Cubs Close the Tribune Era
Sunday's home loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks capped a 29-year ownership by the Chicago Tribune. The Cubs, which were bought by the Tribune for just $20 million in 1981, made for a handy investment - they sold this year to the Ricketts family for $900 million. While the Tribune was clearly a winner when it came to the bottom line, a 4400% return isn't bad, how did the Trib fare for the Cubs and their fans?
Much as the Tribune ownership is maligned in Chicago, the Cubs were a success under their ownership. While they didn't win the big one, the Cubs under the Tribune made the postseason six times in a 29-year period and came within a hair's breadth of going to the World Series. They boosted the team's attendance and popularity from a low-point when they took over the club. As tough as it is to imagine, the Cubs were 11th out of 12 teams in attendance in 1981, the year the Tribune took over. Nearly 30 years later, the Cubs are obviously one of the country's most popular teams, towering over their cross-town rivals, and have one of the toughest tickets to get in baseball.
Yes, the Cubs are blessed with Wrigley Field, one of baseball's crown jewel ballparks, but this didn't always attract fans to the park. One can quibble with the Tribune's handling of the park; the lights they installed in 1988, the 1989 skyboxes which make the game nearly unwatchable for the last half of the Terrace Reserve section of the park, the expanded bleachers disrupt the elegant arc of the bleachers which had been in place for decades, the eye-sore signage on the outfield wall; but overall, the park has the same charm and elegance as it always had.
For all the Tribune's foibles, it could have been much worse. They didn't rip out the grandstands or put up a jumbotron, the lights are tastefully done, and the change in the bleachers, while not the same as they once were, is relatively unnoticeable to the untrained eye. Most of all the park still stands. When retro-parks weren't the craze they are today, the Tribune stuck with Wrigley, choosing not to build a saucer-like stadium in the suburbs and have Wrigley meet the same fate as Tiger or Yankee Stadium. Not that they wouldn't have had they thought it profitable, but all things considered the Tribune was a good caretaker of the Cubs and its fans.
Perhaps the Tribune's greatest contribution to the Cubs has been the Cubs airing on WGN, the superstation that brought the Cubs to households across the country. It allowed the country to experience the majesty of Wrigley and the fun of Harry Caray from miles away, simultaneously taking the Cubs brand to new heights. It proved, perhaps more than anything, that putting games on television isn't giving away your product, it's an advertisement for your product. Under the Tribune's ownership, it's undeniable that the Cubs have been transformed from lovable losers to one of baseball's premier franchises.
While I'm pleased that the Cubs are being sold to a family - the Tribune is and always has been a corporation out for dollars, not the best interest of the fans - I think credit should be given where credit is due. The Tribune hasn't been a perfect owner, but they've left the Cubs in a far better state than when they bought them, and for that I'm thankful for their ownership.