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This has happened before. Maybe not quite like today, but the White Sox found themselves scrambling to find a radio outlet during the winter 47 years ago too, which is exactly what's going on right now.
It appears that the Sox likely will be broadcast over the Cubs' once-sacred airwaves of WGN after one season on WLS, whose parent company Cumulus Media has filed for bankruptcy, negating the last five years of its contract to carry Sox games.
While a stable of promising young players provide lots of optimism for the future, back in the winter of 1970-71 no self-respecting radio outlet had the least bit of interest in airing the exploits of the South Side team. The Sox were coming off their worst year in franchise history having lost 106 games, just the third and last time that Sox losses exceeded the century mark. Just a few more than 6,000 fans per game witnessed the carnage at Comiskey Park.
Eventually the ballclub enlisted a couple of suburban stations, WTAQ in LaGrange - today it is a Polish language station with different call letters - and WEAW-FM in Evanston. However, the Sox did have a big league broadcaster as Harry Caray stormed into town after one season with the Oakland A's amid feud after feud with owner Charles O. Finley. The Oakland Coliseum wasn't vast enough to accommodate their two egos, so Caray came to Chicago and replaced Bob Elson, who had broadcast Sox games since 1931 before trading places with Harry in Oakland.
More about Elson in a moment, but Harry in his 11 years handling Sox games went through a series of sidekicks - Ralph Faucher, Gene Osborn, Bob Waller, Bill Mercer, J.C. Martin, and Lorn Brown - before teaming with former centerfielder Jimmy Piersall to form one of the more explosive and entertaining duos in baseball broadcasting history.
There was a pre-game show in 1971, and Harry would come back on the air for maybe five minutes after the last pitch to recap the game. But there was no post-game show like today with fans calling in to contribute great thoughts, or lack thereof, about the current state of the ballclub.
That's where I came in. At the time, I was covering primarily high school sports for the Pioneer Newspapers on the North Shore when my close friend Tom Weinberg, a fellow Sox enthusiast and a pioneer video documentarian, thought it might be a fine idea to approach WEAW about doing a post-game show. He knew I would have ample time since there were few prep games to cover in the summer.
Once the season began, Tom negotiated with the station and worked out a deal whereby we would provide the talent - I use that word loosely - for anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes after each game. He also got the blessing of the Sox front office to do so. What did WEAW charge us? One dollar a minute.
So the Instant Replay Show was born at the beginning of June. In all, we did 106 shows by simply walking off the street sans resume and no prior radio experience.
The format included playing back Caray's highlights from the game, phone calls from fans, and frequent interviews that I got in person and occasionally over the phone.
The Sox had hired Chuck Tanner as their new manager and Roland Hemond as director of player personnel prior to the season. Tanner had never managed in the big leagues, but he had stellar minor league credentials along with a basketful of energy and enthusiasm.
I found myself on June 1 sitting in Tanner's office for an interview which would air on our initial show. The Sox were 18-26 at the time, which I felt was rather dismal, but he painted a bright, rosy picture about all the progress the team was making. I departed thinking maybe the season wasn't so terrible after all.
(The Sox would finish at 79-83, a huge improvement over the year before. Tanner departed after the 1975 season, and four years later led the "We Are Family" Pirates to a World Series championship.)
Tanner and Hemond made themselves available just about any time I asked. The parade of big league scouts who passed through town and iconic local and out-of-town sportswriters (Bill Gleason, Dick Young of the New York Daily News, Jerome Holtzman) were guests on the show.
Orioles' manager Earl Weaver was supposed to be a gruff, rude guy, but he sat in the dugout with me and cordially answered all my queries. Former players like Billy Pierce, Minnie Minoso, Ted Kluszewski, Sam McDowell and Herb Score provided insight and anecdotes.
A phone call to New York for players association executive director Marvin Miller produced a long conversation about free agency and the collective bargaining agreement. When Billie Jean King was in Lake Forest for the fledging women's Virginia Slims tour, she sat for a one-on-one interview.
Looking back, probably the most incredible solo exchange occurred at Johnny Coulon's gym on East 63rd Street with Muhammad Ali, who had a home nearby. Four days earlier the Supreme Court had overturned his conscientious objector verdict, and I have a vague recollection of simply calling the gym and told to appear the following day mid-afternoon.
I walked into a near-empty warehouse-like space with a couple of boxing rings and punching bags, and after a few minutes Ali walked out of the locker room alone and sat beside me. I turned on my tape recorder, and we talked for maybe 15 minutes, his voice rising just above a whisper. Nothing was off limits: his legal battles, Joe Frazier, visions of retirement.
When Oakland came to town, Bob Elson, who departed on rocky terms from the South Side, was eager to be interviewed, as opposed to Harry Caray who turned down a few requests. Harry liked to be the interviewer where he had control and not the interviewee.
Charlie Finley's A's won 101 games in 1971, and Chicago Today's media critic Johanna Steinmetz quoted Elson from our interview, "It's nice to be with a winning championship team for a change. The White Sox have a good manager now in Chuck Tanner, but it'll be four or five years before they're able to field a representative team that can finish in the first division. It's no great secret. All you have to do is see them play."
(The Sox traded for Dick Allen the next season and won 87 games, finishing second behind the A's.)
Elson's interview was heard after a night game, and we played it again following the next afternoon's contest. The next time I got to the ballpark, I was told that Leo Breen, the team's business manager, wanted to see me. A quiet, soft-spoken man, Breen was unhappy. In fact, he was seething. OK, play it once, he said, but why would you play it twice? Then he threatened to cancel my field and clubhouse credentials.
I offered that bad publicity was better than no publicity, a tactic used daily by our president in the White House today. Breen, who really was a nice man, relented, and the storm subsided.
Over time, we built up a reasonable audience so that the phone was continually lighting up with callers. We had a number of regulars, especially "Augie," who called on a daily basis. To this day, Tom and I refer to one another by the superfan's name.
We started a campaign for Sox outfielder Walter Williams, otherwise known as No Neck for his compact (5-foot-6), muscular physique. Walt spent six seasons with the Sox but rarely was an everyday player.
We had "Play No Neck" buttons made, and fans could simply send us a postcard or a letter with quiz questions to be asked on the air in order to receive a button. Attendance at Comiskey trended upward, and more than a few fans wore their buttons. Maybe Tanner heard us because from mid-June until the end of the season Williams became the regular right fielder, hitting .294.
Diane, a 17-year-old fan from South Holland, wrote in requesting a No Neck button. "I am one of the biggest White Sox fans that exist," she penned in perfect cursive. (Obviously I have saved the letter.) "Through thick and thin I have loved the team and always will. Right now I'm writing poems for everyone on the team and I have written one for Harry Caray. I have an ambition to meet at least one player."
Well, Diane, if you haven't met a player by now, keep trying. And thanks for listening.
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