Announcers

Pat Hughes: From #2 in Milwaukee to #1 in Chicago; Popularity of Cubs’ radio voice is swelling

It's Hughes' 36th year doing MLB; Bob Uecker taught him the game; Harry Caray embraced him and partner Ron Santo had lots of laughs with him in the booth

Pat Hughes’ colleagues around baseball will tell you unhesitatingly that he is friendly, likable and flat out talented. He has marvelous people skills, is admired by fans and gets along famously with his coworkers. Through the years, Hughes has interacted seamlessly with broadcasters whose strong personalities have historically been hard to suppress.

After 12 years as Bob Uecker’s radio sidekick with the Brewers (1984-95), he’s been with the Cubs for 23 years. Milwaukee to Chicago was a short 90 mile hop for Hughes but it was a giant step in stature. From #2 in a smallish market to #1 in a top #3 metro!

In Wisconsin, Uecker’s name was as big as Lombardi. When Pat arrived in Chicago in 1996, Ron Santo, his first and longtime radio partner, was already a beloved figure. Harry Caray too was still entrenched; the popular TV face of the Cubs.  

The colorful Caray had been through celebrated run-ins with past partners in the booth; Joe Garagiola, Milo Hamilton and others. Yet, because of Hughes’ easygoing demeanor, disarming way, friendly manner and unhurried warmth, he was embraced by Harry, something other previous partners can’t say.

Pat was born in Arizona and raised in Northern California. He wasn’t a bad athlete himself. For that matter, he played a year of college basketball for San Jose State.

Carl Sandberg labeled Chicago the ‘City of Broad Shoulders.’ In many ways though it has the feel of a small town. There’s a sense of community, inclusiveness and pride. Although he’s not from there, Pat’s been adopted by the city’s rabid fans and accepted as one of theirs. 

Hughes and Santo spent 15 years together in the booth and developed a catchy chemistry. Their broadcasts grew a popular life of their own. The two played off one another entertainingly and the Pat and Ron Show, as it became known, was part of the allure of Cubs radio.

The dialogue between the two announcers often turned into a makeshift comedy routine. If the two were Abbott and Costello, Hughes played the straight man; jokingly and good naturedly egging on Santo.

An apparent groin injury to Michael Barrett one day led to an exchange between Hughes and Santo that grew viral on social media. It’s simply dubbed on YouTube as “Barrett’s Groin.”  Santo began pontificating and wondering aloud, “It’s radio, I have to describe what’s happening.” Hughes gave him the runway and Santo proceeded to paint a word picture; describing Barrett “pulling it” and “putting his hand in his pants.” The more Santo talked, the deeper he dug himself; humorously so.

Santo, the late Cubs’ infielder starred on the field, then broadcast transparently and later got ill in Chicago. When he passed at a youngish 70, the outpouring of love for him was extraordinary. Since Santo’s death in 2010, Hughes has worked with two other ex big leaguers; first Keith Moreland for 3 seasons and now Ron Coomer in his 5th season.

Sports, Hughes says, “is a great source for escapism. We all have problems. Sports take you into a different realm. Our broadcasts pull people away from their troubles during the time they listen.”

As the summer season hits, Hughes works tirelessly, almost every day. Still, he found the time to share his thoughts with us on broadcasting, the Cubs and the characters he’s gotten to know. The tenor of his voice reminds me of Gary Thorne, the attorney turned baseball announcer now calling Orioles games on television.

This is part one. Part two will run next week.

There were some legendary Cubs’ broadcasters through the years, Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray. Before them, guys like Vince Lloyd, Bert Wilson, Lou Boudreau and others emptied words into the team’s microphones. When you started covering the Cubs in 1996, what was it like filling some big shoes?

Intimidating. From Milwaukee to Chicago would be daunting enough. Harry Caray was doing television back then. Yet, he took me in and we became friends. One of my most treasured moments occurred in my first season in Chicago.  Harry made an unsolicited trip into the radio booth and went on air with me during the game. He had very nice things to say about me and was very gracious. It was year one for me in Chicago, a market that Caray dominated and where he was loved. Being embraced by him and getting his implicit endorsement meant a lot. It’s well documented that others have had difficulties with Harry. I’m not one of them.  He treated me beautifully. He recognized the passion I had for my work and we were good friends.

Ron Santo was your partner for some 15 years. You developed the popular ‘Pat and Ron Show.’ A double amputee, he showed great courage, making it to the booth to do color commentary; game after game, trip after trip. What kind of inspiration was Ron to you and what are a couple of your key recollections of him?

Ron was one of the most unique characters that I’ve ever known. He was a very important person in my life. Similar to Harry Caray, he accepted me right away. He let the audience know that I was okay, that he liked me and  that he liked working with me. Ron said repeatedly that I brought the best out of him.

He and I developed this kind of unusual chemistry. Yes, it became known as the Pat and Ron Show.  Working with him was fun, we were popular. It was good for profits, good for ratings. It was really good for everyone.

Santo is in the pantheon of athletic supremacy in Chicago. He was one of the most beloved figures in the history of Chicago. He’s among a group of about 10 to 15 guys in all sports who were seemingly bigger than life. Ron was up there with Michael Jordan, Walter Payton, Gail Sayers, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ryne Sandberg and Sammy Sosa. I can go on; Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and so on.

