New York and DC sports broadcasting legend reflects
Too often, late night newscasts were filled with atrocities, scandals and tragedies.
Warner Wolf found the humor in sports. He might have been the first.
When video highlights from out of town first became available, Wolf coined a phrase that infused New York’s sports lingo. And so, “Let’s go to the video tape” became a steady late-night antidote; a diversion from a long New York workday. Wolf’s highlights were testimonials and comic relief. He would chuckle through game video and his colleagues on the set would chortle along. Viewers felt a part of the seductive informality and would then hit the sack happily.
Since the 1960s, New Yorkers have had their choices of talented television sports anchors. Len Berman was a nightly New York television institution for decades, blending his sports reports with a durable mix of creativity, hard news and oddball videos. His talent transcended the set.
Fixtures included the encyclopedic Bill Mazer and the wry witted Jerry Girard. Sal Marchiano got as much facetime as anyone and of course there was The Sweater, Russ Salzberg. No New York sportscaster was busier than Marv Albert who for many years presided over WNBC-TV's sports reports when not on the road calling games.
Wolf made his mark first, where he grew up, in Washington, D.C. He worked in radio there and migrated to local television. In the 1970s, ABC Sports’ Roone Arledge summoned him to the network where among other things he did Major League Baseball. Not long after, he settled in as a local sportscaster for WABC-TV and later WCBS-TV.
As a local sports anchor, Warner was loved by all New York; the gruff, the polite and the impatient. Other than returning to DC for a stint in the 90s, he spent the bulk of forty years on New York television and radio.
Wolf’s career started in small-town radio, Pikeville, Kentucky and ended in 2016 when he was let go by Don Imus as WABC Radio’s morning sports anchor. (Wolf filed an age discrimination suit against Imus and station executives after being fired in 2016.)
We had a chance to visit by phone recently.
Your style. You put people in good moods. You had a lovable, infectious and natural smile.
It started at home. My parents were in vaudeville. My father, Jack Wolf, was one of the Gentle Maniacs (along with Paul ‘Mousie’ Garner and Dick Hakins) who replaced the original Three Stooges when they left vaudeville for the movies. My mother, Rosemary, was a dancer in the act.
My dad told me that everyone has problems. So when they go to a show or watch TV, they want an escape. You have to smile. The audience doesn’t tune in to see a sour face.
Any one broadcaster in particular who might have influenced you?
Locally in D.C., Jim Simpson (later longtime NBC and ESPN play-by-play announcer). When he signed off, he always had a big smile. It stuck with me.
Remind me of the time when you arrived in New York and Howard Cosell popped in on you at the ABC Network studio.
I was doing a college football scoreboard show on Saturdays when I first got there. Dave Diles was my partner. We’re getting ready to go on-air. Cosell drops in, sees me and says, “Warner, tell Roone (Arledge, president of ABC Sports) that you’re too big for this."
You were part of ABC’s Monday Night Baseball in the 1970s, how did it work out?
It was okay. I don’t think play-by-play was my great strength. Before doing network games, I did play-by-play; covering the Senators, Bullets and the University of Maryland. I also called American University basketball, baseball and soccer. Sitting here today, I can say that my strength was doing the 6pm and 11pm sports.
As a general rule, which broadcaster bonds more with a community, the play-by-play announcer or the sports anchor on the local news ?
With no doubt, it’s the anchor. Just the facetime and visibility with the public during key viewing times, early and late, every night. It’s enormous----particularly over time!
What was the experience like listening to play-by-play growing up in the Washington, DC area?
I was very fortunate to absorb both nearby Baltimore and Washington D.C. play-by-play. The best I ever heard on baseball and football was Chuck Thompson. I didn’t hear him do other sports; yet I can absolutely tell you that he was the best I heard calling games. There was no one better. I did listen to Jim Karvellas call Bullets (now Wizards) games and I thought he was good too. Yet, Marv Albert was the best radio basketball and hockey announcer of my era.
How did you come up with “Let’s go the video tape?”
I was working in Washington. Back then, in the late 1960s, running video wasn’t always reliable. I’d say something like, ‘Let’s look at that touchdown run’ and someone in the production room didn’t hit the tape machine. Finally, one night, I said ‘Let’s go to the video tape’ and it worked as a perfect cue so I stuck with it.
When you returned to radio after being so identified exclusively with television, was it difficult?
No, not at all. My roots were in radio. I love radio. Hey, I didn’t have to dress up every morning and get ready to look good on the set. You’re also not compressed for time. You’re more relaxed. No one is talking into your ear. Radio is about painting the picture.
What did it take to succeed as Imus’ sports guy?
You’ve got to be quick witted and a have a sense of humor.
What set you apart?
Viewers didn’t want to see me. I used lots of video. When I got to Channel 7 (WABC-TV) in New York we were able to get highlights that out competitors (WNBC-TV and WCBS-TV) didn’t have. We took advantage of satellite feeds.
Local television sports today, what’s its future?
When I started in Washington and later in the early years in New York, if you were on one of the three network stations, you only had to beat the other two at 11 o'clock. There was no ESPN. Today, there’s so much competition. As ESPN’s SportsCenter grew in the 80s and 90s, it presented challenges for local sportscasts. In New York, of course, there's also YES, MSG and other cable options. It's much tougher for a young sportscaster today because of this competition. I was very fortunate to be on the air when there were fewer viewer options.
When I started at WABC-TV in the 1970s, sports news was allocated 5 minutes. As the years evolved, it went to 4, 3, 2 and so on. Constrained time and ESPN make it tough. Now you also have Smartphones!
But there are so many local highlights in New York?
No, it didn’t work that way. New York was so important to ESPN especially early on. The Mets, Yankees and other local highlights got lots of play nationally.
What was it like when you arrived at WABC TV as a local sportscaster?
We were killing it. Bill Beutel and Roger Grrimsby anchored. Geraldo Rivera was a reporter. I was lucky.
You left WABC-TV and all hell broke loose as you went to WCBS-TV.
I never wanted to leave. I had no agent. I knew I was successful. I asked for a specific dollar amount when my contract was up. They said no. WCBS TV came after me. They had Jim Jenson, a New York mainstay. We negotiated a deal. WABC TV came back and tried to satisfy me. I said I have a deal with WCBS. I said I shook hands and won’t renege. WABC took me to court, claiming a noncompete and they lost!
The first time I heard you was in 1967, calling a basketball game on radio back to D.C. Wilt Chamberlain against Bill Russell, the Sixers and Celts. It was played in Philly.
That was the year Wilt and the Sixers broke the Celtics' streak. I was born and bred in in D.C. and got to know Red Auerbach. He lived in D.C. all the years he was with the Celtics. I reached out to him and he let us come up and broadcast. The rules weren’t as rigid as they are today. The NBA wasn’t as popular then.