Do you wonder sometimes why all the sports reporting on television news appears so uniformly bad and so much the same?
One day last year I was on the Today show, hustling my latest book. It is a verity of the publishing business that if you can just get on the Today show, you will sell something like 173,000 extra copies by lunchtime. This did not quite work out in my case, possibly because I was caught between Gene Shalit mugging underneath his natural fright wig, and Edwin Newman, who reacted to all the hilarious things I said with much the same amount of levity that he lavishes on discussions of strip mining.
Now for the bad news. Unbeknown to me, a gentleman named Win Baker up in Boston was shaving, or some such thing, when Messrs. Newman and Shalit were devising ways to un-sell my book, and—for reasons that remain obscure to me to this day—this Win Baker was taken with me. Taken with me, pshaw—he was captivated by me! In fact, a television columnist subsequently likened this moment to the discovery of Lana Turner in Schwab's drugstore.
Win Baker, you see, ran a television station in Boston that was at the time looking for a new sports announcer, and he thought I might be just the ticket. Since Win Baker was the boss, everybody precipitously agreed with his keen judgment, and soon I was contacted by an underling. After being properly coy I agreed to an audition.
March 31, 1974
You may ask at this point why would I do a fool thing like that? The reasons are threefold. One is that, like the next fellow, I am vain. The more I thought about it the more I was beguiled by the idea of coming into hundreds of thousands of living rooms and whatnot. Think of it, my face was going to be a household word in Boston, Mass. Two is the money. As you know, in television the streets are paved with gold. Three, television sports news is so bad I felt I couldn't miss. I wasn't going in head-to-head against Barbara Walters or Captain Kangaroo, for God's sake. So I figured it was an overlay. Wasn't it David Brinkley who said, "You could put a baboon on television for 15 years and he'd become a celebrity"? Yes is was, and Brinkley also pointed out that they did that once with somebody named Muggs.
Anyway, I went for it, and in the end WBZ offered me the job, which I accepted contingent on their giving me a potful of money, which they would not. Truth to tell, they accused me of being a highwayman. I don't know whom they got instead. Apparently there isn't a great deal of choice in the field. The first guy I talked to at WBZ said there were only two good sports news guys in the business, and since these were the only names that kept popping up wherever I went in Teeveeland, I guess it pretty much must be true. The funny thing about TV sports news is that just about everybody in television thinks it's God-awful, but nobody even expects to do anything about that state of affairs.
The two sports announcers in the whole country who seem to be appreciated within the industry are Warner Wolf in Washington and Bill Currie in Pittsburgh. Apparently, Wolf has to grow on you. I saw him one night, and all he did was show film clips from Chicago and, like a high school newspaper, predict the scores of the next week's games. He was what they prize as outspoken, though, and chucked in those wise-guy asides that pass for commentary in the business.
Now Bill Currie is something else. He's a real strange duck. You could not, for example, catch him dead at a hockey game. He reads books and can quote reams of Shakespeare and the Bible, If and the lyrics of most songs on Your Hit Parade from 1935 on. I've known him for several years, since he was "The Mouth of the South," out of Charlotte, N.C. Most television executives the country over are now walking around mumbling, "If we could just get ourselves another Bill Currie." But I gave the dumb-dumbs the original Bill Currie on a platter six years ago, and nobody would take him. I wrote a long article in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED about how great he was. I figured he would be choosing between offers from The Big Apple, Ellay and Chi the next week. But nothing. Not a phone call. The only reason he finally got to a market as big as Pittsburgh was because a film salesman passing through touted him to the station manager. The week after he was hired Currie was the hottest thing in town. He was Pittsburgh's TV Personality of the Year. The station gave him his own prime-time show. He even started working night clubs. Now every lemming in the business has got to find a facsimile of Bill Currie.
I called up the real thing and asked him if I should go into TV. He had mixed emotions. "You really shouldn't slum," he said. "But then you'd have a lot going for you in this business inasmuch as you can read or write, so you wouldn't have to work but an hour or so a day, and that would give you a lot more time to drink or sleep or whatever."
