To many, the Chicago Cubs are the real America’s Team. As the 2022 regular season opens, our profile of great broadcasters continue by Curt Smith: to USA Today, “the voice of authority in baseball broadcasting.” Today, we etch Pat Hughes, marking his 40th year as a big-league Voice, the last 27 as the Cubs.’
PAT HUGHES: THE VOICE OF AMERICA’S CUBS
“Some announcers are lucky,” said Pat Hughes. “They get that once-in-a-lifetime year.” Russ Hodges got 1951. The ’69 Amazin’ Mets amazed Lindsey Nelson. In 1998, Hughes voiced the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run derby. Then, in 2016, his Cubs won their first world title since 1908. Luck, or sheer talent? Pat’s one does not preclude the other.
Born in 1955, raised 48 miles from San Francisco, Hughes was weaned on Giants mic men Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons. Demographics is called destiny. Proximity was to Pat. He “hung around Candlestick Park to see the players,” he said, the Cubs clubhouse “for some reason always open.” One day Hughes “snuck in,” drawn to Billy Williams, Ron Santo—and Ernie Banks, “so friendly shaking my hand and squeezing it with his huge hands.” By the time Pat was shooed out, radio’s future Cubbies Voice panted for The Show.
San Jose State ’78’s road trip to Wrigley Field began at minor-league San Jose and Columbus, the Twins so impressed they hired Hughes in 1983. A year later Hughes left for Milwaukee,” where a uniquely American institution reigned. “Mr. Baseball!” Pat chortled of ex-catcher and Brewers Voice Bob Uecker, famous for revealing how to catch a knuckleball: “Wait till it stops rolling and pick it up.” Hughes mused, “Try reinventing Uke. Good luck!” By the mid-’90s, the pastime itself needed reinvention.
In a 1994 CBS poll, 39 percent of all Americans liked baseball, in freefall from 1990’s 61 percent. Not content with leaving bad enough alone, the game began a 232-day work stoppage, still trying to recover when the Cubs made Hughes their radio Voice in 1996. “Baseball had become the Flying Dutchman,” he said, seeking safe harbor in some port where its appeal could rebound. Recalling the Cubs clubhouse of his youth, Hughes found his new team providential, if not preordained.
Pat arrived at a “vortex” of marquee names passing and magic ahead. For five decades Jack Brickhouse’s “Back, back, back! Hey-Hey!” upon a TV homer roused each side of the Second City. Retiring in 1981, Jack died in 1998, having penned a tombstone: “Here lies the guy who could do the best soft-shoe anywhere for ‘Tea for Two.’” Harry Caray also voiced the 1971-81 White Sox and 1982-97 Cubs, defying the laws of wearability, probability, and longevity. His caricature was the message, and Harry’s message was gold.
Like a partial eclipse, TV’s Caray dwarfed Cubs wireless during his last decade on the air. Radio’s newcomer was a different sort. Harry admired Pat, also liking him personally. The affection was reciprocal. Hughes marveled at Caray each day baying, “You can’t beat fun at the old ballpark!”—a view that Pat shared. Once the Cubs’ Sosa hit a game-winning belt. On post-game, Hughes heard Caray, 80, in the background bellow, “How about those Cubbies?”—to Pat, “still a 10-year-old and a senior citizen.”
Late in this career, Caray took to drinking hot tea and eating lemons to renew his voice. One day he had a tea bag in the cup, voices saying, “Harry, put the tea down! Put your headset on! We’re going on the air!” Caray: “OK, right there!” Then: “Harry, come on!” Trying to remove the tea bag, he put on a headset, the cord and tea bag string tangling. Harry opened WGN’s telecast with a bag hanging from his left ear: “‘Hello everybody!’” Pat said in wonderment, “You had to see it to believe it!”
Another night, trying to face the camera, Caray sat on the “cough button” used to muffle a cough: Sound gone, he did post-game, staffers in the production truck screaming, “‘Why can’t we hear Harry?’ Finally, someone said, ‘He’s sitting on the cough button!’” Pat said, evoking the adage that “‘a great man is someone who never reminds us of anyone else.’” By that criterion, the “10-year-old . . . senior citizen was great.”
In 1998, Harry fell dancing on Valentine’s Day, hit his head, had a heart attack and coma, and died four days later, WGN TV beaming the funeral procession. Upon Chicago’s 2016 world title, Anheuser-Busch reprised Harry’s 1980s classic “Cub Fan/Bud Man” ad. Good team or bad, Harry had been its mouthpiece, hailing each Cubs homer with “Holy Cow!” After Caray’s death, Hughes on radio somehow inherited that mantle, in an age where TV was king.
