From the Pages of Vine Line: Jack Brickhouse’s voice defined the Cubs for generations

Brickhouse
Jack Brickhouse, the longtime face and voice of the Chicago Cubs on WGN broadcasts, was eternally and unapologetically an optimist. From 1941-81, including 33 years in the television booth, Brickhouse “Hey-hey’d!” the Cubs’ highs and rallied fans through the many lows. In the doldrums of team history, during a decades-long span when it was exceedingly easy to bail on the downtrodden North Side nine, Brickhouse remained steadfast.

Of course, that might have been by necessity.

“He saw a lot of bad baseball,” said Bob Vorwald, director of production for WGN-TV. “He called over 5,000 games through rose-colored glasses.”

While 5,000 baseball broadcasts may seem like a lot, that only scratched the surface of what Brickhouse accomplished during his career. He also called games for the crosstown White Sox, the NFL’s Chicago Bears and the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. On top of that, he covered political conventions, interviewed politicians (including four presidents) and contributed to the evening news. At one point, he even interviewed Pope Paul VI. But through it all, it was his work with the Cubs that made him a broadcasting legend and earned him a well-deserved spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“His was the voice people aligned with the Cubs,” Vorwald said. “He was also a voice of endless enthusiasm and optimism.”

Brickhouse’s fans credit his unflinching positivity and unconditional love for the Cubs with the creation of a devoted and unshakable fan base. His omnipresence in the WGN-TV broadcast booth also aided in the formation of a nationwide patchwork of Cubs boosters as the television era was dawning and WGN was increasing its reach.

“He was as much a part of the team as Ernie Banks and Billy Williams,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig. “You remember broadcasters. They’re the first ones you learn the game from.”

* * * *
The truly classic tales always seem to include humble beginnings, and Brickhouse’s early years certainly fit the mold.

“He was very proud of [that],” said Jack Rosenberg, Brickhouse’s longtime sports editor and friend. “He was a phenomenal guy who came up the hard way.”

Born in 1916 in Peoria, Illinois, Brickhouse lost his father when he was just a toddler, according to Hartig. His mother remarried, but the family’s financial outlook was bleak. In high school, he played basketball and acted in the senior play while cutting his reporting teeth at the school paper. His college days ended after only one year when the family coffers ran dry, but other promising opportunities emerged.

In 1934, a teenaged Brickhouse got a part-time job at the local WMBD radio station working the switchboard and forming the foundations of his on-air personality. But he never grew up dreaming of making a name for himself on the airwaves. His first foray into radio was actually entering—and losing—an announcing contest. The prize was a $50 watch, which the young man planned to sell for cash to give to his mother, said Jack’s widow, Pat Brickhouse.

While the watch ultimately went to a more seasoned entrant, the station manager heard something in the kid’s voice and hired him anyway. While in Peoria, Brickhouse ran the gamut from news to sports, but he also covered every barn dance and variety show in between. He pushed to expand coverage of Bradley University basketball, and later became the voice of Big Ten football, boxing matches and minor league baseball in the area.

Chicago broadcasting stalwart and longtime White Sox announcer Bob Elson brought the young broadcaster to WGN in 1940 to work Cubs and Sox games, as well as Notre Dame football. Though Brickhouse was already an experienced radio man by this point, the national pastime was still a bit outside his comfort zone.

“If asked, [tell them] you know everything about baseball,” Pat Brickhouse recounted of the wire message alerting her late husband of his new position. “He didn’t know dibbledydook about baseball.”

But, clearly, he managed. Brickhouse jumped around and filled in for the next several years as World War II beckoned Elson away from the booth (childhood tuberculosis kept Brickhouse a civilian). Brickhouse eventually became the lead broadcaster for all Sox and Cubs games. He also covered political conventions, and later briefly worked for baseball’s Giants in New York on WMCA. Brickhouse’s career seemed to be taking off, but Pat Brickhouse said her future husband’s year in New York was the worst of his life. He loved Chicago and was desperate to get home.

In 1947, a new medium beckoned him back to his beloved city. WBKB in Chicago was televising Cubs home games courtesy of local sponsors and needed a personality to anchor its broadcasts. Brickhouse jumped at the opportunity and worked alongside Joe Wilson until the following year when WGN-TV rehired him. The fledgling television arm of the radio giant would be broadcasting all Cubs and White Sox home games, which Brickhouse called in addition to serving as sports service manager.

Along with baseball, Brickhouse worked college and pro football games and some wrestling, which Hartig said irked the broadcaster initially. But he later learned to appreciate the sport’s over-the-top theatrics.

* * * *
WGN-TV, Channel 9 in Chicago, broadcast its first Cubs game, a crosstown affair with the White Sox, on April 16, 1948, from Wrigley Field. The South Siders bested the home team 4-1, and Brickhouse’s legendary 33-year tenure as the station’s televised baseball ambassador was off and running.

“Jack was on his own in that regard,” said Len Kasper, WGN-TV’s Cubs play-by-play announcer. “He was so ingrained here for so many decades.”

