The Straight Man Takes His Bow

It’s Hall of Fame Day in Cooperstown for Major League Baseball, and, honestly, I’m not as excited as I otherwise would be.  The players who are being inducted, Scott Rolen and Fred McGriff, are deserving, but both had worked their way through years of qualifying votes up their ladders of eligibility to remain eligible, but in years where more prominent players had recently become eligible, their candidacies became a bit less supported by a voting constituency that tends to, unlike other sports, limit the number of people who actually make it.    There is nowhere else but in baseball where revisionist history has such an impact.  It’s not like McGriff hit any more home runs or Rolen’s WAR numbers were adjusted since their respective retirements.  But in a year where record-breakers were less represented, all of a sudden, they’re Hall of Famers.  And considering that both of them played for multiple teams, it’s not like there’s any one constituency of fans that are showing up in droves.  McGriff was A Blue Jay and Brave great, but he was hardly THE great.  Rolen starred for the Cardinals and Phillies, but he was never truly associated with either one to the extent of, say, an Albert Pujols or Ryan Howard.

Which is why I’m often attracted to the others who get inducted, such as broadcasters. Especially broadcasters who have a long allegiance with one team, and therefore a connection across multiple generations.   And this year, in a ceremony that actually took place yesterday, one shining example of a pro who has such a track record was given his due, as longtime Chicago Cubs radio broadcaster Pat Hughes took his place in Cooperstown.

If you’re a regular reader of this space, you know darn well my partner in crime is a true Cubs fan, and we probably devote more than our share of stories to them.   I’m a bit more detached but nevertheless reverent of someone who is as devoted to his team as the often long-suffering fans, who at least have finally seen a world’s championship in their lifetime but are already fearing another century-plus drought could be imminent.

And apparently, so too is Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jeff Agrest, who told his readers of Hughes’ remarks and qualifications to join a pantheon of otherwise more nationally recognizable names.  In his preview article, he rattled off a series of justifcations:

On Saturday, he’ll become the 47th recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award, earning him induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. And within that club is a small group of longtime Chicago broadcasters who have won the award:

Bob Elson (1979), Jack Brickhouse (1983), Harry Caray (1989) and Ken “Hawk” Harrelson (2020).

As great as they were, Hughes is better than all of them.

Chicago sports fans are deeply attached to their broadcasters, so opinions might vary. But if I needed one of them to call the biggest baseball game in city history, it would be Hughes.

That’s not to disparage the others. Elson and Brickhouse were pioneers in the industry, and “Brick” was as jovial as they came. Caray was a showman and a much better broadcaster in his earlier days than the caricature he’s remembered as. Harrelson created his own lexicon and doubled as a play-by-play voice and analyst.

Hughes is unlike them all. He sees himself as a reporter on the scene of an event. In his open to a broadcast, he’ll say, “it’s Pat Hughes reporting … ,” and the listener immediately knows what type of broadcast to expect: an objective account of the game with as much specificity as possible.

To be sure, you know whose side Hughes is on. His voice rises with excitement for a Cubs home run and lowers with dejection for one by the opposition. But he’ll exude positivity without going overboard like Brickhouse would. He’ll have lots of fun in the booth without letting it interfere with the broadcast like Caray would. And he’ll pull for a big hit by the Cubs without it sounding like Hawk’s homerism.

I first became familiar with Hughes’ genial tones when I first got a subscription to satellite radio, and when it was a constant companion for me during lunchtime commutes.  The Cubs often had the only day game in the majors, and Hughes’ celebrated teaming with Cubs great Ron Santo was captivating.  Longtime Cubs fans revered what they lovingly called the “Pat and Ron Show”, and in his speech yesterday Hughes when it began with Santo, a popular everyman survivor of the close-but-no-cigar 60s Cubs who had already had five less storied years under his belt when Hughes joined the team.   As Agrest continued:

Hughes shared the story of Santo calling him the night before their first Cactus League game together on WGN in 1996. 

“He said, ‘Pat, I know you’re nervous. Don’t be,’ ” Hughes said. “ ‘You’re going to be fine; we’re going to have fun. OK? I’ll see you tomorrow.’ As he spoke those words, I could feel the tension leave my body. 

“The next day, in the first half-inning, Ron Santo and I clicked immediately. After the third out, he stands up, smiling, and shakes my hand. And the look on his face said, ‘Oh, boy, this is gonna be great.’ Ronnie and I shared a unique chemistry.”

Hughes was the perfect straight man to Santo’s unintentional comedic routine. The stories from their nearly 15 years together are seemingly endless. There was Santo fleeing from a malfunctioning ice cream dispenser, his hairpiece catching fire and his mockery of Hughes’ wardrobe, all of it used as material for the show. Not that they needed more. Their in-game interactions provided plenty of entertainment.

What I connected with was a similar dynamic that I had heard and seen with the likes of Frank Messer and Bill White on Yankee broadcasts who got similar gold out of Phil Rizzuto, and, more recently, Gary Cohen of the Mets would get out of an aging Ralph Kiner.  And, what I learned, Hughes had gotten out of Bob Uecker during the twelve years they spent together on Brewers’ broadcasts in Milwaukee.  Take advantage of their actual professional experience as real major leagues, play off their later-life eccentricities, and mine comedy gold.

But what also made the original Pat and Ron Show so endearing was the tragedy ultimately connected with the beloved Santo’s later years.  Shortly after his #10 was retired at the end of the division-winning 2003 season he was diagnosed with bladder cancer and missed the playoff run, including the notorious Steve Bartman Game 6.  After having both legs amputated due to diabetes he suffered from even during his playing career, his filmmaker son Jeff chose to devote the 2009 season to a documentary called “This Old Cub”, where it was hoped that his dad would be inducted by the Veterans’ Committee into the Hall.  He fell 15 votes short.  Jeff Santo’s ability to capture his dad’s deep disappointment, especially for audiences who long associated him with the daily dose of revelry he had with Hughes, was artistic and heartbreaking.  And when those multiple complications finally claimed Santo’s life in 2010 at the too-young age of 66, it meant that Ron would never know the joy of the Cubs finally winning a title, or entering the Hall.   Both events have happened after his death.  But Hughes has been there with a front-row seat for both.  And now, his plaque will hang in Cooperstown not from his longtime partner’s.

These days, Hughes is broadcasting with a new Ron, longtime journeyman and one-time All-Star game participant Coomer, and he semi-mockingly references Coomer as the “All-Star”, in a way that somehow connects this Ron to his predecessor, who played in eight more than did Coomer.  The running gag this week is now Coomer can now reference his partner as a Hall of Famer.

And a most deserving one at that.

Have an Old Style or two to celebrate today, Cubs fans.  You deserve something to cheer about this year.



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