Javier Baez got his first taste of major league action this summer. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
When Theo Epstein sat in front of the assembled media last October and announced, “The story [around the league] is that the Cubs are coming fast, and the Cubs are coming strong,” many had trouble stifling laughter. How could Epstein suggest a team fresh off its third-consecutive 90-loss season was on the rise—especially during a press conference announcing the firing of the club’s manager, Dale Sveum?
It seemed preposterous at the time, but Epstein was hardly joking. He knew what he and his staff had built over the previous two seasons, and he believed it wouldn’t be long before that lofty statement was accepted as fact—even by those not paying close attention to what’s been happening in the Cubs system.
Sure enough, while the 2014 season didn’t produce a dramatic increase in wins, the media and fans finally got a chance to see what the Cubs have been building, as the first wave of prospects finally funneled into Wrigley Field.
It all began with Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks, two somewhat under-the-radar prospects, but intriguing players nonetheless. Next, one of the best power hitters in the minors, Javier Baez, arrived in the big leagues—along with the corresponding media maelstrom. Finally, the Cubs called up Cuban slugger Jorge Soler toward the end of August.
Not every one of these young players immediately took the National League by storm. There have been ups and downs. But each has provided a spark and shown the potential to be a big contributor to the next Cubs playoff run—which is exactly how the front office drew it up.
“It’s a lot of fun, and there’s definitely a lot of energy,” Hendricks said. “I’m just glad a lot of us have been able to perform well. I think that’s a testament to the coaching we have in the minor leagues. The guys got us ready for this level.”
Epstein understands that this process, which has included many losses, has been tough for both the players and the fans. That’s why finally being able to display the fruits of the front office’s labor has been so rewarding.
“These are players who have been part of our plan, part of our vision, for a while now,” Epstein said. “Now that they’re up here, people can get excited about it. It creates a little bit of momentum, which is nice to have around the organization.”
So what exactly is the Cubs’ vision, and what has the organization been doing to realize it?
When Epstein was first introduced as president of baseball operations in late October 2011, he laid out his plan for how he wanted to rebuild an organization that had gone from being the toast of the National League to 91 losses in just three years.
“Our goal will be to build the best scouting department in the game—one that makes an annual impact in the draft and internationally,” Epstein said at the time. “As far as player development goes, we will define and implement a Cubs Way of playing the game, and we won’t rest until there is a steady stream of talent coming through the minor league system trained in that Cubs Way making an impact out here at Wrigley Field.”
Epstein didn’t waste much time in following through with those promises. A week after his introduction, he sat in front of the media yet again, this time introducing Jed Hoyer as his new executive vice president and general manager and Jason McLeod, a man Epstein referred to as the “rarest commodity in the industry—an impact evaluator of baseball talent,” as his senior vice president of scouting and player development.
The three men spent the next year evaluating what they were working with from the bottom of the organization all the way to the top. After a year, they made a few tweaks to the scouting department, and completely revamped the player development side. Brandon Hyde was brought in as the farm director, but has since moved on to become manager Rick Renteria’s bench coach, while Jaron Madison has transitioned from amateur scouting director to Hyde’s old position.
Under Hyde, the Cubs hired four new minor league coordinators and had one of their better developmental seasons throughout the system in 2013.
Of course, it certainly helped that so much talent had been added to the mix—and continues to be added to this day—through astute trades, the amateur draft and international signings.
“In order to have success in this game, the foundation has to be through scouting and player development,” Hoyer said when he was introduced as general manager. “There’s no shortcut. There’s no magic bullet. All three of us believe in the philosophy wholeheartedly.”
Hoyer acknowledged the ultimate goal is to win a championship, so the baseball operations department first had to build a team that went into Spring Training every season with a realistic shot at making the playoffs. Less than three years later, it appears the Cubs are on the verge of achieving that goal.
And it’s not just the players who have reached the majors this year that have so many people both inside and outside the game optimistic about the Cubs’ immediate future. While the influx of top-notch talent is undeniable, it’s quite likely the best is yet to come.
Last year’s top draft pick, Kris Bryant, dominated every level of the minor leagues, making it all the way to Triple-A Iowa in his first full professional season. His otherworldly stat line of .325/.438/.661 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 43 home runs and 110 RBI has pushed the third baseman to the top of the national prospect rankings. Shortly after the season, he was named both USA Today’s and Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. Addison Russell, a consensus top 10 prospect in the game, was acquired in early July via trade and has continued to excel, hitting for both power and average while playing strong defense at shortstop.
