Bob Elson and WGN-Chicago
Imagine wanting to listen to a baseball game on the radio and having five different choices of a station and five different announcers for the same game. One of those five announcers was Bob Elson, who broadcast for the Chicago Cubs and White Sox from 1929 through 1970 (except for 1943-1945 when he was in military service). In a 1979 interview, Elson talked about his start as a play-by-play broadcaster on Chicago radio. “In 1930, we had five different stations [in Chicago] all doing the same game. We did the Cubs at home and then the Sox at home. Five different broadcasters, five different stations. We didn’t have to pay the Cubs any rights fees and we paid the White Sox $10,000. And that went on for almost 13 years. No road games, all home games for both teams.”1
Elson broadcast for 50,000-watt WGN in 1930 (the other four Chicago outlets carrying baseball then were WMAQ, WBBM, WIND and WENR).2 The Cubs were on all five stations while the Pale Hose were carried by two.3
In the event of a rainout, Elson arranged for a telegraph operator in another major league city to transmit a game of interest back to Chicago so he could “re-create” it for the local audience.4 Elson then hired another telegraph operator in Chicago to decipher the Morse Code coming in from the distant city. He added his own color to enliven plays coming over the wire – for example, changing “F8” to something akin to “a slashing line drive hit to deep center is caught on the run by Kiki Cuyler just short of the warning track.”
At a time when radio broadcasts of major-league games were not done in the New York market and baseball was the undisputed national pastime, Elson was the premier sports broadcaster in the country. His employer – WGN – was located only a few blocks from the office of the baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and he was a frequent lunch companion of the Judge. The commissioner selected him to be one of the World Series broadcasters in 1930, something he did for the next 11 years, usually joined by Red Barber (then an announcer for the Cincinnati Reds) on the nationwide Mutual Broadcasting Network. In 1943, Elson received leave from his military duty with the Navy to become the only person to ever broadcast the World Series while in uniform.
Additional national exposure came from Elson’s selection to broadcast the first All-Star game in 1933, broadcast over CBS. One of four announcers doing the game, he always considered Ruth’s first-ever All-Star home run one of the highlights of his broadcasting career. He went on to broadcast nine of the first ten All-Star games, missing only 1936 (at Boston’s Braves Field) due to illness.
In 1940 and again in 1941, The Sporting News selected Elson as Announcer of the Year. He was considered one of the best interviewers of his day and was the first to interview ballplayers over the air from the ballpark. Starting in the late 1930s, Elson interviewed celebrities as they prepared to board or disembarked from the famous Twentieth Century Limited train that ran between Chicago and New York. In the 1940s, he began a two-hour radio program from the Pump Room of the Ambassador Hotel, again largely interviewing various personalities. The show from the Pump Room was broadcast over a 40-station network that reached to the west coast.5
Elson served in the military from September 1942 to October 1945. After his discharge, he continued to do baseball play-by-play from 1946 through 1970 for the White Sox and in 1971 at Oakland. (He replaced Harry Caray, whom the A’s had fired after the 1970 season; a few months later Caray took Elson’s place.) Elson's old station, WGN, had axed baseball from the schedule after the 1943 season and he took employment at WJJD, doing the Sox games. But he was never heard on a national broadcast of the World Series after his in-uniform appearance in 1943, nor did he call an All-Star game after 1942. From his standing at the top of his profession, what caused his career to plateau after the early 1940s?
One of the key reasons was the entry of New York baseball teams into the radio market in 1939. In part due to the Great Depression, the three New York clubs were fearful of the effects on attendance if they allowed radio broadcasts of their games. The result was a five-year non-broadcasting agreement in 1934. But in 1939, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ vice-president and general manager, Larry MacPhail, refused to renew the agreement (much to the chagrin of the Yankees and Giants), and signed on with 50,000-watt station WOR to broadcast all Dodger games, home and road, for $77,000 per season.6 To meet the competition, the Yankees and Giants also started broadcasting over radio in 1939, finally opening the largest media market in the U.S. to baseball broadcasts of their home teams. Henceforth, key broadcasting “stars,” such as Barber and Mel Allen, often broadcast for New York teams.
A second factor in Elson’s career was his failure to transition from radio to television. Many play-by-play men did a few innings on radio and then worked the television side, but Elson almost always specialized in radio. In a city where television baseball became a way of life, Elson’s absence was notable.
Elson’s work in a city where there was just one World Series after 1945 also kept him out of the limelight. At a time when the local announcer customarily shared the World Series microphone, Elson always considered his snub in 1959 one of the low points of his career.7 Due to a personality conflict with NBC Sports Director Tom Gallery, Jack Brickhouse was chosen over Elson.
Though factors largely outside his control may have affected Bob Elson’s national stature after 1943, he will always be remembered for his pioneering role in early baseball broadcasts on both the North and South sides of Chicago. His career culminated with his selection as the third winner of the Ford Frick Award by the Baseball Hall of Fame, behind only Barber and Allen, in 1979.
This article first appeared in "Winning on the North Side: The 1929 Chicago Cubs," edited by Gregory H. Wolf (SABR, 2015). Download your free e-book copy by clicking here.
1 Radio interview with Jack Buck during Chicago Cubs-St. Louis Cardinals game, April 19, 1979 on KMOX in St Louis.
3 Curt Smith, Voices of the Game (New York: Fireside, 1987), 14. According to Richard Lindberg in Total White Sox (2006). the Sox were on only one station in 1930.
6 Smith, 39.