He was moving in from Minneapolis, Dave Sheehan said, , and he would like a one-year lease.
What sort of work would he be doing, the landlady in Arlington asked. He would be a sportscaster on Channel 4, Sheehan said, at 6 and 11 p.m.
It was January 1975. Had Mr. Sheehan, the lady inquired, seen Warner Wolf on Channel 9? Not yet, he said, but he certainly had heard a lot about him.
Perhaps, the landlady suggested, Mr. Sheehan would prefer a six-month lease.
A television sportscaster in any "market," which is what television people call their audience, has at least one thing in common with the coaches and managers he sports casts about: he is going to be fired.
Probably pretty soon. "In baseball," says Glenn Brenner of WTOP-TV (9), "if you win twenty games once, you're allowed to have a bad year, maybe two. But in this game, one bad month and . . ."
Sportscasters in Washington live with an extra verity: they are going to be compared to Warner Wolf. Even as their news directors pat them on their padded shoulders and assure them that it doesn't happen any more, they are going to compare themselves to Warner Wolf.
Sheehan (supra) lasted eighteen months at WRC-TV (4) and was succeeded by Nick Charles, who has lasted more than nineteen months and still says, "Let's face it: we all still operate under the long arm of Warner Wolf."
At Channel 7 twenty months ago Dan Lovett succeeded Steve Bassett, who by coincidence looked like Warner Wolf, sort of. Lovett, who "went to lunch with the wrong people" in the big-broadcast politics of New York, approached with caution: they weren't looking for another Warner Wolf, were they? "No," said news director Sam Zelman. "Not any more."
Not unless they could find one. "Christ," Nick Charles said in the midst of a recent interview, "aren't ghosts supposed to be dead?" He tensed when a television columnist suggested that Charles might have breathed "a sigh of relief" at the news that Warner had signed on with ABC in New York and would not be back for at least two years. Newscasters tend to be touchy when the ratings "book" ranks them third in a three-team league.
Glenn Brenner doesn't have that problem. A young (29) sportscaster because he found himself an old (23) relief pitcher, he was called into the game to protect a lead (Mike Wolfe, to stretch the metaphor, having been knocked out of the box). "You got the job to lose here," Brenner said in a baseball patois, "because you got the biggest audience." After thirteen months he was still holding the lead.
Brenner has another problem, an eerie one like Joan Fontaine's in "Rebecca." "What the hell was he like?" Brenner asked a reporter who had known Warner. "Without ever having met Wolf, or even seen a videotape of the effervescent man-child that was in the first half of this decade, Brenner now spends a third of his life in a building habituated by little poltergeists with ultra-bright smiles who go "Boo" in the night and chant choruses of "Hey, give 'em a break, man!"
What was Warner like? Hmmm. Well, he wasn't himself. "That's not me, man," Wolf said of his televised presence. "I mean I don't go home to my wife like that." Jim Snyder agreed. "That's not Warner," said WTOP's news director and Wolf's Geppetto until he ran away and was swallowed by the ABC whale. "He's really shy, retiring. But he's a performer, a pro."
These denials were issued in 1972, a year when whatever Warner wasn't was receiving "overtures" from TV stations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston, among other lesser markets. The big league was beckoning.
The success story of Warner Wolf's shtick will not comfort Glenn Brenner at all. As a performer Brenner is striving hard to be a pro, but there are persuasive evidences that the Glenn Brenner you see on the tube is Glenn Brenner. Not Glenn Brenner from Central Casting or one cloned by broadcast consultants in lowa, but the Glenn Brenner who lied a lot to get a radio job that gave him $79 to take home in 1972, the year the big league came to Warner Wolf. A Glenn Brenner who says it would be irresponsible of him to broadcast opinions about areas of sports he really doesn't know much about.
Oh, he has shtick too. "Ken Norton is not the kind of guy to get in a ring with if you have injured ribs," Brenner says. Most sportscasters mitigate such a mauling of the obvious by throwing in an "of course" somewhere. But Brenner, with a double-take shrug at anchorman Gordon Peterson, adds: "Norton's not a guy to get in the ring with if you have dandruff.
