TO WALK WITH GREATNESS

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It took me over 60 years of working in both the Sports/Entertainment Industries as well as a Kaleidoscope of others, all over the world, to truly realize how fortunate I have been. My work took me to more countries than I can care to remember.  However, along the way, the people I worked and associated with, made all my experiences pleasant.

As I reflect, I have come to realize even more my good fortune.  Where others learned of progressive developments, newsworthy occurrences,  as well as outstanding sports events through the media over the years, I have had a ringside seat. In many cases, they have been  to watching, as well as  learning and working  with the  movers and shakers. The people , who behind the scenes, have made our lives a little better.

This includes many partnerships where I have been lucky enough to work with outstanding creative people.  Actually, they are too many of them  for me to mention in one single column.

However for this writing, I have selected two whom I wish  to introduce you to. I am sure their names are not familiar to you. However, every single day, without realizing it, ( you and I)… benefit from what they created on a daily basis. We all meet a great many smart individuals without realizing. Many of us do not enjoy the privilege of working with such individuals. I have!

Bob Block and Clair Higgins are just two of those… WHO?

 Let me introduce you.

 Those who knew Bob Block when he was younger, (unfortunately, to my dismay, I didn’t know him then), could readily see he was something special. His thought process is different from you and me. After all, do you know anyone else who is in the Guinness Book of Records with his family?

As evidence of his “out-of-the-box” thinking , he rented an Underwater Science Lab.  There,  he and his  twelve-year-old daughter Debbie, his ten-year-old son David and his wife Carole lived under the water for 24 hours… and they did!

Today, that seems mundane, but 48 years ago, it was unheard of.

Bob holds over 150 U.S. and International  Patents in many fields with countless more pending.  If you wish to know what they are you can look them up. For the purposes of this column, I shall deal only with Sports and Broadcasting.

We worked together on many things. Among  a multitude of other accolades, he is considered the father of “Over-the-Air Pay Television”. His inventions paved the way for “Pay Cable and  TV On Demand” as we know them today.  This technology  made  systems like Netflix possible.

Bob brought about HDTV (High Definition TV). Working in conjunction with Select-TV, the company he founded which was the first Subscription TV System in America,   he organized the first telecast of “High Definition TV”.

It was done in conjunction with Sony Electronics. Clair Higgins put together the transmission mechanism. The first broadcast was a Welterweight Fight out of the old Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.  The test was an immediate success!

The late fight promoter Dan Goosen and myself handled the broadcasting chores. A clip of that fight was used as part of the Sony sales effort for the next few years at both International Trade shows and presentations.

As you sit back this weekend to watch Soccer from overseas, a Motor Race from Monaco, PGA Golf Tournaments, or for that matter any News happening from anywhere around the world, you now will know the name Clair Higgins. Our pleasure in viewing events immediately as they occur from anywhere is taken for granted is his doing. It was not always that way.

In 1959, Clair, along with his partner Jack Myers, developed a method of following young Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy as he toured the country, holding rallies in small hamlets and big cities in his quest to get the Democratic nomination for President.

Clair and Jack purchased a used school bus, which they converted into a mobile TV Studio on wheels. This had never been done before. It had tape machines, TV Cameras. There was a Dish on the roof for transmission from  wherever the event was happening, to networks, stations and systems everywhere. .

That is exactly how the modern mobile unit then came about. Clair was the first to make the mobile unit, a studio on wheels.  His company, VTE, expanded their fleet so that wherever there was an event to be covered, the viewer at home would miss nothing and have the full enjoyment. Today, mobile units and live transmission are taken for granted. Another first that Clair created  was a special housing which allowed him to become the first man to shoot videotape underwater.  This revolutionized and expanded areas that could never before be covered.

At Ali’s last fight in the Bahamas, where there was no possible capability of delivering a signal of the event, Claire led the way by putting a Satellite dish on a barge halfway between Tampa, Florida and Nassau, to deliver a signal to the roof of the highest hotel in Tampa where the signal was then beamed to a  Satellite and the picture delivered world wide. The project was almost sabotaged when the barge and equipment capsized in rough water. Claire then immediately set up a portable micro link for line-of –sight transmission  to deliver the signal to Tampa,.

Today, both men are older.  As pioneers, they exemplify the creative ingenuity and entrepreneurship that has and continues to make America great.