"O.K.," I said.
"And one more thing, Frank."
"Get all the money you can."
That was in my game plan. Currie said he had to hang up and do his annual Manny Sanguillen interview.
After WBZ and I could not, as they say, "come to terms," I figured that I had reached a premature end as a surefire TV star. But now for the bad news. A couple of months later I got a call from a guy named Lee Hanna at WNBC-TV in New York. When Hanna called, I was sitting in my office in the Time & Life Building, which is catty-cornered, maybe 50 yards as the pigeon flies, from his office at NBC. Hanna explained he was looking for a sports reporter on the six o'clock news and had heard some real swell things about me from an Ellay television station.
I said I don't know from nothing about an Ellay station.
He said they had an audition tape of me but had rejected me for the job because I wanted too much money. I was such a greedy sonuvabitch. I said, since they never asked me how much I wanted, how could they turn me down on that basis? He said, well they had, and since I was a dead duck out there, would I be interested in the job at WNBC?
It is instructive, I think, to summarize here how the talent-scout program at WNBC works. Several months before, I had appeared live on WNBC from that very building across the street. I was seen by a man in Boston, who recommended me to Ellay, who recommended me to New York, where I started in the first place. Maybe it will not surprise you, then, to learn that WNBC is a very sickly competitor in the six o'clock news ratings in New York. Carl Stokes, the former mayor of Cleveland, was the anchorman at the time. WNBC is so low in the news ratings I think it has minus ratings. Just to stir things up, you would think that WNBC would deliver sports in Sanskrit or by semaphore. Anything.
Apparently, though, WNBC is handling the situation by toughing it out. When I came for my audition, Lee Hanna had forgotten to notify anyone about the appointment—including his own secretary, including himself, as a matter of fact—and various people accused me of being a liar, an impostor and things of that nature.
Finally, Lee Hanna told me to go do my audition, and he would call the next day. A week later he called. The conversation went like this:
"Frank, we looked at the tapes."
"They were terrific."
"Oh gee, Lee, that's nice to hear. The way everybody was screaming at me and everything, I wasn't at my best."
"Yes, well, we were saying it was pretty amazing how a guy who had never done any television before could come off so well."
"But, Frank, we can't use you."
"You don't have any experience."
There is a story in the Bible about a wedding, and there are not enough guests, so the people in charge go out on the street and dragoon strangers into the wedding. Then as soon as they get this one poor devil inside, they berate him unmercifully for not being dressed properly for the wedding. For God's sake, I know I don't have any experience. Oh, well, I figured that concluded my stillborn TV career.
Now for the bad news. Al Primo called a few weeks later from WABC-TV. Al Primo had just fired Jim Bouton from Eyewitness News. It killed him to do that, Al Primo assured me, but he just had to do it for the good of Eyewitness News. I said I understood. He told me also that Win Baker had been promoted in the Westinghouse TV chain to the head office in New York (well, already we know what good taste this man has; it's about time it was recognized) and had urged Al Primo to consider me as a replacement for Jim Bouton. I'm ball five. It was so urgent that I agreed to go to WABC-TV the next day.
Looking back from the distant perspective of history, I would have to say that this was probably my high-water mark in the heady world of big-time television. That Al Primo would want to see me! In TV news this is like dying and going to heaven. Al Primo is to Eyewitness News what Teddy Roosevelt was to the Spanish-American War, what Ray Kroc is to hamburgers, what Judge Sirica is to third-rate burglaries. Al Primo practically invented Eyewitness News, happy-chatty friendly news, with dual anchormen side by side. Al Primo is Mister Eyewitness News. When he first arrived at WABC, there was a $100,000-a-year weatherman named Tex Antoine, who always wore a smock and drew little pictures with his "schtick" as he talked about the weather. But Al Primo was putting everybody in blazers. Tex Antoine balked, as well he might, since the smocks and the little pictures had gotten him the six figures. Al Primo said, "Tex, either everybody wears blazers or everybody wears smock's." It was a great line. Later I asked Al Primo if he actually had said that. He said, "Yeah, wasn't that a great line?"
