"You can make your own breaks if you have faith in yourself, and know what to say when the red light goes on!" -- Ronald (Dutch) Reagan
In the midst of the Great Depression, Ed Lambert and his wife were still courting, they used to go down to the radio station and watch Dutch Reagan do his sports report.
"It was our big date," Lambert said. "Dutch Reagan was quite a celbrity.
WHO had this viewing booth and we would watch him broadcast. He would stand there with his hat pushed back on his head and his horn-rimmed glasses pulled down on his nose. I was shocked to see him with those glass. I thought he was the all-American boy. He sounded like the all-American boy."
For five years, beginning in 1932, Ronald Regan was the voice of WHO radio in Des Moines, Iowa. He was the voice of the Iowa Hawkeyes and, outside Chicago, the voice of the Cubs, whose seasons he recreated. He called the games and told the scores. In the gloom of the Depression and the darkness of the night, Reagan's voice carried through the countryside on the strength of a 50,000-watt radio station. And his voice said: there are still heroes in America, still big games to be won.
It is not necessary to ask whether the experience helped him get him where he is today. Way back then, Dutch Reagan captured the imagination of Middle America.
Jim Zabel, who became the sports director of WHO in 1944, remembers sneaking out of a dance during junior high school to listen to Reagan's broadcast of the first game of the Hawkeyes' 1937 season, a 14-0 loss to the University of Washington. "I went out and listened in the dark on the car radio," he said. "He had that power, the mysterious power that his voice conveyed, and it was all learned during those early days in radio. He learned he had the power to describe and evoke things."
Reagan created illusions on the air; baseball games constructed from sketchy wire reports, a ball, a glove and a broomstick, and, before that, football games fashioned from his own daydreams.
His older brother, Neil, who sometimes calls him "Junior," and sometimes just "Reagan," said, "When we were still in school at Eureka College (in Illinois), he'd sit in a corner of the frat house driving everyone out of their minds broadcasting an imaginary football game between two imaginary teams to the living room. That's how he got his job at WHO."
There wasn't much call for college graduates with degrees in economics and sociology in 1932. So Reagan, who lettered in football, swimming and track, decided to try his luck as a sportscaster. "He walked into the studio and said he was lookin for the job," his brother recalled. "They were looking for somebody because they were getting ready to get into what they had not gotten into before -- the University of Iowa football games. So they put him behind a microphone and said, 'Go ahead and broadcast a football game.' He did three or four minutes of imaginary play-by-play."
"It was so real," said Myrtle Williams Moon, then the program director of WHO, "you could see it."
After broadcasting the first three or four games of the Hawkeyes' 1932 season, Reagan was hired full time (at $10 a game plus salary, Zabel said) and assigned to the sister station, WOC, in Davenport. A year later, he moved up to the big time, Des Moines. His summers belonged to the Cubs and his winters to the Hawkeyes. In between, he broadcast the Drake Relays, Golden Gloves boxing, and auto races from the state fairgrounds. He also did dance remotes from the Fort Des Moines Hotel and the announcing for the local high school girls quartet. He hawked Kentucky Club pipe tobacco and Wheaties. It was Dutch Reagan for the breakfast of champions.
"He had everyone eating Wheaties like mad," said Moon.
As a sportscaster, Dutch was a real treat. "He was pretty good," said Neil Reagan. "But I wouldn't want to draw a comparison between Reagan and Howard Cosell."
"He was more the Keith Jackson type," said Zabel. "Very concise, very accurate, very excitable, but not hysterical. . .And he was a great ad-libber" -- a quality more admired on the air than on the stump, as Reagan recently learned.
"He was not the drippy kind, if you know what I mean," said Moon, who has remained a loyal friend over the years.
There was never any dead air with Reagan in the booth. "He could always think of something to say," she recalled.
Which wasn't easy considering that all the baseball games he broadcast were recreations, and all but one of the football seasons were losses (Iowa was 16-28-4 in 1932-37 and had a winning record, 5-3-0, only in 1933). "I think he preferred football," which was broadcast live, said Moon. "He was more of a participant. I never heard him speak of playing too much baseball. But in football, he was out there pitching."
As bad as they were, the Hawkeyes had one quality player, a black running back named Ozzie Simmons, called the "Ebony Eel." Reagan's favorite expression, one that he used quite a bit considering how often Simmons carried the ball was, "It's a happity hop to the left," or "It's a hippity hop to the right," said Lambert, who was teaching in Iowa at the time. "He said, 'And the Ebony Eel is off.' We all listened breathlessly until he scored a touchdown or was carried off the field hurt."
Afterward, Reagan would go down to the locker room to do his postgame interviews. He never took any notes, his brother said. He kept it all up here. He didn't ask too many tough questions, either. "He was aggresive in filing stories," said Simmons, now a physical education teacher in Chicago. "But he wasn't pushy. . .he was a regular fellow one of us."
But Dutch was no shill, his brother says."He wasn't partisan but he wasn't low-key,either. He kind of exploded. He let his feelings show."
Unlike many sportscasters, "Reagan was no frustrated athlete," Simmons said."He was a student of the game."
Just another jock in the box.