Kyle Schwarber was the fourth pick in June’s amateur draft and has already shot up two levels in the Cubs system. So far, he has displayed an impressive combination of power and patience at the plate and appears to be on the fast track to the majors.
And that’s not all. The regime’s first draft pick from 2012, Albert Almora, made it to Double-A at the tender age of 20, and the international scouts flexed their muscles in 2013, as the Cubs spent more money than any other organization. Thanks to those efforts, they added big-time prospects like Jen-Ho Tseng, Eloy Jimenez, Gleybar Torres and Jefferson Mejia, all of whom are proving advanced for their age and are ranked as top 20 organizational prospects by MLB.com.
The system is not only loaded with talent, it’s also deep, ensuring that as the Cubs continue to graduate players to the big leagues, the cupboard won’t suddenly be left bare. It looks like Epstein and Hoyer have built the scouting and player development “machine” they promised to work toward when they were first brought into the organization.
CALL TO ARMS
Of course, since the majority of the Cubs’ young players grabbing headlines are bats, there are still questions about where the organization is going to find the right combination of arms to lead the charge. But even on that front, the team is better off than most people realize.
The front office has now divested the organization of the many onerous contracts from the Hendry regime—meaning there is money to spend—and has proven quite adept at identifying and acquiring undervalued pitching talent. Names like Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel, who all excelled under the tutelage of pitching coach Chris Bosio, have been used to acquire players who fit into both the short- and long-term plans.
Feldman, in particular, netted a huge piece in pitcher Jake Arrieta. A former top prospect, the 28-year-old underwhelmed during parts of four years in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles. Though Arrieta was perhaps at his lowest value at the time, the Cubs were bullish about the struggling righty. After missing the first month of the 2014 season with shoulder soreness, Arrieta went on to make the move look like a stroke of genius, putting together a season that rivals those of some of the best pitchers in the game.
Hendricks, acquired from the Rangers in the 2012 Ryan Dempster deal, also opened eyes with a strong run of starts to begin his major league career. Though many had the 24-year-old pegged as a fringe major leaguer and back-end starter at best, his poise and control are making some wonder whether he can exceed expectations and become a big part of the rotation’s future.
“He’s doing exactly what he did in the minor leagues,” Epstein said. “He’s as polished and prepared as you’ll see with any rookie. We speculated that he might even take it to another level when he got to the big leagues because he uses all the tools available to him as well as anybody.
“We have video in the minor leagues, but we don’t have this much video. We have scouting reports in the minor leagues, but we don’t have scouting reports this extensive. He just attacks the video and attacks scouting reports. They’re a huge weapon for him. You see the confidence he has. No matter how good a hitter he’s facing, he’s likely to have identified one area he can attack and put [himself] in a good position to have a chance to get him out. I think that’s been big for him. We’re awfully proud of how he’s adjusted.”
Epstein has acknowledged that while he doesn’t think the Cubs’ position player group is a finished product, he certainly feels great about the nucleus the organization has built. Even with Arrieta, Hendricks and the surprisingly impressive Tsuyoshi Wada (who will be 34 next season, but could still find himself competing for a spot in the Cubs rotation), the obvious focus becomes how to build up the front five.
“I like some of the pitchers we have coming along in the minor leagues, and I think our big league staff has done sort of an underrated job this year,” Epstein said. “There are some bright spots. But we’ve been open about the fact that it would be nice to add an impact pitcher or two. When you look over the next 18 months or so, that’s certainly a priority for us. Whether we develop one from an unlikely spot like might be happening with Arrieta or acquire someone who’s already at those heights remains to be seen.”
FINISHING THE JOB
Surprise success stories like Arrieta and Hendricks, coupled with bounce-back years from Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, have certainly boosted the optimism around the team as the prospects are rising to the big leagues.
“It’s good for the fans,” Hendricks said. “They’ve needed some winning the last few years, and unfortunately we haven’t been able to give it to them. I think with a lot of us young guys coming up—a lot of young hitters especially—they’re doing an unbelievable job. And there’s more to come.”
While the narrative may have recently changed as far as the media and average fans are concerned, nobody within the Cubs organization considers the work done.
“Our fans deserve to get excited. I’m happy for them,” Epstein said. “Ultimately, the only thing that matters is winning. That’s what’s on our mind, and we’re working hard to get there. Having young players that are worth following and at-bats you can’t miss, we’re human and that makes us feel good that our fans have something like that in their lives at this point, because certainly there’s been some tough times that they’ve had to endure.”
Epstein and company know they’ve still got work to do. They’re aware that pitching is a need, as is a veteran presence in the clubhouse to lead by example. But they strongly believe they’re on the right path and have felt that way for some time now. Still, the ultimate goal has yet to be accomplished.
