How superstations showing Braves, Cubs games bred a generation of baseball fans

Before MLB Network and MLB.TV, before ESPN took hold of the American sports fan and long before baseball fans had entire networks devoted to their favorite teams, baseball fans didn’t have too many outlets to the world beyond where they lived.

One word changed all that: Superstations.

The superstations are where we fell in love with Harry Caray. Where we witnessed the greatness of Dale Murphy. Where the idea of Wrigley Field as a baseball destination took hold. Where we saw the birth of a historic era of Braves baseball. They’re where plenty of Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves fans were born, and even more fans fell deeper in love with the game.

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The superstations — mainly WGN and TBS, but also WWOR in some places — brought baseball to the masses in a new way. They set the precedent for the way we watch baseball today, from the round-the-clock coverage to the celebrity sportscasters. 

For baseball fans of a certain age, the superstation had a similar effect as the advent of the internet. They were like driving on the freeway for the first time. They took you somewhere you’d never been before, and blew your mind in the process.

Now, as we prepare for a baseball season where all fans have is broadcasts to follow their favorite team, it serves as reminder: Baseball on TV didn’t used to be widely available. It was the superstations that showed us a different world. Yes, there was more baseball out there than just your hometown team, and yes, you could watch it on your TV.

“We were the MLB Network,” says Glenn Diamond, who spent 22 years as a producer of Braves baseball on TBS.

That’s not hyperbole. It may come as a shock to fans who only know the post-internet world,  but there used to be a time where fans were limited to only a few places to watch their favorite sport. There were local broadcasts. There was the national game of the week on Saturdays. 

And then, in the early ’80s, there were superstations — but those superstations changed the game.

“You had probably the greatest baseball salesman in the history of the game with Harry Caray,” says Bob Vorwald, who spent 22 seasons as the head of production with WGN Sports, helping bring Cubs games to fans nationwide. “To me, we were creating baseball fans. Not just Cubs fans, but baseball fans across the country.”

Ted Turner’s vision for the TBS, Braves moved the needle

In 1982, Ted Turner had an idea, which in that era meant something innovative was about to happen. Turner, the former Braves owner and the man who turned TBS into the first superstation, had decided he wanted to do a behind-the-scenes documentary about his team. Turner was thinking about “Hard Knocks” before “Hard Knocks” existed.

Ted Turner, then the Atlanta Braves owner, stands with Tom Glavine, after winning the 1995 World Series. (Photo by The Associated Press.)

That’s how Glenn Diamond would eventually become a popular name for Braves fans — and a man who witnessed baseball history. Diamond grew up in Los Angeles as a diehard Dodgers fan. He watched Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale as a kid. He heard Vin Scully broadcast games.

But in 1979, he ended up all the way across the country, working in Atlanta TV. A few years later, at 23, he was hired by Turner to work on “It’s a Long Way to October,” his four-hour Braves doc. By 1985, Diamond was in charge of Braves productions on TBS, a role he’d have until 2007, when the regional cable era had long taken cover and Braves baseball stopped on TBS.

“Ted Turner is the kind of guy who if he sat down to play chess, he’s three moves ahead,” Diamond said. “He had the vision.”

TBS — and the Braves — really started to get a grip on fans across the country, when Atlanta hired Joe Torre as their manager in 1982.

“That really moved the needle for the Braves and the superstation,” Diamond says. “You had Dale Murphy. You had Bob Horner. You had Glenn Hubbard. You had a high-profile manager with high-profile players. Dale Murphy won the MVP in ’82 and ’83. With those names, that success, it really helped move the needle. I remember going to Houston, the Astros not being very good and there were more Braves fan in the stands at the Astrodome than Astros fans.” 

Another big part of this was the broadcast crew. Skip Caray, the son of Harry, had that same sort of appeal as his Hall of Fame father. At a time when baseball fans’ options were limited, the Braves had a lot of appeal. It was like turning on the early Sunday football games while waiting for your favorite team to play in the late games.

“On the West Coast,” Diamond says. “A lot of people would watch the Braves at 4 p.m. while they were waiting to watch the Giants or the A’s or the Dodgers or the Angels. They’d get home from work and they’d turn on the Braves.”

WGN made the Cubs the best daytime soap opera

The Chicago Cubs in the early ’80s had the right formula to be “sent into the stratosphere,” according to Vorwald, who has been at WGN since 1998 and is now a special adviser as Cubs games transition to their own Marquee Sports Network.

There was Wrigley Field, of course. There was Harry Caray. Then they got pretty good — winning the division in 1984 as Ryne Sandberg was becoming the Cubs’ version of Dale Murphy.

“It was us against the soap operas,” Vorwald says. “And we were a better soap opera than anything else out there.”

He’s correct there. The Cubs came with their own daytime-friendly storyline — will these lovable losers ever win a World Series again? It took a lot longer to resolve than an episode of “The Young and The Restless,” but the Cubs contending in the ’80s while being on TV every day certainly helped sell this narrative to the masses.

Harry Caray leans out of the WGN broadcast booth at Wrigley Field during the seventh inning stretch of a game in 1984. (AP Photo/John Swart)

The Cubs also had the benefit of being on even earlier than the Braves. Home games in Chicago were perfect for the kids when they got home from school. 

“You’d hear Kerry Wood talking about being a kid in Texas and watching the games on WGN,” Vorwald says.

“The other part of it,” Vorwald says, “It was on in every big league clubhouse every day. People who would get traded over to the Cubs and they wanted to meet Arne Harris [WGN’s producer, who Caray would often talk about].”

Superstations were star-makers

We’ve talked about Murphy and Sandberg, but as the superstations got more well known and as baseball moved toward the ’90s, the platform that WGN and TBS built helped the Cubs and Braves even more.

“Chipper, Maddux, Smoltz — they weren’t just Atlanta Braves stars, they were known throughout the country,” Diamond says.

That even helped make some of the bench players from the Cubs and Braves of those eras more famous than the average end-of-the-roster player.

“Players who were No. 20-25 on the roster, unless you were a diehard fan, you didn’t know these players,” Diamond says. “But with the Braves, you would walk down the street with one of them and people would know who they were.”

In Chicago, the superstation era made no one more beloved than Harry Caray. 

“We were flooded with mail from all over the world. It was special,” Vorwald says. “Harry got buckets and buckets of fan mail. A great illustration might have been in 1984. The superstation was showing in Belize. They were crazy for baseball and crazy for Cubs baseball. They got a bunch of used Cubs equipment and donated it to the Belize National Baseball Association.  Gary Matthews delivered it and there was a bigger crowd than for the Pope.”

It wasn’t lost on Diamond that he was in the middle of an important time in baseball history. All he needed to do was look around on the road.

The Braves hotels had fans waiting for them like they were superstars. People in bars would know the Braves announcers — Skip Caray, chief among them — and even Diamond because Skip would talk about him during broadcasts. One time in San Francisco, a fan even gave him a present for his newborn daughter.

“We knew this was a big deal,” Diamond says. “We didn’t miss the moment.”

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