The station gained exclusive rights to Cubs games in 1952, with Jack Brickhouse and Harry Creighton taking television-owning Chicagoans out to the ballgame every summer—and it shouldn’t be taken for granted just how novel that experience was. While every baseball game is now broadcast, stations were still scrambling to figure out the medium around the time of Brickhouse’s television debut.

No longer did an announcer need to paint the picture—the picture was already being beamed into living rooms—so the call had to be more deft and data-driven. Broadcasters weren’t groomed for telegenics either. They simply made the jump from radio.

“This was all brand new, the idea of [baseball on] television,” Hartig said of the early broadcasts. “How do you cover this [sport]?”

The first major league game was televised in 1939 from the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Ebbets Field, but by the end of the 1940s, most teams were getting on board. Yet no broadcaster had a presence quite like Brickhouse’s, and none was calling as many games, Kasper said. The sheer volume of work he did, the knowledge he gleaned about the American and National leagues, and the time he spent behind the mic were, and continue to be, without equal.

Though Brickhouse became a Chicago institution, his reach extended beyond the city’s borders. He called five All-Star Games as well as four World Series games—all while publishing his Jack Brickhouse’s Major League Record Book and working to get pro golf televised, Hartig said. Brickhouse began 20-plus years as the radio voice of the Chicago Bears in 1953; he became the first announcer for the Chicago Bulls in 1966, a role he held until 1973; he served on the Cubs’ board of directors for 11 years; he interviewed presidents and dignitaries; and he occasionally popped up on the local Chicago news.

But it was at Wrigley Field where he felt most at home, his widow said. While the 40 years of his Cubs tenure witnessed more blight than bliss, Brickhouse saw, and delighted in, several no-hitters and Ernie Banks’ 500th career home run. In the archived broadcast of the latter event, his voice cracks and bellows with unfiltered joy.

“He was a homer,” Hartig said. “No Cub was ever in a slump. They were always overdue.”

The broadcaster called his unprecedented 5,000th game in 1979 and retired from announcing Cubs baseball in 1981. As Pat Brickhouse put it, he wanted to go out at the top of his game.

“Forty years as a broadcaster is never going to be topped,” she said. “People don’t stick around that long.”

Brickhouse didn’t exactly spend his retired years enjoying the quiet life. He wrote two books, made various speaking engagements and played a great deal of gin rummy. In a fitting cap to his esteemed broadcasting career, he was given the Ford C. Frick Award by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983.

In March 1998, Brickhouse died of cardiac arrest at the age of 82, after surgery to remove a brain tumor. His beloved but beleaguered Cubs finished the 1998 season in second place in the NL Central with a 90-73 record, and went to the postseason as the Wild Card winner. It would have been one of the finest seasons on Brickhouse’s watch.

* * * *
“I think everybody over the age of 40 can do a Jack Brickhouse impression,” said Vorwald, striking a delighted, high-pitched “Wheeeeee!” to demonstrate.

Brickhouse’s signature “Hey-hey!” call following each Cubs run—a phrase now emblazoned on the foul poles at Wrigley Field in the legendary broadcaster’s honor—was typical of the man who unabashedly root, root, rooted for the Cubbies, even when they weren’t winning.

“They were dreadful,” Vorwald reiterated. “He always found a way to never let it show on the air. “The fans’ optimism—that comes from Jack.”

Brickhouse’s cheery, glass-half-full style earned him his detractors, but largely drew more fans into the Cubs fold.

“That’s just how the man was. He was optimistic about life,” Pat Brickhouse said. “And about his beloved Cubs.”

A 1970 letter to the Chicago Tribune sports editor came to Brickhouse’s defense after a column suggested the city’s broadcasters should consider “shutting up.”

“If [the columnist] doesn’t expect the sportscasters to get excited during a hockey or baseball game, then he must not get very excited himself,” wrote the reader, signed P.A. Mueller. “With Lloyd Pettit yelling ‘A shot and a goal,’ and Jack Brickhouse yelling ‘Hey-hey!’ it all adds to the excitement of the game. I think they do a marvelous job of reporting the action.”

Ed Hartig credits Brickhouse with turning the historian—and native South Sider—into a lifelong Cubs fan.

“Every day, Jack Brickhouse was there,” said the 49-year-old Hartig.

Rosenberg, whose tip-tapping typewriter can be heard churning out production notes in the background of his friend’s old broadcasts, said he hears stories like Hartig’s all the time.

“What they remember was that he was like part of the family,” said Rosenberg, who penned Brickhouse’s Hall of Fame speech. “People grew up with us.”

A statue of Brickhouse, which his wife was instrumental in securing, now stands on Chicago’s famous Michigan Avenue. Notes in hand and microphone poised, he appears mid-call—his eyes cast ahead and mouth turned up in a smile.

“‘I hope I never have to go to work for a living,’” Pat Brickhouse recalled her husband saying. “He just loved what he was doing so much.”

—Kerry Trotter

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