From Palo Alto to Pittsburgh, from Miami to Minneapolis, sports banquets glut the winter calendar, providing the diners—who pay from $17.50 to $100 per plate, depending on who's sitting at the head table—with a semilegitimate sanction for a night out with the boys, a chance to be regaled with locker-room humor and, this banquet season, an opportunity to ask Tony Dorsett for his autograph.
"I've been to 30 or 35 of these things the past few months," said Steve Garvey of the Los Angeles Dodgers one night in Spokane, "and after a while they all seem to be the same no matter where you are. But you must remember that while it may be the same for you, it's the one big sports night of the year for the people in that town." For the athletes, the banquet beat also can be very lucrative. The esteemed Washington Touchdown Club, for example, pays up to $2,500 to ensure the appearance of its Timmie Award winners.
Here is an account of six banquets attended during a recent 10-day period marked by one missed airline connection, a 19-hour loss of luggage and, compliments to the chefs, a loss of 2½ pounds.
HOUSTON—Seventh Annual Lombardi Award Dinner. Hyatt Regency Hotel. M.C.: Ray Scott. Toastmaster: Bob Hope. Tickets: $100. Special guests: former Michigan Center, former Yale Assistant Football Coach, former President Gerald R. Ford and Mrs. Ford. Attendance: 1,300.
February 28, 1977
A society function, the Houston banquet honors the nation's outstanding collegiate lineman and, thanks primarily to the Fords, sold out weeks in advance and will contribute $115,000 to the American Cancer Society. Private cocktail parties surround the main event; the ladies are chic in long gowns; and one Texas gentleman wears a tuxedo with cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat. The ultraconservative crowd seems almost in reverence of the Fords.
In the main dining room, a tiny green bug inches across one of the tablecloths, away from the salad. A noisy singing group called Up With People—the vibes might best be described as white-collar rock—leads off the program.
The four finalists for the Lombardi Trophy, a 40-pound block of granite with the word DISCIPLINE carved into it, are Notre Dame Defensive End Ross Browner, Texas A&M Linebacker Robert Jackson, Pittsburgh Middle Guard Al Romano (who looks like a beefy Mark Spitz) and Houston Defensive Tackle Wilson Whitley. After getting a standing ovation, Ford says, "When I told Betty that you might not be interested in seeing a former President, she said, 'You're not the only one they're coming to see.' But being here as Betty Ford's escort makes me the proudest man in the room."
Speaking to Marie Lombardi, Vince's widow, Ford recalls that he almost signed a $200-per-game pro contract with the Packers in 1935. "If I had signed, and if I had lasted as long as George Blanda," he says, "I might have gotten the chance, Marie, to play for Vince."
Short highlight films introduce each nominee to the audience, then their coaches take over. "I'd like to thank you, Mr. President, for the hard work you put in at the end of your term," says Notre Dame's Dan Devine. "I understand you spent a lot of time trying to find a bulletproof mule for Billy Carter to ride in the Inaugural parade." Hope follows the coaches to the microphone.
"Texas football is rough, tough, low-down, gritty and nasty, just like their chili," he says. "I suggested a new job for President Ford—bouncer at the Plains, Ga., Baptist Church. It's tough when you go from Air Force One to Ozark Air Lines. It's so cold in Plains, they're harvesting peanut brittle. And so cold in the East that Joe Namath is sleeping with three comforters.
"...and in the Inaugural parade, Carter got out and walked. You'd think the last President would have left enough gas in the car."
At award time, Hope opens the envelope and asks Ford to help announce the winner.
"What's the matter," Ford asks, "can't you read?"
"No," says Hope. "It's got Melvin Dummar's fingerprints on it."
In a pleasant, parochial surprise for the audience, the Lombardi winner is Houston's own Whitley. "I'd like to thank my sisters for my career," he says. "They kind of talked Mom into letting me play football. In the eighth grade I was 6'3" and 225 pounds, and my mother was afraid I was going to go out and hurt someone."
