As WGN TV celebrates 75 years, we’re looking back with a series of stories on the history and the memories
Jack Brickhouse was a jack of all trades. From car shows to conventions, and from Popes to presidents, Brickhouse interviewed just about everyone and covered just about every kind of story.
“A lot of times you have someone who specializes in one thing,” longtime WGN-TV director Steve Novak said. “Jack could do it all.”
For parts of five decades, Brickhouse was WGN-TVs lead sportscaster, correspondent, and personality. He was an eyewitness to Chicago history. He interviewed a young Mike Ditka and an older Mayor Richard J. Daley.
“I guess one of the rewarding things about a job like mine has been the marvelous, marvelous opportunity to be on the scene for some of these truly great moments.” Brickhouse said in an interview with WGN-TV upon his retirement in 1981.
Born in Peoria, Brickhouse was just 11-years-old when he got his first job in journalism as a paper boy, delivering the Peoria Journal to neighborhood doorsteps. He began his broadcasting career at radio station WMBD when he was only 18-years-old. Six years later, in 1940, he came to work in Chicago at WGN Radio.
“So even though Jack Brickhouse grew up in Peoria, he was Mr. Chicago,” Dave Plier, the chairman of the Museum of Broadcast Communication in Chicago said. “He embraced the city from the minute he got here in 1940, and when the television station launched in 1948.”
By 1948 when 100,000 people watched the gala debut of WGN’s “television adventure, “as Col. Robert McCormick called it, Brickhouse was front-and-center. He was the first person to appear on Channel 9’s inaugural broadcast.
“He was the first face that people saw when they saw WGN, and that’s what they associated with the station,” Novak said.
That face would become one of the most beloved and enduring in Chicago television history. That’s because Brickhouse was a man for all seasons – sports seasons.
The legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus grew up in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood and watched Brickhouse when he was a child.
“Jack was – when I think about it – was kind of amazing,” he said. “He’d do the Sox and the Cub games on Channel 9. He was really loyal with Chicago.”
“It’s more like what didn’t he do?” Jimmy Greenfield, an author and Cubs historian, said. “The only team he didn’t do was the Blackhawks. He was a Bulls announcer. He was a White Sox announcer, for over two decades he was the Bears announcer for a long time. He did everything. He was a Chicago guy through and through.”
Brickhouse transitioned from radio to TV sports and honed a sparse announcing style that let the pictures, not his words tell the story.
“At a time when television was in its infancy and everyone was trying to figure out what was the right formula, he was able to figure that out,” Plier said.
And despite his range and experience across topics and teams, he’s best known as the voice of the Cubs.
For a span of nearly 40 years, he was a fixture in the broadcast booth which, at the time, was positioned high above the Wrigley Field third base line. His as the TV play-by-play voice of the team tenure overlapped with the early decades of the team’s fabled 108-year World Series drought.
“Between World War II and the early part of the ‘80s, the Cubs were terrible,” Greenfield said. “They didn’t go to the World Series, they barely contended, and Jack Brickhouse was there for all of it.”
Brickhouse, however, managed to convey the hope of a sunrise every time he signed on the air for daytime baseball games at Wrigley.
“Jack Brickhouse had this great voice,” said Rick Morris, a dean and professor at Northwestern University’s School of Communication. “It was a wonderful voice, a voice that made it seem ok. The day is ok, and ‘the winds are coming in off the Lake into Wrigley Field,’ and today we’re going to have a baseball game, and it doesn’t matter if the Cubs win — or not.”
Fans learned to cheer for the ‘lovable losers’ and keep a sense of optimism despite seeing a losing team year after year, largely because of Brickhouse’s eternal optimism.
Bob Vorwald is a longtime Director of Production who oversaw WGN Sports and worked with Brickhouse for several years.
“I think that we are, as a fan base, are inherently optimistic, and I’m an optimistic person, just by virtue of having grown up listening to Jack Brickhouse and working with him,” he said.
Brickhouse coined a phrase that captured the spontaneous excitement of a home run. It was as brief as it was boisterous, “Hey, Hey!”
“It was about the second year we were televising,” Brickhouse said. “I guess I yelled that (Hey, hey), and I had been doing it without realizing it, and the crew superimposed ‘Hey, Hey’ on the monitor, and we all cracked up at it. And we decided after that to leave it in.”
It became his trademark phrase.
“Jack Brickhouse was the ‘Hey, hey’ guy,” Greenfield said.
The foul poles at Wrigley are forever adorned with that phrase in Brickhouse’s honor.
“Jack never saw the Cubs lose,” Vorwald said. “He might have seen them run out of innings a time or two, and he passed that along to Ernie Banks, and he passed that along to Cub fans. And he just had this undying love of the team.”
Brickhouse called more than 5,000 games on WGN-TV, a record that is not likely to ever be broken.
On July 23, 1962, the new Telstar communications satellite made it possible to send live pictures around the world. The first images that of the United States seen in Europe were of the Cubs playing the Philadelphia Phillies via WGN-TV, as Brickhouse narrated the scene with these words: “Here it is: a brief glimpse of American baseball played in the biggest arena in the world, all the way from Wrigley Field in Chicago to the Coliseum in Rome.”
During most of the 1960s, the Cubs limped along as the “lovable losers.” But in 1969 fans were glued to WGN as Brickhouse described the most riveting and – ultimately agonizing – season in Cubs history up to that point, ending in the team’s infamous black-cat cursed collapse.
The ‘69 season was the closest Brickhouse ever came to the dream of calling a Cubs World Series, so instead of narrating epic victories, he’s voice echoes in the memorable moments.
“I think the biggest one was Ernie Banks’s 500th home run,” Greenfield said. “Because he didn’t have any clinchers to announce, it became moments that were memorable for him, a no hitter, Banks’s 500th home run.”
He retained his youthful enthusiasm even at the end of his career.
“He was so energetic, and you know he had the patience of Job, watching all this bad baseball over the years, but it never ever got him down,” Vorwald said.
In 1979 Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne was the emcee on Jack Brickhouse Day at Wrigley Field commemorating his 5,000th broadcast for WGN.
“How ‘bout a ‘Hey, hey!’ for Jack Brickhouse?” Byrne said to the Wrigley Field crowd.
In 1981, Brickhouse retired and replaced by his friend Harry Caray. To this day, at Pioneer Court, just a few feet from the studio where Brickhouse made his first appearance on TV sets across the Chicago area, the “jack of all trades” is memorialized in a bust that celebrates his hall-of-fame career – parts of five decades as the face of WGN-TV.
In 1983 he won the Ford Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Brickhouse died in 1998, at the age of 82.
“It seemed to me that Jack Brickhouse was everyman,” Novak said. “You could look at him and say, I could just as soon be sitting across the bar from him having a drink and talking sports. I mean, he did everything for the station.”