Last week, two TV colleagues squabbled over who sits where in the broadcast booth. Chairs? A figurative sports chair took root in Detroit about 30 years ago, a real chair was hurled in a game 23 years ago.
Dislike, enmity and rivalries. They’re part of everyday life; often unavoidable at home, work or anywhere.
But a fistfight over a chair. Goodness!
Arguing over a special chair, Tigers’ telecasters, Mario Impemba and Rod Allen are now on a list of one; those who’ve engaged in a physical confrontation in the broadcast booth. I’m sure that there have been verbal spats between announcers through the years. Still, for the most part, calmer heads prevail. From what I know, there have been no fisticuffs between broadcasters, not in the venues where they work. Impassioned arguments, perhaps, but nothing physical.
Almost 40 years ago, there was a heated dispute that escalated into a celebrated punch, which we’ll get into later in this piece. But it didn’t occur in a ballpark, arena or even in a studio.
In the annals of Tigers’ broadcasters, there’s only one unforgettable chair. It’s one that’s irreplaceable. It belonged to the iconic Hall of Famer Ernie Harwell. You’ll never find a kinder, more giving gentleman. Somewhere in heaven, the deeply religious Ernie is praying for both Impemba and Allen. He was a peace loving soul.
But what is it with chairs and sports in Detroit?
The pull the chair trick was born in Detroit in the 80s. It was on the hardwood where former Pistons’ big man Rick Mahorn often employed his chair play in the post; leaning his meaty body on his offensive man, then abruptly and unsuspectingly recoiling, forcing his opponent to travel, lose his balance or look silly altogether.
Then, there’s sports’ real famous chair, the one that Indiana coach Bob Knight threw across the court in 1985 after he was upset with an official.
The broadcast booth is usually the most civil place in the ballpark. Polemics and animosity, okay. Even so, most of those occur among talkies, not play-by-play voices who by affiliation are sensitive to the clubs they’re covering and whose images they must uphold. In the booth, there’s nary a harsh word or murmur. Deliberations are reserved for debating the finer points of a breaking ball. Even strong words? Almost never.
But there are some well noted hostilities that I can remember.
- Some thirty years ago, the Knicks’ radio announcer Jim Karvellas wrapped up a broadcast perfunctorily, saying something like, “Excellent win for the Knicks tonight.” (The New Yorkers had beaten some mediocre team, but I can’t remember which one.) Once those innocuous words left Jim’s lips, color commentator Walt Frazier, no one to mince words, interrupted Karvellas in midsentence. “For what, Jim? They should have killed this team!” A brief verbal outburst but tempers didn’t flair. Jim was a pleaser and turned a bit conciliatory.
- Red Barber irritated many colleagues. When he worked Yankees’ broadcasts he would complain that Mel Allen stepped on his sentences. Red had no use for Joe Garagiola, who too he said interrupted him. Then there was Phil Rizzuto whom Barber considered spoiled and ill-prepared. He didn’t have any great respect either for the brassy Jerry Coleman. Connie Desmond, Red’s sidekick for many years in Brooklyn, felt Red was overbearing. The even-tempered Harwell also left Red for the Giants after a season and a half. He felt that the Polo Grounds’ Russ Hodges would be a more amiable partner.
- In the 1950s, the iconic Marty Glickman, well established in his native New York, developed a bitter rivalry with the transplanted Les Keiter. Glickman owned the town for football and basketball play-by-play and did popular studio shows. Keiter arrived in New York in the mid 50s and the station for which he worked, WINS, snapped the rights to the football Giants and he was assigned the play-by-play. Keiter then asked Glickman to do his color, which Marty felt was demeaning and a slap in the face. Color in those years was reduced to weather reports and reading commercials. Not much more.
- In the late 90s, Boomer Esiason, and the accomplished Al Michaels had a well publicized falling out after two years working together on ABC’s Monday Night football package. Esiason blamed Michaels for his firing, telling Richard Sandomir in the New York Times, “Al could have been better for me, and I tried with him, but it never clicked with me because he never wanted it to click.”
