As all of us with a vested interest in the human condition should know, the innards of a computer are naught but a banal gnarl of electronic glands and itty-bitty wire ganglia, roughly the size of, say, a healthy colony of streptococci. Very fragile. Highly breakable. Infinitely boring to watch. Of course, that is not to say that the wondrous tricks performed in there have not done much to the condition of humankind. Colorfully called by such intrinsically American names as IBM 360 or NCR 315 or Univac 1108, these machines have replaced uncounted flocks of lank-haired office girls with pots of silver nail polish in their desks and dreams of Harley-Davidson drivers in their heads. Thousands of myopic bookkeepers arc otherwise employed. This is the age of the electric Scrooge; Bob Cratchit is a hole in a key-punch card, Tiny Tim is a linear digital Tinkertoy.
Scientists were quick to recognize that all work and no play made Jack a dull computer, and from the very start fun-loving experts enjoyed playing ticktack-toe with their machines. Properly programmed, even an early model could counter a human X with its own O, which made for exciting hours in the old systems analysis sanctum until a smart-aleck technician started making his Xs on top of the computer's Os. The machine kept saying, YOU MADE A MISTAKE, but the fellow persisted in cheating until the exasperated computer declared, I QUIT. Since then computers have come to excel at such games as checkers, chess, bridge and guessing election returns before any votes are counted. Last spring a University of Liverpool computer swallowed data for a race among the 12 greatest horses in history and coughed up Citation as the winner. (Horse-racing purists were outraged. They thought the winner should have been Man o' War in a walk.) Silly though it seemed, The New York Times not only published a substantial article on the results, it also ran a lengthy, dignified pre-race dope story about the whole fabrication.
But no one has had as much sport with computers as a genial, portly radio announcer-turned-promoter named Murry Woroner. He is the man who has answered the question: Can a brash young paper boy from the Bronx rise from a job as a staff announcer in a tiny coal-mining town in Kentucky to become the broadcasting czar of computerized sports events with his own small office, meager staff and eensyweensy studio over a bank in a suburban Miami shopping center? The answer is yes.
It is Murry Woroner who last year brought to our wondering ears, via radio and computer, the All-Time Heavyweight Tournament and Championship Fight. He reduced 16 magnificent fighters (from John L. Sullivan to Muhammad Ali) to key-punch perforations, fed them into a National Cash Register 315 computer and let them fight—the bareknucklers vs. the gloved sluggers, the rigid standers vs. the dodging dancers, the quick vs. the dead. From the computer readouts, he produced breathless blow-by-blow broadcasts, peddled the tapes to 380 stations the world around and, after 15 elimination bouts, let it be known last December that Computer Fighter No. 004 (Rocky Marciano) had knocked out Computer Fighter No. 002 (Jack Dempsey) in the 13th round of the finals.
September 15, 1968
One would think that such artificially, if artfully, inseminated excitement might lay a big soft electronic egg; but one would think wrong. For some reason, both listeners and advertisers—who placed $3.5 million worth of commercials around the series—loved it. So did Murry Woroner, who has just begun to compute for sport, and profit. Two weeks from now Woroner Productions Inc. will proudly present its computerized, scripted, taped and sold All-Time Middleweight Tournament and Championship Fight. The 15-week run will open with a bout between Carmen Basilio and Marcel Cerdan. Again, there are 16 contenders, ranging from Kid McCoy to Emile Griffith.
The forthcoming tournament is one of the most astonishing marketing successes in radio history. No less than 650 stations have signed up, the most ever to buy an independently produced series of programs. The Ford Motor Co. is sponsoring half of the series nationwide, and the best guess is that some $4.5 million in advertising will be sold with the middleweights.
Murry Woroner is delighted. In his minuscule office over the South Miami Federal Savings and Loan, one wall is a large window with a view of the parking lot, but on the opposite wall is an enormous map covered with colored pins. Murry waves at the map and says, "Just look at that! There's not a section of the country where we don't have a middleweight pin. Now that can't help but give a man some jollies."
There will be more jollies to come, apparently. Woroner is already working on an All-Time Computerized College Football Championship for next fall, an elimination tournament between the best teams of the century. It might drive the Galloping Ghost through key-punch perforations into the Seven Blocks of Granite or blast Doc Blanchard into the off-tackle circuitry of Bronko Nagurski. "This mythical thing seems to turn people on," says Woroner.
