Unlike the late, great Chick Hearn, whom I spent years doing various different events with, but never basketball, or Marty Glickman, who mentored so many young announcers and at whose knee I learned so much about diction, projection and delivery, this man was special to me in another way. Chick was the beloved voice of the Los Angeles Lakers and Marty held the same position during the New York Knicks championship years.
He didn’t broadcast boxing and teach me so much during the radio years like Don Dunphy who set the standard for calling the blow-by-blow of many championship fights including all those that had Joe Louis attached.
He, alongside the men I mentioned, is enshrined in the Hall of Fame of the sport he described. However, for the first years of our friendship I knew him only as country songwriter plugging the songs he wrote.
Our friendship began when I moved from New York to Hollywood in 1967. I was ensconced in working with major musical artists, in particular Andy Williams. Like any salesman who did “cold” calls, one day he walked into my office. A quiet, soft-spoken gentleman who talked with the gentility of his Georgia roots, I immediately sensed a serenity and humility around him. We immediately took a liking to each other and it was lunchtime, so I suggested that we have lunch.
I usually brown-bagged it in those days, but I found this quiet, unassuming man fascinating. We talked mostly about his love of music and his genuine love of people. It turned out to be an extremely long and pleasant lunch. He looked at his watch and suddenly realized we had been yakking for an unusually long amount of time. He excused himself and said that he couldn’t afford to be late for work. He asked me for directions to Orange County, promised to stay in touch, and he was gone.
He left a few of his songs with me and I promised to get them to some of my “country” friends. We decided to stay in touch and he told me he would be back in town in about four weeks. In the meantime, I made sure that Henry Mancini, Roger Miller, Ray Stevens and Bobby Gentry would do me the favor and look at them.
In about a week, I heard from him. We really didn’t talk about his songs and I never asked what he did for his living. Instead we got to know each other and each other’s families. We talked about our mutually long marriages and children as well as our likes and dislikes. I didn’t know what he did, but since he was always on the road during the summer, I assumed he must be a salesman.
Our telephonic relationship grew and the next time he came to town, I invited him to dinner. He begged off since he had to work that night, but he was free during the daytime the next day and accepted my invitation to join us poolside and have lunch until he went to work.
He came to my house and met my children. He took an special liking to my then-10-year-old son Steven. He quickly discovered that Steven was a baseball fan and, like his dad, a Boston Red Sox fan. He explained how he was a fan of the Detroit Tigers and how this year (1968) he thought they were going to the World Series. Boy, did this 50-year-old man and this 10-year-old boy go at each other describing the virtues of the teams they loved. No fans have ever been more fervent and devoted to their beliefs.
Thus began the phone calls. The older man would call my son many an evening from work. Still, their bantering continued. Steve would get calls from such places as Boston, New York, Cleveland and Baltimore. After each conversation, Steven would tell me how much he enjoyed these conversations, saying, “It was like having a pen-pal.”
Then one hot Sunday afternoon in August while we were having lunch around the pool, the phone rang and it was the salesman asking to talk to Steve. It turned out he wasn’t a salesman after all, but a baseball announcer and he was calling from the broadcast booth between the games of a double header. He asked Steve that even though he was a Red Sox fan, would he mind if he sent him and autographed ball of the entire 1968 Detroit Tigers team which had clinched the American League pennant. Of course, Steve said he would love such a gift and to this day, that baseball sent to him by our friend Ernie Harwell remains among his most precious possessions.
From then on, our bond with Ernie grew even stronger. Whenever he was in Anaheim to call an Angels-Tigers game, we were with him in the booth at least once in every series.
As I got involved very heavily with the Kronk Gymnasium (home gym of Tommy Hearns and others) in Detroit, whenever I was in town and he had the time, he would join me for lunch, or for a night at the fights.
His voice is no longer on the air, but his spirit and his genuine love of life remain. I shall always hear that Southern drawl, because it meant it was baseball time in Detroit.