Then (of course) there are times he tries too hard: "Ray Mears has done for Tennessee basketball what Purina has done for Cat Chow."
"I perceive myself," Brenner said in the language of the question he was asked, "as a guy who communicates information. Surveys show that two-thirds of the audience is not interested in every detail of sports. So I have to package the information so that anyone can understand it, and tell it better, if I can, for the hard-core fans.
"I also have to keep the other two-thirds interested. If it takes one-liners to hold their attention, okay. If that's being an entertainer . . ." Brenner shrugged. Then he frowned and said: "Boy, people really pay a lot of attention to sportcasters in this town."
There still are quiet times when Glenn Brenner can look at the ceiling and see himself snapping off a three-and-two curve that leaves Rod Carew open-mouthed in disbelief. Growing up in Philadelphia, he never had a hero "because I idolized them all. Would you believe Bobby Malkmus?" Malkmus' career peaked with a 231 season that helped the Phillies lose 107 games in 1961, when Brenner was 12. A child inured to be happy with solittle might easily be a baseball bum by age 30, and Glenn got halfway there.
Six years he labored in baseball's vineyards, four for the Mets and two for Phillies, with only brief, transient sniffs of majorleague atmosphere. In Marion, Virginia and Visalia, California, Mankato, Minnesota, and Spartanburg, South Carolina, the right arm was almost always sore.
But the code is not to tell your pain, "because they'll think you're a puss [an unSpartan fellow] and you won't get a chance to pitch." There was a chance for Brenner to pitch a lot, the Phillies told him in the spring of 72, in Sabinas, in the Mexican League, a far-flung network that is officially rated Class AAA to salve Hispanic dignity.
"The owner said he'd meet me with a car at Eagle Pass (across the Rio Grande from Piedras Negras)," Brenner recalls. "I thought, 'What the hell am I, a shipment of marijuana?' They have forty-eight-hour bus rides in that league. I quit."
Walking the street in Philadelphia, Brenner saw a newspaper ad: a radio station in Millville, New Jersey, wanted a news announcer with a first-class ticket (engineering license). Brenner, who had never been inside a radio station and couldn't type, got the job and spent $30 a week on gas to drive the 110-mile round trip to bring home his $79.
Four jobs later, in February 1977, Brenner was a TV sportscaster in Philadelphia when Jim Snyder decided that macho Mike Wolfe's "my way" with sports news had "alienated a significant segment" of WTOP-TV's audience. Synder does not mind that Brenner's reading of the basketball scores does not light the switchboard with calls from prurient females, as Wolfe's tufted cleavage did at first. And, Synder notes, Glen gets some mail that is "similar to Warner's."
Vrenner admits shamelessly that he roots for Washington's home teams. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't. It makes my life easier if the Redskins win. Jesus, it was Armageddon out there with George every Monday when the 'Skins lost.
"But I don't say 'we,' or 'our' Redskins. I don't want to get spacey about it, or sound like Sevareid, but it's their Redskins, the people who buy the tickets. I don't pay my way in. And 'we' is tacky because I'm not on the team: I didn't bust my ass in practice. If I say 'we' I'm stealing.
"Sure , there's always a pressure to be rah-rah," Brenner concluded. "There was in Philly. But some people don't do windows and I don't do cheerleading."
Brenner is sure his contract (around $55,000) ranks a poor third among Washington's incumbent sportscasters, "but I love it, and there are the fringies: going out to dinner and not having to wait for a table, having people blow smoke up your . . . Hell, that stuff is half the fun."
Over on Nebraska avenue, under a poster admonishes, "Don't take yourself too seriously," Nick Charles received a call from Larry Brown, now of Merrill Lynch. "I am interested," Charles said. "This business is so precarious that maybe next month . . . maybe when you're 40 . . . Yes, I would like to get set in something else . . . You never know."
Nick Charles is 31, with Greco-Roman features that don't look that old. He looks like the kind of guy that, as Colonel Lemuel Q. Stoopnagel might have phrased it, if you are the father of a 19-year-old daughter and you see him coming up the walk, you hope he's a processserver. "The chicks go wild for this guy," attests a friend who has majored in the behavior of chicks, "and I mean chicks who don't even know he's on TV."