MENU—Tossed seasonal salad with sliced cucumber, egg, tomato and tiny bay shrimp, vinaigrette dressing. Broiled nine-ounce rib eye steak, sauce Bordelaise. Potatoes rissolé. Broccoli Mornay. Broiled tomato amandine. Cr√™pes Georgette, strawberry sauce. Coffee. Rolls and butter.
WASHINGTON—42nd Annual Touchdown Club Awards Dinner. Sheraton Park Hotel. Toastmaster: Mark Russell. Tickets: $45. Special guests: Supreme Court Justice Byron White, Senators Richard Schweiker and James Sasser, Congressman Jack Kemp and brother-of-the-President Billy Carter. Attendance: 2,000 (stag). Black tie.
Proclaimed as the granddaddy of all sports banquets, the Touchdown Club's bash has caught some heat from The Washington Post for its policy of excluding women. This criticism contributes to the raucous humor of the evening and leads, for the first time in memory, to an invocation that is interrupted by laughter and followed by thunderous applause.
It is delivered by Father Thomas Kane, O.P., who intones, "Dear God, our Father and Friend, this evening we male chauvinists come to you in the spirit of joy and some joy of the spirit. But, dear God, we come primarily to thank you for the masculine liberation from unmanly prejudice, jealousy, ingratitude and resentment. Dear God, teach us daily to admit our masculine limitations and to accept our distinct masculine creatureliness. Dear God, make us always conscious of our masculine potential for being your sons and make us equally conscious of how this potentiality for Godlike greatness can be perverted by denying the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God. Dear God, tonight as we honor and extol the masculine quality of athletic superiority in our brothers, grant to those we honor and the other speakers on this rostrum the equally masculine superior quality of brevity in speech."
The hotel ballroom is as spacious as an airplane hangar. In order for the paying guests to see each recipient of a Timmie, the 200-foot head table is intersected at its midpoint by a runway with a microphone at the end for acceptance speeches.
Russell, the political comedian, works the fern-lib angle in his remarks.
"This event raises several important questions," he says.
"Question: What is macho? Answer: a little-known Marx brother.
"Question: Has a woman ever been admitted? Answer: only Renee Richards.
"Question: Is sex really a preoccupation with sports fans? Answer: only during halftime."
The biggest laughs, though, occur midway through the evening when Russell introduces Billy Carter.
"Here's a man," Russell says, "who has fewer people in his hometown than there are at this head table. I give you the Potentate of Pilsner, the Once and Future Ambassador to Milwaukee—Billy Carter!"
The President's brother receives a loud welcome as well as a special "award," a six-pack of beer. Carter pops open a can, takes a swig and drowns in another wave of applause.
"I never talked to this many Yankees at one time in all my life," Billy says in his corn-pone tone. "In fact, I've never even seen a pro football game. I have seen the Atlanta Falcons twice, but I guess that don't count."
Later, at a cocktail party, Billy, as he prefers to be called, strikes up an instant friendship with Oakland Raider Coach John Madden, who is resplendent in a size 54-long tuxedo.
"I saw that thing CBS did before the Super Bowl," Billy says to Madden, "and when Tarkenton started talking about God when Stabler was talking about women, I knew I'd bet on the wrong team."
In all, the Touchdown Club presents 25 Timmies or other awards, and Raider Quarterback Ken Stabler also collects the $25,000 Hickok Belt as Professional Athlete of the Year. Stabler follows with the only sober thought of the program. "Our country just elected a new quarterback," he says, "and I think we should all get behind his game plan to show that his nation is still the greatest in the world."
The program ends almost on the stroke of midnight. In the lobby, Billy Carter has a slug of bourbon straight from the bottle.
MENU—A seafood bisque. Mixed green salad with romaine, croutons, chopped egg, bacon bits, Caesar dressing. Individual eight-ounce filet mignon Perigourdine. Oven-roasted potatoes. Italian green beans. Water chestnuts. Tomato embassy. Savarin of chocolate ice cream filled with pistachio ice cream and pastry puffs. Coffee.
