Each Sunday night from 7 until 11 the radio waves around Boston are whipped up by Sports Huddle, a sports talk show that, depending upon one's taste, is either the best example of that overworked genre ever produced, or the awfulest. Sports Huddle has been sneered at as preposterous and warmly supported as fearlessly iconoclastic. For every listener who thinks the show is hilarious, there probably is an ex-listener who got tired of the merry, or perhaps the not-so-merry, pranks that are an important element of the show's seemingly haphazard makeup. Practically no one who has ever heard Sports Huddle has been neutral about it, and that, more than anything else, is a measure of the show's considerable success.
At the center of the Huddle are Mark Witkin, Jim McCarthy and Eddie Andelman. They have been huddling weekly for more than three years now, and no subject has been spared their darts and thrusts, delivered usually with the imperious confidence of a barking quarterback. Boston, the White House, Buckingham Palace and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have all been sent reeling upfield, but no institution takes such a battering as the Sports Establishment, an amorphous enemy that includes management and athletes, sportswriters and sportscasters. The Establishment, in the view of the Huddlers, is at bottom anti-fan. Sports Huddle is for him, and if its three-man backfield becomes at times unbearably righteous in its indignation, its time-tested defense is The Plight of the Fan. Sports Huddle champions nothing if it does not champion The Plight of the Fan.
Two of the Huddlers' favorite targets arc the Boston Bruins and their home rink, Boston Garden. The Bruins lack class, say the Huddlers. The charge lacks precision, not to mention an original turn of phrase, but apparently it makes sense to a lot of people who feel that they are being soaked by the Bruin management for the dubious pleasure of occupying a seat in the Garden where the rats run free and the service, if any, is insulting. In their plight, the fans turn to the Huddle. They know that the program will be heard over the clicking of turnstiles, even if they are not.
And the Huddle is heard. "Every building in Boston has rats," complains Weston Adams Jr., president of the Bruins. "Why does Sports Huddle have to pick on ours?"
No reason, says Andelman, except that "the Garden also has no escalators and no air conditioning, and it does have rude ushers, winos and stalactites."
Like his co-Huddlers, each of whom makes his living outside of sport, Andelman feels free to make such remarks. He is a real-estate developer, McCarthy is an insurance executive and Witkin a lawyer. They are not, they are pleased to point out, beholden to any organization or personality in sport as, they insist, announcers and writers and publicity men all are in varying degrees. To maintain their independence, the three refuse all press privileges, buy $2,500 worth of sports tickets and transportation each year and vow never to shill for any person, player or team.
When snow blanketed Harvard Stadium two years ago and the Patriots refused to clean the stands so their rooters could sit in relative comfort, the Huddlers dramatized the shabby treatment by sitting in the snow with the frozen fans. They have also sat through a driving rainstorm at the Patriots' new home in Foxboro, Mass., have had mustard and beer slopped on them at Boston Garden and have pitted their jaws—and stomachs—against Fenway Park's hamburgers.
"Not only do we represent the fans," says Witkin, "we are the fans."
Much of the show's vitality is supplied by the 34-year-old Andelman, 245 pounds of nonstop exposition whose jowls sag to his breastbone because, as he puts it, "The Andelmans have no necks." The Andelmans do have a penchant for the fast quip, and some critics have praised Andelman's coverage of the 1971 Super Bowl as the most innovative reporting of all time. "One thing I did was to interview the real people before the game," Andelman says. "I talked to hookers, people at X-rated movies, guys in the street. Then I announced that on the basis of those interviews the Colts would win 17-13. They won 16-13."
Until recently, Andelman regarded Howard Cosell as a sportscaster without peer and referred to him as The Oasis of Truth. "But now he cops out, has conflicts of interest that hamper his work and is not the tell-it-like-it-is guy he claims to be," Andelman insists. "He intimidates people he interviews and always talks about how educated he is. I'm educated, too [Andelman has a degree in business from Boston University and an M.B.A. from Northeastern], and I'd like to take on The Oasis of Truth face to face."