Nick Charles' perception of himself as a Washington sportscaster is that his defensive because he is offensive. He doesn't mean to be either. He is sure he scares people because he comes across as a wise guy, "and it's hard to battle what people perceive."
Like Othello, Charles is swarthy and lacks "those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have." "If I have a failing," he says, "and I have many," he quickly adds, "it is that I have trouble turning on the charm."
The "creeps" of the print media who nibble at Nick Charles' image in Washington would be well advised by the Phillistines who sniped for four years in Baltimore: he is not about to change a hair of his raven ringlets for them.
"I'm surprised that I would make a sweeping generalization like that," Charles said when reminded of his on-the-air statement of November 12, 1976: that "the immediate press" included creeps. He did not deny the statemente, but reinforced it: "I have found an animosity [in the Washington press] that works. Maybe I imagine it, but it seems they think you're a Mike Wolfe. There's professional jealousy . . ."
Charles perceives irony in the fact that, after Baltimore journalist chided him for macho affectation ("open to the navel, like Belafonte," one columnist noted), he is needled in Washington for his three-piece splendor. Charle admits he tried the open-shirt bit in Baltimore, "but only for a couple of weeks, a month at most. Still, it's a label. You never get out of it."His careful wardrobe ("paying $400 to $500 for a suit is a joke") earned him an honorable mention on a Washingtonian best-dressed list and a wise crack from a sports columnist, or so Charles read it
"So what should I do?" Charles asked. "Change my image to accomodate him? If I were an insurance salesman, I'd dress lkie I do - and act like I do.
"Besides, if you're a city guy," Charles said to a reporter whose orientation is detectably urban, "you understand what you mean when you say 'creep.'"
Charles was a borderline greaser, "like a Fonz" - a wise guy - growing up on the streets of Chicago. The nun who chased him with scissors in the sixth grade and sergeants who threatened courts martial in the Army would testify that Charles' Restoration coiffure is not a trapping suggested by broadcast consultants. He drove a cab at night while earning a degree in communications that nobody has ever asked to see.
"Exploited" and "topped out" after two years with a Springfield, Illinois, TV station, Charles got the sports job at ABC's Baltimore outlet, replacing a lovable man "who had never learned to use visuals . . . The medium had passed him by. But it was two years before I stopped getting the nasty letters from his fans."
"By then," a Baltimore newsman recalled, "the kid led the league. The ratings read something like forty-two for him, twenty-one for [Vince] Bagley and eleven for the other guy." And it was generally believed that at least half the people drawn to the tube by Charles' delivery were chicks. He is perhaps overly modest about that propetry. "Hey," he says Fonz-Iy, "compared to what? Vince Bagley is a dear man, but he's in his 50s, and Jack Dawson is a former history teacher who'll always be a history teacher.
"What did the people like? How can you know? Is it that I look young? Is swarthy in? I don't know. But I think it's that I tell the truth. That's self-serving promotion pap, isn't it? Well, - it. It's what I think."
Nick Charles emphasizes two things he does not perceive himself to be. One is "a joke-teller . . . Warner Wolf is a nice guy who smiled more than I do. That's why I don't make it in the the popularity polls, like the one Steve Daley did in the Star."
And he is not an actor: "I don't do things for effect." But he had an act that played in Baltimore. A critic recalls Charles "flinging a pen" as he predicted that if the Colts traded away Bubba Smith, "there goes the franchise."
"Wrong as hell, wasn't I?" Charles said with a smile. "Yeah, I used to break pencils. That was me in Baltimore. I got a lot of crap about throwing paper. They used cheaper paper in Baltimore, so it sort of floated down when I threw it, like I was throwing my story away. They liked that here at first. I guess it smacked of irreverency.
"That's what I was in Baltimore. But here it seems that it might be a little menacing. I know I look like a wise guy, and that's trouble, man. I'm sure it makes a difference in the ratings.
"I do feel defensive here. We all still operate under the long arm of Warner Wolf."