SPOKANE—29th Annual Inland Empire Sports Award Banquet. Ridpath Hotel. M.C.: Richard Pratt. Tickets: $17.50. Special guests: Tony Dorsett, Steve Garvey, Brent Musburger. Attendance: 780.
Unlike the Houston and Washington functions, the Spokane banquet is mainly a family affair, with the accent on local charm and church-social warmth. And unlike Houston and Washington, Spokane has not hired a celebrity M.C. or toastmaster. Pratt is a local furniture dealer.
In contrast to the Houston and Washington head tables, both of which seemed long enough for a 747 to land, Spokane's dais seats only 22. The wall behind it is adorned with caricatures of the special guests; Garvey is wearing a red cap, not the familiar Dodger blue.
"We've had many famous athletes here," Pratt says. "We've had O. J. Simpson, Fran Tarkenton, Jesse Owens and Rocky Marciano. But there's one athlete we've always wanted but have never been able to get. The most publicized figure in the history of sports. Every Saturday afternoon on ABC's Wide World of Sports, he falls off the ski jump. He's got a French name. I think it's Agonee Defite."
Dorsett, wearing a red carnation that matches the color of his shirt, recaps Pittsburgh's national championship season. Then he says, "It's really nice to be in Spokane because it's extremely cold in Pittsburgh right now. It's hard to believe that some of you people here want snow. If you had let me know, I would have brought some with me." Garvey, who played minor league baseball in Spokane, asks the fans to think of pro athletes as entertainers, especially in salary matters. And Musburger, the CBS broadcaster, reports that the question he hears most often is: "Where's Phyllis?" The attentive audience is delighted and would be, one suspects, even if Dorsett, Garvey and Musburger elected to talk about air traffic patterns in Za√Øre.
The big winner is Brewster, Wash. (pop. 1,420). The Brewster High basketball team takes the team-of-the-year honor for its 71-game winning streak, and Brewster's Dick Olson receives the coach-of-the-year award. The local pro athlete of the year is Texas Ranger rookie Second Baseman Bump Wills, son of ex-Dodger Maury, and the local amateur athlete of the year is Center John Yar-no, Idaho's first football All-America.
"Yar-no, Yar-no," Musburger enunciates to Dor-sett. "You stay close to Big John, Tony. Guys like him are going to save your life."
MENU—Green salad with shrimp, choice of two dressings. Prime ribs of beef au jus. Foil-wrapped baked potato with chive butter. Garden green beans. Angel food cake with chocolate frosting. Bread and butter. Coffee.
COLUMBUS—22nd Annual Touchdown Club All-Sports Award Dinner. Sheraton Columbus Motor Hotel. M.C.: Paul Hornung. Tickets: $60. Special guests: Olympic gold medalists Jennifer Chandler, John Naber, Edwin Moses. Attendance: 988.
Previously a stag affair, the Touchdown Club shatters precedent by presenting one of its 42 awards to a woman. She is high school senior Jenni Chandler, the Olympic three-meter diving champion from Lincoln, Ala., who, coincidentally, plans to enroll at Ohio State in the fall.
Ironically, the bow to one lady coincides with a slap from another: Phyllis George, the CBS sports announcer, was scheduled to share M.C. duties with Hornung, but she was a last-minute no-show, having suddenly been assigned to cover the world figure-skating championships in Finland. Columbus is buried under one of the worst snowstorms of the winter, and several Touchdown Club members who executed perfect double Salchows on their way to the dinner grouse that George simply backed out.
George is missed, though, because Hornung fills the air with leaden lines that are about as exciting as Woody Hayes' passing game.
For the first time in five years the Touchdown Club has no reason to honor Archie Griffin, and while there seems to be no reason—aside from his durability over 17 NFL seasons—to honor Defensive End Jim Marshall of the Minnesota Vikings, Marshall (along with Conrad Dobler of St. Louis) is welcomed as Pro Lineman of the Year. Marshall played at Ohio State.