Pat’s embrace occurred in a year that baseball found safe harbor: 1998’s “record-assaulting, home run-blasting summer,” wrote Sports Illustrated. At water coolers and in bars and stores, Sosa and McGwire fused echo chamber and rumor mill, America fixated by their bid to top Roger Maris’s 61 homers in 1961. Sammy had never had 40 dingers: that June 20, he lashed No. 20 of the month. “For Sammy and Big Mac [St. Louis’s McGwire],” said Pat, “everything about it was big.”
The Great Race would have stirred, in any event. Like a hit musical, Cubs-Cardinals made it sing. “Forget Red Sox-Yankees,” Hughes continued. “Baseball’s greatest rivalry is St. Louis-Chicago.” In 1998, “Cubs fans cheered Sosa going deep at Busch Stadium. In Chicago, it got bananas when McGwire found Waveland Avenue.” Radio Ratings on WGN and the Redbirds’ KMOX hit the roof. “Daily the pressure rose,” said Pat, “the crowds, reporters, the drama.” Each day he fretted about calling a Maris-busting No. 62.
On September 8, Mac lashed a pitch to “deep left left—this could be it!—it’s a home run!,” Hughes voiced. “Number 62 for Mark McGwire!” Pausing, he resumed: “A slice of history and a magical moment in St. Louis!” Mark hugged his mates and 10-year-old son at the plate. Sosa clasped him near the first-base line. “Incredible. I had tears in my eyes,” said Hughes. Fox’s Joe Buck and St. Louis’s Mike Shannon also aired the blast. Pat’s easily remains the call most replayed.
On September 11, Sosa’s No. 61 and 62 left Wrigley. Of 65, Hughes cried, “’Holy Cow!’ and ‘Hey-Hey!’ for Harry [Caray] and Jack [Brickhouse]!” Sammy’s 66th, his last, briefly took the lead. He finished first in runs, total bases, and RBI, was second in homers and slugging. and smashed at least 50 dingers yearly through 2001. Later Major League Baseball released a video, Race for the Record, about Sosa and McGwire’s mano a mano year.
In the last week, the Cubs, Mets, and Giants vying for a wild card, Chicago left fielder Brant Brown dropped a two-out ninth-inning fly—”Brown goes back.” Hughes said, “ and he drops the ball!”—three unearned runs giving Milwaukee an 8-7 stunner. The muff led Cubs analyst Santo to scream “Oh, nooo!”—to Pat, “like losing a family member. Ron’s forehead was practically glued to the table. For a minute, I thought he had expired, jabbing him with my finger to see if he was alive.”
Like his franchise, Santo never forgot 1998. For theater, how could you top its topper? The 2016 Cubs found a way. Until then, misfortune vied. In 2002, Sosa braved a corked-bat suspension. Santo had bladder surgery and both of his legs amputated due to diabetes. Next year’s collapse rivaled 1969’s blowing a 9 and 1/2 game late-season cushion. This time Chicago led the League Championship Series, 3 sets to 1. In Game Six, Cubs up, 3-0, were five outs from a Fall Classic.
“Our closest chance since 1945,” said Hughes of 2003. “It’s gonna happen”—until the Marlins’ Luis Castillo sliced to left. Pat: “Toward the line … Does he [Moises Alou] have room? And leaping up, Alou cannot make the play!” Enter analyst Steve Stone: “And Moises is unhappy with the fan [Steve Bartman]! A fan interfered with him! . . . If a fan just gets his hand out of the way, Moises makes the catch! . . . I can’t believe that a fan would do that!” Only with the Cubs.
The Fish won, 8-3. Next night’s epilogue wrote itself: Cubs lose, 9-6. Said Pat: “The Florida Marlins have stunned the Chicago Cubs winning the last three in a row!” A year later the Wrigleys blew a last-week wild card. Meanwhile, Pat and Santo, a 1960-73 Cubs All-Star third baseman, showed mega-popular 1996-2010 chemistry. Playing, Santo had preferred an 0-2 pitch: “Other times I’d try to kill the ball and miss or pop it up. When I was disciplined I was better.” Ironically, his grand lack of on-air discipline forged Pat‘s affectionate 2001 tome, Ron Santo: A Perfect 10. In 2006, he also authored Harry Caray: Voice of the Fans.