So at the crest of my video career I got all dressed up and used cosmetics, and went to see Al Primo. I mused, "Just think, Sally Quinn probably started this same way." Al Primo was in his office, sitting with his feet up on the desk. Did you ever get the feeling, like at the start of a blind date, that you were an immediate disappointment? A complete letdown? I got that feeling the minute I walked into Al Prime's office. It was so obvious, I might have had the feeling even if he had shaken hands with me. It was etched on his face. He wasn't just disappointed; he wasn't just let-down. You could see he was downright crestfallen. I've often wondered what Win Baker told him about me. For that matter, I've often wondered what Win Baker ever saw in me; it seems to have eluded everybody else, beginning with Gene Shalit and Edwin Newman, right on along to Al Primo. Especially Al Primo.
Once he got himself together after his initial shock and once I figured out what to do with my right hand when I understood Al Primo didn't shake hands, we managed to chat aimlessly for a few minutes. But then he got down to brass tacks, and especially to what was eating at him. Al Primo looked me square across his desk over his feet and this is exactly what he said: "You know, Frank, you're funny looking."
I was somewhat taken aback by this appraisal. Was this a trick, a test to see how I would react under fire? Maybe he was also going to tell me my house had just burned down. But then, maybe Al Primo was right, maybe all my life everybody has thought that I am funny looking, and only Al Primo was forthright enough to voice this opinion. I imagined people saying, "Shhh, here comes funny looking," and "Yucck, that's one funny-looking bird," and things of that nature. You can't be too sure.
But don't get me wrong. I rather liked Al Primo. He was a disarming kind of guy and, between you and me, not bad looking. Not bad looking at all. He was so sure of himself. Al Primo was so sure of himself that at one point in our conversation he admitted that he was too sure of himself. Of course, he hastened to add, this was not bad because he was invariably right. But, he went on, if you are as sure of yourself as he was, then you may become afraid to act. He had to be on guard for that eventuality.
This had something to do with his disposing of Bouton. Primo asked me what I thought of Bouton. I said he was much the best sports announcer in New York, although that might be damning him with faint praise inasmuch as I didn't think any of them were special. Certainly, I said, he wasn't in a league with Bill Currie and Warner Wolf. I knew enough by now to throw in those names. This analysis did not sit well with Al Primo, so he changed the subject back to something dearer to his heart.
"You know why I think you're so funny looking," he said. "It's your part. It's the part."
Gee, all along I thought I had a pretty everyday part, up there on the left side of my head. It wasn't until later that I noticed that Al Primo didn't have any part at all.
Since we didn't have much else to discuss and since he admitted to being hungry, he went through with our bargain, took his feet off the desk and took me to lunch. "Al," I said, when the conversation began to drag, "I'm interested in this funny-looking business. Perhaps you could explain. I mean, besides the part."
"Well, you dress funny too," he said, trying to be helpful. "I mean, that shirt. The blue shirt. That's a large part of it."
Actually the shirt wasn't blue, it was turquoise, but I didn't split hairs. I began looking at Al Primo. We both had suits on, both solid color with maybe a little herringbone that seemed to be cut from the same mold. Al Primo had a polka-dot shirt with a solid tie; I had a solid shirt with a polka-dot tie. Is that where I went astray? He had on Gucci loafers; I had on patent leather Italian boots. To my naked eye I wasn't a whole lot differently dressed than he was.
Mercifully for my morale, though, we stayed on the subject of fashions and I soon found out that Al Primo thought just about everyone dressed funny. This, you see, is why everyone on Eyewitness News has to wear blazers. They can't be trusted to pick their own clothes. (Or their own minds.) "Do you know what Grimsby will show up in sometimes?" he asked, nearly incredulously. Grimsby is Roger Grimsby, the anchorman who carries Eyewitness News on his smirk.
