Constable: How a doctor preserved Chicago Cubs radio broadcaster Pat Hughes' voice
Professional baseball players' careers can end with one ligament-popping pitch, an awkward slide or the accumulated tolls of aches and pains. On the verge of his 6,000th professional baseball game in April, legendary Chicago Cubs radio broadcaster Pat Hughes, 62, has firsthand insight into that fear.
“There was some trepidation going into the 2015 season,” admits the Lincolnshire resident, who will host the Cubs Convention starting Friday. “I took nothing for granted and wasn't sure if my voice would hold up.”
During a grueling 2014 season doing play-by-play for the last-place Cubs, Hughes worked through a case of bronchitis in June and finished the season. But he didn't recover with rest.
“The scratchiness in my voice just seemed to linger on and on and on,” Hughes said during his initial visit that December in the Northbrook office of Dr. Aaron Friedman, a laryngologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem's Voice Center. “I couldn't get to the real high ones and especially the low ones. There was no timbre.”
Hughes was diagnosed vocal cord dysplasia, a precancerous condition in which the thin, flexible layer similar to plastic food wrap on his left vocal cord was coated with a surface that “was much more thick, like shoe leather,” Friedman says. The condition is more common in singers and broadcasters, Friedman says.
“A small change can make a big difference in the voice,” notes Friedman, one of a handful of surgeons in the Chicago area who uses a KTP laser to reduce bleeding and be more precise during the delicate surgery to correct the issue. “We can elegantly peel off the diseased surface.”
The condition can return, and Hughes gets periodic checkups, including one scheduled before the 2018 spring training games begin. “My voice feels as good as it ever did,” Hughes says. “This is the happiest time of my career.”
Not that Friedman would be aware of that. “I'm not from this area and I'm not a big sports fan, so I didn't know who he was,” confesses the surgeon, who hasn't kept up with baseball since childhood. “In my mind, Mark Grace is playing first base for the Chicago Cubs.”
But he knew Hughes had a natural talent. “Pat is extraordinarily attuned to his voice,” says Friedman, who notes that Hughes noticed symptoms long before most people would. “He's blessed with a vocal cord anatomy not everyone has.”
A 1973 graduate and a basketball star for the Branham High School Bruins in San Jose, California, Hughes set a school record by dishing out 16 assists in one game. Also a good baseball player, Hughes is a member of the school's athletic hall of fame. He still uses basketball to stay in shape.
“I shoot baskets religiously. I take 150 shots and run to the other end after every shot,” Hughes says. He realized during his freshman year at San Jose State University that basketball wouldn't be his pathway to professional sports. “I would do play-by-play when I was sitting on the bench and entertain my teammates,” says Hughes, who soon did basketball and baseball play-by-play for his college radio station.
Growing up, Hughes listened to radio broadcasts of Bill King, the voice of the Oakland Raiders and Golden State Warriors, and Al Michaels' play-by-play of San Francisco Giants games. “I would record them on cassette tapes and then type up the transcripts,” he remembers. “I was trying to learn.”
Hughes began his broadcast career with the San Jose Missions minor league baseball team and called his first Major League Baseball game in 1983 as the TV voice of the Minnesota Twins. Before joining the Cubs in 1996, Hughes spent a dozen years in the Milwaukee Brewers' radio booth alongside Bob Uecker, who turns 83 this month and is still broadcasting games.
Not predicting how long his career might last, Hughes simply says: “I still love baseball. I really think baseball, and especially baseball on the radio, is one of the most healthy forms of escapism in American life.”
To escape from the grind of long seasons, Hughes turns to books, music and puzzles. “I'm a huge reader,” says the father of two grown daughters, noting that he usually works on a couple of books at a time. He's also co-authored two books, appeared on 15 CDs, and produced, written and narrated “Baseball Voices,” his endeavor to honor the sport's greatest broadcasters.
“I'm not a big talker,” Hughes says, explaining how he loves to wake up early, walk the dog and sit at the table before his wife, Trish, gets up. “I've got coffee. I've got the newspaper. I'm a happy guy.”
Friedman is happy with his patient's quick recovery and still-healthy voice, but has one complaint about the Cubs broadcast. “They have him on AM radio where you can't appreciate the nuances of his voice,” he says.
Hughes is scheduled to broadcast his 6,000th ballgame on Sunday, April 1, in Miami, as the Cubs play the Marlins. Whatever he says will come naturally, as Hughes even resisted the temptation to craft some memorable catchphrase before the Cubs won the 2016 World Series. His call - “A little bouncer slowly toward Bryant. He will glove it and throw to Rizzo. It's in time. And the Chicago Cubs win the World Series!” - is crisp, clean and tells the whole story.
The veteran always passes along credit to his producer, Mitch Rosen, and his color commentator, Ron Coomer. A finalist for the Hall of Fame's 2017 Frick Award, Hughes' focus is on the 2018 Cubs season.
“I enjoy it,” Hughes says. “When they call you 'the voice of the Cubs,' that's a great way to go through life.”