CHICAGO | If you care a whit for baseball history and its images, you’ll have appointment viewing at 7 p.m. Sunday on WGN (Ch. 9) and pass up ESPN Sunday Night Baseball and all those hour-long dramas on the networks.
You’ll love the vintage WGN baseball video -- even if you’ve seen it a dozen times before – and have the additional time-trip of rare newsfilms along with dandy oral history from all-time baseball greats on the two-hour “Wrigley 100: A Century Celebration.”
Producer Bob Vorwald’s tribute, 16 months in the making, provides a journey down memory lane just in advance of Wrigley Field’s actual 100th anniversary. Implied, but not bragged about, is the fact WGN has been as much a part of Wrigley’s history as any other institution.
The TV station, second one on the air in Chicago in 1948, has been airing Cubs games out of Clark and Addison for exactly 2/3 of the century documented. WGN created the cult of Cubs fans. A decade-long Midwest tradition beginning in ’48 featured kids running home from school to catch the last few innings of the all-daytime schedule.
“Wrigley 100” now becomes sentimental for another reason. After airing a 30th-anniversary special produced by the regal Jack Rosenberg in 1978 and a 60th anniversary Vorwald production in 2008, the show might end up as WGN’s valedictory on its relationship with Wrigley Field and the Cubs. The chances of a 2028 special don’t seem bright now.
Team chairman Tom Ricketts, trying to ease the burden of a monster debt load forced upon him by corporate shark Sam Zell in 2009, wants big-market TV rights fees. Ricketts got big eyes and big ambition seeing the billions generated for the Yankees in New York and Dodgers in LA, along with some huge payouts elsewhere. WGN has never really paid market-rate due to the Wrigley family ownership’s philosophy of low-cost Cubs broadcast exposure and being a part of the successor Tribune. Co. owner’s corporate umbrella with the Cubs.
Re-opening the WGN contract without a ton of actual leverage, Ricketts leaves open the possibility the superstation could be pushed out the door, just like a bevy of longtime Cubs front-office employees and even media members during his family’s nearly-five-year ownership tenure. Talk to some big WGN names, and there’s a fatalism in their attitude toward carrying the Cubs from 2015 forward.
Dreaming of a Cubs network a la the Yankees YES and the Red Sox’s NESN won’t be possible until 2019, when the cable deal with Comcast SportsNet Chicago expires. Ricketts may have gone a bridge too far. His approval of Theo Epstein’s intentional crashing of the big-league team for a total rebuilding process that is hardly assured has dampened viewership interest at just the wrong time. There are few competing local broadcast operations of the scale necessary to cough up a monster contract.
Fox baron Rupert Murdoch is the only owner of local stations (Fox-32 and My-50) who could possibly satisfy Ricketts thirst for mega-bucks. If Murdoch wants to engage in futurism on the Cubs one day becoming good again thanks to Epstein’s brainstorm, Ricketts will benefit financially. If not, he could come back to WGN, somewhat with the tail between his legs, for a shorter-term contract that won’t satisfy the team's long-term need.
So as a hedge, with WGN seemingly the only entity with institutional memory around Wrigley Field, enjoy shots of Jose Cardenal and Rick Monday crashing into the vines or Dave “Kong” Kingman belting a 600-foot homer four houses down on Kenmore Avenue in 1976. The present may be unpalatable and the future murky, but the Cubs always have the past with their WGN images.