But buttoned, all the way up to the cool, consonant four-in-hand. Michael Wolfe's discoverer and dispatcher, Jim Snyder, says it wasn't so much Wolfe's unbuttoned shirt as his unbuttoned lip ("M'friends, I'm gonna tell ya somethin' right now") that did him in. Still, he set hairy-chested sportscasting back "about ten years," Nick Charles believes.
In the never-never realm of TV, changes can be as subtle and as quick as a subliminal commercial. Styles can be out of style before they are in; so can people, and Mike Wolfe was. On a night in November 1975, Wolfe was piloting his Chrysler New Yorker from Denver to Washington, wearing a faded jean suit, with a three-month growth of hair on his head, doing and undoing the top four buttons of his Nic-Nic shirt over the thirty-six-year growth of hair on his chest.
"Some day," spoke Warner Wolf in 1972, "TV will loosen up. Guys without ties on will just talk the news, instead of reading it. It'll be five years, but they'll get there."
And here he came, abundantly confident. "Ladies love Michael Wolfe," said Louise Lague, then the anvil or the stirrup of The Ear. "That's the first thing he tells you, and the last thing, and all the things in between." (It was her second thought on Wolfe; her first-impression essay on him had concluded: "Good luck, Michael Wolfe. Stay, oh stay, as sweet as you are.")
About the time Mike was tooling into Washington, Warner was munching a hamburger in his sumptuous pad overlooking Central Park and saying: "You gotta wear a tie, man. Maybe it's because I'm five years older, but I've changed my view. You're coming into into sombody's living room for four minutes, you owe a certain respect." Sue, Warner's wife, had observed that Johnny Carson manages informality while fully clothed.
In any case, Wolfe's down-in-flames manner of leaving Channel 9 assured that we shall not see hide nor hair of Washington's incumbent sportscasters.
More's the pity. Purple trunks and eight-ounce gloves would seem the fitting costume for what Nick Charles does, or purports to do, at 6 and 11. "He is very critical," a Baltimore critic said, "of anything outside a fifty-mile radius." It is a truth, but not the whole truth. Charles has as he claims "taken shots at a lot of national figures" - large, stationary targets like baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, the Colonel Blimp of sports. In a single 6 o'clock session he (a) blasted Minnesota Twins' pitcher Bill Campbell for playing out his option and getting big money from the Red Sox ("it goes without saying he doesn't deserve it") and (b) commended the Orioles' Jim Palmer, within the fifty-mile radius, for staying in Baltimore "when he could make $60,000 more elsewhere . . . it is nice for those fans who relate and identify with the players."
But Charles also took more jabs at George Allen than almost any of Washington's TV commentators during the seven years of "Now." (The exceptions were Mike Wolfe and Sonny Jurgensen. Wolfe would do acerbic numbers on the Redskins' Republican-platform offense and then, sceptered as WTOP sports director, send second banana Klaus Wagner out to face the supercoach the morning after. Sonnu had a unique portfolio and an ax to grind.)
Better to lose, 38-35, to a team like Green Bay, Charles suggested, than to win 10-9. It was no wonder the players loved George, Charles postulated: he got them more of the stockholders' money than they asked for. But he laid off in the final days, Charles said, because he felt a "pity" for Allen.
Charles in his first year in town managed to offend Leatherbury, Dutrow and Delp, which is not a law firm but the Big Three of remarkably successful horse trainers of the Maryland thoroughbred racing circuit. He did it by electronic suggestion that the Maryland Racing Commission's avant-garde permissiveness toward analgesic and coagulant drugs, and trainers' sophistication in diversification of their use, might be having inhumane effects on horses.
"And he was the only one, audio, video or print," a knowledgeable Maryland racing man said, "who got into the subject. It took some guts." The Big Three, Charles said, did not speak to him for some time.
"In Baltimore at first," a friend said, "Nick had a simple problem: he didn't know much about sports. So he shot from the hip to make a big impression. But he's done his homework and he has confidence now."
Does he ever:
"Albert King has great court sense in my opinion."
"I'm so impressed with Jack Nicklaus . . ." (after Nicklaus shot birdies on the final five holes of a tournament).