WHERE, OH WHERE HAS NADIA GONE

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At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, a 15-year-old woman’s gymnast from Romania set the Gymnastics World on its ear.  She not only won three Gold Medals, but along the way, she achieved the first perfect 10 ever awarded.

In case you have no point of reference, at the time it was like Babe Ruth being the first to hit 60 Home Runs, or Roger Bannister running the first sub-4 minute mile, or for that matter, LeBron James leading in all statistical categories during the 2016 NBA Playoffs. In brief, it was a monumental achievement.

Like so many other sports fans, I watched the TV in awe. We had just started the new Sports Division at FOX and my sidekick Marty Groothuis and I had gone to Tucson, Arizona to sign up the United States Gymnastics Federation for representation.

Up until then, Gymnastics had not played an important role on TV. The only time it was shown was during major events such as the Olympics. We determined that among our goals was to change all that.

Working with Frank Baer, the man who founded the USGF in his Tucson garage, we quickly accomplished that by making Gymnastics a regular feature on all three networks.  We created original competitions just for the Networks…. but we needed more!  We needed something spectacular!

Than it hit us!  Why not bring the Romanian team to the United States.  We were told this was impossibility.  After all, the United States was locked in a Cold War with the Eastern Bloc countries.

At that time, ‘NO’ was not a word we understood. So, we decided to make our dream competition a reality. First, the late Ron Beckman and I got invited by Frank Baer to attend the 1978 World Championships in Strasbourg, France. We went, not as official members of the delegation, but as auditors.

Frank would try to set up a meeting with Nadia’s coach, Bela Karoli. Now, you have to picture what Strasbourg looked like at the time. This beautiful sleepy mountain town in the Alsace, which had been the scene of many Nazi atrocities during World War II, was once again an armed camp.

At the 1972 Olympics, Arab terrorists had murdered 11 Israeli athletes. As a result, the French government, hoping to prevent any further chaos, had armored half-tracks and military personal stationed throughout the normally sleepy Hamlet.

The Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc teams were training in two separate buildings. The Eastern Bloc was an armed fortress.  There was only one egress and ingress.  Each was manned by an imported trooper dressed in riot gear … armed with an Uzi and at his side a guard dog.  Who looked mean!… REAL MEAN!

As a non-delegate, I had to figure a way to get behind that Iron Curtain and meet Mr. Karoli. I noticed that all the Delegates wore plastic badges identifying themselves as officials.

I came up with a solution!

Finding out where there was a “five and ten cents store” in town, I went there and bought plastic cases.  Into one, I slid my California license with my picture and pinned it to my jacket.

With outward bravado, but fear inside, I walked up to the guard, patted the dog on the head, waved to the guard and walked behind the Iron Curtain to sign the Romanian team for their first-ever U.S. appearance.

Armed with the agreement, I headed back to the U.S. and set about planning the tour. The two teams were to meet over a ten-day period in five of America’s top Arenas ending in Vancouver, B.C.

The tickets and venues were all set.  Within two days of going on sale, Madison Square Garden; The Los Angeles Forum; plus San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; Seattle and the PNE in B.C. were all sold out. The event created excitement everywhere.

In fact, Mayor Lindsey of New York was so on board that he planned to personally greet the Romanian Delegation upon their arrival at JFK at the start of the tour. He had gone so far as to order a Red Carpet and the NYPD Kilt Band to play when they set foot on United States soil.

The fabulous Sid Silver had handled all the logistics and we flew to New York the night before the anticipated arrival. This was it!  FOX Sports was making a statement.

Two O’clock the night before, I was awakened from a deep sleep in my Hotel Room.  It was my late wife.  She informed me that the Romanian Consulate had been trying to reach me.  It seems Nadia, so the story went, had injured her “pinky finger” and could not grasp the high Bar, or the pummel horse. In addition, she definitely could not do either the Floor Ex, or the Balance Beam.

Everything was immediately cancelled!

FOX had to repay all the local promoters for their expenses and damage. It looked as if my FOX career was over before it had a chance to really take off.

Fortunately, we had purchased a policy with Lloyd’s of London valued at more than enough money to make everyone whole.

Needless to say, it took quite awhile for Mayor john Lindsey, whose assistant I had called at 2:30 that morning to alert him of the problems, to forgive me.  For three weeks leading up to the Madison Square Garden event, the Mayor had been on every Radio and TV Station, even had a special Press Conference touting the Romanian team arrival.