“Like Uke and Harry,” Hughes said, “Ron was a wonderful piece of work.” One night at Shea Stadium, the mic men stood as usual for the National Anthem, a heater in the booth above their heads. Prematurely bald, Ron got too near it, and halfway through the song Pat smelled something burning. Santo’s hairpiece was on fire, “smoke billowing out the top of his head!” said Hughes, splashing water to douse it. Ron then asked, “How does [his head] look?” Pat, lying: “Not that bad,” a divot creasing the middle of Santo’s head, “like Phil Mickelson had taken a pitching wedge and whacked his noggin.” A last irony: the Mets starting pitcher was Al Leiter.
Santo died of diabetes in December 2010, Pat giving a eulogy at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral. Two years later Ron posthumously made Cooperstown’s players wing. Meanwhile, Hughes kept working, missing only a few games in his first four decades. By 2021, he had received nine Illinois and three Wisconsin Sportscaster of the Year awards. In 1950, Red Barber had introduced then-rookie Vin Scully on Dodgers radio. “‘We’ve got a fellow we want you to meet in the fourth inning, too, that you’re going to like . . . Connie Desmond. He and I have only been together eight years. We’re almost on speaking terms.’” To Pat, relating it, such studied understatement defined broadcast class.
Perhaps this respect for his audience explains his popularity blooming like the ivy at Wrigley Field. A year before his 2002 death the Cardinals’ Jack Buck, a favorite of Hughes’s, dropped by the Cubs booth. Despite Parkinson’s Disease, arthritis, and a pacemaker, he shone in a self-deprecatory way. Pat: “We’ve been talking about your appearance tomorrow at the Museum of Broadcast Communications. Admission is free. It should be a good time.” Jack: “Well, that shows you how important I am when the admission is free.”
As noted, in 2016 the Cubs, halting North America’s 108-year longest professional team drought, edged Cleveland in a rousing Series: Pat the only Voice to ever call their title, radio unknown in 1908. “A little bouncer slowly toward [third baseman Kris] Bryant,” Pat said in Game Seven. “He will glove it and throw to [first baseman Anthony] Rizzo! It’s in time! And the Chicago Cubs win the World Series! [8-7] The Cubs come pouring out of the dugout, jumping up and down like a bunch of delirious 10-year-olds! The Cubs have done it ! . . . And the celebration begins!”
Game Seven ended in Cleveland shortly after midnight Eastern Time on November 3. A day later a parade in Chicago said to be the largest-ever lured an estimated five million people. Pat acted as master of ceremonies at a massive rally, hailing an event—“The Chicago Cubs win the World Series!”—that many thought would never happen. As emcee, Hughes wore what resembled a leather jacket that Frank Sinatra was said to like, in his kind of town. Typically and courageously, Hughes kept private what we only later learned: he had recently undergone three throat surgeries over 14 months due to a precancerous lesion.
Again healthy, Pat has not yet received the Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award for “broadcast excellence,” his vitae boasting a unique bequest. In 2006, he released the first CD in his seminal “Baseball Voices” audio series on 17 Frick honorees from Buck, Caray, and Brickhouse to Scully and Bob Costas. Another relives the Cubs’ 2016 Eden. Hughes is each’s producer, writer, and narrator, fusing biography, interview, and play-by-play from sources like the Hall’s audio library. “Baseball Voices” is a tour de force: a gift to Hughes’s craft. “It keeps me busy in the offseason,” he jokes. In truth, with Pat it is hard to define where the season ends and offseason begins,.
Hughes has written forwards to 10 books, graced the documentary films “This Old Cub,” “Bleacher Boys,” and “PlayByPlay Men and the Art of the Perfect Call,” and for millions become a symbol of his franchise’s ineluctable lure. In 2009-17, U.S. president and White Sox fan Barack Obama poked gentle fun at the North Siders. Yet on January 16, 2017, days before leaving office, he lauded them in person in his last official event at the White House.
“Now, listen,” Obama said, “I made a lot of promises in 2008. But even I was not crazy enough to suggest that during these eight years we would see the Cubs win the World Series.” When some day they repeat, Chicagoland hopes the Cubbies are still lyrically voiced by Hughes.
CURT SMITH is the author of 18 books, including Voices of The Game, recently named by Esquire magazine among “The 100 Best Baseball Books Ever Written.” His latest is an official National Baseball Hall of Fame book, Memories from the Microphone: A Century of Baseball Broadcasting. Smith also wrote the most speeches of anyone for President George H. W. Bush. Since 1998, he has been Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Rochester. firstname.lastname@example.org