“We’ve felt really good about it for a period now, and we also feel like there’s so much more work to do that we don’t deserve any kudos or pats on the back,” Epstein said. “On the other hand, we’re all human, and we feel the optimism of our fans and our players. It only makes us want to work harder and finish it off. We’ll feel like it’s finished when we win the last game in October.”
—Sahadev Sharma, Baseball Prospectus
The Cubs announced their 2015 Spring Training schedule Wednesday. The 29-game slate features 15 games at Cubs Park, with additional games expected to be announced in the near future.
The Cubs open the preseason on March 5 with a split-squad home game against the Athletics and a game in Scottsdale against San Francisco. The Cubs play the White Sox on a pair of occasions—March 20 in Glendale and March 27 in Mesa—and wrap up the schedule April 1 when they host Milwaukee in the spring finale.
Individual home Spring Training tickets go on sale Saturday, Jan. 10, at 11 a.m. CST at the Cubs Park ticket office, on cubs.com or by calling 1-800-THE-CUBS. Season and group ticket information can be found at cubs.com/mesa or by calling 1-800-THE-CUBS.
Day Opponent Location
3/5 Athletics (SS) Cubs Park
3/5 Giants (SS) Scottsdale
3/6 Reds Cubs Park
3/7 Rockies Scottsdale
3/8 Rangers Cubs Park
3/9 Padres Cubs Park
3/10 Indians Goodyear
3/11 Dodgers Cubs Park
3/12 Angels Tempe
3/13 Indians Cubs Park
3/14 Brewers Maryvale
3/15 Reds Cubs Park
3/16 Padres Peoria
3/17 Royals Cubs Park
3/18 Dodgers Glendale
3/19 Diamondbacks Scottsdale
3/20 White Sox Glendale
3/21 Mariners Cubs Park
3/22 Padres Cubs Park
3/24 Athletics Mesa
3/25 Mariners Peoria
3/26 Angels Cubs Park
3/27 White Sox Cubs Park
3/28 Rockies (SS) Cubs Park
3/28 Reds (SS) Goodyear
3/29 Royals Surprise
3/30 Giants Cubs Park
3/31 Rangers Surprise
4/1 Brewers Cubs Park
The Arizona Fall League opened up on Tuesday, with Glendale getting the best of the Mesa Solar Sox, 9-3. The Cubs had a trio of prospects in action. Addison Russell drove in two Solar Sox runs, while outfielder Jacob Hannemann rounded out Mesa’s scoring with a sac fly in the losing effort.
- DH Addison Russell went 1-for-4 with a two-run single in the top of the second inning, scoring Boog Powell (Athletics) and Dalton Pompey (Blue Jays). He also reached on a fielder’s choice in the first.
- LF Jacob Hannemann entered the game as a defensive replacement in the seventh and recorded a sacrifice fly to left, scoring Kaleb Cowart (Angels).
- 1B Dan Vogelbach came into the game in the bottom of the sixth. He struck out in his only at-bat of the game.
(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
The Cubs claimed left-handed pitcher Joseph Ortiz off waivers from the Rangers Monday, moving the team’s 40-man roster to 40 players.
The 24-year-old Ortiz went 2-2 with a 4.23 ERA (21 ER/44.2 IP) in 32 relief appearances for the Rangers in 2013 before being limited to only 15 minor league appearances last season due to a fractured left foot. The southpaw began the 2014 season on the 60-day disabled list and made two rehab appearances with the organization’s Rookie League club in Arizona in July before completing his campaign with 13 relief outings with Double-A Frisco (0-2, one save, 4.50 ERA).
A native of Venezuela, Ortiz originally signed with Texas as a nondrafted free agent on August 28, 2006. He is 18-15 with 31 saves and a 2.44 ERA (87 ER/320.2 IP) in 217 relief appearances covering eight minor league seasons.
A lot of eyes will be on the Cubs’ top pitching prospect C.J. Edwards this fall. (Photo by Roger C. Hoover)
The prospect-laden Arizona Fall League kicks off Tuesday. Be sure to follow the Vine Line blog all AFL season for recaps on how the Cubs prospects fared the night before. The following story can be found in the October issue of Vine Line.
The Arizona Fall League has always been a launching pad for major league careers. Every fall, organizations send their top prospects to the offseason showcase. Javier Baez hit four home runs in 14 AFL games in 2012, and Kris Bryant took home league MVP honors in 2013.
This year, the Cubs will send a new batch of up-and-coming farmhands to Arizona to see how they fare against the best players the minor leagues have to offer.
