One of the pleasures of growing up listening to baseball on the radio—rather than watching on television—was constantly thumbing the tuner on my transistor late at night to pick up clear signal stations beaming games from the West Coast.
I was supposed to be asleep, of course, as it was lights out at 10 o’clock for me, even in high school, and even in the summers. But the night owl in me improvised an occasional doubleheader that I suspected my mother may have known about, but never mentioned to me once.
After listening to Milo Hamilton and Ernie Johnson Sr. call an Atlanta Braves game, it was off to the late-night races, depending on who was playing in California: most often, it was the St. Louis Cardinals on KMOX, the Chicago Cubs on WGN and the Cleveland Indians on WWWE.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also in This Issue: Another Calamitous Week at ESPN; A Biographer’s Pursuit of Ali; Remembering Don Ohlmeyer and Bob Motley
Three-W-E, it was dubbed in call-letter parlance, and the play-by-play man from 1973-79 was Joe Tait. His longer tenure was with the Cleveland Cavaliers, from their inception in 1970 to 2011.
In other words, Tait had no off-season, but he sounded smooth and well-informed, passionate but professional from the broadcast booth. He was a natural, and listening to him was a treat. In 1975, Frank Robinson was tapped to be the Cleveland manager, becoming the first black skipper in the Major Leagues, three years after Jackie Robinson’s dying plea to change that grim piece of history.
Those Indians teams had some decent players—Buddy Bell, Dennis Eckersley, Duane Kuiper, Oscar Gamble, George Hendrick—but the team finished in the second division. They traded away Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss and Gaylord Perry, and there was also the infamy of a Ten-Cent Beer Night promotion during an era in which Cleveland the city was known as “the Mistake by the Lake.”
The Indians I listened to were in the midst of a 41-year pennant drought that didn’t end until after they moved out of the cavernous, drafty Cleveland Stadium, and divisional play began on the early 90s.
I’ve thought a lot about those 70s Indians teams lately, especially since their heartbreaking loss to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series last year. They have been on my mind recently, as Cleveland reeled off a sizzling, American League record 22-game winning streak that may foretell a wild, wide open October.
While there are some comparisons to the 1916 New York Giants, and questions about whether the current Indians may be underperforming, to watch a team play so commandingly, and not at full strength, so cool under the pressure of a head-turning streak is to hope that their long-suffering fans may be rewarded.
It’s been 69 years since the Indians won a World Series, and they’ve been in four since, all ending in painful fashion. The 1954 Indians set a Major League record for winning percentage, but fell apart in a World Series won by the New York Giants and symbolized by Willie Mays’ catch off Vic Wertz in deep centerfield at the Polo Grounds.
Now that the Cubs’ 108-year misery is over, will the Indians become a sentimental favorite to end theirs? With a 92-57 record trailing only the reeling Dodgers, certainly they’ll be pegged as more than an emotional choice.
If they pull it off, the historical connections will be inevitable. How would Terry Francona’s current group of Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Eduardo Encarnacion, Carlos Santana, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Cody Allen compare to the 1948 team of Lou Boudreau, Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Larry Doby, Joe Gordon and Gene Bearden? The discussions undoubtedly would be glorious. But I still think about Oscar, and Eck, and blonde Buddy and the Tribesmen etched in my brain by the audio calls of Joe Tait, and hope they would savor a triumph that seemed impossible while they wore a Cleveland uniform.
More Headaches at ESPN
I’m starting to wonder about ESPN. Not necessarily its financial health, which has been well-documented in recent months, but its identity. The internal sense of mission and confidence in leadership can’t be very high inside the Bristol Behemoth.
This week’s anti-Trump tirade on Twitter by ESPN personality Jemele Hill led to unspecified disciplinary action, continued accusations of left-leaning political bias and demands from the press secretary of the Tweeter-In-Chief that Hill be fired.
Jim Brady, ESPN’s public editor, wrote that Hill stepped over the line, then came under fire from Twitter mobs (quelle surprise) and actually engaged with them for several hours before a cross-country flight.
