This next blog is somewhat longer than usual, but if you happen to be a sports fans I think you may enjoy it because there’s a lot of history involved and I’m one of the lucky guys who got to experience it.
I’ve written before about walking in off the street in August, 1946 and getting my first job as a radio announcer at KFVS, Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I had just turned 19 and knew nothing much about the broadcast business but fortunately caught on quick enough to get to do some exciting things. First, was football play-by-play for what was then Southeast Missouri State College, followed by basketball for the same school that became a full-fledged university not long after.
Those games certainly led to both fun and excitement in the coming years as my basketball coverage later included N-I-T, N-C-A-A, AAU, Olympic trials and high school championships. It was a fascinating beginning. I was the only one on the staff who had taken part in athletic activities, so I was the only choice available to handle the games. A true example of being in the right place at the right time.
At work 71 years ago at the time of this writing
I wasn’t the only part of a relatively unsophisticated operation. You can also notice I was using a workhorse microphone of those days.
It was made by Western Electric and was called a “salt shaker” for obvious reasons because of its shape. Its best feature was durability in case it got knocked around during a remote broadcast. One story was told that an engineer put one in the station car, not noticing that it slipped out the back and bounced and banged on the roadway going back to the station. It was plugged in and kept on working without a hitch in spite of the rugged treatment. It was said you could probably drive a nail with it and not cause damage.
All this was a forerunner for all the basketball coverage that was ahead in my career.
Eventually, a new broadcasting home was WMIX in Mt. Vernon,
Part of the attraction was its interest in carrying high school
basketball games. It was located in the
hotbed of prep basketball and the opportunity for teams to make a big splash in
state recognition was like a magnet.
It was a day-time AM radio operation, but with the games at night, the new-fangled FM frequency had taken on added importance. It was still in a time when FM hadn’t made much headway and most listeners had to have a little black box attached to their receivers in order to get the signal. There was so much sports interest that the number of black boxes proliferated to the point where there was a sizeable nighttime audience.
The Mt. Vernon Rams team I was lucky enough to follow lived up to its advance billing and rolled through the regular season in fine style, losing only three games. One of those was the final game when a team used slow-down tactics and beat them. Afterwards, as time for the Regional tournament came, the coach told his players that their first opponent, a smaller school District tournament winner, would likely try that slow-down approach because it would be their best chance of an upset. He told the players that if that happened they were going to retaliate in the same manner, so that other future opponents would know better than to try the same thing. And, that’s what happened, presenting me with one of the most difficult play-by-play jobs I ever had, before or since.
The smaller school set off in the expected way and Mt.
Vernon fed them a dose of their own medicine. The ball would be passed to their big center
and he would hold it over his head for what seemed like minutes on end. There was no shot clock in those days so doing
that was okay. When his arms would tire,
he would pass the ball off, rest his arms, then take a return pass and go
through the same routine. How do you
describe “action” like that? If they
blinked, I’d mention it -- if anybody did anything, I’d tell about it. It seemed the game was taking a couple of
days to finish. You’ll understand better
when you hear the final score was 12-8, mighty difficult to describe. I was hoping the coach was right and that no
other teams would try the same thing.
Fortunately, they didn’t as the team went ahead to win the Regional and
advance to the Sectional pairings. Two
more victories and they were in the coveted “Sweet Sixteen,” the state
tournament to be held in Huff Gymnasium at the
in University of Illinois . Champaign
In those days the tournament was played over three days, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with eight games the first day, and four contests each of the next two days…16 games in three days, and I worked them all, without a color man. We didn’t have such a luxury. Even more challenging was the fact that generally you wouldn’t have seen any of the other teams, so all the players and numbers were brand-new. To say it took concentration is putting it mildly, but when you’re young and resilient it makes it somewhat easier. Even so, when the final buzzer sounded on Saturday night, you could feel like a whipped puppy.
My job became much easier because of following a winning team. There were no classifications then and there was only one title and it didn’t matter about the size of the school…there would be Chicago city champs with huge enrollment and smaller down-state schools with only a fraction of that. That factor alone built up the increasing frenzy of the fans. That system remained in place until after 1971.
Finally, it was fifteen games down with only the title game remaining. The Rams won the championship, finishing with an overall season mark of 30-3. They got even better the next season and grabbed their second straight state championship, going undefeated with a record of 33-0.
The latter title didn’t matter to me from a broadcasting standpoint because it wasn’t long before an opportunity to move to a larger station in Peoria, Illinois presented itself and my just-ended tournament experience was highly important in making an upward move once again.