Lloyd’s was willing to pay up if we could prove Nadia was truly injured. Bill Saunders, President of the FOX International Division, based out of London, flew to Bucharest and after four days came back with medical proof –X-Rays and certification, that Nadia was truly injured.

WHEW! Llloyd’s paid off in full.

But the story doesn’t end there!

In 2006, eight years later, my daughter and her husband gave a small graduation party at their house for my oldest granddaughter Sarah. Among the invited quests were her classmate Kirsten and her parents.  They had emigrated from Romania.

Sarah introduced me by name to Kirsten’s mother and father.

To which Kirsten’s father said my name was a familiar one in Romania. Puzzled, I asked why?

It seems the father was the Romanian Secret Police Captain scheduled to escort the team to the United States.  His superiors found out that he had made plans to defect and immediately aborted the tour.  Eventually, when the “Wall came down”, he and his family were allowed to leave legally.

Quite a quandary!! To this day, I do not know how Bill Saunders got the medical papers and the certification.

You know what?… I never asked!… leave well enough alone.

THE LEGACY OF AL CAMPANIS

“I’m sad not only for his passing but the way people will remember him. That’s not the way I will remember him. There are a lot of racists in the world, on both sides , and he wasn’t one of them. He helped Roy so much when he was coming through the major leagues. He molded a lot of young men into men.”…   Roxie Campanella, Dodger Hall of Fame Catcher Roy Campanella’s widow

 

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This is a love story, a story of compassion, both understanding and misunderstanding.

About a month ago, my friend Bob Perlberg asked me to join him for lunch with Jimmy Campanis.  This excited me because I had heard so much about Jimmy from my friend Al Campanis.

Al had been the Vice President and General Manager of the Dodgers and on many an occasion would host my son Steven and myself to a steak and eggs brunch in his box at Dodger Stadium  Sunday during doubleheaders… Remember them?

I thought Bob was talking about Al’s son Jimmy when he was really speaking of Jimmy, Al’s grandson. Subsequently, I got to talk to young Jimmy who was kind enough to send me his book, ”BORN INTO BASEBALL”.

The book itself is easy reading and gave me an insight even deeper into my late friend Al. In this day and age of so much disrespect and animas, it was great to read about parental and family love that started with a grandfather, (Al), a Greek Immigrant who rose to one of the most coveted positions in what has often been called, “America’s Pastime…Baseball”.

He was born in the Dodecanese Islands, graduated from New York University and was a Navy Chief Petty Officer during World War II. He loved this country and everything about it. He appreciated what the U.S.A.

had given him. Al was a man without prejudice.

So much so, that when Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson into the Dodger organization he asked Al to be Jackie’s roommate and in essence, help in anyway possible to make Jackie feel wanted and to be Jackie’s mentor. While playing for the Dodger’s Montreal farm team, they became the first interracial roommates in all of Baseball.

At the time, Al, himself, was to endure a lot of personal taunts and insults. You can use your imagination the names he was called.

Al stood alongside Jackie, together fighting many a battle against those who would slander him or intend to harm him.  It was Al’s chore to make number 42’s integration into the Dodger organization as smooth as possible. The task was well done and a strong bond between the two men was formed until Jackie passed.

To show you the closeness that developed between Jackie and Al, is best exemplified in what young Jimmy wrote in “BORN INTO BASEBALL”

It seems that Al’s son, 12-year-old Jimmy, asked his dad to help him with a school “show and tell” project. His subject was Jackie Robinson and the project was due the next day.  He figured his dad could perhaps get one of Robinson’s bat, or his glove for Jimmy to bring.

Jimmy told his dad he prepared a speech and he had to recite it to the class the next morning at 10. The next morning, as Jimmy was wrapping up ‘tell’, he saw his dad standing in the hall outside the classroom.

The teacher said to Jimmy,” your ‘tell’ was great, now what do you have to show me?”

Young Jimmy said ‘”let me go get it”. He went out into the hall. To his surprise, there was Jackie Robinson.

Jimmy brought him into the room and for well over thirty minutes he answered questions and signed autographs.  All the time, telling the class how happy he was to do this for his friend Al, Jimmy’s dad.

