From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with radio man Pat Hughes

(Photo by Stephen Green)

Some people simply sound like baseball. It’s hard to imagine Ernie Harwell or Vin Scully rotating your tires, doing your taxes or getting your drink at the local coffee house (though they would sound great calling out the order).

Count Pat Hughes, the longtime voice of the Chicago Cubs on WGN Radio, among that number. Just the sound of his voice conjures warm summer nights, the smell of fresh-cut grass and the distinct thwack of wood meeting leather.

Having a conversation with Hughes can be an interesting experience. Even if you’re away from the Friendly Confines or talking about non-baseball matters, there’s just something about his manner that compels you to sit back and listen. It’s easy to forget you’re supposed to respond. At any moment, you’re waiting for him to break out with, “Chicago Cubs baseball is on the air!”

When it comes to broadcasting, Hughes knows he has had a charmed career. In his 30-plus years in the booth, he has had the remarkable good fortune of working with some of the most iconic sports broadcasters in the business, from Al McGuire to Bob Uecker to Cubs legend Ron Santo.

Hughes, who was born in Tucson, Ariz., but spent his formative years in Northern California, has called just about every sport under the sun, but his passion has always been baseball. He got his first shot at calling balls and strikes at the major league level with the Minnesota Twins in 1983, and followed that up by pairing with Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Uecker in the Milwaukee Brewers’ broadcast booth from 1984-95. He’s also called minor league baseball, college basketball, hockey, water polo, even darts.

But he’s best known for the 18 years he has spent as the radio voice of the Cubs and the remarkable on-air chemistry he shared with Santo. This month, we spoke with Hughes about his long career, flaming hairpieces and the grand masters of sports play-by-play.

And, for the record, it all sounded great.

Vine Line: You’ve called about every sport there is in your career, but you’ve said baseball has always been your passion. What is it about calling the game that’s so special?

Pat Hughes: It’s a real challenge every day because the game is so familiar to virtually everyone in this country. I mean, everyone has played baseball. Everyone has gotten up and had a chance to take their swings in a softball game or a youth baseball game or a sandlot game. So the game is very familiar to everyone. Since everyone kind of feels like they know baseball in America, I think there’s a perception outside of broadcasting that baseball is the easiest sport to announce.

On the contrary—and I’ve done football, basketball, golf, soccer, water polo, gymnastics, you name it, I’ve done it—baseball is by far the most difficult to cover if you want to do it well, because there’s so much downtime. Generally, if you go back and watch or listen to any baseball game, there is only a total of maybe about five minutes where there is a lot of action going on. The great majority of the time is just the pitcher making a pitch, and it’s either fouled away, or it’s taken for a ball, or it’s taken for a strike. There’s a lot of time you have to fill, so that’s the challenge of doing baseball. At the same time, it’s probably the best sport to do in many regards. I love the game. I still feel very proud to be known as the voice of the Cubs, and I’ve had that title for 18 years now.

VL: How hard is it to fill time and stay focused in games that have rain delays or go 17 innings?

PH: We are putting on a show. It’s a performance, and you just have to keep it going. It’s a test of your stamina, your endurance, your patience, your concentration and all of the above. You just grind it out. In that regard, you do become almost like a ballplayer, where you have to stay focused, and you have to concentrate on every pitch. It’s so easy to make mistakes, trust me on that one. It’s so easy. If you think you can just put it on autopilot and broadcast a game, you’re wrong. The minute you slip up and start to relax, you’re not going to do that job as well as you can or as well as you should. So it’s a grind. I always laugh after a five-hour game, when people say, “Well, at least you won.” Yeah, that’s nice. I mean, that’s a given. I want the Cubs to win every single game. But the fact that they win does not begin to erase the stress or the weariness that you feel at the end of a five-hour game.

But my job is not about winning or losing games. It’s about broadcasting as well as I possibly can. It’s about pleasing sponsors and radio station management personnel and baseball club front office personnel. My job is not as difficult as being a manager or a general manager or a player. And, yet, unless you’ve ever done these jobs, they’re not nearly as easy or as fun as people think they are.

VL: For years, you and Ron Santo were known for your chemistry in the booth. Did you guys hit it off immediately, or was that something you had to work at?

PH: It was a real exciting ride for 15 years. Ronnie and I had an unusual chemistry. We were so different that the contrast I think is what people enjoyed. But he was a great guy. He loved the Cubs, he loved to laugh. And I love to laugh, I love the Cubs. So we certainly had that in common. But I think Ronnie and I both realized that when the Cubs win, it’s great. Your broadcast is going to go smoothly because you have a lot of positive things to talk about. But when the Cubs lose, and they have a difficult season, and they’re losing on a regular basis, you have to go to Plan B. I don’t think the audience would stick around and listen if you just did, “Ball one, strike one, and there’s a guy at first, let’s see if he can hit behind the runner.” That gets old when the team is 30 games out of first place. So I think Ronnie and I both felt—and we never really articulated this to each other—but it seemed like a natural thing to do to have fun and to tell stories and to poke fun at each other. So that’s what we did.

VL: It’s probably hard to pick just one, but do you have a funniest or favorite moment from your years with Santo?

PH: I don’t know, there were so many. I guess the hairpiece is the most famous incident. In New York at Shea when he burned his hairpiece. I’ve embellished that story, I’ll be very honest with you. There was no real flame coming out of the top of his head, as I’ve told many times. There was a little smoke coming up from the top of his head, and he did slightly singe the top of his hairpiece. And it did look like there was a little divot in the top, and it did look like a golfer maybe had hit a pitching wedge off the top of his head. I think that was probably the most famous incident with Ron, and we certainly got a lot of mileage out of it over the years.