But his potentially jolliest deal of all is not mythical. Starting next fall Woroner's athletic analytical engine is planning to perpetrate a weekly electronic version of a game between two National Football League teams that will actually meet each other later the same week. The deal was initiated by the highly successful NFL Films Company and Murry was delighted to enter the partnership. "This," he said, "could open the doors at the U.S. mint. Everybody'll want to buy it. Of course, we're going out on a limb. If we miss every game by seven or eight touchdowns, our computer credibility will be in trouble. But if we come close, or say we hit one right on the nose—hey, can you imagine then what would happen?"
At 43, Murry Woroner is a well-respected professional who has been in broadcasting since the late '40s. After tours with stations in Harlan, Ky., Amarillo, Texas and WAME in Miami, he started his own production company in 1964. And though he might covet the fortune to be made in television, he is one of those delightful anachronisms in the business who positively adores the creative potential to be found in a few million imaginative ears. "Radio is a wonderful medium," he says. "It is the real medium of imagination. It's magnificent what you can do with it!
"A couple of years ago Stan Freberg cut some commercials for Radio Month, promoting radio listening, you know. In this one bit, Freberg was arguing with a guy about radio versus TV, and the other guy said, 'All right, tell me what radio can do that television can't do better.' Freberg says, 'O.K., here's what I'm gonna do. First I'm gonna drain all the water out of Lake Erie.' And there are these gurgling, down-the-drain sounds—burble, burble, glug, glug, you know. Then Freberg says, 'And I'm gonna fill Lake Erie with whipped cream.' The sound goes spllllsssshhhhshsh. Now Freberg says, 'And I got this 40,000-ton cherry sitting on a field in Ohio and I'm gonna call out the whole Air Force to fly up there and get it.' So you hear zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz—the roar of a million airplanes. Freberg says, 'O.K., they got that big cherry up in the air now and they're carrying it toward the whipped cream in Lake Erie; zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.' The planes are working hard now and Freberg says. 'They're over the lake and now I'm gonna order 'em to drop that 40,000-ton cherry into that whipped cream. O.K. boys, let 'er GOOO-O-O-o-o-o!!!' Then you hear a gigantic sppppllllsssshhhhlllloooopppp!!! The cherry has fallen square into the whipped cream in Lake Erie—you've just seen it in your mind's eye, and Freberg says, 'Now, lemme see TV do that.' "
Murry Woroner shakes his head and sighs, "It's a great medium."
Although Murry has yet to throw any 40,000-ton cherries around the landscape, he has produced some remarkable audio effects himself. He is on the board of Pageantry Inc., the organization that puts on the annual Orange Bowl Easter Pageant—massed choirs, musicians and soloists performing before massed thousands. Woroner's job is to make pre-performance tapes of the pageant, which are then played through the Orange Bowl loudspeakers while the silent ranks of singers move their lips in synchronization. His own company has turned out a broad variety of syndicated radio programs, including three called The First Christmas, Easter the Beginning and July 4,1776. The shows are hour-by-hour recreations of the events of those historic days, designed and delivered with the zing-zing techniques and vernacular of modern radio newscasts. The Christmas show includes a press conference with the Magi, interviews with the shepherds of Bethlehem, an on-the-scene report from the inn in Bethlehem and an "exclusive" interview with King Herod, as well as statements from Mary, Joseph and Augustus Caesar.
Much attention was paid to accuracy. For both the Christmas and Easter shows, Woroner won the Gabriel, a trophy given by the Catholic Broadcasters Association, and for the July 4,1776 program he was awarded a Freedom Foundation medal.
Despite his earnest desire for esthetic and realistic quality in his productions, Woroner would never deny that his forte is as a salesman and promoter. "I'm in the radio syndication business and my job is to sell what I produce," he says. "Sure, I believe in what I do. I don't peddle garbage. But I don't ordinarily get involved in things deeply unless I'm pretty sure they'll be a successful commercial venture. Period."
Yet when Woroner set out to produce the heavyweight championship tournament, he had no guarantee at all that it would succeed—and lots of people to tell him that it wouldn't. Eventually, with the help of a hefty bank loan, he managed to raise $200,000. Then he assembled a cast of experts to pull it all together.