- The worst and most tortuous enmity grew between Cleveland Indians announcers, Bob Neal and Jimmy Dudley in the 1960s. The battles were so intense that when one was doing the play-by-play the other put up his briefcase on the counter to block his coworker from seeing the field. It finally got down to having to separate the two. Dudley, an eventual Frick winner at the Hall, was let go by Indians’ general manager, Gabe Paul.
- Way back, Ted Husing and Bill Stern, the country’s first two sportscasting giants nationally, didn’t like one another either. Husing called games for CBS Radio and Stern for NBC Radio. In those years, they would often call the same college football game on the same given Saturday. At one point they were both broadcasting a Notre Dame football game and one of Stern’s people put up a large sign on the door leading to Husing’s booth. It read, “Men’s Room.”
- John Sterling seemed to alienate many of his partners too. When he did Hawks’ games on television, commentator Frazier said John wouldn’t give him enough vocal runway. With the Yankees, he’s had issues with Michael Kay, Joe Angel and Charley Steiner. Sterling wanted to do every inning making partners uncomfortable. Current partner Suzyn Waldman doesn’t do any play-by-play. It’s probably why they get along.
- Dick Vitale and Billy Packer didn’t have much use for one another. Both were college basketball broadcasting icons in their hey days. Packer emerged before Vitale. So when Dick’s popularity swelled later, there was envy. Billy told me “Dick and I have no relationship, not in a bad way. His style was different. I stuck to the game. He would go off.” Meanwhile, Vitale said, “I don’t really know him. We’ve never spent time together. Our styles are different. As I’ve said, he’s vanilla and I’m 31 flavors.” Hardly ringing endorsements from either.
- Harry Caray battled with Joe Garagiola in St. Louis, Monte Moore in Oakland and Milo Hamilton in Chicago. Hamilton himself didn’t seem to get along with others very well either. He had little use for the Pirates’ Bob Prince or the Astros’ Gene Elston.
- The beloved Bob Murphy was the senior man in the Mets’ radio booth in 1989 when a Columbia University lad, Gary Cohen came along. I’m unsure of the reason, whether Cohen resented the fact that Murphy smoked in the booth or Bob felt that Cohen didn’t give him enough respect. One way or another, it made for an uncomfortable marriage. It led Murphy to say that Gary was excellent technically but still needed to learn how to present baseball as a family game. That was some 25 years ago. Cohen has come a long way since.
- In New York, the most heated rivalry was between two celebrated studs, Mike Francesa and Chris Russo, partners on the highly rated show, Mike and the Mad Dog. They were barnacles in WFAN’s studio; all the years they were collectively so successful.
- Dick Young and Howard Cosell truly despised one another. Young was likely the most influential sports columnist in New York from the 1950s through the 1970s, just when Howard Cosell emerged, becoming the first real opinionated on-air sportscaster. Young called him in print, “Howie the Fraud.” The clashing manifested itself onto the radio airwaves in the late 1960s when Young did color on Jets games, working with Merle Harmon. Cosell did the pre-game show. When Howard wrapped up the show and segued to game coverage, he reminded the audience, “Stay tuned for the game with Merle Harmon.” Week after week, Cosell would blatantly omit Young’s name from the intro.
- Now to the juiciest, the one that did end up in a physical confrontation but not in a ballpark or arena. Brent Musburger, in my humble view, network television’s third biggest sports personality ever (behind Howard Cosell and John Madden) helped popularize The NFL Today on CBS. He was sharp, opinionated and he brilliantly engaged both the audience and the panel on the set. One member of the team, Irv Cross, was easy, understated and not very intrusive. The other two were a little more sensitive, the former Miss America, Phyllis George and the betting, odds man, Jimmy the Greek Snyder. In addition to having to keep the show moving entertainingly, Musburger, as lead host, had to maintain mental bookkeeping, divvying time somewhat equally between George and the Greek. It led to tension mounting under the lights.
One Sunday night after a tense day in the studio, members of the production and announcing crews headed to dinner at a New York joint called Peartrees. At some point, inflammatory comments caused Jimmy the Greek to throw a punch at Brent.
Leave it to the quick witted Musburger. When he was asked about it by a columnist the next day, he said, “Fortunately for my jaw, the Greek’s punch is as accurate as his handicapping has been lately . . . wide to the left.”
The colorful world of broadcasters. But a fight over a chair!