For example, during the 1949-50 basketball season I was at WMBD in Peoria. Jack Quinlan, who later moved on to do the Chicago Cubs games on WGN, Chicago was still the sports director. My sports activity consisted of doing some weekend sports programs and filling in for Jack when he was on the road for Bradley University basketball games. A few times when schedules permitted I would join him for home games and add some comment.
At one point, Jack was in Kansas City for the Western Regionals of the N-C-A-A tournament and the championship game was on tap. I got an urgent phone call at home telling me to pack a bag and head for the airport. Jack had gotten sick and didn’t think he could handle the two games set for that evening, including the one for the championship that would determine which team advanced to the final round in
. Notice that I termed it merely the final
round, they weren’t calling it the “Final Four” yet. I arrived not too long before broadcast time,
rushed to the arena and sat briefly with Jack, who said he was too darned sick
to be of any help. So, I was faced with
some quick study and managed to get through the consolation game okay and then
had to handle the title contest between Bradley and the New York ,
spearheaded by All-American center, Clyde Lovellette. The score was tied 17 times and Bradley won
by two points 59-57, a baptism thriller for me.
The upcoming agenda led to University of Kansas
and the station didn’t want to take any chances with a possible relapse in what
turned out to be a highly uncomfortable case of stomach flu for Jack. Therefore, a decision was made for me to make
that trip as well. Madison
The overall situation proved to be one that never happened before or since. It was a time when teams could play in both the National Invitation Tournament (N-I-T) and the N-C-A-A the same season, with equal importance attached. Bradley and City College of New York (CCNY) made it to the finals in each, with CCNY winning the N-I-T on
March 18th, 1950
by a score of 69-61. Ten days later, the
New Yorkers prevailed again 71-68 in the N-C-A-A battle. That meant Bradley had been runner-up in all
three of that season’s major tournaments, having lost to powerful 71-66 in the
Sugar Bowl tourney on Kentucky December
30th, 1949. In
spite of those three setbacks, the Braves wound up with an overall mark of
32-5, going 11-1 in their own Missouri Valley Conference.
That was still a satisfying situation, but there was something in the near future that was to shatter not only the very foundation of collegiate basketball, but the course of several individual lives. It had begun with an investigation of rumors by New York District Attorney Frank Hogan and wound up affecting 32 players at seven schools. The probe discovered a point-shaving scandal that involved not only Bradley and CCNY, but
College University, Long Island University, New York , and the Toledo . All had top-notch basketball programs and
that was a requirement for what happened.
The teams had to be very good or they couldn’t have done what they did. It stemmed from an approach by gamblers who
said, in effect, “We don’t want you to lose, just win by less.” University of Kentucky
It resulted in three Bradley players getting suspended sentences for the illegal activity, with four others acquitted. Seven of the CCNY players were implicated, with some serving jail time, including Ed Warner, one of their major stars. When disclosure of the betting scandal was first made Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp said they couldn’t touch his players with a ten-foot pole. Then, when three of his star players were found to have been involved, it was apparent the gamblers had found an eleven-foot pole somewhere. It was discovered that Bradley’s regional game with
had been part of the plot. The point spread had been four points and
Bradley had won by two, further evidence of just how good they were. Kansas
Bradley fans were stunned. These boys were heroes and it didn’t seem possible they could have been part of the far-reaching misdeeds. It was a period of time, not unlike before and after, when overzealous fans and alums contributed to the unwholesome atmosphere. After a particularly important victory, it wasn’t unusual for players to find money tucked into their shoes in the locker room. It was an illegality but one that also indicated this was merely a minor reward for using athletic ability in a way that brought some glory to themselves and to the school. This is not meant as an apology for their actions to say they were young, because they should have known better. One married Bradley player thought, after their first transgression, that it was highly improper and decided to have nothing more to do with the schemes. His reluctance was quickly quashed when representatives of the gambling interests threatened his wife and baby if he didn’t continue.
Later, after Jack Quinlan had moved on, it was my good fortune to cover what may very well have been the finest half of basketball ever played at any level whether it be high school, college, AAU or professional. It took place in the N-I-T in Madison Square Garden in 1957. A sparse crowd of only 7,500 attended in the massive Garden. The Bradley Braves were playing Xavier of Ohio and after the first nine and a half minutes of play found themselves down 38-17. They had narrowed the gap by halftime but still trailed 52-44 and that was sometimes as many points as were frequently scored in an entire contest in those days. Bradley coach Chuck Orsborn was not a big motivating speaker but it would have been interesting to hear what he had to say in the dressing room during intermission.
