North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘Sports Books

How John Madden and Pat Summerall got together

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Here’s a short post from the pile of “Stuff I wrote/pitched elsewhere that was passed on.”


Back in 1981, CBS Sports was a mess. This was before they were broadcasting baseball, the Olympics or March Madness, the days when they had NFL football on Sunday, the Masters in the spring and NBA basketball sometime at night. And the on-air presentation wasn’t much better either: maybe you’ve seen some of these broadcasts, which look barebones even by 1980 standards: a few cameras, the bare minimum of on-screen information. And lots and lots of Brent Musberger, their star commentator and host.

That year, CBS Sports lured away a young producer from ABC Sports named Terry O’Neil. Starting as a researcher, O’Neil had worked his way up through ABC Sports and learned how to produce a sports telecast under the legendary Roone Arledge. When he jumped to CBS, he went from a network with Monday Night Football to one that aired a made-for-TV NFL Cheerleader competition. As he writes in his memoir, The Game Behind the Game, CBS was woefully out of touch.

“Their production people had not been introduced to the fundamental techniques of attracting and holding audience. They hadn’t developed personalities among CBS’s star athletes, didn’t heighten interest by reporting real news, didn’t preview their coming events with live cut-ins during a broadcast day.” (pg 82)

And more to the point, they were bleeding young talent: both Al Michaels and Bob Costas fled the network after being repeated passed over for promotion. But things were changing: shortly after they hired O’Neil, CBS landed college basketball, which remains one of their core properties. They renovated the way they presented games, overhauling graphics and the way on-air talent reported during and between events. But O’Neil’s biggest move was about to come.

At the time, CBS’s top broadcasting duo was Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier. The network had decided to break it up for the start of the 1981 season, but wasn’t sure who would go where or make up their new top team. Van Gordon Sauter started pushing for a new color guy, at the time working on regional broadcasts and best known for starring in Miller Lite ads: John Madden. But, as O’Neil relates it, Madden had a quality you couldn’t fake:

“Madden showed promise. At that point, he was not the funny, outrageous Madden America now reveres. He was not doing the ‘boom, bap, whap’ routine yet. But he had something honest, real. The quality was had to define, which made it all the more appealing.” (pg 92)

But the question of who would call the top-market games was still up in the air: Sauter was pushing for Vin Scully, O’Neil for Summerall. Each represented a different way of broadcasting: Scully was a talker, who could (and still does) illustrate a scene with words; Summerall was the opposite, the Raymond Carver of broadcasting, using five words where another would use 15.

“With football’s faster pace,” wrote O’Neil, “there was no time for word pictures and with recent advances in coverage, there was no need. Now add Madden, who had plenty to say and frequently used the full 30 seconds between plays to say it. The combination would be too much. The viewer, I told Sauter, would be wrung out by halftime.” (pg 93)

Eventually, CBS split the difference for 1981: each would partner with Madden for four games and by the end of week eight, CBS would make the final call. And they’d go with Summerall and Madden.

It wasn’t a universally loved combination. Joe LaPointe of Knight-Ridder wrote a column condemning the decision, calling Scully the victim of behind-the-scenes politics. Even if he wasn’t, Scully was biting mad and left CBS for NBC Sports seven months later, becoming their lead baseball voice. And by Super Bowl XVI, one of the most iconic broadcasting duos was set. They’d broadcast together for the next 20 seasons. O’Neil, after a messy spat with Musberger and CBS management was gone by 1987.

Written by M.

April 23, 2013 at 9:00 am

A Busher’s Lasting Legacy – You Know Me, Al reviewed

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Okay, it’s been a while since I last updated the Sports Illustrated Book Challenge. In fact, it’s been close to a year since it’s last update (not counting a review of Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars I hated so much I trashed it). I’m jumping back into it in haphazard fashion – with a review of the fifth-highest ranked book, Ring Lardner’s “You Know Me, Al”, one of the best and funniest novels in all of literature, not just sports books.

Baseball has a very solid spot in the annals of American fiction. Philip Roth wrote a great novel – The Great American Novel – about the Rupport Mundies, a team of misfits that play an entire season on the road. Shoeless Joe and the Bingo Long Travelling All Stars are two novels which any sports fan should read.

But they all trace back to Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al.

Set in just before the first world war, You Know Me Al is a collection of letters by a semi-literate pitcher entering the big leagues, ego and stomach-first.

Jack Keefe is caricature of a turn of the last century ballplayer. He’s brash, acts on impulse and is astoundingly self-centred. He treats women badly, can’t stand left-handed pitchers and can only barely string together a sentence. If he wasn’t so supremely self-confident yet unaware, he would be a hard guy to like. But that’s what sets him apart.

