Baseball Belongs on Free TV — Especially the Cubs

America’s pastime should be on prime time. The writers’ strike may make it possible.

June 2, 2023 6:00 am
announcer Harry Caray talking into a microphone.
Broadcaster Harry Caray before an opening day game.
Bettmann Archive

One of Will Ferrell’s most beloved impersonations is Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray. Ferrell first performed it on Saturday Night Live in 1996 before Harry Caray died in 1998. Ferrell regularly performed as Caray on the show until he left the cast in 2002. He occasionally breaks it out, as recently as 2016 to celebrate the team’s World Series championship.

Ferrell grew up in California. Caray was a Chicago Cubs broadcaster from 1981 until his death.  SNL is filmed in New York. Caray mostly broadcast outside of New York. So why did an impression of a regional broadcaster of a Major League Baseball team endure for decades after his passing? Why was a comic from California familiar with a regional broadcaster? Why do audiences across the country still know who Harry Caray is? It’s because the Chicago Cubs used to air all their games on WGN TV. And everyone had WGN TV. 

The Chicago Cubs aired on WGN from 1948 to 2019, and the 72-year relationship was the longest in sports history. In 1978, WGN became a “superstation,” extending its broadcast ability nationwide. The Cubs (and Bulls) benefited as two of a handful of teams seen regularly across the country. Since 2020, the team has broadcast their games on their own network, Marquee Sports Network. 

We’re now in the midst of the WGA strike, and it looks like it’s not ending anytime soon. If this strike is anything like the 2007-08 writers’ strike, television networks would be smart to begin airing Major League Baseball. Every night. In prime time. 

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The NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Finals are about to begin (and will soon enough be over). We’re roughly three full months away from regular season NFL games. America’s pastime hasn’t been America’s favorite sport for years, and it’s only getting worse (It’s currently the third most popular sport in America. Third!). Now is the time for MLB to act. 

The last writers’ strike led to “prestige” cable getting repackaged for broadcast ( Showtime’s Dexter recut for CBS, USA’s Monk and Psych edited for NBC, etc.). That doesn’t work in 2023, when few people rely solely on the networks for their prime-time entertainment, thanks to a zillion other shows on a zillion streaming services. Before desperate networks begin to repackage and recut to fill hours of TV, there’s a product perfect for three otherwise empty hours of prime time.

Putting baseball on broadcast and cable TV does work. There’s a reason Fox Saturday Baseball, Sunday Night Baseball on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, MLB on TBS, MLB on FS1, MLB on Peacock/NBC and Friday Night Baseball on AppleTV+ carry games. But unless you’re paying for the MLB app, you’re still missing almost every baseball game. And if you’re already paying for the MLB app, you’re already a baseball fan. To grow the game and garner better ratings, baseball needs to put the game on broadcast TV.

If you look at the highest-rated cable shows, they’re always live sports or sports entertainment. As the strike continues and the scripted content well begins to dry up, live sports will be in even higher demand. If you don’t believe me, just think back to the dark days of spring 2020. The viewing public was so starved for sports, and baseball in particular, ESPN began airing Korean baseball. The desire for baseball on prime time is there. But unless you have a pretty good cable package, multiple streaming services and the MLB app, you can’t see every game you want. And even if you do have all of these services, the game will not grow. 

There’s currently one newish tradition in baseball and broadcast TV: the Field of Dreams game on Fox. Once a year, the field from the 1989 film — kinda, it’s really close to the original field— is used by professionals. It looks great on TV and gives a playoff atmosphere to an otherwise boring mid-season matchup. The 2021 game was a nail-biter, ending with the Chicago White Sox winning in a walk off by superstar Tim Anderson. Last year, a hologram Harry Caray stole the show and inspired nightmares at the Field of Dreams game during an otherwise very bad Cubs season. Both games were covered like baseball matters. There’s no reason this can’t work on a regular basis on free TV. 

It makes sense for a game that grew because of free TV to return to free TV. This is especially true for the Cubs, as the reason the club is so beloved nationwide is all of their games used to air on free TV. If the Cubs aren’t on free TV in the ’80s and ’90s, we don’t get Will Ferrell as Harry Caray in the ’90s, ’00s and ’10s. The lack of new baseball personalities being parodied on SNL is a pretty good example of the game’s waning influence.

Also, the song fans sing after Cubs victories, Steve Goodman’s 1984 “Go, Cubs, Go,” has the lines, “Baseball time is here again/You can catch it all on WGN.” For the moment, that’s a goddamn lie. The late, great Steve Goodman deserves better. And so do Cubs fans, and would-be baseball fans nationwide.

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