Addison Russell will headline the group—and could very well headline the league, as he’s baseball’s No. 6 prospect, according to MLB.com. Despite missing the early part of the season with a hamstring injury and adjusting to an early-July trade, the 20-year-old never missed a beat, hitting .295/.350/.508 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 13 homers over 68 games, all while playing elite defense at shortstop. This will be his second appearance in the AFL, as he represented Oakland last year.
Injuries derailed much of right-handed pitcher C.J. Edwards’ Double-A season, but he was lights out once he returned to action in late July. Baseball’s No. 56 prospect finished the year with a 2.35 ERA in 58.2 innings, striking out 54 batters.
First baseman Dan Vogelbach got off to a slow start, but picked things up as the season progressed. The slugger, who slimmed down in the offseason, hit .268/.357/.429 with 16 homers and 76 RBI for High-A Daytona.
Right-handed pitchers Ivan Pineyro and Zach Cates, lefty Gerardo Concepción, and athletic outfielder Jacob Hannemann have also been invited to the AFL. Outfielder Bijan Rademacher will serve as a member of the taxi squad, which means he’s available to play only twice a week.
It’s not always easy to stick to your guns. Especially if the decisions you’re making aren’t all that popular.
When Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod first came aboard with the Cubs, they were hailed as conquering heroes who could do no wrong and would soon (and inevitably) carry the organization to the promised land. The Chicago Sun-Times even ran a tongue-in-cheek image of Epstein walking on water.
The new baseball operations men quickly laid out their plan, set a clear course of action and got to work. Their stated goal was to hire the best people in the business, stockpile young talent and build a player-development machine to get that young talent on the fast track to Wrigley Field.
Once the brain trust started making their first moves, the fan base gave them the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone loved seeing favorites like Andrew Cashner, Ryan Dempster and Sean Marshall go, but people figured everything the front office touched would turn to gold. On the plus side, the Cubs picked up first baseman Anthony Rizzo, signed Cuban free agent Jorge Soler and drafted outfielder Albert Almora, among other, less-heralded moves. Despite finishing 2012 with 101 losses, baseball ops stayed the course.
By the time the 2013 campaign came to a close, the voices of dissent were growing louder. The Cubs traded Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano and fired manager Dale Sveum after a 96-loss season. Yet, the front office remained steadfast. While people grumbled, the team acquired players like Jake Arrieta, Corey Black, C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop; drafted Kris Bryant; and locked up Starlin Castro and Rizzo with team-friendly long-term deals.
Though the win-loss record didn’t improve dramatically in 2014, the Cubs’ collection of young talent—augmented by players like Billy McKinney, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber—hit critical mass. Now it’s undeniable the Cubs are coming fast, and people around baseball are taking notice. National columnists, local pundits and sports pages across the country are lauding the organization’s elite system.
For the past several years, if you were unwilling to look beyond the team playing at Wrigley Field, it was hard to see what the Cubs were building. When the major league team was losing, the idea of “top prospects” was too nebulous to provide much comfort. But once those same prospects started arriving in the bigs, it was hard to deny their energy, enthusiasm and raw talent.
Not every call-up posted huge numbers, but they all made strong impressions. Kyle Hendricks was occasionally dazzling, Jorge Soler demonstrated impact potential, and guys like Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Eric Jokisch all showed flashes.
Through everything—all the losses, all the complaints, all the stories about the Cubs’ struggles—the front office never wavered from their plan, even when it would have been easier (and much better PR) to hold onto some of their veteran talent and/or throw money at risky free agents. Now that patience is starting to pay off.
I’m in no way saying the Commissioner’s Trophy should be on its way to Clark and Addison next season. Baseball is far too random to guarantee anything like that. But it’s undeniable the Cubs have built a formidable foundation of talent that is the envy of the baseball world.
In the October issue of Vine Line, Baseball Prospectus’ Sahadev Sharma examines the work the front office has been doing to assemble the top system in the game. We also give readers a sneak peek into a true baseball treasure, as we take a tour through the famous Wrigley Field manual scoreboard with the men who work inside. Finally, we go back to June 23, 1984, when Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg made the entire baseball world and a national TV audience take notice with two memorable home runs in the fabled Sandberg Game.
You can always find news on Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ storied past and the organization’s bright future in Vine Line and on Twitter at @cubsvineline. And stay tuned this offseason—things are about to get fun.