"It's nice to know the Caps aren't intimidated any more, but they still have to win a few."
"Maryland never looked as cool to me . . ."
And, so Charles concluded his farewell address to the newspaper "creeps": "If we weren't telling it like it is, we wouldn't be here."
"Sports is a put-on. It's fun, or it isn't anything."
Warner Wolf, 1972
Does it come through?" asked Dan Lovett. "That sports is not the end to me? I hope it does."
When Lovett was sportscasting for Channel 7 in New York, the amorphous "they" had him fly to lowa to commune with Frank Magid & Associates, broadcast consultants. Lovett already knew something about broadcast consultants. When he was with KTRK-TV in Houston he was told that McHugh & Hoffman, the broadcast consultants of McLean, Virginia, had advised KTRK to get rid of the sports guy. "I know it sounds militant and rebellious," Lovett said, but he told the amorphous them that he already knew "how to wink my eyes and twitch my hands."
He does, he does. WJLA-TV at 6 and 11 p.m. is Mister Lovett's Neighborhood. For the fiftyish of us, there is a lot of Uncle Don in Uncle Dan as he ranges the gamut of urbanity from puerile to condescending. (For the others of us, it was Uncle Don in the 1930s who closed his top-rated kiddies' show one evening with "I guess that'll hold the little bastards for a while," not realizing the mile was live.) "And now," says Lovett, with that what-me-worry simper, "let's go to Pimlico." As the trifecta flashes on, the air remains alive with that lilt: the concocted little voice of the morning that exhorts, "Let's go back to Captain Kangaroo."
"No, I don't think people watching sports results are children," Lovett said. "But how many diehard sports fans are there? We're talking about games. Why can't we treat it that way?"
In latter 1976, when he was the new coif on the Washington tube, Lovett came up with mots like this: "Now that there's a Georgian in the White House, will Georgia be in the Sugar Bowl?" Many razor cuts latter, established and relaxed, he comes up with cutesies like this: "Put those Kentucky Wildcats back on top (of the college basketball ratings), but look out! Here come those UCLA Bruins!"
Is this reporting, or entertainment? "To be honest," Lovett said, "and not of my own choosing, I'd have to be classed more as an entertainer. That's what this medium is. I'd like to be a reporter, spend some time on a story, write something worthwhile. But in three minutes?"
If Warner Wolf was the greatest at giving the camera his constant, enthralled attention, treating it as a new, promising date, as if it were the only camera on earth; and if Mike Wolfe was, as some said, "intimate" with it, then Dan Lovett offers the camera a bold dalliance, a mischievous, brittle bond, redolent with suggestion that he and the lens share a droll, probably wicked, joke. He winks, somehow, without closing his eyelids. It is as if the whole gig were a put-on.
"That's me," Lovett said. "It's the game we play. You got me figured."
It is, Lovett says, a tease: "Don't forget now," he titilates as 6 o'clock becomes history. "We'll have all kinds of basketball at 11." And his sign-off: "A little sunshine to ya." That'll hold the big bastards for a while.
"In Houston," Lovett said, "the money was it. TV was a big deal and I was an egomaniac. It was me, me, me. But I learned in New York that I didn't want to play that type of game. I spend more time now with things outside this business."
Lovett can match Brenner and Charles in the humble-beginnings qualification: out of high school in 1957, at 17, and into a job with KPID, a 250-watt radio station in Payette, Idaho. After ten years in Houston, Lovett hit the "mythical Big Apple" in July 1974, replacing Frank Gifford on New York's Channel 7 at 6 and 11 p.m. and was soon disenchanted.
"They hired me," he said in rejecting the broadcast consultants' consultation, "for what I was in Houston: a straight reporter. I'm not controversial, not opinionated, and I've never had any gimmick.
"I had great difficulty communicating with people in New York," Lovett said in explaining his disenchantment. "There are heavy unions in New York. In Texas I could edit my own film. There was no AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), no camera union, nothing."