Like Andelman, Jim McCarthy, 43, grew up around Boston. He is lean and lanky and the only bona fide athlete in the Huddle, having been an all-star basketball and football player in high school. Jim is also the most excitable of the group. He once referred to Adams on the air as "the biggest jerk I ever met." Another time, angered when Andelman downgraded Bob Cousy during a broadcast, he took a swing at his cohort, missed but then shoved him and walked out of the studio while they were still on the air.
Mark Witkin, 32, is from Latrobe, Pa. and is the moderating voice when matters get that far out of hand. "Rarely do the three of us agree on controversial topics," Witkin understates it. "That's good, though, because it leads to lively discussions."
After one "lively discussion," a caller told Andelman, "You sound like three guys in a gin mill." He meant it as a put-down, but succeeded only in pleasing the Huddlers. Their show was spawned in the bar of Patton's, a Boston restaurant where McCarthy, Andelman and Witkin used to forgather to argue sports while they waited out late-afternoon traffic jams before heading home. A radio executive got an earful of them—who didn't?—and, far from switching bars, decided the three were marketable. On June 21, 1969 the show for which the world was not waiting was heard on WUNR. Prospects for the venture seemed so meager that McCarthy didn't even bother to show up.
"We thought it would be a telephone-talk show, but when we got to the studio for our first program they told us the phones didn't work," Andelman recalls. "All of a sudden we found they wanted us to talk for two hours. We told the listeners, 'You will be the stars of this show. We have two goals: to put fun back in sports and to look out for the fans.' "
After six months at little WUNR, the Huddle graduated to WBZ, a 50,000-watt clear-signal station heard in 32 states and Canada.
"That was when the show was at its best," says Jack Craig, a radio-TV critic for the Boston Globe. "Someone would call from Cincinnati and say, 'Now let me tell you what the real trouble is with the Reds.' That gave unusual depth to the show."
The depth did not last long. The Huddlers claim WBZ, Boston's richest radio station, was pressured to drop the show by the Bruins. There also was something about a new station manager who did not care for the three loudmouths. A station spokesman says merely that it was a bad show and WBZ dropped it—a mistake, it soon developed. The American Research Bureau ratings for Boston revealed that WBZ's audience fell off 66% during the time spot vacated by the Huddle. WEEI, a 5,000-watter with a four-state audience, picked up the show, and its listeners for that same Sunday night time slot have more than doubled.
During the Huddle's last night on WBZ, 2,000 people jammed the station parking lot to pay tribute to their favorite three-man team. Last June the show was syndicated and so far, 40 stations around the country have bought it. While commercial time is sold to sponsors, the Huddlers insist they have turned their backs on offers that would transform what they still regard as their pastime into a commercial venture. For example, they refused $5,000 for the use of their faces on frankfurter packages. (It is hard to imagine what profit anybody would have realized out of three men on a dog.)
Huddle Power is nothing new. Calls while the Huddle is in progress often reach 12,000 in number and more than once have hit 20,000. In 1970, dismayed that President Nixon had not congratulated the Bruins after their Stanley Cup victory, Sports Huddle phoned Edward Brooke and Ted Kennedy and got both Massachusetts Senators to say that the President was guilty of first-degree oversight. Before long, 30,000 listeners signed 7,000 letters to the White House demanding action. They got it—tardily, but big. President Nixon sent a congratulatory telegram five months later and followed it up with a most unusual bit of advertising while riding in a convertible through Dublin. The President held up a sign saying BOSTON BRUINS ARE NO. 1. Native Irishmen, nonplussed, shrugged their shoulders, but their Boston kinsmen knew what it was all about and chalked up another accomplishment for the Sports Huddle.
