"What can I say?" says Vitale. "Let's face it. This is what I do. I talk. I like to talk. I talk, I talk, I talk. That's me, that's what made me what I am today. Knock wood. You know with me you're going to hear me talk and yell and talk some more. I mean, there are times when I want to shut myself up! I'll be in the middle of a game and say to myself, Why did you say that? Even my wife tells me sometimes, 'You're talking too much. You don't have to talk so much.' I don't know why. I just do."
Could be it's the eye. When Vitale was a child, he accidentally poked himself in the left eye with a pencil, eventually causing the eye to go blind and to wander. He hated it and was ashamed of it. "I remember," says his sister, Terry, "Richie would play basketball, and the kids would always go toward the side he couldn't see on." When he spoke, he would look at people's feet. In high school the eye became infected, and he was forced not only to wear a patch but also to miss his junior year. He was so embarrassed that he switched schools. "I overcompensated," he says. "I tried to make up for it with enthusiasm. I just wanted to be the most enthusiastic guy about everything."
So Richie the Worrier hid behind loud clothes and loud speech. Bright green checked slacks, bright yellow shirts and booming soliloquies. He was the most gregarious, most argumentative one-eyed Italian in all of Garfield, N.J. Considering the house he grew up in, that was saying something. His father, a garment presser, was one of eight kids. His mother, a seamstress, was one of nine. All of those siblings lived in the same area of town. After church the bagels would start warming and the coffee would start brewing and the uncles would start laying out all the sports sections and Howard Cosell on the radio would start roaring and Lindsey Nelson on the tube would start saying, "Neither team advanced the ball, so we move to further action in the fourth quarter." After that, it was basically The Sports Reporters times four. You needed some big decibels in that house to be noticed. It was, come to think of it, a lot like cable TV.
But even after he became a cable star, shame over his own face continued to drive Vitale. In one of his first years at ESPN, somebody called and left a message with the switchboard operator: "Get that one-eyed guy off the air. He looks hideous." Vitale cried. So, at 47, he underwent radical surgery on his good eye to try to get it to move in concert with the bad one. Lorraine was against it. "If something goes wrong, you'll be completely blind," she warned. Vitale risked it. It worked.
The bad eye is not really noticeable anymore, but the insecurity is. Vitale is mortally afraid of the momentary silence or the lull in conversation. He wants to like everybody and for everybody to like him. In an airport van in Indianapolis one day, silence reigned for...had to be four, five seconds. Vitale could not stand it. He noticed the woman sitting across from him. "Gee, look at you," he said. "You got those beeyoootiful eyes."
This is not a come-on. It's just that among the most open and friendly celebrities in America, Vitale ranks first through 10th. If people don't come to him, he goes to them, and they invariably have "that great smile" or "such a beeyoootiful face" or "all that hair," which, he always adds, "if I had, I'd be Tom Cruise." And soon he is engaging some poor plumber, who was just working on the lobby drinking fountain, in a conversation that usually ends with Dicky Vee saying, "Hey, you got kids'? Give me your address. I'll send you some, whaddyacallit, some stuff, a ball or a hat or something."
Right. Lines like that are uttered one million times a day across America. But Dicky Vee actually comes through. In a week of traveling with Vitale, you will see him take 50 addresses down. And you will meet another 50 people who have received Dicky Vee's stuff through the mail. Vitale spends $700 a month out of his own pocket in postage alone to send people basketballs, books and, whaddyacallits, hats. And he pays for it all himself—discounted by the manufacturer, of course, but nonetheless coming to another $10,000 per year.
Anyway, the woman in the van in Indianapolis blushed and quietly said, "Thank you."
"Dick Vitale," he said, extending his hand and a huge smile.
"Hello," said the woman.