On most of those Summer Sundays at Dodger Stadium, Al would introduce me to many of his friends. This included Don Newcombe, Murray Wills, Roy Campanella and Jim Gilliam… all African- Americans ballplayers.

Unfortunately, Al’s illustrious and successful career with the Dodgers came to a crashing and ignominious end on April 6, 1987. On the wall of his office, this non-biased man man who beside family pictures had only three other pictures… Don Newcombe, an African- American; Sandy Koufax, a Jew; and Roberto Clemente, Hispanic.

This man who had embraced Jackie Robinson when it wasn’t popular to do it, on ABC’S Nightline after praising the superior athletic ability that Black Ballplayers possessed, went on to make some statements that were construed as prejudicial.

A hue and cry immediately labeled him as a racist.  Both Mr. Campanis and the Dodgers quickly apologized, but their pleas fell on deaf ears and the Dodgers, in fear of offending their fans, unceremoniously fired Al.

I have written this column today, because I feel my voice has to be added to many others, viewing today’s tensions in our society, are asking for calm, understanding and clarity of thought.

I am the son of an immigrant mother.  Over the years, I have felt the slings and arrows of prejudice. However, unlike the Black Man, I am not an obvious target.

For years, the locker and the arena have been my milieu. This area is occupied by teams.  In order for a team to succeed, they must react as one.  Color, has no place in the Locker Room. I am no different!  I am like every man!

I use the phrase, “Some of my best friends are people!’ America built its reputation over the years as a ‘melting pot’. Unfortunately, with the good, comes the bad. In every barrel of apples, there are always a few bad ones. There are those who hate and those who care.  Too often, those that hate outshout those who care.

To me, Al Campanis, a devoted man, a good citizen and a great friend got a bad rap. He is a good example of how knee jerk reactions without thought can ruin someone’s life.  Before we do something regrettable, we need to take a deep breath and reflect.  Or as my Mom used to say, “we must think before we act”.

AL Campanis knew his way around a Baseball Field like few others.  He was not trained in being a TV Personality. When asked any question realizing that millions of people are watching, it is easy to get sidetracked and flustered.  It is said in the Broadcast Industry, “Your tongue gets in the way of your eye teeth”. That night on ABC, not schooled, or versed in TV, Al was like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights once the cameras were turned on.

This I am convinced is what happened to Al Campanis

Misunderstanding that brings about violence is never the answer.

THE THUNDERING HERD

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Through the movies and sports, my life has always been full. About ten years ago, I saw a motion picture entitled “We Are Marshall”. It was also there that the movies introduced me to Mathew McConaughey. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back and eventually you will see where I am heading.

When I was a kid growing up in Boston anything that had to do with athletics, I wanted to be a part of.  My mom always knew where I was.

If I wasn’t at school, or hadn’t walked the six, or seven miles to either Fenway Park, or Braves field, I could be found on a nearby sandlot playing in a pickup game of Baseball.  There were always enough guys to make some sort of teams.

Usually, it was behind the local Super Market. In order to get to our field of combat, we would pry a wooden slat off of a fence behind the projects where we lived. After playing. We would make sure to replace the board in the exact place, so the Super Market people would never know how we got there.

There was always one Baseball! It was kept in tact by black electric tape, and was always on its last legs. Unfortunately, Morrill, the worst player, owned the ball.  However, if we didn’t let him play in the game there would be no game.  We made sure we were nice to Morrill except when his mom called him for supper and he would not leave the ball.

In football season, we rag-a-muffins would walk all the way to Harvard Square and look for a pickup game on the hard dirt infield of Cambridge Commons.  We often played under the Elm Tree where George Washington once took command of the Continental Army.

Sometimes the authorities bothered us, but never when the Kennedy kids were there… Teddy et al, (that’s right the future Senator).

In Basketball season we would sneak into the MIT Gym where little Bobby O’Neal was our lookout.

When the weather wasn’t good and we had at least eleven cents (that’s right, 11pennies… that was all it cost), we would go en mass to the movies.  It was great! There were always two pictures: –  (a double feature), a cartoon and a News Reel.  Many days the auditorium was hot until some special theaters had refrigeration, or swamp coolers.

It was at the Cinema, (the Movies), where I was first introduced to Sports Movies, That was to become the genre I loved most of all. Thus, in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, I discovered Knute Rockne, the Gipper, Lou Gehrig and all the sports heroes past and present.