First-time listeners to the show are apt to be shocked by the experience. When the Huddle wants to get rid of a crank or a bore, a signal is given to the program's engineer and immediately the ticking of a loud clock is heard. It is the mechanism for a time bomb, and in a few seconds the caller is blown off the air by the sound of a 10-megaton explosion. Disdaining the traditional Sousa-type music that opens most sports programs, Sports Huddle introduces itself with the grinding sounds of a calliope, signaling that it is time again for four hours of fun and fantasy. Before the evening ends, listeners can count on hearing the usual strong sports commentary, a stranger-than-life tale, surprise guests (real and fanciful), commercials (real and fanciful), a mystery quiz, phone calls around the world and, of course, a few words from the audience.
Although the show is unrehearsed, considerable planning precedes each broadcast from the Huddle's studio on the 44th floor of the Prudential Insurance Building. There the three sit at a five-sided black-topped table armed with sheaves of commercials, newspapers and notes about gags and topics they expect to plunge into, or at. During breaks in the program for world news, the Huddlers drift out of their room to the wire machines to read the latest sports results. Back on the air, Andelman is apt to light a match to a commercial that McCarthy is frantically trying to finish before the flames do.
On the other side of their glass-enclosed studio are two men—one to handle the calls, the other the engineer who plays tapes of outrageous sounds: the bomb, a creaky Inner Sanctum-type door, a big wet kiss for female callers and yelping dogs or clippity-clopping horses for calls about dogs or horses.
"We pitch our ads," says McCarthy enthusiastically about the show's commercials. What McCarthy means is that they often add their own embellishments to a stilted commercial. For one sponsor, an ice cream company, the Huddle concocts a "flavor of the week," such as cherry salami or pigeon pecan. The Huddle also lends its support to the Sam Huff School of Piling On. A plug for pro wrestling, delivered sotto voce, calls it "the only major sport without a scandal in the last 40 years." For the uninitiated, separating spoof from truth is the most puzzling part of the program. Stranger-than-life tales go something as follows: "This is the story of a famous home run that landed in a kid's pocket. He sold the ball for $12 and invested the money in the stock market. Three years later he was hit by a streetcar."
Among the Huddle's favorite targets, other than the Bruins and the Garden, are Carl Yastrzemski ("Ever notice that as his batting average goes up the Red Sox go down?"); Red Sox Manager Eddie Kasko ("A mealymouthed marsh-mallow who once brought his lineup card to the plate and bumped into the other manager headfirst"); Bobby Orr of the Bruins ("He's not the humble, gracious, Bible-touting kid everyone says he is"); and Orr's teammate Derek Sanderson ("overrated and oversexed").
At the mere mention of Sports Huddle, Sanderson now says "S&X%*?!" It was not always so. Relations were first strained slightly by the Huddle's Date Derek contest. There were 10,000 entrants and the winner was Mabel Hodgkins, age 73. Things got tougher after the Huddlers upstaged Sanderson on his own TV show. The three brought along Miss Sports Huddle, Paula Newman (later to become Mrs. Witkin); while they were on the air, Andelman would snap his fingers and she would walk by and drop a grape into his mouth. Sanderson had no idea what was going on. Every time he tried to make a point, Andelman would snap his fingers again, Paula would drop another grape and Sanderson lost track of what he was doing.
The Huddlers also give Fenway Park a hot time, which they claim is something the hamburgers there don't get. Information was passed along to the Huddle by a spy working at one of the concession counters: the reason why the hamburgers were as tough as Louisville Sluggers, he reported, was that they were cooked before the game and reheated. Unfortunately, his cover blown, the 007 of Fenway Park was demoted from hamburgers to French fries.
