner and Jack Brickhouse were the voices you listened to more than your teacher.
In my first year as Cubs beat writer in 1997, WGN televised 144 games. That ’97 team started 0-14 and wound up losing 94 games, but at least you could watch them on free TV — or on the superstation if you had moved from Chicago.
The following January, the Cubs owners — Tribune Co. — decided to reduce the WGN schedule to 92 games, placing 62 games on CLTV, the company’s local cable news channel.
The move was done to accommodate prime-time WB Network shows, such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which brought in more revenue.
“I’m more attractive than Buffy,” Cubs announcer Harry Caray said, before lamenting “no one will hear me anymore” on the cable channel.
Many fans were outraged. One letter printed in the Tribune sports section stated: “Only the incredibly stupid Cubs/Tribune/WGN management could make such a colossal miscalculation.”
Caray never made the transition. He died three weeks later, and grandson Chip Caray took the mic during the ’98 season, one of the craziest in Cubs history. Sammy Sosa’s duel with Mark McGwire for the single-season home-run record and rookie Kerry Wood’s strikeout fests made the Cubs must-see TV.
With the Cubs in contention in late July and more than one-third of the remaining games scheduled to air on CLTV, Tribune Co. bowed to pressure and announced it would move selected Cubs games back to WGN “depending on the pennant race.”
Fans gradually grew accustomed to watching more games on cable, and in 2003 the Cubs, White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks began their own sports channel, Comcast SportsNet Chicago, which is now NBC Sports Chicago. As former Bulls executive Steve Schanwald explained at the time, the move was made to “cut out the middleman,” or basically provide more revenue for the teams.
Fans obviously will tune in wherever the listings say the game is airing, assuming they can find which channel that is on any given day. The Cubs had the fifth-highest ratings among regional sports networks last year, according to Nielsen data provided to Forbes, trailing the Cardinals, Red Sox, Indians and Brewers. The White Sox finished last among the 29 teams. (The Blue Jays aren’t part of the Nielsen ratings because they’re located in Canada.)
And there really is little difference between a game telecast on WGN, ABC-7 or NBC Sports Chicago. The broadcasters, Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies, provide the same descriptions. The seventh-inning stretch remains a staple of all three telecasts. And the veteran producer of Cubs telecasts, Marc Brady, uses the ballpark and neighborhood as part of the visual presentation, whether it’s a fan chugging a beer after catching a foul ball in his or her cup or a glimpse of a sailboat on Lake Michigan. Arne Harris, the late WGN director of Cubs telecasts, started that tradition in the 1980s and credited Caray for making “Chicago scenes” part of the broadcast.
“The Cubs lose a doubleheader, but look at all the people walking out of park,” Harris once said. “They aren’t sad. Baseball was important, but watching Harry sing and having a good time is what was really important.”
Maybe the Cubs still would’ve been the Cubs without WGN. The years of losing separated them from other franchises, and truthfully, they really weren’t all that lovable some seasons.
But WGN helped broaden their appeal, particularly in 1984, and made them into a national team. Here’s hoping their final season ends with a cliffhanger.
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