He was funny, not a guy who told jokes, rather funny just being himself. I guess the favorite story I tell about him covers his hairpiece.

In 2003, on a cold early-season night at old Shea Stadium in New York, the booth was equipped with an old-fashioned electric heater. It glowed a bright orange.

We stand for the anthem and I smell something burning. I hear a sizzling sound too, like bacon heating up on the stove. I turn to look and see that Ron is standing a little too close to the heater and that his hairpiece was actually on fire. There was a little flame shooting out from the top of his his piece . Smoke was billowing. I did what any good partner would do. I grabbed a cup of water and splashed it on top of his head. It wasn’t the usual way a big league broadcast should begin.

Now you have to understand. Ron was a very handsome man and very vain. His reaction made me laugh. After the fire was completely extinguished and we settled into our seats, he asks me how he looks. I almost laughed right in his face. So I lied. I said it doesn’t look too bad. Truth is that it actually looked like Phil Mickelson had taken a pitching wedge and whacked one right off the top of his noggin. Ron had a divot right on top of his head.  We had a lot of laughs about it. The story of course has been embellished through the years. We’ve told it and retold it.

The best is the sequel. True story. The Mets pitcher that night was Al Leiter!

(Halby: This story reminds me of the brazen Howard Cosell who too wore a toupee. Prior to a game, he would casually take it off and hang it on a nail in the broadcast booth of old stadiums.)

From your point of view, is baseball on radio more about storytelling or analytics?

Both are part of radio. My goal every broadcast is describing the game, serving as the eyes of the audience. Provide the score, player profiles, backgrounds, what transpired and who’s batting. Is he a lefty or a righty? Is he bulky or lanky? Who’s pitching? How’s he done recently?

Take care of the basic first. The Cubs have been around forever. There’s a great history. The Cubs and Cincinnati for instance go back more than 100 years. As an announcer, I try to deliver the game to the people. Yes, having a decent home run call helps. A good partner like Ron Coomer with whom I work is critical.  I hope Ron’s with me forever.

Always recognize that being a big-league broadcaster is a privilege. It generates prominence. Never forget the responsibility. Read, prepare and know what’s going on elsewhere around baseball. If Aaron Judge struck out 8 times in a doubleheader in Detroit, you better know. The fans do.

You’ve undergone throat surgery. How frightening was it, particularly for someone who makes his living with his voice? How are you doing today?

I’m 63 and doing fine. I haven’t missed an inning yet this season. I’ve had three surgeries to remove pre-cancerous growths. They’re sensitive and delicate of course. Yes, they’re extremely frightening too. Thankfully, it’s all good for now! I’m looking forward to many more years in the booth.

Twelve years in Milwaukee. You were Bob Uecker’s sidekick on Brewers’ play-by-play. What did you pick up from Bob? 

You can make a case that Bob is the most famous sports personality in the history of Wisconsin. He’s up there with Henry Aaron, Robin Yount, Vince Lombardi, Brett Favre and others. We spent 12 years together. The number one thing I learned from Bob was the game. A former catcher, Uecker flat out knows baseball.

He pokes fun at himself but he did spend six years in the big leagues at a very special time. The National League of the 1960s was perhaps the best collection of superstar talent that baseball has known. Willie Mays, Sandy, Koufax, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron and others.  Bob was hardly a superstar of course but he learned and knew the game inside and out. He is a very smart man. He knew how ballplayers thought, their tendencies, the things that only he would know as an observer and a knowledgeable guy.

When I got to Milwaukee in the 1980s he was at the top of his career, the light beer commercials, his role in Mr. Belvedere and everyone in the world knew him. I met lots of famous people through him. It was cool meeting guys like Mickey Mantle, Bob Costas and Tom Hanks. They would come into the booth and I would be there, sit quietly and take in the experience.

Bob is a complicated and private guy. We  get along fine . We laugh whenever the Cubs play the Brewers. He is still going strong and still sounds great.

How would you rate Cubs fans versus other popular clubs like the Yanks and Red Sox? 

All 3 have massive fan bases and passionate fans. All are unique in their own ways. But I can’t compare or weigh one franchise against the other because I’ve not spent enough time with Red Sox or Yankees fans. Let me assure you though that Cubs fans are amazing.

At the Cubs victory parade in ’16, there were 5 million people lining the streets of Chicago. It was incredible! Then the rally at Grant Park which I emceed, I look out and there’s this ocean of humanity. There were some 900,000 people there. I wasn’t at all intimidated or nervous, despite this enormous throng, probably because there was this festive, glorious and euphoric feel.

I introduced the players and recognized four esteemed people who were not there; Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse.

I certainly wouldn’t mind doing that again!

***

The second part of this fun interview with the popular Pat Hughes will run next week. He shares stories covering basketball and his experiences with Al McGuire. He also identifies his three Grand Masters, broadcasters who sit on pedestals that no other broadcasters do. He will break down what makes each of the three almost unmatchable. He does so like a scout identifying players’ strengths and weaknesses. Except that these three seemingly have no weaknesses or peers.

More from Pat Hughes including CDs on the pioneering greats of baseball broadcasting and copies of his personal Game #7 2016 World Series scorecard are available at http://baseballvoices.com/

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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