Is Chicago’s love for its team broadcasters over the top? Possibly. You got a problem with that?
Eddie Olczyk’s departure from the Blackhawks has stunned fans.
I can still hear Jack Brickhouse’s voice. It’s as if the ’60s and ’70s have returned and the Cubs announcer is in the TV room in my home. I hear not just his trademark phrases but the reedy excitement of the delivery. The rise of his voice (“back, back, back …’’) as it follows a baseball toward its final resting place in the outfield bleachers (“Hey, hey!”). Almost like a giggle that can’t be contained. Joyful. Childlike in its wonder.
I don’t need a scratchy replay to hear it. It’s in my head. I’m by no means alone in my emotional attachment to someone I never knew or even met.
My guess is that more people can identify the White Sox’ TV broadcast team of Steve Stone and Jason Benetti than the Sox’ infield. In the same way, more Sox fans likely can give you nine of former team broadcaster Hawk Harrelson’s catchphrases well before they can give you the names of nine players from, say, the 2009 team. Is that out of whack? No, that’s Chicago. I love that about the place.
Eddie Olczyk parted ways with the Blackhawks recently after failing to come to terms with the club on a contract. Judging by social media, you would have thought it was a death in the family, probably because it kind of was. The former Hawk had spent 16 years in the TV booth as an analyst. He was known for his ability to break down what was happening on the ice and make it understandable for fans. If Eddie said somebody was out of position, somebody was out of position. Nobody argued. Not the player, not the coach, not the Pope. His word was gospel, and he had thousands of disciples.
The connection between fans and broadcasters is strong no matter where you live. It makes sense. Players come and go. Announcers stay awhile. Most people don’t consume sports in person at stadiums. It’s too expensive. So they get their essential vitamins via radio or TV.
But sports fans in Chicago are especially connected to their broadcasters — some would say out of all proportion. I think it has something to do with the long history of bad sports teams in town, when the only thing to hold onto was the broadcast team. It kept you sane. Gave you a friend who seemed to understand the stabbing pain in your abdomen.
Harry Caray was bigger than the Sox when he did play-by-play on the South Side, and he became bigger than the Cubs when he moved to the North Side. Some players and managers resented that. Tough. They could have combated it by being successful on the field or by having a bigger personality than Caray did. They were found wanting in both categories. When Caray died in 1998, thousands of Chicagoans showed up for his public wake at Holy Name Cathedral, some waiting seven hours to pay their respects at the casket. A death in the family, indeed.
From outside the city, this all might look warped. Why would fans be more smitten with an announcer’s announcing than an athlete’s athleticism? Isn’t that like appreciating the wrapping paper more than the gift? I suppose it is, but both the announcer and the athlete are in the entertainment business. We can’t help it if we find the play-by-play guy more interesting than the player.
If that makes Chicago look like a city lacking sports sophisticates, so be it. But, sorry, Ron Santo’s inability to pronounce players’ names correctly was worth listening to. And the story of his toupee catching fire in the Mets’ broadcast booth is better than most anything the Cubs did during his 21-year career as a color commentator.
Jeff Joniak with the Bears. Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer with the Cubs. Stacey King with the Bulls. Len Kasper with the 2016 Cubs, and now with the Sox. They might not be bigger than their teams, but in a very concrete way, they are their teams. The players don’t speak to the fans during a game. Those fans need a voice, a familiar voice with a familiar message. In 2019, when Sox rookie Eloy Jimenez hit a game-winning home run against the Cubs, the team that had sent him to the South Side in the Jose Quintana trade, Benetti knew his audience. “Thanks, Cubs!’’ he said. Was it pandering to those Sox fans who take glee at every Cubs’ misfortune? You bet it was. And they loved him for it.
Sports franchises have a tendency to underestimate this kind of bond. I’m not sure if the Hawks did that with Olczyk. I am sure at some level they’re unhappy it came to this, with Eddie O headed to Seattle to be a Kraken broadcaster. They shouldn’t have let it come to this. Players come and go. Announcers stay. This one didn’t, and a city is having a difficult time processing it.