Voices that live on forever

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[This column was written April 4, 2011]

By Shelly Saltman

In both days of joy and sadness, the voices we hear on the radio have always been a source of comfort, joy, exhilaration and happiness, as well as sorrow. They have lifted us to great heights and they have seen us through our moments of despair.  They have been there to tell us about victories and defeats.  Fortunately, in my lifetime, I have not only been able to listen to them as a young man, but on many an occasion, work with them side-by-side.  No matter what the sport -- baseball, boxing, basketball, football, golf, gymnastics, hockey or the Olympics -- the great ones could and did call them all.

I have worked with Don Dunphy, Ernie Harwell, Marty Glickman, Vin Scully, Dick Enberg, Alan Michaels, Curt Gowdy, Bob Prince, Harry Carey and Chick Hearn to mention a few.  Each has been, or still is a master of his craft.  They are among those  who coin the memorable phrase that will stay with a child long after he has become an adult or moved elsewhere.  Each local team has had such a voice and their "isms" that are everlasting.

Such a man was my friend,  neighbor and associate, Francis "Chick" Hearn. In  fact, when I was at the Forum working with the Lakers and the Kings, Francis was kind enough to give my son, Steven, a junior then a senior at Agoura High School, a job as his official runner.  As for running, Chick Hearn calling of the Lakers' games was just starting and would go through 3,338 consecutive contests.  In that period, he forever changed the way basketball games would be called.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Before the 1960-61 season, the Lakers moved from Minneapolis into the then brand new Sports Arena in Los Angeles. The Arena has a seating capacity of 16,000 and, until two years ago, it was home of  USC basketball. It was also there that, as co-commissioner of boxing for the 1984 Olympics, I was based. It was a warm and cozy arena.  Not like so many of today's mega-types, but it was a place where one could feel an intimate experience with the players.

The Lakers with such great players as future Hall of Famers Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, playing against all the great teams of the day were drawing only 1,000 to 1,500 fans. One day, the audience was so sparse the public address announcer, suggested that all the fans introduce themselves to each other so they wouldn't be strangers.  It didn't look as if the team was going to make it in L.A.

Bob Short, the then owner, was a renowned penny-pincher and would spend as little money as he could to promote.  The Lakers were not on either radio or TV. Dr. Ernie Vandeweghe, the team doctor at the time, kept nagging Bob to reach in his pocket and at least buy radio time for one broadcast.  Ernie, a former pro ballplayer himself, understood how radio could build an audience having played for the Knicks in New York and listened to the mellifluous tones of Marty Glickman who did as much for building interest in pro basketball as anyone in history.

Tired of Ernie's pestering him, (Ernie, by the way, is the father of Kiki, long time Westlake resident and pro all-star), Short  flat out told Ernie, if you care so much, reach in your pocket and pay for the time yourself. Ernie did this!

Ernie, not having much knowledge of who could do the play-by-play, found a young announcer who had recently come from WMBD in Peoria, Ill., to do the USC football and basketball.  You guessed it, Francis Hearn.

Ernie reached in his pocket and paid for the radio time and paid Francis.  Francis needed someone to talk to. Thus Ernie became his first color man.  In later years, he would have a young Al Michaels and even a newly retired Pat Riley before he became a Hall of Fame coach.

As part of the deal, Ernie got the station to commit to so many promotional spots leading up to the first broadcast.  Game day came and needless to say, Chick was an immediate hit.  As a result, the station picked up three more games that season, increased the number the following year and the crowds grew proportionately.

When Jack Kent Cooke came on the scene and bought the Lakers, he stole Francis away from USC and in November 1965 a legend began. In that time and for 37 years, he did not miss a broadcast. The feats of Cal Ripken, Lou Gehrig and Johnny Kerr are truly what legends are made of, but Francis "Chick" Hearn stands shoulder-to-shoulder alongside them.

He got the sobriquet of "Chick" when as a young basketball player at Bradley University. His teammates played a prank  and  presented him with a shoebox.  They hung around to see his reaction.  When he opened it, he did not find Sneakers, but instead a dead chicken.  From then on he was affectionately called "Chick".

When Jack Kent Cooke heard this story, he immediately dubbed his announcer "Chick" and thus it was so.

You know, Alan Michaels had his moment in history when he called the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team victory "The Miracle on Ice." Marty Glickman made a New York orange drink famous when after each Knick basket, he would say, "Good like Nedicks."  Harry Carey in Chicago would lead every one during the middle of the seventh inning in a rendition of "Take Me out to the Ballgame." Ernie Harwell, revered Detroit Tiger announcer,  would say things like "That ball is long gone " after a home run, or he was "caught window shopping" after a called third strike.  Bob Prince, legendary Pirates announcer waved the "Green Weenie," an oversized Heinz pickle, to hex opponents. 

None, however, captured the imagination, the way Chick did.  There were so many "Chickisms"  it is tough to single out any one.

He created his own jargon ... "a 20 foot lay-up" was jump shot by Jamaal Wilkes; "air ball" an errant shot that failed to touch either the rim, or the backboard; "boo-birds", fans who jeer their own team when they play badly; "caught with his hand in the cookie jar", a reaching foul; "the charity stripe", the free throw line; "It'll count if it goes", a player that is fouled in the act of shooting; "didn't draw iron", a shot which misses the rim, but hits the backboard; sometimes he would add, "but it drew a lot of flies"; "dribble-drive" a player who drives to the basket while shooting; "finger roll", a shot where the ball rolls off the shooters fingers; "a frozen rope," a shot with no trajectory; "he's in the popcorn machine," meaning a defensive player got faked into the air; and, of course: "The mustard's on the hot dog," when a player makes and unnecessary showy play which ends in a turnover. A small smattering of his phrases of which there are many more ... often imitated.

It was only fitting that this week they unveiled a statue to Chick in front of the Laker's current home, Staples Center. So when a young fan, asks his father, "Daddy who was that man?"  His father can truly say, "The greatest basketball announcer that ever called a game."

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Sports Scrapbook
Shelly Saltman has been in the sports world as an executive, TV producer, broadcaster and event creator for more than 50 years. Among his credentials are his work with Muhammad Ali and Evel Knievel, the numerous network TV shows he produced and created, NBA/NHL management roles, co-creator of the Amgen Tour of California and as the first president of Fox Sports. He lives in Ventura County.