First, of course, there was the computer. A firm called Systems Programming Services, Inc. of Miami, headed by a pleasant CPA of serious mien named Henry Meyer II, had both the people and the analytical engine for the job. Henry Meyer II, 37, is a man of varied background, an amateur hypnotist, a licensed pilot and a dedicated Baptist Sunday school teacher who neither smokes nor drinks nor swears nor has any insight at all into the sport of boxing. "My Gospel," says Henry Meyer II, "this was a foreign world to me. But we figured that where there was a will there was a way." (When Meyer uses the pronoun "we," he is often referring to himself and a computer—in this case an NCR 315—which he rents for $9,000 a month.)
Given the combined boxing ignorance of Woroner, Meyer and the NCR 315, there was an obvious need for expertise. For a fee, Woroner enlisted the Dundee brothers of Miami, Nat Fleischer of The Ring Magazine and one Hank Kaplan, 48, a graduate biologist who is a full-time harbor health inspector for the U.S. Public Health Service and also happens to be a past president of the World Boxing Historians Association and the owner of one of the finest libraries of boxing lore extant. And finally Murry employed Guy LeBow, an announcer who has been doing boxing broadcasts for 20 years.
With Fleischer and the Dundees acting as a kind of window-dressing summit council, Kaplan did the bulk of the background research in his own home. To add some breadth to the project, Woroner invited some 250 boxing writers and experts to give their statistical opinions on the heavyweights. Each was asked to fill in a complex sheet of 58 rating "factors," ranging from the obvious (speed, susceptibility to cuts, ability to throw a left) to the sublime (hardness of punch, killer instinct, courage). For the middleweight tournament ratings, Woroner solicited the views of only 15 experts, hoping he could do better with quality than quantity. The rating sheets were averaged out and—presto!—there were suddenly columns of numbers to feed the computer.
But Woroner wanted more than mere statistical averages. So he, LeBow and Kaplan pored over ancient Police Gazettes and crumbling blow-by-blow newspaper accounts of old fights. They dug up blurred movies, including one of The Nonpareil Jack Dempsey that was shot by Thomas Alva Edison. Woroner or LeBow interviewed every living fighter in both tournaments, with the exception of Gene Tunney, who declined to be involved From all this they compiled as encyclopedic an accumulation of boxing trivia and technicalities as anyone had ever put together. They knew how often and where each fighter cut his opponents, where he was cut most often himself, how many punches and what kind he usually threw in a round, what pattern, pace and rhythm he preferred, what blows hurt him most, how many fouls he had committed.
The temptation to manipulate the fights to produce the best possible promotional advantages—such as being certain that the finalists were both living fighters—would seem overwhelming, but Woroner categorically denies that he ever considered such shenanigans. "We took it just as it came from the computer, and we did everything humanly possible—everything logic, statistics and raw research could do—to make those fights authentic and accurate," he says. "We know a computer can't program heart or courage. But experts can judge guys they saw fight on those grounds. We never pretended we could program in the whole human condition, like a guy's frame of mind or something. What we did was use the computer as an impartial arbiter on the probabilities of the way certain boxers would fight in their prime. I don't mind the criticism and jokes about us in the press. But when the writers imply that we did this thing superficially—that makes me mad."
Equipped with that monumental collection of statistics and facts, Henry Meyer II worked for months to design a program that his computer could digest. He was at it 100 hours a week: either holed up in a Miami motel room, or flying to Dayton for conferences with National Cash Register computer experts or conferring far into the night with Hank Kaplan on the intricacies of boxing. "My Gospel," says Meyer, "it's surprising we've done as well as we have when you consider that our scientific base was as nebulous as it was. I mean, how do you analyze the 45-round fights of John L. Sullivan? Or how do you feed in data about a 'leg cut' caused by an oldtimer who was wearing hobnailed boots in the ring? Oh, it was a challenge for us."
When Meyer tries to explain precisely what "we" did to make a mechanical analysis of courage, stamina, killer instinct and various knockout patterns, a communications gap develops. Patiently and at enormous length he talks about "random number generators" and "step regressions" and "statistical reductions." He sketches fine-line diagrams and probability formulae and occult symbols all over restaurant placemats and napkins, and when he is finished he takes a bite of his sandwich, surveys what he has wrought and says, "My Gospel, there must be a simpler way to explain it than that."
