Playoff time for both the NHL and NBA. A season in itself. They’ll go on for nearly two more months so as we let them play out and crystallize, we’ll take a step back and recall a major turning point in this columnist’s career.
It was right about this time in the early 1970’s when a major decision was made in my broadcasting career that proved be pivotal and fruitful. But it did not come without conflict and considerable aggravation.
Win Baker, a programming pioneer in television, mostly with the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, better known as Group W, was the one who gave me my first opportunity in television. If Win hadn’t seen something in a 22-year old radio newscaster, who knows whether it would ever have been said, “and the rest is history?”
My very first commercial announcing opportunity came in Philadelphia, at KYW, an all-news station. Radio stations broadcasting only news and nothing else were rare in the late sixties. There was one in Chicago, but Group W decided to make a major move, switching from the traditional music formats, featuring popular disc jockeys, to 24-hour programming of all-news, all-the-time.
It was a big gamble. The company held their breaths.
As it’s turned out, all-news radio has been immensely successful.
Stations that broadcast all-news usually are at the very top of the ratings in every market.
Group W began all-news at WINS in New York. I worked there as copy boy, after they changed formats. It was my first job after my time at Syracuse University and six months in basic training in the Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
After successfully auditioning for an opening as an all-night newscaster on Group W’s KYW, I had the job of a lifetime. Working six days a week from 10:30pm to 6:30am for 200 dollars a week, I thought I had gone to heaven.
I was on the air. Reading news. What could be better than that?
One night, a call came from our sister station, KYW-TV which operated in the same building. I was asked to take the elevator downstairs to the TV newsroom and fill-in as a weather reporter for practice runs for their new Eyewitness News format.
I proceeded to do my best emulating what a weatherman might do with a map showing the various conditions locally and throughout the country with the highs and lows etc.
One year later, Win Baker hired me as his weekend sportscaster, remembering my fill-in exercise that far back.
He told me he wanted something different from the typical sportscaster who had between four and five minutes on the evening half-hour newscast.
In addition to the reports of the day’s sports news and the evening scores, he wanted a written commentary that would be labeled as such.
He wanted opinion which would include controversy.
It was a novel idea from the man who invented the well-known Eyewitness News concept which caught on in most major markets.
The news would be delivered by an anchorman in a working newsroom with the other reporters shown in the background, typing or on the telephone with the sounds of the teletype adding to the live news scene.
It was incredibly effective.
I relished writing commentaries on how visiting teams seemed to get the short end of officials’ calls at the Palestra, where college basketball was played.
I followed Win Baker to Pittsburgh shortly after, and did the same.
The curiosity of what I would say on my segments helped the station’s already-strong ratings.
I would wonder why Joe Paterno, the famed head coach at Penn State wouldn’t play Texas in a Bowl game, and question why a Pittsburgh Pirates star player appeared not to hustle in a particular game.
Baker moved on to run the company’s TV station in Boston, WBZ, and again brought me along.
I did a commentary my first night critical of Patriots owner Billy Sullivan and how he was running his franchise that had no success to that point.
The pattern continued.
The commentaries were not always negative, of course.
Many were positive and uplifting but the audience relished the criticisms.
One day, upon walking into the Boston Red Sox press room before a game, I couldn’t help but notice the looks I got from other media as if I were a piranha.
I was the guy who knocked players, coaches and teams.
I then realized I didn’t yearn to become a sports writer or broadcaster emphasizing the negative things.
I loved sports. It brightened my life.
It was at that point I decided to become a play-by-play announcer, describing the happenings of live sports action.
WBZ-TV was telecasting some 20 Red Sox games, and I asked Baker if I could work an inning or so once in awhile on weekend games, without altering my main assignment.
He declined, saying that I did not have the ability to do play-by-play. I was crushed.
Crushed, but also determined to prove him wrong.
I had three years remaining on my contract with WBZ.
I told my story to an attorney friend of mine from Pittsburgh, and he recommended I bring suit against the company.
He found some technical grounds that he pursued.
So while the lawyers were going at it, I was continuing to do my job, even passing Win Baker in the halls of the station.
It was no fun.
Finally, an agreement was reached, and my term was cut short.
I left WBZ and moved to New York without a job, and without income, to try to build a new career as a play-by-play broadcaster. It meant a lot of leg work and a lot of interviews.
I was able to hook on with a new cable venture, called Home Box Office.
HBO was just getting started with a mere 8,000 subscribers in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, PA.
But famed New York radio icon Marty Glickman hired me to do ABA basketball, pro bowling, and other events.
Opportunities for play-by-play arose at CBS as well, where I had worked mostly pre and post game shows on NFL broadcasts.
But there were two shocking developments that were hard for me to believe.
Win Baker called, offering me the play-by-play assignment for 20 Boston Celtics games.
“I thought I didn’t have the ability to do this, Win?”
He replied, “I had to say that so you wouldn’t get discouraged from doing the nightly sports segments and the commentaries.”
I agreed to call the 20 Celtics road games alongside the great Bob Cousy.
Just as stunning, was the other call.
That from Gene Kirby, the assistant General Manager of the Red Sox. The Red Sox were switching TV stations the following year, 1975.
There would be 100 games telecast on the UHF station, WSBK.
I had been recommended and would I be interested?
Imagine, having a chance to be the principal broadcaster for the Red Sox!
A year earlier, I would have been grateful for one inning every few weeks.
What happened in the year leading up to 1975 was a roller-coaster experience.
Kirby proved to be the second guiding light in my career, but it wasn’t easy.
In fact, much of the time leading up to that pivotal year, was nerve-wracking.
I’ll deal with that next week.
But the ebb and flow of a career, a career of any kind, certainly makes you shake your head, as you look back.