The most important number to this Cubs fan

The Cubs keep winning, so the thing to do is keep on writing. Call it a win-athon.

The list of Cubs players who have worn the number 9 through the years is long and generally undistinguished. Todd Hundley wore number 9 for the Cubs, and if there was a bigger non-entity than the catcher who flipped off fans after hitting a home run in 2002, you’ll have to tell me who it is.

But the number 9 itself is the most significant one of all, at least to this Cubs fan. If it wasn’t for Channel 9 in Chicago, I surely wouldn’t be a Cubs fan today. And I don’t think I’m alone in that, either.

I grew up in Cardinals country, in Springfield, Illinois. There’s a sign in Springfield indicating that the distance to St. Louis is 95 miles, and to Chicago it’s just under 200 miles. As a result, St. Louis seemed near and familiar, while Chicago felt far and exotic. And as far back as I can remember, the far-away city was the one I preferred. And WGN-TV was the reason why.

I can’t be the only one who remembers watching the Ray Rayner show on Channel 9 in the mornings. He showed Cubs highlights on the air, which was reason enough to watch his show in the days before ESPN. I remember he had this funny two-directional hat, with the Cubs on one side and the White Sox on the other, that he would wear during the highlights.

Getting to relive a ballgame from the day before, if only in brief little snippets, was more than the local newscasts in Springfield offered. For a baseball-crazed young kid like me, it was worth tuning in for every day, even when I knew what the outcome of the game was already. There was no such thing as too much baseball to me.

And the reason the highlights were available is because the Cubs games were broadcast on WGN every day. It’s hard to imagine from a modern perspective, but baseball on TV was a rare thing back in the 1970s. There would be the Saturday Game of the Week on NBC with Joe Garagiola, and a Monday Night game on ABC, and that was about it, except for the Cubs and Jack Brickhouse.

Where to begin with Jack Brickhouse? I thought of him as my grandpa, who came over to my house when the Cubs were playing to describe the ballgame to me. It really did feel like he was talking directly to me, too. I never got that feeling with Harry Caray or any of the other Cubs announcers through the years. But Jack Brickhouse had that gift. Lou Boudreau would chime in on occasion, but if baseball was my drug, then Jack Brickhouse was the one who found the vein and inserted the needle, day after day after day.

And Arne Harris was the director, who never appeared on camera but chose the shots that we got to see during the game. I’ll always remember the “hat shots” of some fan or another in the crowd. It made me long to see a game at Wrigley Field myself, even though it wasn’t until the late 1980s that I finally got there myself. There’s a lot of space to fill during a game, but Arne Harris’s direction did the job exceedingly well.

Ray Rayner was the first of the Channel 9 troika to fly the coop, retiring in late 1980. Jack Brickhouse was nudged out as the Cubs’ announcer after the Tribune Corporation bought the Cubs in the early 1980s, and Arne Harris died at the end of the 2001 season. In fact, I remember learning about his passing by seeing an R.I.P. notice on the red marquee on Clark Street, and wishing in vain that it was some kind of a cruel hoax. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote.

The Cubs aren’t on Channel 9 anymore, and adjusting to them on other TV outlets wasn’t easy. Having to search around for which channel was carrying the game on any given day isn’t fun, and I found myself gravitating toward radio instead, for the simple fact that I always knew where to find the game. That’s no longer on WGN either, which proves that everything in life will change, eventually.

So many thanks to WGN-TV Channel 9 for bringing me into the fold as a Cubs fan. Let’s hope we can get to Ron Santo’s number (and Dave Kingman’s, too) on Sunday against the White Sox.

Photo: Astros-Cubs, August 8, 2008 / The West End / CC BY 2.0 / Alteration: Cropped