Still, it is a delight to listen to Henry Meyer II talk of the project, for he uses a splendid, contradictory mixture of vocabularies that combines the antiseptic terminology of computers with the gymnasium jargon of fighters. The result is newspeak bafflegab that epitomizes both the complexities and the ludicrousness of electronic boxing:
"Of course, we dynamically programmed the bouts so that after every punch there was less go in the fighter than before. That was our deterioration factor. We had to program data on his ability to take a solid right to the head, whether he had a glass chin, how well he could rally. We had to feed in killer-instinct data. Based on reasonability, we'd weight some factors differently depending on the man's opponent. Speed, for example, would be modified depending on the speed factor of the other fighter. Courage was the No. 1 factor in importance, as it turned out. We figured that courage, killer instinct and ability to rally would remain constant no matter who a man was in the ring against. Of course, we just didn't have enough raw data to absolutely program every move or every blow. So we used the random-number generator to give us a sound application of the percentages. Actually, it was a quasi-simulation program."
Meyer tested, retested and re-retested his programming, running hundreds of fights through the computer. What eventually came out of his machine were yards of paper filled with columns of figures and letters that spelled out in round-by-round detail the electronic fate of some of history's finest fighters.
Although these readout sheets seem fairly complete, they leave enormous room for interpretations and imagination. For one thing, the computer's list of punches is not in sequence, so Woroner and Announcer LeBow have unlimited poetic license to rearrange them as they like. They can also toss in clinches, missed punches and various dance steps around the ring to fit their own sense of drama. But the key to the semblance of authenticity is, as Murry describes it, "the nostalgic sound" of the crowd—the surges and shouts, the boos and the thunder that occasionally all but drown out LeBow's frantic monologue. The sounds are tapes of real fight crowds at Miami Beach Municipal Auditorium during matches there. They include the thump of the timekeeper's hand hitting the canvas during the count, the thud of fighters' footsteps and even some ughs and grunts when fighters are bit. Boos were needed, too, but Woroner found the Miami boxing crowd did not boo much, so a wrestling match was recorded for sounds of disapproval.
The actual taping of the finished broadcasts is done in shadowed secrecy. Woroner has been adamant about taking extreme security precautions to conceal the results of his computer fights. For example, the tapes are shipped direct to bank vaults or Western Union security safes and they are not delivered to broadcasting stations until an hour or two before air time. Woroner insists that no more than half a dozen people (not including Hank Kaplan, Nat Fleischer or the Dundees) know the fight results before they are broadcast. Only he and LeBow are involved in writing the immensely detailed blow-by-blow script. There has been no big-book betting on the fights—although LeBow swears that he was offered $50,000 by certain mysterious sources to reveal the outcome of the heavyweight tournament—so Woroner's deep anxiety about security is simply based on his desire for maximum theatrical impact. "Who'd listen to these things if they knew how they were going to end?" he says.
The airtight secrecy reaches a point of suffocation when LeBow and Woroner do the actual broadcasts. It happens at night in Woroner's tiny studio, long after eavesdropping secretaries or curious bank employees have departed. Woroner, LeBow and Frank Linale, the master recordist who manipulates the controls and sound effects, do not exactly come to the office wearing false beards. But there is an air of skulduggery about it all. Before the taping begins, Murry checks the area for intruders, then locks the studio doors for the night's big fight. Woroner and LeBow are seated at microphones in a closet-sized room lined with shelves containing old tapes of such things as porpoise and cicada sounds. Frank Linale is ready at the control board. He switches on his recording equipment, and the low babbling sound of an enthusiastic auditorium crowd fills the room.
The fight on this particular night is the Harry Greb-Tony Zale affair, the eighth of the initial pairings in the middleweight tournament. The voice of Murry Woroner bursts into the microphone: "Through the incredible speed and scientific advance of modern computer technology, it's the All-Time Middleweight Tournament, presented in part by Ford...."
There is the sound of a computer, a slight surge in the crowd sounds and Murry shouts about how "14,000 seats are jammed full" in Boston Garden for this "dream fight." Then he introduces his colleague—"And here's a guy who can really tell you...Guy LeBow!" Hunched over his script and with the computer readouts handy at his elbow, LeBow launches into rat-tat-tat lingo, the ripe and raucous prose of fight announcers from radio immemorial: "Tonight—probably two of the most legendary men to ever don a pair of gloves! If courage is a part of greatness in the ring, they've got that! If it's ability to punch, they've got that! If it's speed...." The pace of the hokum picks up. There are interviews with Nat Fleischer, Jack Kearns Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson, Carmen Basilio. All pick Greb to win. Zale picks himself, saying: "Well, I tell you, I've always felt this way: anybody who I've fought I figured I could win. No matter who it was. I never had a doubt I couldn't handle'em...." There are four breaks for commercials before the fight begins. (Woroner guarantees 12 breaks no matter how long the fight and makes up for short-bout problems by expanding pre-or post-fight palaver.)