"No," I said.
"Brown," Al Primo said, hissing it in a stage whisper.
"No," I said.
"Uh huh. And Tex. He's liable to wear a checked coat or an orange lie."
I shook my head in dismay. "Of course," I ventured, "maybe it would be fun some time to see these fellows in their own clothes."
Al Primo dropped his fork and stared at me and my blue shirt and my part like I was a madman. He just chuckled. "We would really have to fix you up.
"You see pictures of some of the people on Eyewitness News before we changed them," Al Primo went on, "and you can hardly tell they're the same persons." He shook his head at the madness of it all, apparently recalling the originals of Roger Grimsby and Bill Beutel, Tex, and Milton Lewis, Rose Ann Scamardello, Johnny Johnson, Bob Lape. From the way he laughed I could just imagine what screams they must have been as themselves.
"I'll tell you," he said as we got up from the table, "if you ever did come to work for us, you'd put in a year which you couldn't believe, you'd work so hard." It sounded very much like my old Sergeant Townsend the first night of basic training, explaining how he had to break us down to build us up. But by then Al Primo was just being polite. He even asked me to be sure and come by and audition, which would have just wasted my time and his. I decided I'd go see Bill Currie instead.
I found him in the KDKA newsroom throwing a tantrum. One of the station's executives—Currie calls them Yummies after a dog food of the same name—who resides on "Carpet Corridor" by "Memo Alley" had issued an order that Currie and Bob Perkins, the anchorman on the evening news, could say nasty things about each other on the air only three times a week. Considered corporate opinion was that three shows (out of 10) was the proper number for put-down remarks. Any less, the idiot viewers might decide the participants were not chummy enough; any more, the idiot viewers might actually think the KDKA newsmen couldn't stand each other.
"Can you believe people sitting around and thinking up orders like that for a living?" Currie asked.
"The ridiculous thing," Perkins said, "is how anyone can believe that you can dole out ad libs. You contrive something, you destroy it. The viewers can tell."
"You see," Currie said, "the Yummies who run television are men who have never been reporters or on the air, and they cannot tolerate the notion that somebody can be popular and successful on the air merely because of his own God-given merits. They believe they must manipulate. It justifies their existence, and besides they're jealous. The guys on camera, 'the talent," make big salaries, so it gives a great ego boost to the Yummies to kick around someone who makes more than they do.
"After my very first telecast in Pittsburgh, I got a call from up on Memo Alley. This executive said it was important for me to see him. He said I had looked like hell on the screen. So he took me over to a department store and got a makeup artist to work me over. Then they gave me the makeup and taught me how to do it myself. I took that junk back to my desk and threw it in the drawer and haven't taken it out since. Two weeks later this same executive passes me in the hall and gives me the high sign. He says, "See, that makeup makes all the difference in the world.'
"Then another executive decided that my hair was not right. He said to let it grow. I let it grow. I let it grow until he said it was too long. Then he told me to get it styled. I said O.K. If he thinks our ratings really depend on my hair, do I want to upset him? But you know what, he actually handed me a note of instructions that I was to give to the barber. I said, 'Aren't you going to pin this on me so I won't lose it?' "
Currie is 49 now, unregenerate, and basically unchanged from his scuffling Carolina days when he broadcast hundreds of games a year, ran radio stations and wrote detective stories and dirty books in order to stay one jump ahead of creditors. Although he is now the Mouth of the Monongahela, he still talks the same down-home Southern mush, mixing big five-dollar words with ain'ts and gonnas. "I've reached the point in my life where I really don't have to listen to the Yummies," Currie says. "I'm no rebel. I'm just too old to change. I tell them: 'Look, don't try to change me. Fire me, I don't care. Go ahead, but don't bother me.' "
Currie can afford to be independent because he is suddenly so fashionable, so in demand. If you get on the merry-go-round in a me-too business, you don't ever have to get off. Currie has had offers from virtually every large city in the country. Part of his popularity may be accounted for by the fact that the competing stations in Pittsburgh mail videotapes of Currie around in order to give him greater exposure. "But I'm too old to go," he says. "There is a point where even my ego is saturated. They call me up from San Francisco or New York or some damn place, and I say, 'Hey, where were you 15-20 years ago? Where were you then?" I was the same guy down in North Carolina. I'm no different now. I'm just visible because I'm in a top 10 market. You bring three guys in for any job in TV—say one is from Detroit and the other two are from places like Youngstown or Charleston. If the guy from Detroit is downright unqualified and the other two are eminently deserving, you can still bet that Detroit will get the job because the Yummie who hires him can go to his boss then and say, 'Hey, we got a guy from Detroit.' So I tell those people who call me up about a job: "Why don't you look down in Carolina? Might just be somebody down there even better than me.'
