Interviews

Ex-ESPN interviewer Roy Firestone: To fans, Vin Scully is a father figure and Chick Hearn was a friend

A true pioneer who got his subjects to open up, Roy Firestone has just penned a new book, 'That's What I'm Talking About'

 

He’s sometimes referred to as the ‘Oprah Winfrey of Sports.’ Roy Firestone has done thousands of longform interviews with the greatest of the greats. From Michael Jordan down, his disarming qualities and storytelling abilities have magically gotten guests to open up. It was like his interviewees were having a private conversation with a trusted confidant.

Doing so for years, Firestone afforded sports fans and viewers opportunities to learn more about popular subjects than they would anywhere else. Even insight into the great and generally guarded Vin Scully.

Roy Firestone with Kobe Bryant

I can’t remember Vin Scully ever taking a personal shot at anyone, certainly not publicly. But the story goes like this. In 1987, Scully, by his own admission, erred on a Cardinals-Giants, NLCS, NBC telecast. On a ground-rule double that bounced in the warning track and hopped into the stands, he miscalled fan interference and questioned why a St. Louis patron would intrude upon the outcome of a game.

Cards fans were angry at Scully and complained vocally. The next morning, Missouri governor, John Ashcroft, later the U. S. Attorney General under George W. Bush , called Scully in his hotel room to voice his displeasure. Ashcroft then proceeded to make a big stink of Scully’s mistake in public.

Vin, as private a man as can be, opened up on Firestone’s ESPN show. He said, “Well, what he (Ashcroft) tried to do, and I think shame on him, I really think shame on him. I made a mistake and I admitted it. But he tried to take that mistake and use it politically, which was a really cheap shot.”

Firestone was among the contributing pioneers during ESPN’s fledgling launch and its first decade of visibility in the 1980s. He hosted, and often mesmerizingly so, ESPN’s Sports Look which was later renamed Up Close. The program generally went thirty minutes. It was so prevalent at the time that Roy had his pickings of guests. In the show’s prominent years, being interviewed by Roy was a privilege. Many big names sought the visibility when traveling through Los Angeles where the program was generally recorded.

But the longform interview has gone the way of the Western Union telegram, historically, culturally and by today’s practice of contracted communication. Like Twitter and the old telegram, television interviews are down to a maximum number of characters. In-depth, probing discussions with subjects have migrated to the uncatalogued world of podcasting. The podcasts are everywhere like college play-by-play announcers on a given Saturday. It’s hard to navigate an unending menu.

Longform anything for that matter is tough to market. We live in a bullet-point world. Our attention spans are constantly truncated. The pounding of distracting information from any which direction, at any moment, is a challenge. Detail is hard to absorb. 

Firestone, who keeps busy these days as a corporate consultant, entertainer and guest speaker has an uncanny memory of the subject matter he covered in decades interviewing guests of varying personalities.

He’s had some of the most recognizable sportscasters in history on his set and some, multiple times. Think Vin Scully, Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Ernie Harwell, Mel Allen, Marv Albert, Harry Caray and Chick Hearn. He also had Jack and Joe Buck on his show at the same time.

That's What I'm Talking About by [Firestone, Roy]Roy recently published a book. It comprises his observations, essays, profiles, storytelling, and revealing interviews. It’s an easy and breezy read on his life, his 40-years in broadcasting, and the people he’s most admired along the way. That’s What I’m Talking About is available on Amazon.

We caught up with Roy to talk the greats, beginning with Scully and other huge names he got to interview and observe.

I say Vin Scully and you say what?

Beyond 67 years of baseball and the other sports he’s done, the NFL, some boxing, basketball early on, many Masters and of course 67 years of baseball, Vin should be celebrated among the pantheon of the greatest journalists and broadcasters like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Morrow, Few if any have covered as large a body of time and consistently so.

Think of the social and racial events, traveling with Jackie Robinson for eight seasons. He got to know Jackie quite well. So many World Series on both television and radio. He called Henry Aaron’s record breaking 715th homerun, invoking the huge social barrier that it broke at the time. He talked about how a stadium in the south cheered for joy as a black man bettered the record of a white icon.

There was Roy Campanella Night in 1959 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Dodgers played the Yankees in an exhibition to raise money for Roy’s medical expenses. Campy was paralyzed the previous January in a car accident. Vin brilliantly described how the stadium lights were dimmed and how lit matches and cigarette lighters flickered to honor Roy. He later talked about how Roy, confined to a wheelchair, still enjoyed the ‘59 championship season. “Roy’s chair was his throne,” Vin said.

Can there be another Vin today?

Today, everything is regionalized, piecemealed. There are so many announcers. They’re hard to tell apart. I interviewed Vin a handful of times. The importance of his work and his value to the Dodgers will never be matched.

Southern California was blessed with two galvanizing broadcasters for so long, Chick Hearn and Scully. Describe them.

And don’t forget that there was Bob Miller too. Bob was beloved by hockey fans in Los Angeles as the Kings’ voice. Miller, now retired, was up there, a Hall of Famer in the hockey space.

Both Scully and Hearn were as important to their respective franchises as anyone. Yes, Chick, even more so than Jerry West, Magic or Wilt. Hearn was with the team from 1961 until his death in 2002.

Chick was a character. He coined expressions like, putting a baby in a cradle. He popularized slam dunk, albeit the phrase was created by Eddie Doucette of Milwaukee.

Scully was less flamboyant, The broadcasts were never about himself. He didn’t seek catchy phrases or attempt to coin phrases. Chick’s comments today would go viral in a heartbeat. Hearn worked hard, He did Bowling for Dollars, UNLV basketball. Yet he was the soul of the Lakers, had a personal influence on the franchise and once for that matter had the title of Assistant General Manager.

Scully, decades ago, was voted the greatest Dodger ever. Vin was the number one sports figure of all time in LA.

The timespan of the two paralleled one another. They both worked in the same city for 45 overlapping years. They were both beloved but in a different way

How were they different?

Scully was scholarly, literary, erudite, thoughtful, reflective; he evoked images on-air, made biblical references without being condescending, had an amazing knack for telling stories. He did so without interruption, timing them magically. He had an uncanny sense for the rhythm of the game, when and where to weave in a story.

Vin never listened to other announcers. He didn’t want to ‘water his wine,’ as he said. He even turned the sound down when Al Michaels was doing the World Series, not because he was an elitist or a snob. It was just his way. He said Red Barber taught him to be himself in the booth.

Both Vin and Chick suffered tragedies. Chick lost his son and daughter, Gary and Samantha. He had a sense of guilt. It was a very hard life for the kids. Dad was not around much.

Scully’s son Michael died in a helicopter accident after an earthquake and wife Joan died in his arms in the early 70s. Yet, everyone thought Vin’s this graceful guy who never suffered a blow.

If Vin was a father figure, Hearn was everyone’s friend.

Chick was competitive with Johnny Most in Boston. He can be snarky, sarcastic, goofy and silly.

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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Michael Green
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What a great interview with a great interviewer! I still miss his ESPN show. And I remember that he once put Vin on the spot in a way that Vin didn’t like it, but, being Vin, he answered it beautifully. Deion Sanders had said he played two sports for the money and would play only the one that paid him enough if that worked out. When Firestone asked what he thought, Vin shifted, visibly uncomfortable both with Sanders and with the question. Finally he said something like this: we hear a lot about rights but too little about obligations; Sanders… Read more »