VL: Santo always used to give you a hard time about the old sweater you used to keep up in the booth for particularly cold days at Wrigley. Where is that sweater now? Did it make it into the Hall of Fame?

PH: First of all, thanks for asking. I don’t get that question nearly enough. You have to understand, I live way up north [in Lincolnshire], and when I get to Wrigley, sometimes the temperature difference is 30 degrees from where I came from. That’s just Chicago. That’s the lakefront. But sometimes you’re underdressed. You have a short-sleeved shirt on, and you need an extra layer of clothing. So I would always keep a sweater—not my best sweater, in fact it would probably be about my worst—in the booth at Wrigley just in case. Occasionally I would have to bring it out, and it was hideous, not attractive. But it was warm, and it got the job done.

Well, Ron hated it, and one day he just got sick of it. He waited for me to leave, he snuck in, took the sweater, took it home with him, and for whatever reason—he never really did explain properly—he took it to a carwash and threw it away at the carwash. I asked him, “You mean they’re using it as a rag to dry off cars after they wash them?” And he did not really divulge the secret nature of this operation. But that’s where that sweater died, at a carwash. I don’t know what happened, but it was a sad ending to a rather pathetic garment.

But I was undaunted. I simply went out on eBay and shelled out at least a dollar and a half for a brand new sweater, and now that’s the one that is hanging at the closet at Wrigley Field.

VL: You’ve called some big moments in your career, from Mark McGwire’s 62nd home run to the Cubs clinching a postseason berth. Do you have a favorite call?

PH: I think if there was one call I kind of liked, it would have been Sammy Sosa homering late in the ’98 season. It was up in Milwaukee. It was a day game, bright and sunny, early fall. He hit a homer to center. If you remember ’98, Harry Caray passed away in February, and Jack Brickhouse passed away in August. That was an unbelievably exciting year, with Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game and Sammy Sosa with the 20-homer June and the great home run chase and then this Wild Card race. And I kept thinking about Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse, two of the most famous Cubs broadcasting icons ever. I wanted to pay some kind of a tribute to them. So finally I did after Sosa’s, I don’t know, maybe his 66th home run, I said something like, “Holy cow and hey, hey for Harry and Jack.”

The reason it’s important to me is because of the friendship I had with both Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse. They were both incredibly nice to me. They went out of their way to say nice things to me and to help me become acclimated in Chicago.

VL: You’ve done both radio and TV. Do you prefer one medium over the other?

PH: To be honest with you, I prefer radio. It’s more my style. I’m more into the description and the constant chatter of working with a partner. With TV, sometimes I’ll turn on a game, and guys aren’t talking for two or three minutes, and I feel like they’re not even there. Or they are, but they’re not really there. It’s just a different thing. Now don’t get me wrong, to do television well takes every bit as much, and maybe even more, talent than it does to do radio well. Put it this way, I do radio right now for the Cubs. I’ve done it for 18 years. If I would ever lose this job and the only thing available in baseball was a television job, I’d be the first in line to apply for that opening. But I prefer radio.

They’re both great jobs. They’re both difficult to try to master. But I think radio is more of an intimate thing with your audience. They invite you into their cars. They invite you into their office place. They invite you into their backyard when they’re on the patio listening to a game. It’s a very personal relationship that a radio baseball man has with his audience that a TV announcer does not have.

VL: I would think on radio you have a lot more responsibility to describe the game. On TV, we can see what’s going on, but on radio it’s incumbent on you to tell the story.

PH: Ernie Harwell once told me, “On radio, nothing happens until you speak.” On television, you’ve got pictures, and you’ve got cameramen, and you’ve got announcers, and you’ve got directors, and you’ve got producers, and you’ve got a lot of people who think they are all in charge. But on radio, it’s you. Nothing happens until you speak, so it’s a lot of responsibility. But you have a lot more freedom, and I like that freedom too.

VL: Is there anybody you modeled your style after?

PH: I would say no. It goes back to your own individuality and your own sensibilities. I think it’s fine to learn from other announcers, but you can’t ever try to sound like somebody else. If you do, you’ll probably lose some of yourself, and I think it’s very important to be yourself and not try to sound like anyone else.

Having said that, though, I think there are what I would call three grand masters of sports play-by-play or just sports broadcasting. And those three would be Vin Scully, Bob Costas, and a guy by the name of Bill King, who used to be the voice in the Bay Area where I grew up of the Oakland Raiders, the Golden State Warriors and then later on the Oakland A’s. Those are the three grand masters of play-by-play.

VL: You’ve been to almost every park in the majors. Which one is your favorite, aside from Wrigley Field?

PH: For sentimental and personal reasons, I probably was most thrilled to work games at Candlestick Park before they moved to AT&T, because that’s the park I used to visit as a kid. To be sitting there broadcasting was surreal. I love Dodger Stadium. It’s aged as gracefully as any ballpark in the world. It’s over 50 years old, and still feels like it was built within the last decade. Plus, you’re working right next to Vin Scully, and that’s still a thrill for me.

I like all the ballparks. They’re big league ballparks, and I feel privileged and fortunate to still be doing this after all these years. Again, you get to cover a big league baseball game every single day. It’s a position of prominence and privilege, so I’m a pretty happy guy being in any baseball park and covering the game for the Chicago Cubs.

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