It was in such a way that Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, Pat O’Brien, Kirk Douglas, Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster all entered my life. They played bigger than life characters, (my heroes), who had graced our Sports pages.

Of course, there was always Jack Oakie.  No matter what the sport was, the studios always put this amiable, jovial rotund fellow into them.  Although he seemed to always to be stumbling over himself, yet he would emerge victorious.  Whether playing a fictitious Quarterback, a Pitcher, First Basemen, or a Track Star, we always rooted for him.

His movies, however, were always comedies and good inevitably triumphed over evil.  Real sports pictures, as they developed over the years, started to look at not only the seamy side of life, but also the hardships that had to be overcome.  Many had messages filled with pathos where in real life, good did not always defeat the bad.

One such movie was “We are Marshall” and the real life hero was Coach Jack Lengyel.  Mathew McConaughey portrayed Coach Lengyel.

Now, dear reader please understand I have never met the Coach.  However, he sits on many illustrious Boards, including the United States Sports Academy Advisory Board of which I am proud to serve also.  My mentor Bob Block who is a founding member of the Academy brought Coach Lengyel’s heartfelt story to my attention.

It was Bob who suggested I write a story about the Coach… and what a story it is!

Let me share it with you…The story is about a man who not only has been a winning coach, but also a man who has been an inspiration to all those he taught… teaching them about life and how to be good citizens.

Although he had been a football coach since he was graduated from Akron University and became the Freshman FOOTBALL coach and then became the Assistant Varsity Football Coach , his story really began in 1971 at the age of 36.  Until then he had been coaching at various colleges and universities when fate intervened and he was ready for the challenge.

On November 14, 1970, Lengyel, who was in his 5th year as coach of the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, was watching TV with his family.  The news came across that the Southern Airways Flight 932 had crashed.  On board the plane were 75 Marshall University football players, coaches, administrative officers and fans… everybody perished.

It was a few hours after Marshall had lost to East Carolina and they were heading home to Huntington, West Virginia. With a heavy heart, Jack determined perhaps he could help the devastated University.

His first thought was “that there for the grace of God, could have been him and his team”. He applied to be the new head coach. Fortunately, for Marshall they had the foresight to hire him.

In that hiring, they got not only a qualified leader on the football field, but part of his package was understanding and compassion.

That move would change lives forever, including Lengyel’s. Prior to hiring him as coach, the downhearted and sad University was thinking seriously of permanently eliminating Football from their schedule.

Fortunately, they did not surgically remove Football as part of their school activities. Lengyel went about rebuilding a non-existent program with a Freshman team that was not eligible to compete intercollegiatly .

Upon his arrival, since no one was left, he was forced to recruit athletes from other sports (Baseball and Basketball etc.;) as well as a large number of walk-ons in order to field a team.

Although the team struggled in Lengyel’s  first season. A miracle happened in his second game. The rag-tag Marshall Team upset a heavily favored Xavier team on the final play of the game with no time left on the clock.  It was so exciting that when the team went into the locker room they threw everyone into the showers, uniforms and all, including the priest who was travelling with them.

Two hours later when the team returned to the field, the fans were still there. People were crying and hugging each other because everybody knew a teammate, classmate, a friend, or neighbor on the ill-fated flight.

It was a very emotional game, but it gave everyone hope. This unexpected victory brought about a euphoric feeling of unity and was an uplifting spirit for not only the University, but also for the entire Huntington, West Virginia Community whose residents felt deeply the lose of the Marshall athletes.

The true story was so uplifting, that in 2006, Warner Brothers released the Biopic  “We are Marshall”. The brilliant and eventual Academy Award winning Mathew McConaughey played Coach Lengyel.

Lengyel, his rebuilding job completed, after four years, went on expand his illustrious career.  He continued as   as a coach and teacher, but also became Athletic Director at some of America’s foremost bastions of education including his fourteen years as AD of the United States Naval Academy where his two sons David and Peter graduated. The strength training facility is named in Coach Lengyel’s honor.

Today, he is a member of the United States Sports Academy Board of Advisors and was inducted into the Collegiate Hall of Fame.

Jack Lengyel, a name Sports Fans everywhere should know. His emphasis on strategic planning and core values which he used in rebuilding Marshall, is something all of us can use in our daily lives.

He is the true embodiment of what sports an acadamua should be all about.