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The 10 noisiest announcer firings; From networks to local voices, from CBS’ Musburger to the Yanks’ Allen

 

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Halberstam

There have been some noisy firings (often labeled euphemistically as “not renewed”)

Media firings go back a long time, almost right to the very beginnings of broadcasting.

Radio was born 100 years ago. On July 2nd 1921, there was a coordinated effort to broadcast the heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Frenchman Georges Carpentier in Jersey City, New Jersey. RCA, Westinghouse, the Erie Lackawanna Railroad, Loews Theaters and other cooperating entities joined forces to make the fight available to those few folks who owned radios. Others, were able to listen at Loews Theaters.

The fight was also filmed and later narrated by Marty Glickman:

https://www.thefightcity.com/july-2-1921-dempsey-vs-carpentier-jack-dempsey-georges-carpentier-gene-tunney-tex-rickard/

The NBC Radio Network was established in 1926 and CBS, a year later, in 1927. The Rose Bowl, the granddaddy of post season college games was carried nationally for the first time in 1927 by pioneer Graham McNamee. At that point radio stations were sprouting all across America. But in 1928, when Graham returned to Pasadena for the New Year’s bowl game, he misidentified the San Gabriel Mountains and to add to the embarrassment, he promoted the  gorgeous Southern California weather when it was actually raining. McNamee and other eastern announcers were then banned from calling the play-by-play of the Rose Bowl until 1939.

In the 1930s, there was Fred Hoey, a New England play-by-play legend. He called Red Sox games with great energy and enthusiasm. Hoey influenced the careers of longtime baseball broadcasters, Jack Buck and Ken Coleman. “He wasn’t professional, he wasn’t polished,” Coleman told historian Curt Smith. But by all counts, there was an electricity to his broadcasts.

In 1937, Hoey was fired but as Smith said in his acclaimed, Voice of the Game, the owner of the Yankee Network which carried Sox’ games, “bowed to letters, telegrams, telephone threats and pickets encircling Fenway Park.” Hoey was reinstated. But a couple years later in 1939, Fred was fired for good despite another groundswell of protests. Hoey died alone, ten years later at age 64 in a gas-filled room of “accidental asphyxiation.”

In the many years since, there would be firings that would shake booths to their cores. A couple were longtime network voices and there were many who were well established local voices beloved by fans of the teams they covered

Brent Musburger

By the time CBS headed to Denver for the 1990 Final Four, there was no bigger network television sports personality than Brent. He helped build the NFL Today into a monstrous property, turning it into the envy of play-by-play shoulder programming. Musburger wasn’t afraid to make bold statements, slug it out with Jimmy the Greek at a restaurant or gently break in Phyllis George. Musburger had an edge to him and at times, he could be polarizing. By 1990, Howard Cosell was put out to pasture and Musburger was the most vigorous and spirited voice of the three networks then on the air, ABC, CBS and NBC.

CBS Sports had just gotten the MLB rights and Brent argued that he be appointed the lead voice of the new package. As Brent’s contract was coming to an end, CBS Sports head Neal Pilson reportedly wanted to pay Brent more and have him do less. Bitterness festered over money and assignments and the two just couldn’t come to terms. On the eve of the NCAA Tournament title game which Brent was calling, CBS announced that he was not being renewed. The firing made virtually every newspaper across America the next day.

In perhaps the greatest comeback in the history of network sports, Brent bounced back covering basketball for ESPN/ABC and in time becoming the Voice of the college football championship.

Mel Allen

In the 1950s, there wasn’t a bigger sportscaster in the country than Mel Allen. Not only did he seem untouchable in New York where he presided with complete command on Yankees broadcasts, he was a network star.  Mel called almost every World Series nationally on NBC and the network’s highly rated Rose Bowl telecasts.

At the end of the 1964 season, the baseball and broadcast worlds were shocked to hear that the grand voice of Mel Allen had been silenced. The Yankee brass gave no reason for his firing but the mighty man had lost his prime pulpit.

Yankees’ owner Dan Topping was apparently tiring of Mel. He was beginning to ramble on-air and he also took Mickey Mantle on an authorized visit to see his own personal physician. And on the network side, Allen could no longer keep productions tight. NBC would not use him again.