Radio host Clay Travis, whose rising fame (or infamy, depending on your POV) has come by invoking ESPN in scorching tirades of his own, used the occasion to defend the notion of free speech (even by Hill) and then to go on CNN and proclaim that the two things (or perhaps three) he believes in are the First Amendment and “boobs.”
As this was unfolding, The Ringer media writer Bryan Curtis was in the process of writing about Hill. Talk about a timely drop in the lap. Even The New Yorker had to chime in, as most other media accounts have, about the culture wars of ESPN.
I thought I was blissfully limiting my Twitter intake this week, mainly due to work reasons, but the fever pitch of the Hill episode (and contrary to her fiercest defenders, she’s no shrinking violet in need of protection) has been surprisingly jarring. There’s seemingly no escape from, nor an end to, all this. This won’t end well, but I have no ideal what will happen next (effectively the motto for the Trump era).
On Friday, ESPN president John Skipper sent out an all-hands memo insisting that “ESPN is not a political organization.” What a bizarre statement, which leads back to my original concern. At Yahoo! Finance, Daniel Roberts weighs in with his back story reporting on how ESPN’s financial issues have morphed into full-on political tangles that won’t be sorted out easily.
Travis also reported this week that longtime ESPN host Linda Cohn was briefly suspended for comments in April that a political focus was hurting her employer, which became such a colossus because of sports. She was worried about alienating a sports-loving viewership that had been carefully, and passionately cultivated. As University of Iowa professor Travis Vogan wrote in his 2015 book “ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire,” the fledgling sports cable outlet became what it is by tapping into sports fan obsessiveness, establishing an astonishingly successful business by going deep into that core audience.
Reading the memo by Skipper, it’s clear he’s under fire for much, much more than the money issues stemming from overextended programming rights fees, cable cord-cutters and hundreds of layoffs. It’s hard to fathom how he, and ESPN, masters of messaging and PR expertise bar none, have seemingly lost the plot.
It’s a rare occasion in which critics, observers and viewers of ESPN are creating the current perceptions of a brand that’s been damaged, and driving a conversation that’s increasingly growing out of its own control.
Sports Book News
- Jonathan Eig, author of books on Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Al Capone and the birth control pill, has a forthcoming biography, “Ali: A Life” that had him hustling for all sorts of components of the boxing legend’s story. Eig has done a podcast series, “Chasing Ali,” that’s a fascinating look into how authors do what they do;
- An excerpt from Rich Cohen’s forthcoming “The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse,” on Eddie Waitkus, a Cubs’ player in the late 40s, and his encounter with a stalking obsessed fan;
- At The New York Review of Books, Simon Kuper review’s David Conn’s look at the culture of corruption at FIFA, international soccer’s governing body;
- Two looks at “The Arena,” Rafi Kohan’s exploration of the history of the American sports stadium, from GQ (which focuses on the Louisiana Superdome) and the Tattered Pennant blog;
- Program note: The Sports Biblio fall sports book guide, publishing on 1, will include these and other newly published books. Stay tuned!
- Bob Motley, 94, was the last surviving umpire of the Negro Leagues, and later called the College World Series. But he turned down what would be his only chance to work in the Major Leagues, as a replacement for striking umpires in 1979, refusing to cross the picket line. Motley was a driving force in the creation of the Negro Leagues Museum, which opened in 1990 in Kansas City. Last year, Jeff Passan wrote about baseball’s efforts to honor Motley with a statue;
- Don Ohlmeyer, 72, was the original producer of “Monday Night Football” on ABC Sports in the early 1970s, expanding his legacy to the network’s signature “Wide World of Sports” anthology and its trendsetting coverage of the Olympic Games. He later was a programming executive at NBC Sports, succeeding Brandon Tartikoff in the early 1990s before his own stormy departure; remembrance here from Dick Ebersol, an ABC contemporary: “In a business where all sorts of things get thrown around about people’s greatness, people’s talent, this is a person who for 50 years kept creating.”
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 96, published Sept. 17, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
I’d love to hear what you think. Send feedback, suggestions, book recommendations, review copies, newsletter items and and requests for interviews to Wendy Parker, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for subscribing to the Sports Biblio Digest! Happy reading!