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Do you wonder sometimes why all the sports reporting on television news appears so uniformly bad and so much the same?
One day last year I was on the Today show, hustling my latest book. It is a verity of the publishing business that if you can just get on the Today show, you will sell something like 173,000 extra copies by lunchtime. This did not quite work out in my case, possibly because I was caught between Gene Shalit mugging underneath his natural fright wig, and Edwin Newman, who reacted to all the hilarious things I said with much the same amount of levity that he lavishes on discussions of strip mining.
Now for the bad news. Unbeknown to me, a gentleman named Win Baker up in Boston was shaving, or some such thing, when Messrs. Newman and Shalit were devising ways to un-sell my book, and—for reasons that remain obscure to me to this day—this Win Baker was taken with me. Taken with me, pshaw—he was captivated by me! In fact, a television columnist subsequently likened this moment to the discovery of Lana Turner in Schwab's drugstore.
Win Baker, you see, ran a television station in Boston that was at the time looking for a new sports announcer, and he thought I might be just the ticket. Since Win Baker was the boss, everybody precipitously agreed with his keen judgment, and soon I was contacted by an underling. After being properly coy I agreed to an audition.
You may ask at this point why would I do a fool thing like that? The reasons are threefold. One is that, like the next fellow, I am vain. The more I thought about it the more I was beguiled by the idea of coming into hundreds of thousands of living rooms and whatnot. Think of it, my face was going to be a household word in Boston, Mass. Two is the money. As you know, in television the streets are paved with gold. Three, television sports news is so bad I felt I couldn't miss. I wasn't going in head-to-head against Barbara Walters or Captain Kangaroo, for God's sake. So I figured it was an overlay. Wasn't it David Brinkley who said, "You could put a baboon on television for 15 years and he'd become a celebrity"? Yes is was, and Brinkley also pointed out that they did that once with somebody named Muggs.
Anyway, I went for it, and in the end WBZ offered me the job, which I accepted contingent on their giving me a potful of money, which they would not. Truth to tell, they accused me of being a highwayman. I don't know whom they got instead. Apparently there isn't a great deal of choice in the field. The first guy I talked to at WBZ said there were only two good sports news guys in the business, and since these were the only names that kept popping up wherever I went in Teeveeland, I guess it pretty much must be true. The funny thing about TV sports news is that just about everybody in television thinks it's God-awful, but nobody even expects to do anything about that state of affairs.
The two sports announcers in the whole country who seem to be appreciated within the industry are Warner Wolf in Washington and Bill Currie in Pittsburgh. Apparently, Wolf has to grow on you. I saw him one night, and all he did was show film clips from Chicago and, like a high school newspaper, predict the scores of the next week's games. He was what they prize as outspoken, though, and chucked in those wise-guy asides that pass for commentary in the business.
Now Bill Currie is something else. He's a real strange duck. You could not, for example, catch him dead at a hockey game. He reads books and can quote reams of Shakespeare and the Bible, If and the lyrics of most songs on Your Hit Parade from 1935 on. I've known him for several years, since he was "The Mouth of the South," out of Charlotte, N.C. Most television executives the country over are now walking around mumbling, "If we could just get ourselves another Bill Currie." But I gave the dumb-dumbs the original Bill Currie on a platter six years ago, and nobody would take him. I wrote a long article in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED about how great he was. I figured he would be choosing between offers from The Big Apple, Ellay and Chi the next week. But nothing. Not a phone call. The only reason he finally got to a market as big as Pittsburgh was because a film salesman passing through touted him to the station manager. The week after he was hired Currie was the hottest thing in town. He was Pittsburgh's TV Personality of the Year. The station gave him his own prime-time show. He even started working night clubs. Now every lemming in the business has got to find a facsimile of Bill Currie.
I called up the real thing and asked him if I should go into TV. He had mixed emotions. "You really shouldn't slum," he said. "But then you'd have a lot going for you in this business inasmuch as you can read or write, so you wouldn't have to work but an hour or so a day, and that would give you a lot more time to drink or sleep or whatever."
"O.K.," I said.