Looking back at the golden age of sports writing

Chicago was known as the “Loser City” in 1976.

Not from outsiders but from myself.

In the nation’s bicentennial year, the last local team to win the championship was the 1963 Bears. The Cubs hadn’t won since 1908, the White Sox hadn’t won since 1917.

Every time a Chicago team tried to break the mold, a collapse of monumental proportions ensued, and fans here didn’t expect anything less.

But the next 25 years would see major changes in the local sports landscape, including the arrival of Michael Jordan, who would go on to become the greatest basketball player of all time and bring six titles to Chicago with the Bulls.

The Bears won their only Super Bowl in the 1985 season behind a fiery coach and a collection of funny characters who ruled the city like no team before or since. New baseball ownership on the North and South sides attempted to end the Cubs and White Sox droughts, which eventually ended in the 21st century. It was also the end of the line for two beloved stadiums, Comiskey Park and Chicago Stadium, and for the time-honored tradition of day-only baseball at Wrigley Field.

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And for those who liked to read about their favorite teams and athletes through thick and thin, 1976-2000 was a golden age for Chicago sports writing—and the Tribune honored by some of history’s best writers was.

Experts including Don Pearson (football), Sam Smith (basketball), John Hussar (outdoor) and Fred Mitchell, from “In the Wake of the News” columnists Bob Vardy, Bernie Lincicom and Steve Daly to Hall of Fame baseball writer Jerome Holtzman (multiple sports), the idea of ​​a slow news day on the Chicago sports front was virtually unimaginable.

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It’s hard for some to believe it now, but DePaul men’s basketball was bigger than the Bulls before Jordan came from North Carolina in 1984. Legendary coach Ray Meyers Blue Demons debuted as Cinderella in 1979 and wound up dancing all the way to the Final Four. While playing their home games at the small alumni hall on Belden Avenue.

Despite the highly ranked teams, they never made it back, and moving to the Rosemont Horizon in 1980 removed the legend of the beloved little school under the track “L”.

Chicagoans in the 1970s and early 80s did not expect much from their teams and thus were rarely disappointed. Fans could overlook the flaws of the entertaining team, such as 1977’s “South Side Hit Men”.

In July of that season, the White Sox defeated the writer, with Vardy writing that the players “gamble so ruthlessly on the basepath that you’d think they failed to visit John before leaving the clubhouse.” The hit men faded on cue, like well-worn blue jeans. But even after 45 years, they remain a treasured part of socks lore.

The Bears were thought to be the latter for most of the 1979 season, starting 3–5. But trailing Walter Peyton, linebacker Doug Buffon and a resilient herd won six of seven in the season finale at Soldier Field. They needed wins over the defeats of the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Redskins – and for the wild-card spot – to make a 33-point gap with the Redskins.

The players awoke on December 17 to the news that Bears president George “Muggs” Halas Jr. – the 54-year-old successor to team founder George “Papa Bear” Halas – had died. But the Bears defeated the Cardinals 42–6, before the Redskins lost by one point to the Dallas Cowboys, giving Peyton & Co. a place in the playoffs.

“From dawn to dusk the bears were on perhaps the most incredible day in their 60-year history,” Pearson wrote.

The Bears lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1979 playoffs, but the Halas hired coach Mike Ditka in January 1982, and the ’85 Bears not only won the Super Bowl and gave Chicago its first championship since 1963, but also the marketing of the athletes. also changed the way. With his “Super Bowl Shuffle” video.

The Halas did not live to see it, and daughter Virginia McCaskey inherited the team. In a front-page article, Tribune sportswriter Phil Hersh wrote: “The bear, once hoisted up, can simply put one foot on Picasso, the other on Sears Tower, and step up to the Chicago Cloud, Where team founder George Halas will be waiting.”

For decades the names Halas, Wrigley and Wirtz were synonymous with the word “thrifty” in the minds of many fans. Others preferred the generic term “cheap skates”. Vardy nicknamed Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz “Dollar Bill” in a Tribune column for his inability to part with money to pay his players.

Reputation is hard to erase. Just ask the Cubs.

During the baseball strike in the summer of 1981, the Tribune Company—at the time, the owners of the newspapers, WGN-TV, WGN-AM 720 and other entities—broke up a shocking deal with William Wrigley to buy the Cubs for $20.5. did. million, or $1.5 million less than current Cubs outfielder Jason Hayward’s 2022 salary.