"The only reason I ever got to a top 10 was a fluke. The salesman touted me. No one in the business had guts enough to recommend me. I'm too different. Even when I got here the radio station wouldn't use me, not till they saw I was such a big hit on TV. Then they came after me with sweet talk.
"You see, a large part of the problem with sports news is that most of the Yummies don't pay any attention to it. It's a stepchild."
"The people I talked to at the New York stations made a point—rather proudly—about how little they cared about sports," I said.
"Sure. So when a station in Philadelphia loses a sportscaster, all they know to do is to turn to the next largest market. Who's got the best ratings there? So they take a guy out of Detroit, and Detroit takes a guy out of San Francisco. It's the Peter Principle gone wild."
"It reminds me of pro football," I said, "where every team looking for a new coach looks to hire the top assistant on the champion."
"Sure, same thing. Then you can go to the fans and say we got an assistant off the winner. We got an announcer out of the next largest market. Never mind that there are probably more talented assistants coaching the Oilers or more talented announcers in Syracuse. Play it safe. Justify. Look, this is not a logical business. This is a justify business.
"I used to sell radio-advertising time. I learned early on that no matter how persuasive my figures or my arguments were, a guy would not switch his advertising to my station unless I could provide him with arguments to justify the change to his boss. Well, it's even worse in sports because the Yummies don't care. Very few of them are even in a position to judge sports reporters. So they always play it safe. They get the guy from the next market or some left tackle who just got cut. The Yummies get jobs because of their sameness, not their differences, so you can be sure they aren't going out on any limbs. The system perpetuates inanity. I've always said I could save any station money by playing both parts in a typical interview.
"And, my God, the jargon, the inside stuff. Why must sports announcers be so devoted to dissecting things? If a sports announcer went to see Hamlet, would he be interested in how they made the scenery and whether or not Yorick's skull was really plaster of Paris? I took a camera this fall and went out on the street and asked 100 people at random what a post pattern was. You know how many knew? Not a single one.
"That would stun most sports announcers. They don't know their audience. Every survey ever made shows that sports is the weakest part of the newscast, that only 25 to 30% of the viewers really care. Maybe another 25% have an interest in scores. But the rest don't give a hoot. They don't care who won or who lost, or where the franchises are this week in the World Hockey Association. They don't know what a hockey puck is. They have no opinion on Bowie Kuhn. And they're very happy without being burdened with any of this information. And remember that's 50%, maybe 70% of your total audience. You get up there and talk about zigouts and filling the lanes, you're in effect telling most of your audience to go to hell. So you ask why is television sports news so bad. Well, ultimately, because nobody cares. The Yummies don't care about who they put on the air and most of the announcers don't care about the audience."
Currie drove me back to the hotel in his car which was painted Anita Bryant orange. I thanked Currie and said good night. He has just signed a new five-year contract with the station. He said he hoped it would be his last. What he would like to do then, he told me, was to get a lot of bourbon and a nubile young woman and go somewhere secluded and write a memoir entitled Only the Call Letters Are Different.