And besides, he went to lunch with the wrong people. It appeared that Roone Arledge, the ABC vice president who created Howard Cosell (or was it the other way around?), was about to graduate from sports and take all entertainment to be his province. "So I thought I'd better find myself a new rabbi," thought Lovett. (A city guy would understand that "rabbi," in this context, should be read "sponsor," or "benefactor.")
Well, it just went all wrong. Arledge didn't get the job and the heir-apparent Lovett cultivated at lunch got the gate. "It left me on the other side of the fence," Lovett recalls. He had nobody, on the management level, to talk to. "They just stopped saying hello," Lovett said. "I became left out."
Things got worse. One of Arledge's bright ideas was to make a public issue of heavyweight champion George Foreman's abuse of five non-entity boxers in a single evening. Lovett, at 6 o'clock, did not herald the hokey event as a momentous one; in fact he barely heralded it at all. Long before 11 o'clock Dan had a hand-delivered memo from Arledge, instructing him on what message to read about Foreman and the five. "The pitiful thing is," Lovett says now, "I read it. I had child support and rent to take care of.
"Sportscasting," he added, "isn't journalism any more."
But Dan Lovett is at a sort of peace with whatever sportscasting now is. He feels "liberated" by the fact that "the people here came back to me a second time"; Lovett was offered the Channel 7 job in 1973 but his then wife would not leave Texas. His favorite working condition is that WJLA retains no broadcast consultants to teach the principles of "Happy News."
Lovett is insouciant about the question of his palpable rooting for "our" Redskins and Bullets and Terps. "I guess I'm more of a fan than a sportscaster," he says, "and I just naturally show some kind of support for the team where I live - except in New York, where I always felt so temporary.
"Sure, if I moved to Chicago I'd root for the Bears. But that doesn't make me a homer. You could call it provincial bias, but it doesn't mean that much to me. I assume the majority of my audience prefers the Redskins, so I try to talk in a way that is comfortable to them. Being a homer and being an entertainer are two different things."
There will, in time, be other entertainers, some of them probably quite different. Some sweaty-palmed news director, confronted with a "book" that puts his team in third place, slip-sliding away, will send a call for a young lady from Council Bluffs who sings the basketball scores, accompanying herself on the lyre. Things were almost that uptight at Channel 4 just before Warner went network. That's when they called for Dave Sheehan, The Mouth That Wasn't.
It has been scarcely more than seven years since the late Washington Daily News hired a reporter because he was black and then preceived, on his arrival, that he was not. When Dave Sheehan arrived in Washington, preceded by paroxysms of promotion, he not only wasn't what he was supposed to be; he wasn't even who he was supposed to be.
In haste to replace Bud Katz, the folksy "Old Buckeye" (now back in Columbus, living happily ever after with Woody Hayes), then WRC-TV news director Bruce MacDonell tried to get Bill Curry, an aw-shucks fellow who dressed to a different tailor and did funny things with lapel flowers and hats, like Willard the weatherman. Curry in an earlier manifestation had been known as The Mouth of The South.
But Curry was locked into contract in Pittsburgh, so Channel 4 settled for Sheehan, an earnest fellow whose most flamboyant effort on Minneapolis radio had been his Sports Zero Award, a sort of Boo of the Week. Besides, his agent had put out an attention-getting glyer that tabbed Sheehan a "Sports Mouth" So a mouth is a mouth, right? That show biz. Imagine Sheeban's surprise when he arrived in Washington in January, 1975, and found a populace that expected The Mouth to chew George Allen at 6 and spit out Abe Pollin at 11. There was instant bathos.
"It was a freak show," Sheehan said sadly, "and I'm a serious reporter, not a clown. I thought I was digging out of the hole they put me in . . ." When they dropped his option, i.e. sacked him.
"The whole thing wasn't anyone's fault," said Sheehan. "They'd spent a lot of money and they were still Number 3 and Bruce was trying to do something about it. That's the medium."
In the last "book" for February, WRC-TV's 6 o'clock news edged ahead of WJLA's and became, for the first time in along time, Number Two. But WRC-TV had just cut back its local news a half-hour, you see, and WJLA had a new 5:30 start, so . . . Anyway, Bruce MacDonell has gone away to NBC's Tokyo bureau. That's the medium.