The Wrigley family had owned the team for three generations and inscribed their name on the iconic ballpark. But on June 17, 1981, the day after the sale was announced, the Tribune reported that Cubs fans were delighted at the prospect of the team eventually spending the money, installing lights at Wrigley Field, and sacking general manager Herman Franks.

“It was clear that the general attitude would have been positive even if Bozo the Clown had taken over,” read a report from the Tribune Sports section.

Despite the new management, nothing changed immediately. The cub will be the cub. At the start of the 1983 season, manager Lee Elia launched a profanity-laden scathing attack against Cubs fans, calling them “the dumb 15 (sleep) percent who come out of baseball (while) of the day, earning the other 85 percent a living.” are.” Radio reporter Les Grobstein saved the tape for posterity, and every year Cubs fans relive the memory of the rant heard around the world.

The White Sox, however, will be the bigger story in ’83. Manager Tony La Russa’s club were sluggish in the first half to win the American League West title and made headlines. “The Miracle on 35th Street,” Holtzman wrote on August 29, 1983, after Greg “The Bull” Luzinski cranked out his third rooftop home run of the season at Comiskey Park.

The Miracles ended with a loss to the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series, and La Russa were fired in 1986—only to return after 34 years. When the Sox flopped in ’84, the Cubs stole the city back.

Under manager Jim Frey and new stars Raine Sandberg, Rick Sutcliffe and Gary “Sarge” Matthews, the Cubs ended a 39-year playoff drought. The Tribune company took a premature bow, and Tribune columnist Mike Royko mocked San Diego fans as bandwagon jumpers. Royco enjoyed the Cubs’ 13–0 victory over the Padres in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field.

“Bullies, that’s what we’ve become,” Royco wrote. “Big, bad, mean badass. And, oh boy, does that sound great. Why didn’t we think about this years ago?”

The Bullies took a 2-0 lead in a best-of-five series, an epic collapse that somehow trampled the misery of 1969.

But Wrigleyville – or Lakeview, as the neighborhood was commonly known in the early ’80s – would never be the same. Lights arrived at Wrigley Field on August 8, 1988, and the formerly run-down neighborhood turned into a yuppie paradise. Roofings became big business and real estate values ​​soared.

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The Cubs soon reverted to their old ways, but the Harry Caray influence and fans’ love affair with Wrigley made the team a goldmine for the Tribune company, which reflected Wrigley’s ownership in its reluctance to spend. After a surprise division title under Don Zimmer in 1989, the Cubs did not return post-season until Sammy Sosa and Kerry Wood led them to the wild-card spot in 1998.

During the ’98 playoff race, Cubs radio analyst Ron Santo made one of the most famous calls in franchise history, “Oh, nooo!” Lost in the ninth inning at Milwaukee was caused by a dropped fly ball by outfielder Brant Brown.

Santo’s broadcast partner Pat Hughes later told the Tribune, “It was the kind of disappointment you would associate with someone who lost a member of their family.” “His call will live on in Cubs lore—in notoriety, you might say, because it was such a hard loss.”

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The Blackhawks went through a series of ineffective and unmatched coaches from 1976–2000, including Bob Pulford’s three stints in 1977–87. Pulford also served as general manager, where he was equally oblivious.

Only the Hawks were relevant, during the Mike Keenan era, when the spirited coach led them to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1992. But the Hawks were immediately swept in game four by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and were let go after six months, losing a power struggle with Keenan Wirtz.

“Keenan wanted to be king,” Verdi wrote. “Power Freak craved too many fixes, and the real owner announced, game over.”

It wasn’t until 1991 that Chicago sports fans got a real taste of excellence. Jordan and Scottie Pippen defeated Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in five games to give the Bulls their first title in the NBA Finals. After a third straight championship in 1993, Jordan retired to play minor-league baseball for the White Sox, only to return in ’95 and for another three-peat from 1996–98 under Pippen and Dennis Rodman. Team up together.

Jordan’s winning shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals in Utah secured a sixth Bulls title, a reign that made up for all the disappointing endings for Chicago teams over the past three decades.

“And there was Michael Jordan, who could have been his last and greatest basket as a Bull, after hugging coach Phil Jackson,” Tribune beat writer Terry Armour. “There were tears in both of their eyes, realizing that this might be the end of the road.”

Jordan’s shot will provide Chicago with a memory to last a lifetime, as championships of this century for the White Sox (2005), Cubs (2016) and Blackhawks (2010, ’13 and ’15). But the call of Santo, the rant of Elia, the South Side hit men and the “incredible day” of the ’79 Bears will soon be forgotten.

If there’s one thing we’ve come to accept in Chicago, it’s that travel still matters.

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