Which baseball owner and radio visionary innovated marketing by billboarding an entire region?

By Scott A. Rowan

“I watch a lot of baseball on the radio,” former President Gerald Ford famously once said. His malapropism may be technically incorrect, but sports fans everywhere understood exactly what the Michigan native, who cheered for the Detroit Tigers, meant.

This excerpt is from “The Cubs Quotient: How the Chicago Cubs Changed the World” by Scott A. Rowan. Available now at Amazon and SherpaMultimedia.com.

Charles Weeghman may have built the ballpark where the Chicago Cubs play, but it was William Wrigley Jr. who made it a home to the millions of fans who flock to the park. Wrigley was a marketing genius whose renegade experiments changed sports forever.

Wrigley came to be a part of the Cubs in large part because Weeghman simply couldn’t afford the team. Certainly, sports fans should hold a certain level of respect for Weeghman, but how much is up for debate. After all, had Weeghman been as much of a businessman as he was a showman, he wouldn’t have needed Wrigley’s help. Overextending himself in an effort to appear more impressive than he truly was would eventually cost Weeghman his ownership of the Cubs.

When he first moved to Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century, Weeghman worked the night shift at King’s Restaurant, located in the heart of the Loop at 28 N. Wells Street. King’s late night crowd consisted largely of journalists and gamblers, and Weeghman befriended both groups. The journalists were important to Weeghman because, like his eventual partner, Wrigley, he was a masterful marketer who encouraged local newspapers to write exaggerated stories about him (with any errors going uncorrected by the social climber). Nearly every newspaper story from the early part of the twentieth century used the same unchecked, inaccurate narrative when it came to Weeghman’s rags- to-riches life: he was a small-town boy from Indiana who earned $10 a week as a waiter when he arrived in Chicago. He saved his money and invested his life savings of $2,800 to open a lunchroom that became an empire, making him a millionaire with a net worth of roughly $8 million—which he spent on building the most beautiful ballpark in the world.

The problem is that this story is not exactly true. Weeghman may have started as a waiter at King’s, but the restaurant quickly promoted him to assistant manager, a position in which he earned nearly four times as much per week. After eight years working at King’s, Weeghman only had $300 to invest in his first restaurant; the rest of the $2,500 needed was borrowed or came from partners Aaron Field ($700) and Frank Conway ($1,600). However, since the fictionalized story was more appealing, journalists often ignored the truth—and Weeghman never corrected those who left out the accurate details.

Charles Weeghman

As for being a millionaire, Weeghman couldn’t actually afford the Cubs when he bought them for $500,000 in 1915. He had already built Weeghman Park for $250,000 in 1914; though it was a beautiful venue, he lost money the first season. And while the man was rich by some measures, his claim of having a net worth of $8 million was based on his own unverified assessment.

Both the exaggerated stories and the need for financial bailouts would become a pattern for Weeghman. But he knew a great deal when he saw one, and buying the Cubs for $500,000, moving them to Weeghman Park, and turning the stadium into the home of the National League Cubs was a no-brainer, even if he didn’t have the money to do it himself. Weeghman made a list of the wealthiest businessmen in Chicago and convinced them to join as investors. Wrigley was one of those investors, and his initial minority stake in the organization grew as Weeghman borrowed funds over the following seasons, offering Cubs stock in exchange for cash.

World War I was bad for the restaurant business. The government rationed goods and drafted customers into military service. Decreasing profits soon forced Weeghman to close restaurants across Chicago. By December 1918, he also had to sell his shares in the Cubs to Wrigley and resign as president of the Cubs.

While Cubs fans can thank Weeghman for building the shrine that is Wrigley Field, they should also be thankful that Wrigley was there to save the franchise with his deep pockets and forward thinking. Like Weeghman, Wrigley believed in marketing on a large scale; in fact, he was also one of the pioneers of the direct mail business. Today that means mailboxes stuffed with unwanted advertisements and promotions, but in 1915 it meant free gum. Wrigley mailed four sticks of gum to every address with a phone number in the nation, approximately 1.5 million households. The tactic was enormously successful and laid the groundwork for even bigger promotions to come.