"We did the best job we could," Marshall says of Minnesota's most recent Super Bowl failure, a game in which the Raiders ran over Marshall at will. "It wasn't good enough this time or the time before or the time before that or the time before that, but one of these years maybe we'll do the job."
While the emphasis is on football, Ralph Kiner, the former baseball slugger, and Jenni Chandler offer the best lines.
"I'll give you an idea of what kind of team the Pirates were when I was a player," Kiner says. "Our catcher was Joe Garagiola."
"I'm honored to be your first female recipient," Chandler says. "Is my mother out there? I haven't seen her for about three hours."
MENU—Fresh fruit cocktail. Roast prime ribs au jus. Parsley potatoes. Broccoli soufflé. Tossed salad. Baked Alaska en parade. Rolls and butter. Coffee.
PITTSBURGH—41st Annual Dapper Dan Dinner. Hilton Hotel. M.C.: Bob Prince. Tickets: $30. Special guests: Heisman Trophy winners Tom Harmon, Vic Janowicz, Leon Hart, Johnny Lujack and Tony Dorsett, who is also the Dapper Dans' Man of the Year. Attendance: 2,200.
The ultimate of the "boys' night out" bashes, the Dapper Dan is the brainchild of Al Abrams, sports editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and there are 90 celebrities at three head tables. Abrams also has the circuit's most obscure comic on the rostrum: Jim Meston is listed on the program as an entertainer, and he entertains with his stutter.
"I still stutter, but not as much," Meston tells the audience. "I didn't vote for Carter, so kind of angrily I stopped eating peanut bu-bu-butter.
"Chuck Noll is a neighbor of mine, and I've gotten to know him a little bit. Not well, ca-can't be anybody who does that. He has a variety of interests, one of which is gardening. If Noll had been paying attention, he'd have known before the season started that things weren't going to go particularly right, because in watering his plants he was talking to them, as all good gardeners do, and his African violet called him a honky."
Meston finishes, "People are becoming more discerning, and they want quality in what they get. We even have in our parish a gourmet priest. During Mass he sends the wine back."
Andy Russell, the retired Steeler linebacker whose last game was Pittsburgh's recent playoff loss to Oakland, follows Meston and adds a note of seriousness. "I've got a lot of ambivalent feelings," Russell says. "I know I'm going to miss the game. It's been a great experience playing football here in Pittsburgh, and playing for a man like Mr. Rooney has meant more than I can describe."
Then the Dapper Dans present a golden football to Steeler Center Ray Mansfield who, like Russell, has announced his retirement.
Mansfield filled in for the injured Roy Gerela as Pittsburgh's placekicker against Oakland, and converted his two extra-point attempts. "If this is the football I kicked," Mansfield says, "no wonder Gerela had so much trouble. This is the heaviest ball I've ever seen in my life. In my 14 years here in Pittsburgh the one thing I regret is I didn't receive a Dapper Dan award. I thought this was my year. Sure, Dorsett had a good season, but how does what he did compare with my record? I was two for two."
All banquets in baseball cities must have a Yogi Berra story, and Jimmy Piersall obliges.
"Berra called me one day," Piersall starts. "His wife had just had a baby and he said, 'Hey, Piersall, you've got nine kids, how about giving a few tips on changing diapers? If you can't, who can?' So I said, 'Yog, you take a diaper and put it in the shape of a baseball diamond. Take the baby's bottom and put it on the pitcher's mound. Take first base and pin it to third. Take home and slide it into second.' He said, 'That's easy, I can do that.' I said, 'Wait a minute, Yogi. One thing about this game, when it starts to rain, there's no postponement.' "
And so it goes. Duffy Daugherty cracks, "The most obnoxious person in the world was born in Texas, moved to California, served in the Marine Corps, has given up smoking and is on a diet." Then he adds, "And people keep saying this is the greatest banquet in the world. Myself, I'm partial to The Last Supper."
Vince Dooley, the Georgia football coach whose team lost to Pittsburgh in the Sugar Bowl, says, "I want to commend Johnny Majors for taking a group of spindly scholars to the national championship."