Like the best athletes, Keefe is completely free of self-doubt. When something bad happens to Keefe – a poor game or a girl dumps him- it doesn’t inspire a letter of self-loathing, but just rolls off him, like water off a duck’s back. He doesn’t think he’ll be back, he knows that he will and when he’s there, he’ll embarrass them – be it Ty Cobb or an ex-girlfriend:
I looked up the skedule and I seen where we play in Detroit the fifth and sixth of September. I hope they will let me pitch there Al. Violet goes to the games and I will make her sorry she give me that kind of treatment. And I will make them Tigers sorry they kidded me last spring. I ain’t afraid of Cobb or none of them now, Al.
This happens time and time again. He pitches a poor game, but it’s always an oddity. Next time he’ll get them. Keefe seems to be a good enough pitcher for teams to take a risk on him and he even has a few good games here and there – he kind of reminds me of Jamie Moyer or Tim Wakefield. When he wins

His most memorable encounters come against Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers, who in both real life and in You Know Me… is kind of an asshole:

Cliched as it sounds, Lardner’s Jack Keefe is a timeless baseball player. The sheer ineptitude and poor judgement of the pitcher. He’s quick with a comeback, often in the worst settings possible. He insults, demeans, drinks and pitches his way through the majors, pissing off almost everybody he comes into contact with, on or off the diamond.
Even now, almost 100 years after it’s initial publication, baseball players are still coloured in Larder’s lines – just look at Eastbound and Down’s Kenny Powers.

As a just-hanging on pitcher, Keefe is often just above the poverty line. Pleas for money are a common element in his letters to his friend Jack – but he’s always careful to mention he can pay his friend back once he gets a break in the majors:

Al old pal that $25.00 you give me at the station the other day is all shot to peaces and I must ask you to let me have $25.00 more which will make $75.00 all together includeing the $25.00 you sent me before I come home. I hate to ask you this favor old pal but I know you have got the money. If I am sold to Detroit I will get some advance money and pay up all my dedts incluseive.

On top of this, he’s at the mercy of his team’s owner, Charles Comiskey. In many ways, he’s owned by Comiskey. When Keefe hears how much be could be making in the upstart Federal league, he weighs jumping leagues:

Comiskey ought to feel pretty good about me winning and I guess he will give me a contract for anything I want. He will have to or I will go to the Federal League.

But Keefe can’t actually jump, since he signed a contract with the Sox. Soon, Cominsky puts him on waivers and threatens to send him to Milwaukee if he doesn’t agree to his original contract – $2800 a season. Compared to today’s multi-millionare athletes, such a fight over $200 is otherworldly quaint.

In 1914, when Lardner wrote You Know, baseball was just beginning as a professional sport; large sums of money had yet to pour into the game. It was decades before Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause and years before players started making enough money to live a whole year off of. As a player, Keefe was far from in control of his own destiny.
That’s a telling in it’s own way. Just a few years after Lardner’s book was published, eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox took payoffs from a gambler and threw the World Series.

Even in YKMA, the roots of the scandal can be seen growing: the team, and especially the owner, hold all the cards of a player. They dictate what the pay is and when they play. They can bench you for almost any reason, a move that can (and did) cost players a bonus. And if the player didn’t like it, it was tough beans: the team held your baseball rights in perpetuity. It was their way or leaving baseball.

That feeling is what makes Lardner’s book still relevant in the era of the multi-million-dollar athlete. He’s playing and working hard for what seems like such a small sum of money, but he loves the sport too. His happiest moments in the book are when he’s pitched particular well.

After all, Keefe’s eternal confidence and bull-headedness still feel fresh; in more ways then one, he’s like Don Quixote, tilting against the windmills of major league baseball. He has more then a few moments where everything is going wrong and lesser, probably smarter people would pack it in. And Keefe never does. And, as readers, we’re the better for it.

The Best Sports Books of the Decade

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The 2000’s were a pretty good time for sports books.

In the late 90’s, there was a real kick in detailed biographies of sports legends – I personally blame David Maraniss – which resulted in some really great books in the early part of the decade. But as the 2000’s progressed, the trend shifted towards bloggers putting out collections; some (like Will Leitch’s book God Save the Fan) were better then others, but it seemed that the majority of books coming out were reflective in nature, written as a response to something rather then an interest.

For example, look at all the books that came out in the wake of the 2004 World Series. And look at all the ones that hold up only five years later (only Bill Simmons’ collection of columns and a quickie reissue of Golenbeck’s Fenway come to mind).

Still, there was a lot of good reading. My personal top 10 follows. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

December 16, 2009 at 9:57 pm

#99 – Miracle of Castel di Sangro

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Two books in and the challenge is looking harder then ever. I had a heck of a time finding copies of the next two on my list (only one library in Ontario had a copy of “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars, apparently) and I don’t know when I’ll actually get them.

In the meantime, I’m reading the first of my sports books that didn’t make the cut: Ralph Wiley’s Serenity. I may post a review of it later, as well as some NFL stuff.

In the meantime, here’s my review of Joe McGinness’ Miracle of Castel di Sangro, after the jump.

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