Baseball Broadcasting

John Sterling is retiring from Yanks after 36 years; In his early days he screamed! Yet he told a good story

John Sterling’s early years, before joining the Yankees

There’s so much to say about this character that I don’t know where to begin.

He was in general programming in the mid 60s. It was an AM dominated world then. By the time he hit Baltimore in the late 1960s after spending time in the 60s in Providence, he couldn’t get an exclusive job in sports. When FM began to populate, band began to dip its toe in sports. John Sterling applied for the job in Baltimore to call Morgan State Football and got it. The Mets in NY were relegated to WJRZ, 970 a weak signal for a World Series club absorbed by not quite all of New York.

Sterling whose voice was redolent of a New Yorker started as a talk show host, not exclusively sports. He spent tons of times selling himself to listeners who can help him. Jim Karvellas was one, quite prominent in Baltimore. Karvo did some Colts and Orioles for a year or so. When he would do the Baltimore Bullets on TV. Sterling slipped into radio chair.

It was obvious that he really wanted a play-by-player, so he did Bears College Football on a strong FM for seven years. He also built his confidence and ego. More personality than rhythm. In New York, play-by-players were  influenced by Marty Glickman on football and basketball. In Baltimore, it was Chuck Thompson, Orioles and Colts.

It wasn’t until late in his career that he learned a conventional base for his rhythm but made dizzying mistakes.

In 1974 when the World Football League attempted to compete with the National Football League , the New York Stars lasted only part of one season. The team played in a decrepit Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island. It was John Sterling on play-by-play and Matt Snell on color over WMCA Radio.

John Sterling was raised in Manhattan, first in 1971 doing  a sports talk show on WMCA Radio. It seemed as though he listened assiduously to conservative talkie Bob Grant, then a star on the station. The opinionated Grant was generally controversial, conservative and brash. He would spend hours lambasting callers. Sometimes humorously.

Sterling adopted Grant’s no-nonsense approach, hosting his sports show in a bold, rude, and strict manner. “Give it a rest,” John Sterling would denigrate callers in no uncertain terms. He had a following. In his early years, the 1970s, Sterling’s show was quite popular. Times were different. The couple others were Bill Mazer and Art Rust, Jr.

When he did New York Raiders hockey of the World Hockey Association, on WMCA Radio. On play-by-play, he hollered to mask his inability. Never was there a broadcaster in New York more criticized than Sterling. For a while, he did the Nets games too on a download AM. His broadcasts were never delivered in a restrained format, there were those who found him funny and other listeners considered him either entertaining or different. Listeners did not accept him universally. When his arrangement with the Nets and Islanders ended, he moved to Atlanta to do talk shows.

A caller asked him something simple about U of Georgia football, John dismissed it. Later he took hell for it before the listener called for his dismissal. He survived. In Atlanta, his basketball improved on TV but his partnership with Walt Frazier wasn’t a fan. Walt wanted the respect that apparently he didn’t get from Sterling.

When the United States Football League was introduced in 1983, the New Jersey Generals were the local franchise. Donald Trump eventually owned the club. In the third year, WMCA got the rights after WOR didn’t want the Generals anymore. There was no fourth year for the USFL.

Let me say this, Sterling worked hard enough to get his time in grade. In 1989 he was hired by WABC Radio in 1989. And now in April, he’s retired. He will be 86 on July 4th. Sterling sounded tired but was still fairly sharp.

John Sterling, had little schooling on the fundamentals of play-by-play, yet had an entertaining element. Many got to like or tolerate John. His unpredictability was what drew our attention. The mistakes increased as he aged. He still howled and was choppy. When he was overenthusiastic, John emptied his lungs. Still, much of New York embraced him.

Kevin Loughery, coached the Nets and had a good friendship with Sterling. When an overturned truck on the Jersey Turnpike brought traffic to a complete halt, Loughery had no means to communicate with the arena. He didn’t arrive until the end of the first quarter. This is before cell phones. He felt helpless. Many years later, Loughery told me that John does a good job. The coach could only listen.

Despite some terrible bouts with laryngitis Sterling never missed play-by-play assignments. George Steinbrenner endorsed him and he apparently promised him the gig forever. At least that’s what Sterling shared. Through the years of his Yankee broadcasts,  he was on powerhouses, WABC, WCBS and last WFAN.

The media never fully embraced him. In 1997 Phil Mushnick wrote in the New York Post that Sterling places “self-promotion over accuracy” and Bob Raissman in the Daily News wrote, “We’ve come to learn—but will never accept the fact—that Sterling puts himself ahead of the game.” Richard Sandomir writing in the New York Times described Sterling “so unlistenable.”

He’s come some distance since.

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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 and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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