Reagan was the starting right guard for the Eureka College Red Devils but no Red Grange, his brother once said.William Burghardt now of Lanham, Md., was the starting center. "We were very close," he said. "We played both ways in those days. But we preferred defense. When the other team was threatening, Dutch would say, 'Let's hang out the old red lantern, meaning, 'Let's stop them now'.
Burghardt remembers Reagan as "a very progressive and liberal person," and confesses to being a little bit puzzled about his hippity hop from the political left to the political right. But that won't stop him from voting for Reagan this fall. Burghardt was one of three blacks on the team in 1932. fOne night the Red Devils stopped at La Salle over night on the way to a game against Elmhurst College. It was midnight when the team arrved at the hotel. "The coach got into quite a lengthy discussion with the desk clerk," Burghardt recalled. "Dutch finally asked, 'why can't we go up to our rooms?'
"The coach was rather embarrassed. It was one of the few times that he forgot to announce that there were three blacks on the team. The clerk wouldn't allow us up to the rooms. As far as Eureka College was concerned, if the blacks couldn't stay, no one stayed. Reagan said, 'I think I have a solution. Give me the cab fare and I'll take the three blacks home with me to my parents' house in Dixon.' So the three of us went to the Reagans' home at 1 in the morning and that sort of entrenched the friendship."
Several years later, when Reagan was broadcasting the Iowa football games, he heard that Burghardt was doing graduate work there and arranged for Burghardt to sit beside him in the press box while he broadcast the games. f"He liked to say, 'Holy cow' a lot." Burghardt said. (During baseball season, he liked to say, "Socko" a lot, according to W.D. Williams, an avid listener in Iowa City.)
He looked like a sportswriter, too. "Usually, he wore his letterman's sweater. It was maroon, with a gold letter, and a big 'E' woven on the left," Burghardt said.
And he always wore his hat. "One of the reasons, probably, was that if he was on the air at 1, he was not one to get there at 11:45," said his brother. "Usually, he'd get there on the dead run and get in the chair just in time to hear the studio announcer say, 'Now to Dutch Reagan at the University of Iowa'."
Baseball season was another matter. Reagan once said, "I tried to play baseball before I got (my) glasses. When they chose up sides I was the last one chosen. Then I discovered football. Here was a ball big enough to see."
As the baseball announcer for WHO Reagan saw only what Western Union and his mind's eye allowed him to see. "The Western Union operator sat on one side of the glass booth and would pass the wire through a slot," said Neil Reagan. "It was just balls or strikes, or safe or out. He put in the rest. r
"He had a mitt on the table with a ball. While he was talking, he'd slam the ball in the glove. For the sound of the bat hitting the ball, they had a little thing with a cantilevered arm and a small ball attached. He'd hit it with a length of broomstick. You couldn't tell it wasn't a real ball."
It got pretty hot for the man in the glass booth. "It was understood that every day before the fifth inning, I would go over to the drug store and get him a real cold Coca Cola," said Moon.
Reagan's stickiest moment came the day the wire went dead. "When he first got the signal that the line was dead, he looked up in great amazement as if to say, 'What do I do now?" his brother said.
"There was a man at bat and there was one ball and two strikes on him. It seemed like for the rest of the afternoon, this man kept hitting foul balls -- 17 of them (others swear the number was 13 and still others insist it was 25). Anyway, it was a good eight or nine minutes. Reagan put in a lot of grab between them.He'd say, 'It's a long wind-up.' I'm sure it seemed a lot longer to him than anyone else."
The only time he actually got to see the Cubbies play was in spring training. "The Cubs trained at Catalina Island off the California coast and Ronald came up in 1937," said his brother. "He was very close to all the boys on the squad but he bacame especially close friends with Stan Hack. He and Stan would get a little outboard and cruise along the cliffs shooting mountain goats."
Not far from there, others were shooting movies. One night, Reagan went to a nightclub called the Biltmore Bowl to hear an old girlfriend, Joy Hodges, of Des Moines and Warner Brothers, sing. She arranged for Reagan to take a screen test.
On April 3, she wired the Des Moines Tribune: "Maybe scoop. . . You do have potential star in your midst. . .Dutch Reagan, local sports announcer, signed long-term Warner Brothers contract Friday. . .they consider him best bet since Robert Taylor without glasses. . ." The terms reportedly were $200 a week.
Reagan went back to Des Moines and waited. He tooled around in his convertible, drank his favorite drink, "nearbeer and alcohol," and ate his favorite dish. Myrtle Moon's macaroni and cheese. The Iowa football players who accompanied him on the banquet circuit teased him about "going to Hollywood and marrying a superstar," Simmons said.
"I remember the day he got the wire from Hollywood to come and play in his first short," Moon said. "He came running down the stairs. 'Myrtle, Myrtle,' he cried, waving the telegram."
Did they celebrate? "I'm not telling about the celebrations," she said. "We had quite a few."
Just before he left, Reagan got a call from Burghardt, who was in town to see the Drake Relays: "He said, 'Oh, God, I'm glad to hear from you. I'm packing to leave for Hollywood. I don't know if I can make it, but I can't afford to turn it down'."
Reagan's first film, "Love Is On the Air," premiered in Des Moines later that year. Dutch played the part of a radio announcer.
"Oh," sighed Moon, "it was a crummy movie."