A Calling for the Game

(Hey, look, a new post instead of a rerun.)

People who know me personally know that I have a stutter. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. As stutters go, it’s not a bad one, and it certainly hasn’t affected my career in broadcasting, except for one thing—it kept me from becoming a sports play-by-play guy. I have done a bit of sports reporting over the years, including radio coverage of the Wisconsin state high school wrestling tournament for better than 10 years, but I’ve never actually called a game, because I always knew there would come a time on the air when I couldn’t get the words out.

The sportscasters we see and hear most often are the ones who’ve hit the bigtime—network guys who do professional or major-college sports—but they make up a tiny fragment of the profession. Thousands of other broadcasters labor in local radio, or work for a minor-league team. While covering games at that level can be a lot of fun, the job is far from glamorous. Local sportscasters spend hours in rickety press boxes, some little better than sheets of plywood nailed together and reached by climbing a ladder, describing high-school games whose results will be forgotten in a day or two by all but the participants. Minor-league baseball and hockey broadcasters are usually employed by the teams they cover, which means they ride the bus with the players, adding the burden of suitcase life to the hours in rickety press boxes.

Local announcers do their own preparation for each broadcast, keep their own statistics while the game is being played, and do their own arithmetic to report those stats at the end of the game. To do the job acceptably requires a great deal of dedication beforehand and concentration during; to do it exceptionally requires superhuman degrees of both. Broadcasters for pro and major college teams have the luxury of TV monitors in the broadcast booth and access to statistics compiled for them by people who are paid to do it. A local broadcaster may experience this kind of treatment if one of the teams he covers reaches a state tournament, but maybe not even then.

The local radio sports guy often has another job at the station. He might be a news reporter, a jock, or a sales representative. And what that means is this: if the team is playing a Tuesday night road game 100 miles away, which is by no means unusual in the western two-thirds of the United States, he may not get home until the wee hours of the morning, and his alarm is going off at the usual time regardless. He may cover one game on Friday night and another on Saturday afternoon—or a game on Saturday afternoon and a second one on Saturday night in a different town. He will most likely have to schlep his own equipment from place to place, set it up, make sure it works, troubleshoot and fix if it doesn’t, do the game for which he has prepared, total the stats, tear down, and schlep the stuff back again. And if he doesn’t have a color man, he’ll have to carry an entire two-hour broadcast by himself, sometimes right down to reading the commercials. Such a guy often becomes famous in a small town, but he earns every scrap of adulation he might receive.

I am telling you all of this because I spent this past Saturday afternoon in the company of Doug and Mark, two old friends of mine who have been local sportscasters for most of the last 30 years. I sat in the back of the broadcast booth at the college all three of us attended, and I watched the game to the accompaniment of their play-by-play call. After all this time, their broadcasts sound effortless; their enthusiasm for what they’re doing is real because it has to be, for all the reasons I’ve indicated here. And I admire anyone who knows what their calling in life is, and responds to it with everything they have.

Well done, guys. You’re better at it than I ever would have been.

7 thoughts on “A Calling for the Game

  1. Yah Shure

    Nice post, jb.

    I’m reminded of an incident from my days in St. Cloud. One of the station’s account reps did P-B-P for Collegeville’s St. John’s University games on our FM, and, IIRC, his color guy worked for said University. The basketball team was participating in a tournament in Kansas City, and, smack dab in the middle of the action, our guy suddenly departs, handing off the mic to his unsuspecting partner, as we all listened back at the station, wondering what the hell was going on. He finally returned some ten or fifteen minutes later, explaining his temporary hiatus thusly:

    “When ya gotta go, ya gotta go.”

    Mr. Potty never lived the incident down back on Lincoln Avenue Southeast. That is to say, *we* never let him live it down. I have all the more respect for those who always had to fly solo.

  2. kblumenau

    Good local sports editors and sportswriters deserve some of the same praise. It takes something to watch 20 years of high school sports and still do it well.

  3. Been there, done that….literally hundreds of times. Drive to game, schlep equipment, hook up to the AT+T drop (and panic when it’s not “live”, about 2 out of every 5 times, find a pay phone, call Toll Test, wait for the repair guy to show up and “enliven” the line), record the pre-game show with the coach, do the spotter/depth charts, try to memorize the uniform numbers of key players on the opposition, broadcast the game, read the ads off “recipe cards” typed up by the copy gal who can’t spell or punctuate, do it non-stop with NO break for nearly three hours, pack and schlep equipment, drive home, repeat the next afternoon or evening, and….add the kingly sum of $35 to your time-card for each game, knowing that the salespeople who sold the ads on the sports broadcast at 18 percent commission made about three times what you did for every game. Gotta love it.

  4. Tim, when I worked at WNAM/WAHC Neenah-Menasha back in the early 80s, I remembering hearing you do news and sports on WOSH/WYTL in Oshkosh. You MUST love it, because I was always impressed with how hard you guys worked. You must’ve put in a million hours for that station every year. You also had Dr. (Paul?) Jacobs and Becky Brenner on that station, too.

    Jim, thanks for the nice post. We do what we have to do to buy a box of cereal so we can have breakfast in the morning.

  5. Willie

    The most interesting place I ever did play-by-play was from the “press box” in Weyerhauser for a Friday night football game back in the early 80’s. The “p.b.” was a converted railroad caboose with no windows. That night it rained, sleeted, and was windy. All of the weather blew in directly on me. By the end of the game, I was soaked and my pre-game notes were history by the end of the 1st quarter. The loudest place was a girl’s regional basketball game at Turtle Lake. My partner, John Munson, was right next to me and I couldn’t hear a word he said after the opening tip-off. Man, did I have a headache after that one.

  6. Shark: Yah, we put in a good 75-80 a week in sports season. Becky Brenner was on the station(s); she’s been at KMPS in Seattle for the last couple decades, and CBS just fired her a few weeks ago (for making too much money -not only for the station, but for herself); and the “commenter” on WOSH-FM was UW-Oshkosh R/TV/Film prof BOB Jacobs.

    Full disclosure: when I left WMKC (which, of course, became the WAHC you worked for) to join MidWest at WOSH/WYTL, it was for a nice bump in pay but more importantly a piece of the rock: I bought in as a partner, something I could never do at Kimball – and back in those days, WOSH/WYTL was throwing off a TON of cash. Rick McCoy (my news/sports partner, who was also a partner, and also worked in sales) took a 40K salary but it was the cash dividends from the partnership share that really put the box of cereal on the table in the morning.

    All that one-man-band schlepping in sports season I did was for WMKC…another reason I got outta there. At WOSH/WYTL Rick and I actually had an engineer who would schlep the equipment and set it up and tear it down for EVERY game we did. We had a station vehicle to drive, and the engineer drove the station truck with a 40-foot mast for the Marti 2-way. We used a UHF Marti inside the sports venue, sending the signal to the VHF Marti in the station truck, which then beamed it back to Oshkosh. We could use the Marti rig instead of a phone line anywhere between Green Bay and Fond du Lac, and west to Ripon.

  7. Pingback: Radio Man Does Radio | The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

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