WGN – Chicago’s Very Own Home for Baseball

When the White Sox and WGN announced that they had reached an agreement to broadcast all 162 games for the upcoming baseball season and beyond, I heard a lot of celebration that baseball is back on WGN after a three-year drought. But I also heard people express the oddness that it’s the White Sox they’ll be listening to on AM 720 and not the Cubs. In fact, the histories of the Cubs and White Sox on WGN go back to the exact same day, October 1, 1924.

That was the day of game one in the annual City Series that the two Chicago teams played every year that neither made the World Series. (Not as often as you may think; the series was played between 1903 and 1943, during which time the Sox won three pennants and the Cubs won nine.) Sen Kaney climbed up to the Cubs Park roof to set up the broadcast and had the call for the Cubs’ 10-7 victory. He went on to announce all six games of the White Sox’ 4-2 series victory, the only six baseball games Kaney is ever known to have called.

The experiment in the City Series must have been a success because the following year, WGN was present again, this time with Quin Ryan on the call for Opening Day, an 8-2 win over Pittsburgh. Ryan, along with WMAQ’s Hal Totten, became the city’s first true play-by-play men. He was not, however, a one-trick pony. Ryan gained national recognition for covering the Scopes Monkey Trial in the summer of 1925, recognition that helped him secure a spot on that year’s World Series broadcast team with Graham McNamee. It was the first World Series broadcast coast to coast and it was heard on WGN.

Baseball’s first radio broadcast had been conducted on August 5, 1921, when Harold Arlin called an 8-5 Pirates win over the Phillies over KDKA in Pittsburgh. But it wasn’t until the Cubs in 1925 that any team began hosting regular broadcasts. The idea largely came from WMAQ’s program director, Judith Waller. In the early days of radio, many stations struggled to fill a daily schedule. The medium’s “Golden Age” was still nearly a decade off. Classical music, news and promotional content for the station’s owner (the Chicago Tribune in the case of WGN and the Daily News in the case of WMAQ) occupied much of the time. Waller felt that her station could gain a bigger following by replacing some of that programming with baseball in the afternoons.

In the 1920’s, the primary radio afternoon audience was women, who often kept their sets turned on while their husbands worked. Cubs President Bill Veeck, Sr. recognized that these were the same women he had been trying to draw to the ballpark for years. His heavily promoted Ladies’ Days (a concept popularized in Major League baseball more than a decade earlier by White Sox owner Charles Comiskey) helped the Cubs set new attendance records four years in a row in the late-20’s. By putting the Cubs on the radio, he was helping to cultivate a brand new fan base.

There was no such thing as a broadcasting exclusivity deal then, so when these early broadcasts proved popular, almost every station in the city picked them up. On any given afternoon, a Chicago native could tune into Ryan on WGN, Totten on WMAQ or Pat Flanagan on WBBM, all calling the same game.

Baseball owners were leery of radio broadcasts, thinking they would take a bite out of their attendance figures, especially in the American League where league president Ban Johnson was vehemently opposed to the idea. Daily radio broadcasts did not become commonplace for all teams until the late 30’s, but as the Cubs continued to broadcast across multiple stations while simultaneously increasing attendance every year, Comiskey decided in 1927 that it was time for the White Sox to follow suit. At that point, almost every day during the summer, there was baseball on the radio in Chicago.

Because only the home games were broadcast, the same announcers who worked Cubs games, also worked for the Sox. On WGN, that meant Quin Ryan. Though largely forgotten today, Ryan was called “the father of sportscasting” by none other than Ronald Reagan. In 1930, he gave way to Bob Elson. Unlike Ryan, and later Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray, who also worked on both sides of town, Elson was primarily identified throughout his career with the White Sox.

Elson’s story is an interesting one. His broadcasting career started when he entered a radio contest in St. Louis to impress a girl. He won the contest and was offered a job at KWK, an offer he turned down because he was studying to be a doctor. The results of the contest were printed in the Chicago Tribune, however, where WGN general manager Henry Selinger became aware that a Chicago boy had won this St. Louis contest. Selinger wanted to bring him home and offered him a job at WGN. This time, Elson accepted and a year later, he was calling Cubs and Sox games regularly.

After 14 years working White Sox games on WGN, Elson moved with the team when, for the first time, they handed exclusive radio rights to one station. WIND was the lone broadcaster of White Sox baseball in 1944 and Elson survived that move and many others as he remained in the Sox’ broadcast booth until 1970. Like Ryan, Elson seems to be mostly forgotten today, which is not only unfortunate, but also hard to understand as, during his heyday, he had a very high national profile. He was on the call for nine national World Series broadcasts and received the Ford Frick Award for broadcasting, essentially placing him in the Hall of Fame, in 1979, only the second year the award was given out. Only Red Barber and Mel Allen were honored before he was and just as Barber’s name was synonymous with the Dodgers and Allen’s with the Yankees in those early radio days, Elson’s name was inseparable from the Chicago White Sox. (Many of Elson’s broadcasts still exist. If you are interested in hearing him, this is a good place to start.)

As the Sox moved on to other stations, the Cubs stuck around at WGN and Ryan’s and Elson’s names were later joined on their radio roster by the likes of future Hall of Famers Russ Hodges, Jack Brickhouse, Harry Caray and Milo Hamilton along with Vince Lloyd and Pat Hughes, who will surely receive the honor someday.

The list of broadcasters to call those airwaves home over the years has been truly remarkable. Now they are joined by Ed Farmer and Darrin Jackson. I just hope those two appreciate the very special company they’re in.

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