In 1925, radio station WMAQ’s program director Judith Waller approached Wrigley with an intriguing idea: would the Cubs consider broadcasting their regular-season games on the radio? Wrigley, sitting in his office atop the tallest building in Chicago at that time (the famous Wrigley Building), considered the idea.

On August 5, 1921, Pittsburgh’s KDKA had become the first station to broadcast a baseball game (between the Pirates and the Phillies). In 1922, postseason games were regularly broadcast, but nobody had considered broadcasting regular-season games on a consistent basis. Nobody, that is, until Wrigley.

The risk was obvious: why give away games for free via radio when there were still empty seats in the ballpark? It wasn’t an unreasonable concern. Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz infuriated hockey fans for refusing to televise games into the twenty-first century for the very same reason. (After Wirtz’s death in 2007, the first thing his son, Rocky, did when he took over the club was to put the Blackhawks back on television. The team’s popularity immediately soared and in a four-year span, the Blackhawks won two Stanley Cup championships, twice the number Rocky’s father saw the franchise win during his four-decade stewardship of the organization.)

William Wrigley Jr, owner of the National League’s Chicago Cubs, sitting in front of grandstands at Wrigley Field, Chicago, Illinois, 1929.

Wrigley knew broadcasting Cubs games would be risky. But sending free gum to more than one million people had been risky as well. In 1915, Wrigley had gambled on the assumption that if someone could afford a phone, he or she could afford a pack of gum. They just needed to try it first to see that they would like it. Wrigley decided to take a chance that the same principal would apply to radio and the Cubs.

On April 14, 1925, both WMAQ’s Russell Pratt and WGN’s Quin Ryan provided live radio broadcasts of the Cubs’ 8–2 win against the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was the first time a professional sports team had embraced the new technology during the regular season. Wrigley’s decision would forever change how fans experience sports around the world. WMAQ and WGN continued broadcasting games throughout the 1925 season, though not for every home game. However, both stations provided coverage of the Cubs when they weren’t broadcasting games.

Wrigley was thrilled by the impact the broadcasts had on potential customers who executives had always believed were too far away to reach.

Explained Eldon L. Ham in his book Broadcasting Baseball: The History of the National Pastime on Television and Radio:

From 1925 through 1931 teams that featured no radio broadcasting experienced aggregate attendance increases of 27 percent while the Cubs, a team that had been increasing its radio exposure throughout the period, saw its own attendance skyrocket by 117 percent, more than four times the average increase for teams without radio. In the early days, such results seemed counter-intuitive: why go to the game if the game comes to you? But the real phenomenon at work is called “billboarding.” Baseball was promoting itself over the airwaves, for radio was everywhere and, thus, so were the Cubs. As a direct result, the public became more and more hooked on baseball. Wrigley was elated. Rather than reducing attendance, the billboarding effect was actually increasing the game’s popularity by quantum leaps.

With radio spreading baseball throughout the city and beyond, more fans could follow the team and, more importantly, more non-fans could be reached who were able to follow the Cubs and develop an interest. Broadcasting was even able to reach fans in cars, for manufacturers were installing radio receivers in automobiles as early as 1923. Better yet, the geographic reach of the team had been expanded. Listeners in Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana and downstate Illinois were able to follow the Cubs, extending the fan base to many states and creating a huge Midwest following for the team. Well into the New Millennium, the Cubs still own a strong fan base in those rural areas, and every summer home game finds thousands of fans from charter buses descending on Wrigley from Des Moines to Peoria and South Bend.

What Weeghman had built, Wrigley improved upon and expanded, creating a legion of Cubs fans upon which the sun never sets—all because of billboarding the Friendly Confines to fans beyond the horizon. Today, fans can hear radio broadcasts of every MLB team and can pay to receive games not broadcast in their area. Each team controls local radio deals, so numbers are difficult to pinpoint for radio revenue. But in 2013, MLB renewed its television rights to ESPN, Turner Broadcasting, and Fox Sports for a combined $12.4 billion.

SOURCES:

Press Reference Library, Being the portraits and biographies of the progressive men of the West: Vol. II (New York: The New York Public Library, 2011), 419.

Roberts Ehrgott, Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club: Chicago and the Cubs During the Jazz Age (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 44.

Eldon L. Ham, Broadcasting Baseball: A History of the National Pastime on Radio and Television (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011), 17.

-SOH-

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