One thing for sure, he told the team they were going to a full court press. The tactic began from the time they came out to start the second half and it worked in unbelievably sensational fashion. Before giving details, let’s refresh memories by saying what happened came in a twenty minute half and three-point baskets were not part of the game yet. With that in mind, digest these numbers. The Bradley press was so ferociously effective you could see the Xavier team crumbling. Barney Cable and Shellie McMillon, who later played with the Detroit Pistons of the NBA, began dominating the boards and Cable batted many Xavier shots back into their faces. Bobby Joe Mason, later with the Harlem Globetrotters, put on a dazzling floor show and five Bradley players scored in double figures, led by Cable’s 28 and Mason’s 23. The overall onslaught was breathtaking as the
outscored Xavier 72-29 in a mere 20 minutes and won 116-81. Check out the box scores of any of today’s
NBA games and you’ll discover that very rarely do pro teams score 72 points in
a half composed of two 15-minute quarters for total time of 10-minutes more
than the Braves had in which to accomplish their astonishing feat. And again remember, no 3-point baskets in the
rule book at the time. Incredible? That may be too mild a word. You can just imagine the thrill I got from
covering that game. Peoria
Barney Cable, by the way, did something in a game I broadcast at Oklahoma A & M (now Oklahoma State) that I had never seen before or since. It was on a jump ball in Bradley’s end of the court and Cable went high and tipped the ball up and in for two points. “Jump ball?,” you ask, “What’s that?” Any tied-up ball in those days brought on the “jump” unlike today’s “last possession” approach.
I certainly wasn’t through handling basketball action. A lot of post-college basketball activity centered on the National Industrial Basketball League, featuring such teams as perennial power Phillips 66, Akron Goodyears (sometimes called Wingfoots), Caterpillar Tractor Company (Cats), Wichita Vickers, Denver-Chicago Truckers, Seattle Buchan Bakers, Milwaukee Allen-Bradleys, Cleveland Pipers and the Los Angeles Fibber McGee and Molly team.
Pro basketball in that period wasn’t very well established – after several franchises folded there were only eight teams with limited openings and many graduating stars chose the amateur route. They had to be employed by their sponsor and many wound up with good jobs when their playing days were over. An example was the first seven-footer, Bob Kurland of Oklahoma A & M (now
). He not only got to win a couple of Olympic
Gold Medals but stayed 34 years in corporate headquarters of Phillips 66. For the record, his nickname was “Foothills.” Dick Boushka was an All-American at Oklahoma
State and went into amateur
competition and eventually became president of Vickers Petroleum Company, for
whom he played. B.H. “Bert” Born from St. Louis University signed on with
Caterpillar, led the way to three AAU titles and finished a business career as
head of the company personnel department.
There were many others and it was easy to understand why they bypassed
the pro ranks. Kansas
A 6’-5” athlete who played football and basketball at the College of Idaho transferred to the University of Seattle and a big time career was underway for Elgin Baylor. I broadcast one of his college games against
and he was phenomenal. He burst on the pro scene in the 1958-59
season and even then 6’-5” was not considered tall for the forward position,
but he flummoxed taller rivals with his agility and jumping ability. Hall of Fame forward Bob Pettit was 6’-9” and
he said in his first game against Baylor, he faked the rookie out and went up
for a shot but had it blocked from behind by a recovering Baylor. Pettit told me, “I knew right away that a new
star had arrived.” Bradley University
In pretty much the same time frame, I did a game in Denver when the Peoria Cats won the AAU title 74-71 over the D-C Truckers in quadruple overtime! Play-by-play broadcasters more often than not worked alone without a color commentator and this was one of those times. Four overtimes! It was a chore.
