CHICAGO — The smoothest voice in Chicago sports felt rougher than usual.
Cubs games on the radio sounded the same to the untrained ear of so many fans that 2014 season, with polished play-by-play man Pat Hughes comfortably providing the soundtrack of summer car rides and barbecues like always. But by the time October arrived, the legendary announcer sensed something was different. Something was off.
“Anybody who uses their voice for a living, you know when it’s not right,” Hughes said.
And long before Hughes would undergo three surgeries in a 14-month period because of a precancerous lesion known as dysplasia on one of his vocal cords, he knew. Or at least he knew what he didn’t know, and it scared the bejesus out of him.
The health crisis Hughes concealed publicly until now started with a bout with bronchitis that June, which went away thanks to an inhaler. But an irritation in Hughes’ throat lingered. Put in baseball terms, he possessed the vocal range of a Gold Glove shortstop but suddenly struggled getting to every ground ball. He especially noticed raspiness whenever he tried producing a deeper pitch. At first he wanted to attribute the issues to fatigue from the grind of calling another 162-game schedule.
“Everybody gets run down at the end of the year, your whole body, including your voice,” Hughes said. “You expect to be tired and your voice to be scratchy. But a month after the 2014 season, the scratchiness didn’t go away. Normally it did. So I knew there was something wrong. I also knew I wanted to continue my career. I wasn’t ready to quit. I needed to get it fixed.”
On Tuesday, Hughes walked into the Northbrook office of Aaron Friedman, a laryngologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem’s Voice Center, and asked for a cup of hot water. He poured into it a packet of Throat Coat, his favorite, an herbal blend celebrity Cubs fan Eddie Vedder recommended to him. Hughes, 62, wanted to feel as prepared as possible for Friedman’s examination, known as a laryngeal stroboscopy.
“You might want to use spell check,” Hughes cracked to me.
The exam involved Hughes holding a microphone with an accelerometer on his neck to track the vibrations of his vocal cords and Friedman sticking a long device called a laryngoscope — “A 70-degree mirror on a telescope,” Friedman explained — down Hughes’ throat as he tilted his head. An image on a computer screen monitored the function of Hughes’ vocal cords.
Friedman to Hughes: “Stick out your tongue all the way, and make a nice comfortable ‘E’ sound.”
Friedman: “Excellent job. Now higher pitch. And breathe.”
Hughes, in a soprano octave: “Ehhhhhhhhhh.”
Friedman: “Great. Start a low pitch and glide it up.”
Hughes: “Ehhhhh … aaaaahhhhh.”
Friedman: “One more time.”
Hughes: “Ehhhhh … aaaaahhhhh.”
Hughes sat up and, ever the play-by-play man, sought to explain the last few seconds of what just happened.
“I always watch his face very intently,” Hughes said, referring to Friedman. “Because sometimes I’ll get a clue.”
To more accurately measure the vibrations, Friedman requested Hughes read a standard passage about a rainbow, which he did with the familiar rhythmic cadence usually reserved for Cubs starting lineups.
“Did I read where the vocal cord is only an inch and a half long? They look bigger here (on the video),” Hughes asked Friedman after he finished, sounding as sincerely curious as when he asks partner Ron Coomer what pitch he expects Jon Lester to throw.
“Less than that actually — 10 to 15 millimeters, which is about half an inch to two-thirds of an inch,” Friedman answered.
An easy rapport with Friedman, 41, helped ease the anxiety Hughes acknowledged he had at the beginning of this process. The trust became stronger after the first surgery Dec. 26, 2014, when Hughes said the most difficult part was the fear of losing his voice. Friedman won Hughes over completely after the recovery period went just as the doctor predicted.
“He warned me I’d have hoarseness for two weeks, and that was a long two-week period,” Hughes said. “But sure enough, just as he said, three weeks later I started getting my voice back. Five weeks after surgery, I was in Arizona broadcasting ballgames.”
