Sunday, September 29, 2019

Victim of their success?

One of my favorite baseball trivia questions is this:

Which Major League Baseball organization has played the most games as a professional major league team? 

Many people who know the game will automatically name the Chicago Cubs as they were one of only two extant teams to have been members of the very first professional baseball organization, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, the predecessor of the National League. The reason the Cubs do not share that distinction with the other team is only because of a twist of fate, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Because their original ballpark, located at what is now the northwest corner of Millennium Park, was destroyed along with much of their city, the team was forced to sit out the next two seasons. That leaves the other team, then known as the Boston Red Stockings as the team who has played the most games in MLB history.

Ah but what team is that today? Well if you know your baseball, you know that the current Boston Red Sox are one of the charter members of the American League, which is several years the junior of the National League, so it can't be them. The original National League BoSox went through a bunch of nicknames as was common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, settling on the name Braves in 1912. The Boston Braves, for whom Babe Ruth played his final games, re-located to Milwaukee in 1953, then to Atlanta in 1966, and there you have it.

But I digress. This is about the Cubs, the team who far and away holds the record for the MLB team who has played the most games in the same city. Today the Cubs played the last game of their season. To people like me who have followed the team for a long time, not as a fan necessarily, but merely an interested observer, it comes as no surprise that the Cubs ended the year in disappointing fashion. It may not have been a frustrating, tear your hair out disappointment as it was in 2018, 2017, 2015, 2008 and 2007, or a heart-rending disappointment like 1969 and 1984, or worst of all a gut-wrenching disappointment as it was in 2003, but the fact that the team didn't even make the playoffs this year was disappointing nonetheless.

Today marked the last game behind the bench for their colorful manager Joe Maddon, who in 2016 led the Cubs to their first World Series win in any living person's memory. And this year marked the end of a very long relationship with WGN TV, the local and later super-station who broadcast Cub games for 72 years. 

In case you're interested, the club is forming its own network which surprise surprise, fans will have to pay to watch. Of course in this day and age of the internet, people will certainly find ways to watch the games for free on their computers, so perhaps the change will not be as draconian as some might suggest.

Yet it is still a slap in the face for all the dedicated Cubs fans out there who either don't have cable TV, yes there are still those of us without it, or fans who simply can't afford paying yet another surcharge on top of their already expensive monthly cable bill. 

Clearly for the Ricketts family who owns the team, this is a prudent business move aimed at generating more revenue to invest in the team and one would assume, help put more money in their pockets. As we live in a capitalist society, we shouldn't have a problem with this as a baseball team like any other sports franchise, is not a charitable non-for-profit organization, not by a long shot. The owners don't owe the fans the luxury of giving their product away for free and we the fans shouldn't expect them to do so.

The funny thing is this was exactly the attitude of baseball owners in the early days of TV, back when all TV was free. Most of them understood that while there was some value in advertising their product by showing a limited number of games on TV, the owners were loathe to televise too many out of fear that people would stay home to watch for free rather than opening up their pocketbooks and coming out to the ballpark. In many cases, that's exactly what they did.

Only one owner bucked that trend, Phillip Knight Wrigley, former owner of the Cubs. A few years ago I wrote this piece, a bit of a tribute to old PK, whom I feel deserves much of the credit for the enormous success the Cubs franchise enjoys today.

My point in the piece  was that the current success of the Cubs was a result of largely three things. The first is Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs since 1916. While other team owners left their classic old ballparks, especially in the 1960s and 70s in favor of new, sterile multipurpose stadiums (which themselves have all but disappeared), only Wrigley and the Yawkey family in Boston bucked the trend and retained their beautiful old ballparks. And of the two, only Wrigley insisted, for a few reasons, that all the games in his ballpark should be played during the day. The latter, which many thought was foolish and backwards, ultimately worked to the team's favor because when they finally decided to put in lights in 1986, the whole nation tuned in to watch.

And the whole nation was able to tune in to watch because by that time, WGN who had been broadcasting virtually every Cubs game on TV thanks to Wrigley, had gone national, so folks all over the country could follow and fall in love with the lovable losing team, another one of Wrigley's legacies.

Of course most folks believed that Wrigley was really just a hack, he inherited the team from his father and really didn't make much of an effort to put a championship team on the field. Perhaps that's true. He clearly was more interested in providing a pleasant environment for an afternoon's entertainment for his customers, than he was in putting a decent team on the field. On that rare occasion when a PK Wrigley team, especially in the latter part of the owner's tenure actually was good, it was out of accident rather than design.

But as I pointed out in my piece, had Wrigley followed his peers back in the day, the Cubs may have had one or two more championships under their belts and thus today be just as lucrative as the Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies or Pittsburgh Pirates, in other words, successful franchises for sure, but nothing compared to the Cubs.

Had Wrigley been more like his peers, he could very well have decided that Chicago was not big enough for two teams, pulled up stakes and moved south or west as the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Philadelphia Athletics, Washington Senators, St. Louis Browns (actually they moved east to Baltimore)  and the aforementioned Boston Braves all did. How does the Salt Lake City Cubs sound to you?

I think every Cub fan owes a debt of gratitude to old PK for being stubborn and not following the pack. So should the Ricketts family who bought the team while it was already a tremendously successful enterprise. All they had to do was sink a fortune into the team and manage to break a 108 year old curse of mediocrity. For that they should be congratulated.

As for the changes to the ballpark and even more staggering, to the surrounding neighborhood, all I'll say is that the jury is still out.

And as for leaving WGN well, as I said, I'm sure it's a prudent business decision, one that every reasonable owner in their position would probably make. Times change and there simply aren't any PK Wrigley types around anymore who can just do whatever they please since it's their team and they don't have to answer to scores of investors, not to mention 24/7 sports-talk blabber mouths.

Besides there's no arguing with success, or is there?

I do miss the days when you could on game day sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, turn on Channel 9 and know the Cubs would be on or better yet, just head out to the ballpark at Clark and Addison, buy a ticket for a few bucks, and sit practically anywhere you pleased.

It was sure fun while it lasted.

Thank God I'm a White Sox fan.

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