When baseball was king on WGN-TV

When the last period ended at Minnie Mars Jamieson Elementary School in Chicago, I would hurry to my apartment, several blocks away.

Once inside, I would dart toward the black-and-white television set and switch on WGN, hoping to catch Jack Brickhouse calling the last few innings of a day game at Wrigley Field.

A few years earlier, I might have been watching Sox games over WGN.

Alas, the Sox had jumped the WGN broadcast ship following the 1967 season, lured by the siren song of exclusive broadcast rights over UHF station WFLD. Watching a night game on Channel 32 involved a wrestling match with the UHF aerial that I often lost.

For the vast majority of Chicago kids at that time, televised baseball was synonymous with WGN, and the voice of baseball was Peoria's favorite son, who made the phrase "Hey, hey" famous.

Hard to believe, just weeks after the 75th anniversary of WGN TV's birth, that baseball no longer graces its broadcast schedule. Now cable has taken over, and you can even watch the Cubs and Sox on delay on the MLB app.

It was a very different world on April 5, 1948, when WGN-TV first beamed its way into Chicago households.

That year, the owners of Chicago's 16,000 video receivers would be able to watch all Cubs and Sox home games on WGN, including 21 night games at Comiskey Park.

And if you didn't have a set, you could drink in the action at the local bar. According to a report in Variety in 1948, "Baseball is the best box office stimulant (no pun intended) for the bars; football the poorest, because it's a longer time between drinks due to the progression of the action. Only times out create a slackening of interest, whereas the national pastime permits twice an inning hiatuses for tanking up."

It would be fun for the baseball historian to examine specimens of early televised Chicago baseball. The frustrating part for historians is the virtual extinction of the video record. Nothing, as far as I know, survives of WGN-TV's baseball broadcasts from 1948 to 1959.

The earliest example is audio only of Brickhouse calling the White Sox clinching the 1959 pennant in Cleveland. In a powerful moment, after Luis Aparicio snatches a grounder hit by Cleveland's Vic Power, steps on second base for the force and fires to first for the final out, Brickhouse's voice strains with emotion as he exclaims, "The White Sox are the champions of 1959! The 40-year wait has now ended."

The earliest apparent video footage is from the final innings of Cubs pitcher Don Cardwell's no-hitter against the Cardinals on May 15, 1960 at Wrigley Field. Once again, Brickhouse is brimming with excitement, yelling, "Come on, Moose!" as Cubs left fielder Walt "Moose" Moryn makes a shoestring catch, robbing Joe Cunningham of a hit and sealing the no-hitter for Cardwell, whom the Cubs acquired only two days earlier.

Today, we are also able to watch the pregame of the White Sox opener in Washington on April 10, 1961 at old Griffith Stadium. The likely reason this video still exists is that President John F. Kennedy threw out the first pitch - caught, by the way, by the Sox' Jungle Jim Rivera.

We can see WGN broadcaster Vince Lloyd interviewing JFK on Lead Off Man before the game. We can also see a Hamm's beer commercial and watch as Brickhouse reads the lineup, which included such names as Aparicio, Nellie Fox and Minnie Minoso.

The footage reaches an abrupt end after Jack reads the Senators lineup.

What remains of baseball on WGN in the 1960s are tantalizing fragments. They include Pete Ward batting in a May 1965 game as the wind blows debris across the field at Comiskey Park. This survives, once again, because of politics - U.S. Sen. Paul Douglas was Brickhouse's guest in the booth.

In 1962, about a minute of video was preserved of a July 23 game at Wrigley Field against the Phillies that was broadcast to Europe in beautiful color over the Telstar satellite.

After Philadelphia's Tony Taylor lofts a fly ball to right fielder George Altman, who makes the catch and throws back to the Cubs second baseman, the ill-fated Kenny Hubbs, Brickhouse says, "We realize that all of this doesn't make much sense to you folks in Europe, but if we hadn't shown you a bit of our national game on this first transatlantic show, we would never have heard the end of it. As a matter of fact right now, our colleagues, who are doing the translating, are going crazy trying to say runs, hits and errors in Swedish and Italian."

A portion of Cincinnati pitcher Jim Maloney's no-hitter against the Cubs at Wrigley on Aug. 19, 1965, survives. With the background of the Baby Ruth sign behind right field, we get to see Ernie Banks ground into a double play from Leo Cardenas to Pete Rose to Marty Keough that ends the game.

In addition, clips from the final inning of White Sox pitcher Joel Horlen's Sept. 10, 1967 no-hitter against the Tigers show up in a Sox documentary from the 1980s.

And for those who are curious about the legendary 1969 Cubs, WGN compiled highlights from that season, including Willie Smith's dramatic Opening Day walk-off homer, into a program called "A Look at the Cubs, 1970" that can be watched on YouTube.

It is a real shame that so little of WGN's early baseball legacy is available to us. We can be thankful today for the advent of home video recorders, so those of us who care about baseball history can help to perpetuate it.

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