Majors says goodby to Pittsburgh after four wonderful years, and Chuck Tanner, the new manager of the Pirates, says hello after a not-so-wonderful year managing the Oakland A's.
The highlight of the evening is so long on sentiment, it seems corny. But it is obviously heartfelt.
"Forty years ago," Abrams says, "I fell in love with a Pittsburgh football team and a player named Marshall Goldberg. It was the first time an Arab fell in love with a Jew. All that time, if anyone asked me who was the greatest back Pittsburgh ever had, I'd say, 'Marsh Goldberg.' Until these last few years. Now I'm not sure."
Abrams asks for a photographer. "I've never before asked for anything for myself," he says, "but could I have a picture taken with Tony and Marsh?" The cameraman clicks away, and soon Dorsett receives a standing ovation as the Dapper Dans' Man of the Year.
Dorsett commends the Dapper Dans, saying, "I haven't attended a banquet half as nice as this one," then introduces his parents and says, "I'd like to thank Coach Majors, the staff and my teammates for letting me experience the greatest football season of my young career. Mr. Rooney, I've had four wonderful years here in the city of Pittsburgh. Please don't let me go." With minor variations, it was the same speech Dorsett had given four nights earlier in Spokane.
The parties begin on every floor of the hotel. On the 14th floor two men snore through the night with their door open. Later, a weary, red-eyed partygoer is told that an elevator is going up, not down, and he mumbles, "Ah, you been rich all your life."
MENU—Fruit cup. Broiled rib eye steak. Small baked potato with sour cream and chives. Green beans with mushrooms. Biscuit glacé with strawberry sauce. Rolls and butter. Coffee.
DENVER—13th Colorado Sports Hall of Fame Awards Banquet. Regency Inn. M.C.: Larry Varnell. Tickets: $17.50. Special guests: Tom Brookshier, Frank Gifford, David Thompson. Inductees: Floyd Little, Burdie Haldorson, the late Edward McGlone, Rich Volk and Phyllis Lockwood (in absentia). Attendance: 1,500.
The audience is mixed for this exercise in local boosterism and, suitably for the Mile High City, the two head tables—each with 49 places—seem a mile long. Five athletes are being inducted, but the main attractions are Little, the retired Bronco running back, and David Thompson, the Nuggets' basketball star. An added starter is Red Miller, named six days earlier to replace John Ralston as the Broncos' head coach. "I'm not making any predictions," Miller says, "but I promise you a well-drilled, hard-hitting football team that knows what it's doing on the field." Miller also reads a letter from a Denver fan: "I've decided to help the Broncos win the Super Bowl next year by having them use a new type of offense. This offense I have invented is called the Mr. Allen Kelly Midget Offense. Next year you should recruit, or draft, two or three very small but well-built midgets and one large man of great strength. The offense consists simply of giving the ball to the midgets and having the big strong man throw the midget with the ball as far down-field as possible. I believe with sufficient training in how to land, the midget could avoid injury. This offense should be good for four to five yards every time it is run.
"You also could devastate the AFC with the Mr. Allen Kelly Midget Defense. In this defense, you have all three linebackers throw a midget at the opposing quarterback as soon as he receives the snap. If initial impact does not bring him down, the midgets could hold onto his arms until he could be tackled. It would be very difficult to pass or hand the ball off with midgets hanging all over you."
Hailed as the Pro Athlete of the Year, Thompson tells the crowd, "Thanks for bringing some happiness into my life."
Little introduces his mother-in-law Mrs. Geneva Green and his wife Joyce. "In three years Joyce graduated from Syracuse magna cum laude" Little says. "In four years, I graduated thank the laude.
"My philosophy," Little continues, "is that everyone has a chance to be the best at what they do. The only problem is, not enough of them take their turn. I always wanted to take my turn."
MENU—Combination salad. Broiled eight-ounce top sirloin steak. Onion rings. Green beans amandine. Stuffed baked potato. Strawberry Napoleon. Rolls and butter. Coffee.