The procedure required precision because Hughes’ lesion had formed on the worst possible spot, on the vibratory edge of one of his vocal cords. Only about 20,000 people in the U.S. every year come down with the disease that often afflicts those who make a living with their voice — singer Roger Daltrey of The Who and ESPN analyst Dick Vitale are among past sufferers — and the cause remains unknown. Hughes never smoked, drank casually and worked out often enough that his jump shot is feared at local gyms. Yet he was afflicted with dysplasia.
To treat it, Friedman — one of a small group of laryngologists who learned how to use the state-of-the-art KTP laser — targeted the blood supply the precancerous cells need to grow. As Friedman explained, the surface of healthy vocal cords is like a layer of Saran wrap, but Hughes’ dysplasia had turned his into more like leather. Surgery was successful, and Friedman chuckled when asked if he ever considered he was operating on a voice that had become synonymous with the Cubs for a generation of Chicagoans.
“A friend of mine told me who Pat was because I didn’t grow up here, so maybe it was a better thing I didn’t know,” he said.
As if sitting next to Coomer or the late Ron Santo in a booth, Hughes couldn’t resist the opening Friedman provided.
“I’m kind of glad you’re not a huge fan,” he said, smiling. “I’m not sure that’s the person you want working on you, (thinking) ‘Oh, geez, I can’t blow this thing. I’m getting shaky.’ ”
Hughes estimates he has missed only five games for health reasons in 35 years of broadcasting, and he continued working seamlessly as he fought this disease. Two more corrective surgeries followed, the last one in February 2016 — nine months before Hughes made the call of his life on WSCR-AM 670:
“The Chicago Cubs win the World Series. The Cubs have done it. The longest drought in the history of American sports is over, and the celebration begins.”
A private man, Hughes confided about his condition only to his wife, Trish, their two daughters, his brother and a small group of friends and co-workers such as Coomer. He kept the Cubs abreast of the situation without offering specifics.
“Typical Pat, he said, ‘Crane, I’m struggling with a little throat issue and I don’t want you to be concerned because I’m managing it,’ ” said Crane Kenney, Cubs president of business operations. “He really took care of it on his own. He didn’t skip a beat.”
Hughes chose to address his medical experience openly now because he believes he is in the clear and owes it to the next person suffering to tell his story — as well as to Friedman for saving his career.
“It was not something I felt I needed to share with anyone,” Hughes said, “but I’m happy to do so now because I want more people to be aware that if you have a problem with your voice, and you need your voice to make a living, don’t just sit still. You don’t have to suffer. Your career can still thrive.”
His is. The Cubs’ run of three straight National League Championship Series appearances has intertwined Hughes with the franchise’s golden age, a name that one day will share a sentence with other legendary announcers such as Harry Caray, Jack Brickhouse, Vince Lloyd and Steve Stone. His graciousness and self-deprecation endear him to everyone from bleacher bums to radio colleagues. His ability to quietly persevere through a health crisis without letting the quality of his work suffer commands a mixture of respect and awe.
Coomer remembers thinking everything was going to be all right Aug. 30, 2015 — eight months after the first surgery — when Hughes flawlessly called Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter at Dodger Stadium.
“Pat let it rip, and when it worked that well, any fear he had dissipated some,” Coomer said. “I think ‘hurdle’ is the right word. Not for the audience. They couldn’t tell. But it was that inner feeling: ‘I’m OK, I did it, I can check that box.’ It was a big step forward, a big moment.”
Another came at Progressive Field in Cleveland, where Hughes found himself celebrating the 2016 World Series victory with actor Bill Murray and an open bottle of bubbly. After the first surgery, Friedman casually mentioned alcohol might slow the healing process, so Hughes, who enjoyed an occasional beer, quit drinking to hasten his recovery. From that day forward, he linked avoiding alcohol with staying cancer-free.
“So I’m standing there with Bill Murray in the clubhouse after Game 7, and he’s pouring champagne on my head, he’s pouring it on his own head, but I didn’t have any — not even at the World Series!” Hughes said. “And I don’t miss it because I don’t want to do anything to rock the boat.
“I know how good I feel.”