Note: Since writing this article, I've discovered the original draft of a story that I wrote about the 1965 incident a few days after it occurred. I submitted that story as my English composition assignment on February 16, 1965. Rediscovering it has refreshed my memory, and I subsequently expanded that section of this article on October 22, 2002.
For a dozen seasons spread over 15 years, I broadcast high school and small-college football and basketball games on radio and cable TV.
I never played either game, so I tried to give the athletes the benefit of the doubt in my play-by-play. I simply described what they did, avoiding criticism. As a result, bland old Tom Thomas never got any nasty letters. But some of my co-workers who spoke their minds weren't so lucky.
Here are two incidents. It happens that each involved a high school basketball game between a small public school and a Catholic parochial school. In each case, the broadcaster implied that the Protestant kids had bad manners, and that angered some of his listeners.
As a Richwood High School senior, I made my sportscasting debut on February 12, 1965. WMRN-FM of Marion, Ohio, came to my hometown to broadcast the Marion Catholic Fighting Irish against the Richwood Tigers. In a hard-fought game, the visitors would win 72-69, breaking Richwood's six-game winning streak.
Bob Miller was the regular WMRN play-by-play announcer on the FM side, along with Jim Reardon, who read the commercials. However, partly because my father advertised on the station, I was invited to call the third quarter of this one.
We crammed ourselves into the small section of auditorium seats over the central entrance, just outside the projection booth. An engineer inside the booth ran wires through the holes in the wall to us.
Click here for a transcript of part of my play-by-play description.
After my quarter, I turned the microphone back to Bob. However, I stayed around for the rest of the broadcast, so I was there in the fourth quarter when, with 1:53 left in the game, Bob described the fifth personal foul on Richwood's center.
"He leaves the ball game with six points; Frank Carter. And at the line will be Greg Gibb. 66-65, the Irish lead by one point; Gibb gets two shots. His first shot is no good.
"Richwood cheerleaders calling a cheer right in the middle of the foul shot; this is sportsmanship at its best.
"Gibb's second shot is also no good, and there's a fight for the rebound."
That line about sportsmanship caught my attention. The cheerleaders often would yell "Rebound! Rebound! Get that (clap clap) rebound!" when an opponent went to the foul line. But listening to the tape today, I don't hear that.
What I do hear is disorganized screaming. The Richwood fans maybe including cheerleaders, maybe not were trying to distract Gibb when he shot. This has become common practice at colleges like Duke, but it really wasn't good sportsmanship in high school in the 1960s.
Nevertheless, Bob may have realized that he shouldn't have mentioned it. Before the game, he'd confided to me that quite a few football and basketball officials were angry with him because he had said on the air that they were making bad calls. This didn't bother him, he said. He was only describing what anyone who was watching the game in person could see. He didn't care about offending officials; he called the game as he saw it. And some examples of this attitude showed up in that February 12 game.
At the end of the first half, for instance: "Ten seconds left. Marion Catholic 33, Richwood 27. Hoffman to Criss Somerlot; long one-hander rips the cords, and it's 33-29. (pause, horn) The clock was ticking away, the referee didn't touch the basketball, and the clock ran out!" Never mind that the referee isn't supposed to handle the ball after a field goal. Marion Catholic, with not enough time to bring the ball upcourt, merely allowed the last few seconds to expire.
Or take these examples from the fourth quarter:
"Castner . . . passes to Everly, who shoots; his hand was slapped by Carter, but no foul shot called."
"A pass to Everly. To Kevin Castner; he shoots, his hand was slapped, and they didn't call that one either."
"There's the tossup; bad tossup, they'll do it over again. A little while ago, he could have tooted that whistle two or three times and didn't."
"Castner across to Charley Morbitt, to Jay Shoup; and an offensive foul called on Charley Morbitt! That's Charley's second personal; no comment from this end."
It might be noted that in all these instances, Bob was complaining about calls that went against Marion Catholic.
Shortly after Bob's remark about the Richwood cheer, a time-out was called. While Jim was reading a commercial, Bob discussed the incident with me in approximately these words:
BOB. Wasn't that something about calling that cheer in the middle of a foul shot? In eleven years of broadcasting, I've never seen anything like that.
TOM. I didn't notice it. What were they doing, a rebound cheer or something?
BOB. I don't know what it was, but they were doing it right when he was trying to shoot.
Coming out of the commercial, he tried to clarify his earlier comments.
"Thank you very much, Jim. A couple of minutes ago we haven't had a chance to tell you since then, because the action's been fast and furious but the Richwood gals, when they were leading a cheer, were leading something about 'get that rebound' and weren't looking on the floor and he hadn't, the player hadn't even shot yet. But, heh, but that's, uh, that's neither here nor there."
Okay, so that was going to be our story. The cheerleaders hadn't been guilty of unsportsmanlike conduct; they had merely made a mistake in timing.
Unlikely as it may have been in 1965, some of the Richwood fans must have been listening to our broadcast on portable FM radios. When the game was over, a handful of them gathered at one corner of the floor. Ruth Ransome, the mother of senior cheerleader Pat Ransome (now Beatley), called angrily up to Bob or whoever else would listen. She wasn't happy about the sportsmanship comment.
We didn't answer. Bob was adding up the scorebook, and Jim was busy reading commercials. Charley Morbitt, Sr., the father of one of the Marion Catholic players, was closer to Ruth than we were; he told her that the game was played out on the court and that what was said on the radio made no difference. I leaned over to Bob and said to him quietly:
TOM. You've got the mother of a cheerleader after you now.