My next assignment was to cover the Olympic basketball trials after the AAU tournament in March of 1960 and that may have produced one of the best basketball teams ever in Olympic history. Players for the Olympics were selected from three AAU teams, N-C-A-A champs, University All-Stars, Armed Forces All-Stars and N-A-I-A All-Stars, and what a collection. Leading the way to the summer games in
Robertson, Walt Bellamy, Terry Dischinger, Jerry Lucas and Jerry West. Over the following four years, the first four
of those players, in order, were named Rookie of the Year in the NBA and
Robertson, West and Lucas wound up in the Hall of Fame. In the Olympics they went 8-0, beating
opponents by an average of more than 42 points a game. In a contest against Rome in
the semi-final round they led in the early going 32-1, and that’s not a
misprint. Russia had a 7’3”, 320-pound
center but it didn’t help as they fell by 24 points. To this day I’m convinced that USA team was
the greatest of all time at any level. Yugoslavia
In March, 1970 another singular sports event took place while I was at WDAF-AM-TV in Kansas City, handling two daily feature TV newscasts. Two high school teams from metro Kansas City won their way into a Saturday showdown battle for the state basketball title to be played in Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. When the semi-final results came over the wire in our newsroom, I called the WDAF radio manager at home on Friday evening and told him about the involvement of the two local teams and that no radio coverage was planned. I filled him in on my basketball broadcasting background and he agreed it would be a coup if the station could put together a package. He called his sales staff at home that evening and told them to hit the streets the next morning and line up sponsors. Arrangements were made with the phone company to put a broadcast line into
after sales efforts assured financial success, I hopped aboard a plane, flew to
got there in time to quickly study the two teams in warm-ups, having never seen
either of them in action. St. Louis
We couldn’t have written a script that would have provided any more excitement. The two teams, Rockhurst and Raytown South battled tooth and nail throughout and were tied at the end of regulation play. Raytown South went ahead to win 68-65 in overtime and WDAF got many calls of appreciation for having the foresight to broadcast the game. Hah! Foresight! We were just lucky.
Of course, that last line, “We were just lucky,” is a fitting observation about all the things I got to do. I suppose if I had my way I would always have handled sports coverage but stations kept switching me to news. My personal enjoyment was kept alive by being able to work a lot of sports activity as well. Over the years, that included covering baseball in three different leagues, college football (including a Midwest Game of the Week), four seasons of Denver Bronco exhibition games (now called pre-season), top-notch college hockey, major national golf tournaments, boxing, auto racing and an opportunity to meet and interview many stars from those sports. One season doing Bronco games my color man was Hall of Famer-to be, running back Floyd Little, who put up great stats with a so-so Denver team.
I was around when the American Football League announced its formation in 1959 with seven teams, the Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Houston Oilers and New York Titans in the Eastern Division and the Dallas Texans, Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers in the Western Division, and a team in Minnesota to round out the league. However, the NFL quashed that notion by granting a
franchise that became the Vikings. So,
the AFL turned coastward instead and brought in the Oakland Raiders. Minnesota
The league opened play in 1960, the Chargers moved to San Diego in ’61, the Titans were renamed the Jets in ’63, the same year Dallas moved to Kansas City and became the Chiefs. Finally, in 1966, the two leagues agreed to merge but didn’t do so until 1970.
There were some good moments but they were few and far between. The Denver Broncos beat Boston 13-10 in the first game played in the league, but they were 4-9-1 overall for the inaugural season. The Broncos went 7-7 in their third campaign and that’s the closest they came to a winning season until 13 years after their formation when they finally went 7-5-2 in 1973, then as part of the merged combination of the two leagues. Altogether, they had the worst AFL record of 39-97-4, a far cry from the many successes to come. With so many down years it was only natural that many jokes were aimed at them. One story indicated the Broncos tried to trade two players to the Green Bay Packers for an 8” x 10” glossy photo of quarterback Bart Starr.
The top gag concerned a game being played by the Broncos when a jet plane flew over, cracking the sound barrier. The other team heard the sonic boom, thought it was halftime and left the field.
Three plays later the Broncos scored.
On a field goal.
From the three.
But it was called back.
They were offsides!
Through the many seasons I had the distinct pleasure of having conversation/interviews with some of the top play-by-play sportscasters including the likes of Harry Caray, Jack Brickhouse, Mel Allen, Al Michaels, Bill Stern and dozens more, including Curt Gowdy.
Me with Curt, one of the greatest in his field
It was fulfilling to meet and chat with Curt, who had the honor of having a State Park named after him in his home state of Wyoming. His list of credits reached an incredible length. Curt was the voice of the Boston Red Sox baseball broadcasts for many years and worked the first Super Bowl, although it wasn’t known by that name yet. Count them up - he was on nine Super Bowl broadcasts, thirteen World Series, sixteen All-Star baseball games, twenty-four Final Four college basketball tournaments, covered the Olympics, and more. After all that, what would you suppose might have been his all-time favorite? In our conversation we spoke of the outdoor show he hosted, The American Sportsman, and he told of being taught fishing when he was just a lad in his home state. I mentioned that it sounded as though that particular program might have been his favorite of all, and Curt replied he should have been paying them to get to do it. When I asked if it was his favorite of all the things he had done, he sort of leaned back, smiled and said, “…just maybe so.”
I wrote about a great deal of such things in my eBooks, Cat Whiskers and Talking Furniture: A Memoir of Radio and Television Broadcasting and Sports: Fact, Fiction & Fun. That’s a couple of my 18 eBooks you can see to the right. A click will get you to any book for a free sample “Look Inside.”