There are many stop-and-start delays as Woroner and LeBow muff words or paper rattles near the mike. At last there is the buzzer and the bell for the first round. As Harry Greb, dead now for 42 years, rises from his stool, an excited Guy LeBow cries out, "This is my first look at Harry Greb...." The fighters begin to mix it up at an intense pace. Greb hits Zale ferociously from the start, cutting his mouth before the first round is half over, but LeBow flubs a word or two and says, "Sorry about that. From the top." Four or five times the first round is repeated, and at the end of it Zale is bleeding badly—with all the retakes he has probably been hit 85 times by now. Guy LeBow is streaming sweat and he is a bit pale; his lips are glistening from the moisture built up during his rapid-fire delivery. Only Harry Greb is fresh and lively.
LeBow looks up from his script and explains, "I'm still trying to get the rhythm, the tempo of these fellows. It takes a while to pick up the feel of their patterns." And Frank Linale says knowingly, "He's like a great trumpet player. It takes a little while to get his lip warmed up."
In the second round Zale's mouth is bleeding freely, and LeBow tells his audience that Tony must be careful now because swallowing blood can "make for a sick stomach situation." They have to do that round over three times or so because saying "sick stomach situation" very rapidly without blowing the pronunciation is enormously hard to do. But LeBow is in the swing of the fight now; he has the tempo, and where it has taken well over two hours to cut the prefight show and the first two rounds, the rest will smooth out and go more quickly. But it does take its toll on LeBow, who does not eat anything for several hours before a taping session. "These middleweights throw so many more punches than the heavyweights," he sighs. "They're so much quicker. I nearly passed out after just two rounds of one fight." But he is all right now. And though the outcome of the Greb-Zale fight must remain a secret until it is broadcast on November 18, suffice it to say that Zale was in trouble early, although Guy LeBow was getting stronger with every word.
It is LeBow's high-tension re-creation, plus the immense air of realism added by sound effects, that make Murry Woroner's artificial fights good entertainment. As far as being anything particularly significant as a final alltime settlement of a million alltime barroom debates over who was the alltime greatest, Murry himself admits: "We'd be nuts if we said this was the be-all and end-all of everyone's arguments. All we've really done is start more arguments." True enough. (One such argument happens to be with Muhammad Ali, who recently filed a $1 million suit against Woroner Productions on grounds that he had been defamed because the NCR 315 made him a loser to Jim Jeffries.) Indeed, Murry says quite candidly, "We didn't even necessarily settle the championship of the NCR 315 for all time. If we'd had differing pairings at the start of the tournament, we might well have had a different champion—just as you would in a real tournament. It wouldn't always be Marciano."
So even in the rigid world of analytical engines, the truth is no more than an arbitrary assortment of data, arbitrarily judged. But be it for truth or controversy, the football series is already in the works, and Henry Meyer II is murmuring about "fumble factors" and weather conditions. "My Gospel," he says, "the variables are fantastic."
The marriage of mythical competition and computers is hardly past the honeymoon stage, for Murry Woroner is thinking hard. Could Bobby Jones beat Jack Nicklaus? How about the 1932 Yankees vs. the 1967 Cardinals? Bill Tilden vs. Jack Kramer? A world soccer tournament in multiple languages? "And we could do more than sports," cries Woroner. "Much more. Wars! Hitler's Germany against the Roman Empire! Napoleon versus Alexander the Great! How about election campaigns? George Washington versus Franklin Roosevelt! Abraham Lincoln against George Wallace! And debates? Socrates takes on Karl Marx! Thoreau against Jean-Paul Sartre! Why not? Why not?"
Why not, indeed? Although Murry Woroner has not thought of it yet, certainly he will realize there is just one choice for the alltime finale for alltime tournaments: Jehovah wrestles the Devil! The winner gets the cherry and all the whipped cream in Lake Erie.