BOB. Well, I don't care about that.
TOM. I didn't think you did.
Ruth was later joined by Freda Kyle, the mother of sophomore reserve cheerleader Nancy Kyle (now Hoffman). The parents eventually departed before our broadcast was over, but after I gave the final stats, I tried to patch things up. Turning the microphone back to Bob for the final wrap-up, I gave him a chance to make amends by kidding him about his controversial image.
"Bob tends to make a few enemies sometimes," I said. "He did happen to comment tonight when one of the Richwood cheerleaders made a slight miscalculation and started a cheer when a Marion Catholic player was shooting a foul shot. This started a bit of an uprising among some of the mothers down here! But, Bob, I think you'll come out of this one all right; nothing meant against the Richwood cheerleaders, of course, they just made a mistake."
"Oh, certainly not," Bob answered. "Well, I even explained that a little bit later on in the ball game, so I'm sure that the same person that was listening should have listened a little bit longer and they'd have heard the other end of it, and then they wouldn't have come up and made the comment in the first place. We don't tend to make enemies anywhere we go in broadcasting, and certainly don't care to make enemies of even one mother, if that's all that there was dissenting, or two or three or whatever the case might have been."
Ten seasons later, I was the program director of the cable TV system in Washington, Pennsylvania. On December 4, 1974, we taped a game at the local parochial high school, Immaculate Conception, for cablecast later that night. The visiting team came from McGuffey, a rural part of the county outside our viewing area.
Larry Schwingel was our play-by-play announcer. This time, at the end of the game there was no gathering of angry villagers glaring up at his booth. Rather, the complaint arrived a few days later, in the form of a letter from one Washington woman.
"I was highly incensed when I viewed the program," she wrote to my boss and to one of our sponsors and to the superintendents of the two schools involved. "After a day and a half, I am still seething.
"At no point in the broadcast was it mentioned that Immaculate Conception was sponsoring the broadcast, so it was to be assumed that the gentleman doing the commentary was an unbiased sportscaster. Not so.
"Within minutes of the beginning of the game, a foul was called on a McGuffey player. The sportscaster made a remark about the fact that when he was in school, a boy committing a foul raised his hand, but that no longer seemed to be the fashion. While he was saying this, the McGuffey player in question could be seen on camera with his hand in the air.
"This was just the first of many small digs. His play-by-play narration, which so blatantly indicated I.C. as the good guys and McGuffey as the bad guys, was enough to make the most uninvolved viewer sit up and take notice.
"I have heard that the gentleman is an I.C. graduate. If this is true, I can understand his loyalty understand, not condone.
"I do not claim to be an uninterested viewer. My husband is a teacher at McGuffey High School. We are also members of the Immaculate Conception parish. I have heard comments from both sides of the fence: the McGuffey comments are angry, the I.C. comments are embarrassed.
"Athletic events between schools should serve to engender friendly rivalries and cement relationships. A broadcast such as this one just may have set the Ecumenical Movement back about twenty years."
I was asked to answer the letter.
"We've discussed the matter rather thoroughly here," I wrote, "including looking at the tape of the entire first half. We must disagree with your conclusion that our sportscaster, Mr. Larry Schwingel, showed an anti-McGuffey bias.
"He says, and we agree with him, that he calls the game as he sees it. He'll comment on errors, no matter which side makes them. Naturally, a viewer with loyalties toward the school making the alleged error may react defensively and feel that the sportscaster is unjustly criticizing his school; but contrary to what you may think, we do not try to portray the visitors as 'bad guys.'
"The sportscasting team of Curt Gowdy and Al DeRogatis is NBC's first-string football commentary team. Yet they are now strongly disliked by many fans in this area, after having criticized a Steeler player for what they saw as an overly-aggressive play. Any sportscaster who 'tells it like it is' runs this sort of risk, but we feel it's the only honest way to call a game.
"You mentioned only one specific incident of anti-McGuffey remarks in the cablecast in question, so we checked it out. The McGuffey player did raise his hand, but only for an instant and only to shoulder height, so many people (including Mr. Schwingel) didn't see it. At the time he commented on the raising of hands, the player who committed the foul did not have his hand in the air. The camera was showing, however, another McGuffey player with both hands in the air waiting for the rebound of the foul shot.
"The tape did show earlier instances of McGuffey players not acknowledging fouls, and in the previous week's cablecast, Wash High (the home team) was criticized for the same oversight. Actually, the comment in the McGuffey-I.C. game was directed as much at the officials as anybody, for failing to enforce the rule. Naturally a player will be reluctant to raise his hand, especially if he doubts he actually committed a foul.
"It is likely that during the course of the game, Mr. Schwingel devoted more time to talking about I.C. than about McGuffey. This is because we have no viewers who live in the McGuffey school district, while we do have many viewers whose children go to I.C. But we feel sure that there was no attempt to portray the visitors as villains.
"We will, of course, continue to do our best to keep our sports cablecasts impartial."
But that, of course, is hard to do. For example, no matter which announcing team that CBS or another network assigns to Steelers games nowadays, local fans hear their evenhanded comments and complain that they're biased against Pittsburgh.
That's why so many of us turn down the TV sound and listen instead to Bill and Myron and Tunch, the local radio broadcasters. They're biased in favor of Pittsburgh, which sounds just about right to us.