Ernie Harwell

Ernie was a career baseball man. He started in Brooklyn under Red Barber in 1948, moved over to a less rigid broadcast booth at the Polo Grounds under Russ Hodges, spent six seasons in Baltimore and became an icon in Detroit beginning in 1960. After 31 seasons at the end of the 1990 campaign, the Tigers dumped him unceremoniously. The decision was made by Bo Schembechler who was president of the ballclub for three seasons in the early 90s. Bo, of course, had previously been the longtime football coach at Michigan. The firing also caused a rift between flagship station WJR and the club. When protests mounted and for that matter threats ensued, the parties began finger-pointing. This said, Schembechler showed his football toughness, “Harwell’s situation is not going to change no matter how much clamor is made over it.”

In 1993, Mike Ilitch purchased the club and reinstated Harwell. Schembechler was fired. His legacy marred.

Harry Caray

Caray was St. Louis. In the 1950s and 1960s, any talk of Caray not broadcasting Cardinals games would have been considered heresy. Harry and the Cards were interchangeable. Jack Buck was coming along in the 1960s and the two made for a popular broadcast team. But Caray still held the reins.

Still, after 25 years of calling Redbirds’ baseball, he was stunningly fired after the 1969 season. Anheuser Busch owned the club and it issued a specious statement, suggesting that Caray was no longer able to sell beer on the broadcasts. Meanwhile, Caray maintained that he was the victim of false rumors that he was having an affair with Susan Busch, wife of August Busch III of Anheuser Busch.

Caray bounced back resiliently in Chicago, first calling the White Sox and later the Cubs. He was never bigger than those years in the Windy City.

Red Barber

Barber was a tough cookie. He ruled the roost in Brooklyn but ran into issues with Walter O’Malley after he bought the club in 1950. So after the 1953 season, Red saw the writing on the wall and moved over to the Yankees where he did only a limited number of games. After Allen was fired in 1964, Barber did close to a full schedule but couldn’t get along with boothmate Joe Garagiola and was hardly close with Phil Rizzuto or Jerry Coleman. There were rumblings through the season that the team would pare the announce crew from four to three and that Red would be the odd man out. At the end of the 1966 season, Barber met with the new Yankee president, Michael Burke, expecting a contract renewal. Instead, he was fired.

Red called the newspapers himself after he was let go. Barber told the writers that he was fired because he asked the TV director to focus the cameras on a virtually empty Yankee Stadium during a late September, meaningless makeup game that drew only hundreds to the cavernous ballpark. Giving this reason might have been self-satisfying to Red but the fact that he couldn’t get along with his fellow announcers caused his separation.

At that point, the Yankees were a bad team, Red was past his prime and there was little outcry from New York baseball fans. After 28 years in Brooklyn and the Bronx, his play-by-play voice was silenced.

Bob Prince

Prince served uniquely for the Pirates. He rarely second-guessed managers. He just rooted. When the Bucs were down a run late, he implored, “All we need is a bloop and a blast.” He was known to sometimes watch a game while reading a book and eating an apple. Prince joined the Pirates announce crew in 1948. When lead announcer Rosey Rowswell died in 1955, Prince became the team’s top voice.

The Bucs were carried by the 50,000 watt powerhouse, KDKA. He would battle with the station manager there fairly often but whenever it really got heated, the Pirates would step in and cool things down. But in 1975, KDKA fired him. Word was that the club never attempted to reverse the decision of its flagship station.

Hundreds of fans marched in downtown Pittsburgh in front of the Westinghouse headquarters, which owned the station. But it was to no avail.

The following season ABC TV hired Prince to do its weekly MLB game but his provincial style didn’t cut it. He was dropped by ABC at the end of the 1976 season. Prince was then hired in Houston but things didn’t work out there either. In 1985, he was back with the Pirates part-time but he was suffering from cancer and passed on June 10th. The ‘Gunner’ was special.

Russ Hodges

Russ was a Giant through and through. He started with Mel Allen in the Bronx, calling Yankees games in 1946. By 1949, he owned his own mic at the Polo Grounds. He made his mark nationally in 1951 when, a fellow named Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard around the world, Hodges exulted, “The Giants win the pennant, The Giants win the pennant!” At the same time that Vin Scully headed to Los Angeles from Brooklyn, Hodges went from Harlem to San Francisco.