The Huddle can throw bouquets as well as uppercuts, and the Celtics get most of the posies. Though the Celtics have seldom drawn well in Boston, the Huddle is fond of them. Despite this, they did rip Bill Russell when he refused to acknowledge an ovation from the fans the day his uniform number was retired. "I don't go for that fanfare," was Russell's explanation, but the Huddle didn't buy it. Said McCarthy, "The fans gave him a four-minute standing O and he never stood, never raised an arm. People say he's his own man. Yes, but fans were saying thanks and the least he could've done was to say, 'You're welcome.' "
But no one has taken the broadsides the Bruin management has. Never at a loss for new Bruin shortcomings, the Huddle accuses the organization of being lax in curbing ticket scalpers and of failing to cope with the parking problem. More specifically, last year Sports Huddle sponsored a tour for some 250 fans so they could see their beloved Bruins play on the West Coast, where it is easier to come by tickets than in Boston. When the group showed up at the San Francisco airport to welcome the Bruins, the players snubbed them. The Bruins continued to ignore the Boston contingent at the Oakland Coliseum, skating to the other side of the rink to sign autographs for local fans only. Goalie Eddie Johnston, the team player representative, said later that the players were retaliating for Huddle comments they didn't particularly care for. Retaliating themselves, the three Huddlers predicted the Bruins would not win the Stanley Cup because they lacked maturity. When the Bruins lost in the playoffs, the Huddle played taps and a funeral dirge.
Sitting in his well-appointed office in Boston Garden, the Bruins' Adams talked about the Huddle. "When they first went on the air they were the freshest, most alive thing to come on radio in a long time," he said, "but I think they are now biased and have lost their objectivity. It takes little talent to knock. I think their show appeals to high school kids now, to the lunatic fringe.
"After McCarthy called me a jerk I checked with a lawyer to see if that wasn't libel or slander. Next thing you know, the Huddle says I was going to sue them. I had no such intention. I just wanted to find out what was what. I was 25 years old at the time and I was frosted. Andelman said the Bruins were having him followed and were checking into his high school background. Why would we follow him or check up on him? He's got to be psychotic. We have a rule in our house against listening to them anymore. Since we stopped listening I've quit yelling at my wife and she has stopped crying over what they say."
Says McCarthy: "When we criticize, people jump us. But theater critics rap shows they feel aren't good, and people admit that's part of their job. Some people just can't see that we're trying to serve a purpose, too."
The Huddlers sometimes initiate their own telephone calls, to places like Carlsbad Caverns and Rattlesnake Springs, N. Mex., Grauman's Chinese Theatre in L.A. and Kansas City. They asked the ranger at Carlsbad to ship up some bats for Bat Day. They spoke to a forest ranger in Rattlesnake Springs, hundreds of miles from the nearest large body of water, to see if he was aquiver with excitement about the forthcoming America's Cup races. He said he was more lonely than excited and, presto, scads of listeners wrote to cheer him up. The Huddle called Grauman's to see if it would be possible to forgo the usual footprint for a headprint of Yastrzemski, only to have Andelman retract the request because, "You couldn't possibly have a spot big enough." A year ago they called a restaurant in Kansas City. They had been contending that the Sox played as individuals, not a unit, so they tried to reserve 25 tables for one. The players, they said, "could eat the way they play."
Andelman once phoned the White House and asked for the Grand Wizard, a professional wrestling impresario who frequents the program. After a lengthy go-round with officials who looked everywhere but under the Oval Room carpet, Andelman was asked if a message could be relayed should the Wizard be found. "Yes," Andelman replied. "Tell him to bring home a loaf of bread and some milk."
Other calls have been placed to Buckingham Palace to ask if the Patriots could "exchange two of their guards for two of yours"; to the Port of New York Authority inquiring whether it would send to the New York Giants, desperately in need of a new play, the Statue of Liberty; to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to ask them to hop to it and find the stolen Stanley Cup. Recently, a call went to the Los Angeles Forum, where they let a pay phone ring until a well-meaning Chinese answered. Andelman asked him to relay an urgent message to Wilt Chamberlain: 'The frog leaps high only in the spring." Said the bewildered Chinese: "He playing now, but I try."