Few people had a better summer than Chris Pratt, who is currently preparing to host Saturday Night Live‘s season premiere tomorrow night. The affable actor seamlessly made the transition from television star on Parks and Recreation to silver screen action hero with the release of Guardians of the Galaxy. He also has a history with baseball (well, baseball acting), having played former Athletics infielder Scott Hatteberg in the movie Moneyball. We caught up with the 35-year-old at Wrigley Field in early September when he was in town shooting an episode of his sitcom.
When the Cubs hired Rick Renteria as their 53rd manager in franchise history last November, much was made of his fluency in both Spanish and English.
While bilingual talents are an asset to an organization rich in Latin-American prospects, Renteria’s communication skills transcend language. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Executive Vice President and General Manager Jed Hoyer knew that when they tapped the now-52-year-old baseball lifer to replace ousted skipper Dale Sveum.
“The No. 1 challenge we gave him was to provide a good atmosphere for the young players to develop and drive to the big league level,” Epstein said. “That is easier said than done, and he has done a fantastic job at it.”
Under Renteria, shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo have both rebounded from 2013 seasons in which the former hit .245 and the latter .233. Their regression from strong 2012 performances distressed management, especially considering the Cubs had committed $100 million to making them franchise cornerstones.
“My goal was to create a positive atmosphere,” Renteria said of his first season as a big league manager. “And we wanted the message and the way we dealt with these young men to be consistent.”
Reflecting on 2013, management accepted blame for trying to make Castro a more patient hitter. Still, after evaluating Sveum for two seasons, Epstein and Hoyer acknowledged they might have missed the mark with the hire.
The former manager batted a slumping Castro everywhere in the lineup in 2013, excluding cleanup. The relationship hit a wall on Aug. 20 with Castro’s move to the No. 8 slot. He was switched to leadoff the next day, reportedly following conversations among Castro, his agent and the front office.
In 2014, Renteria promised Castro would be a key to the offense. The manager batted the shortstop third in the first two games of the season and second in the next three. Then Renteria dropped him to sixth.
“Ricky told me he needed production in the middle of the lineup and that I was his best chance,” said Castro, who collected five RBI—including his first career two-homer game—in his initial two games batting sixth.
On April 25, Renteria made his most significant move with Castro, shifting him from the No. 5 spot to cleanup, behind Rizzo. Both players went on to make the All-Star team.
“I was hopeful coming into this job that in time we would build trust,” Renteria said. “We wanted to motivate and encourage our players while still holding them accountable. Teaching was the next step.”
After Renteria lost two-fifths of his starting rotation (Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel) in a July 4 trade with Oakland, the Cubs dropped 11 of their next 13 games. But they played above .500 in August behind a rebuilt lineup. Jake Arrieta and rookie Kyle Hendricks lifted the rotation, while position prospects Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler freshened the roster.
“Ricky has done a very good job with a roster that has been young and constantly in flux,” Hoyer said. “He and his staff have created an environment that allows young players to develop while still competing every night. This is not easy. Our team has continued to play hard and well through the most mentally challenging parts of the season.”
Though Renteria has a reputation as being easygoing and even-keeled, he’s definitely not a softy. Epstein noted Renteria has been supportive without being enabling.
“When guys make mistakes, he holds them accountable, but he still stays positive by asking them to go out and do it right the next time,” Epstein said.
Renteria, a big league utility player from 1986-94 and a San Diego Padres coach for six seasons before the Cubs came calling, accepts praise cautiously.
“Time will tell what we’ve accomplished as a team,” he said. “We just hoped, with our help, the core of players would create something they wanted to be part of in the culture here.”
Like any rookie manager, Renteria has experienced bumps in the road, including the struggles of Junior Lake and Mike Olt. The skipper sought proper matchups for the two right-handed hitters, but ultimately both were returned to the minors prior to late-season call-ups.
Renteria also experienced the challenge of developing, yet protecting, young arms—all while trying to win games. His rugged bullpen use, especially early on, had the Cubs carrying eight relievers for most of the second half—limiting in-game maneuvers involving position players.
“He’s been everything we hoped for, especially with the priorities we gave him,” Epstein said. “X’s and O’s and in-game stuff, he’s growing into that. It’s kind of nice he can grow with this team.”
Amidst the praise, the first-year big league manager is still hard on himself.
“I’m not one who strays from my own accountability if things don’t work out,” Renteria said. “I’m comfortable in my own skin and hope that translates to our players.”
A longtime scout in another organization agrees the Cubs have found the right manager.
“[He’s] a tremendous baseball man,” the scout said. “He’s always positive and low-key. Yet, one on one, he’ll get his point across and won’t back down when it comes to players hustling or making repeated mistakes. He’s fair, smart and tough.”
And those qualities project well in any language.
—By Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig
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.
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“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.”