He would be cheered in the Bay Area along with his partner Lon Simmons. Russ spent a total of 22 years with the club between both coasts but was implausibly booted after the 1970 season. Word was that sponsor Chevron urged his firing.

He died a year later of a broken heart. He was all of 60 years young.

Marv Albert

In his almost sixty-year career, Albert was fired twice. Marv was a star and is considered by many as the NBA’s all-time best network television announcer. He’ll always be identified with Michael Jordan’s years in the 1990s. In New York where he did football, hockey and basketball, his voice will be interchangeable with so many Knicks teams through the years, particularly those two championship clubs in 1970 and ’73. But his reputation was badly stained when he pleaded guilty to sexual indiscretions in 1997. He was then dropped by NBC and MSG. America is often about second chances and in time, Albert was rehired by the networks and by MSG. But owner Jim Dolan didn’t appreciate Marv’s criticism of the Knicks, nor did he want to pay him the real big bucks that Albert demanded. So Marv was let go after the 2003-04 season.

Marv’s comeback too was remarkable. He would spend another couple decades at Turner, NBC and CBS. It was the quality of his work that brought him back to the big stage.

Ray Scott

The father of broadcast minimalism was CBS’ lead announcer of the NFL. He did four Super Bowls including the first. In the early years when NFL network announcers were assigned to teams, Scott covered the great Green Bay Packers coached by Vince Lombardi.

After Scott did the 1974 Super Bowl, Bob Wussler was put in charge of CBS Sports and let Scott go. Some viewers maintained that Scott was boring. If so, there was an irony. The man who succeeded him was his analyst Pat Summerall who brought the same reserved and economical restraints to his play-by-play microphone. When Pat was praised for his announcing, he invariably credited Scott.

Scott never made the big dollars that lead network announcers earn today. He never hired an agent and didn’t ever make more than $800 for a Super Bowl broadcast. From that point on, Ray bounced around calling games here and there locally, yet he invariably conducted himself in a proud and gentlemanly way.

Jon Miller

Not one of ESPN’s finest moments. You might say that Jon Miller and his rich timbre were identified with baseball by millions for two decades. He first gained his reputation locally, working for the A’s, Rangers, Red Sox and Orioles. ESPN hired him in 1990 where he and the late Joe Morgan teamed together on Sunday Night Baseball for 21 seasons. John’s dulcet tone chronicled many World Series too on ESPN Radio. Miller always sprinkled in warm anecdotes without breaking stride to connect the dots on the field.

In 2010 after he won the Hall of Fame’s Frick Award, Miller was strikingly not renewed by ESPN. At 69 today, Miller still calls Giants games in San Francisco.

***

There were others including Jim Durham (Bulls), Dan Orsillo (Red Sox), Greg Papa (Raiders and Warriors), Pat Foley (Blackhawks), Gene Elston (Astros), Bob Elson (White Sox), Steve Buckhantz (Wizards), Jimmy Dudley (Indians), Ross Porter (Dodgers), Joe Angel (Marlins), Bob Blackburn (Supersonics), Ted Leitner (Padres), Buddy Blattner (Royals), Merle Harmon (A’s) and others who were given red slips or otherwise separated from their employers.

Nothing is forever and nothing should be taken for granted either!

 

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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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Michael Green
1 month ago

Quite a list, indeed. And to this day, granting that Curt Smith did a fine job laying it out, we’re still not sure why Mel Allen was fired. And you might say Red Barber was fired twice, because his contract was up with the Dodgers after the 1953 season and as he said, when Walter O’Malley told him the situation with Gillette was his own problem, he knew he was through at Brooklyn. There’s also an argument that the head of WJR Radio decided to fire Ernie Harwell, and Bo Schembechler took the hit, but I’ve also read that Schembechler… Read more »

Michael Green
1 month ago
Reply to  Michael Green

And by the way, the Cardinals fired Jack Buck after the 1959 season to make room for Bud Blattner, then brought him back after a year. THAT is something to think about.

Michael Green
26 days ago

Wow.