The listening audience is often invited to participate. Once the Sports Huddle asked all within earshot to send in pictures of themselves. It was deluged with studio portraits, color photographs, paintings and one unexplained snapshot of an empty chair. The Huddlers figured it was an insult. Another time, when they promised a sweatshirt to anyone who could sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game in a foreign language, they were serenaded in some 30 tongues. And when they thought they had found a stumper—"We'll give a sweatshirt to anyone who can play the Notre Dame Victory March on a violin"—they were besieged by fiddlers. Sometimes the Huddle comes up with a question that bugs listeners for weeks. Like "Who was Florence Wishmeyer?" It took more than a month, but finally someone remembered she was the valedictorian of Bob Feller's high school graduating class in Van Meter, Iowa.
One of the show's more successful undertakings was the discovery of Superfoot, a project that started as a joke and became an international manhunt. It began early last year when the Huddlers wished out loud that the Patriots would go look somewhere for a field-goal kicker. They wouldn't, of course, said the three, because they were "too cheap" to scout for the talent the other clubs had. England, with all its side-wheeling soccer types, was obviously the place to look, so the Huddle called BOAC to ask if a Patriot scout and some footballs could fly to London in the baggage compartment of a plane. Saves money, don't you know? BOAC turned the Huddle down, but then reconsidered. Soon the airline, WBZ radio and TV, the Patriots, the Huddle and the London Daily Mirror underwrote a quest for Superfoot in England, the winner to get $1,000 and a tryout with the team.
More than 1,600 Britons entered the contest, the finals of which were held in Oxfordshire on May 15. Andelman, McCarthy and Witkin were on hand, having blitzed through customs wearing football helmets. The winner was Mike Walker, then 21, a 6-foot, 178-pound bricklayer from Carnforth, Lancashire who, in three consecutive attempts, booted two 55-yard field goals through wind and rain. Up to 185 pounds, Superfoot has been competing against Charlie Gogolak for the kicker's job with the Patriots this summer.
There have been other accomplishments, although the Huddle says, "It's difficult to say exactly how much effect the show itself has had in various cases because you can't expect teams to credit us for forcing them to do things." However, the Huddle may well have had something to do with the Bruins' cutting ticket lines by subscribing to the Ticketron system. Jack Nicholson, recently hired as an assistant to Adams, feels Huddle Power may have led to the creation of his job, which entails "bridging the gap between the media and the public and helping fans to air their complaints." Says Nicholson: "I can't be certain, but a show like Spoils Huddle that does a lot of criticizing is bound to get attention."
Members of the Huddle are sure they helped the Bruins on another occasion. Andelman says: "The Bruins hadn't won a regular game in Toronto in 4½ years, so we called on the King of the Gypsies to cast a spell. The next time the Bruins played in Toronto they won."
It is also possible that the Huddle influenced the Patriots in making two decisions. For months last year there had been strong indications that Coach John Mazur was going to be fired, so listeners were urged to write the club to retain him. They did, and the club did.
"For three weeks last year," says Andelman, "we urged the Pats not to trade away their chance at Jim Plunkett. We said they should draft him and keep him because he was the kind of player a team could build around. Just before the draft we had Billy Sullivan [Patriot president] on the show and people called in and begged him to get Plunkett." Plunkett became a Patriot and eventually the NFL Rookie of the Year, and by season's end the team was no longer a pushover.
Sports Huddle has been alive for over three years now, long enough to make slews of enemies and attract masses of followers. Andelman, McCarthy and Witkin have outraged some people and hurt others unjustifiably. At times they have been tasteless and rude, and their practical jokes, like most such would-be humor, have often been merely insipid when they were not outright mean. But in their marvelous irreverence for the fat cats of sport, their willingness to strip off facades and—well, why not say it?—their championing of The Fan in His Plight, they are refreshing, an antidote to the malaise that sets in when a medium has done for too long without their sort of independent criticism. They are obviously filling a need and having fun while doing it.