On meeting Joe DiMaggio and the most
important story he ever covered
By Angela Barbuti
When he’s not giving play-by-plays, he’s at home on the Upper West Side, watching highlights on ESPN.com or his game of choice, pro football.
Did you always want to work in sports?
I knew when I was 7 years old, believe it or not. There was no question in my mind. My father used to buy me Ring, a boxing magazine. There was no television, so we used to hear Friday night fights on the radio. I used to listen to every sporting event.
What qualities do you need to be a sportscaster?
This sound obvious, but you have to know sports. Not just the rules, but the history, so you can relate the importance of what has happened. Otherwise, you might think, “This is the greatest play of all time,” when it has been done five times before. You also have to be fair and can’t have an objective before you go in.
What was your big break?
In 1976, I got an offer from ABC to come to New York and do the local news, Wide World of Sports andMonday Night Baseball. That was huge. The funny thing is, my dad showed me an article that said it takes 15 years from wherever you’re working to get to New York. I always carried that around with me. I started April Fool’s Day 1961 in Pikeville, Ky. The amazing part is it was 1976 [when I got the offer], exactly 15 years later.
How did you make the transition from radio to television?
I had been on the radio eight years before I was ever on television. In 1965, I was hired by WTOP, a huge radio station in Washington, D.C. They also owned a TV station, and the TV guy left. The president of the station said—it’s going to sound funny now—“Do you think you could talk to people about sports?” At that time, I think we were the second station to do this, aside from one in New York.
What’s the most significant thing you ever reported on?
9/11. My wife and I lived in Tribeca and the World Trade Center was 10 blocks south of our bedroom window. I saw it all, so I called in to Imus to tell him what was happening and he kept me on the air.
What is one major change you’ve seen in the sports industry?
Before 1975, a player belonged to a team forever. Ninety-eight percent of players did not have multiyear guaranteed contracts, which they all have today, so the incentive to play well was huge. They had a good concept, better than today. But the owners took advantage of it and didn’t pay what they should have. Mickey Mantle, the highest-paid player, made $100,000 once. The minimum today is almost $500,000. Mantle would have been a $30 million-a-year ballplayer today.
Who do you consider the greatest athletes of all time?
Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Jim Thorpe, Jim Brown. They were great because they played more than one sport well. I always thought the most domineering player in basketball was Wilt Chamberlain.
What was your most memorable interview with a player?
Joe DiMaggio. It was a real thrill, because I had grown up watching him play. He was a great interview. But just before it, he had a PR man come over to me and say, “If you talk about Marilyn Monroe, the interview is over.” I wasn’t going to talk about Marilyn Monroe.
Do you root for certain teams?
No, because I want to be able to report objectively. That’s why I think it’s advisable for young fellows to avoid strong friendships with ballplayers, because there comes a time when you have to say something unfavorable about them. If you hesitate, your listeners or viewers are going to realize it. You absolutely have to be honest with your audience, because they’ll know if you’re not.
What’s it like to work with Imus?
Oh, it’s fun. You never know what’s going to happen. Each day is different.
How did you come up with your catchphrase?
I was working in Washington and videotape had just started out. Before that, we used film or still pictures. We had some videotape of a basketball game. I would give the director a normal cue. Like, “In the third quarter, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored,” and they’re supposed to roll the tape. He didn’t roll the tape. So I said it again, and he still didn’t. Then, right on the air, I finally said to the director, “Hey Ernie, let’s go to the videotape!” And the play came up. Later, he said to me, “Do that again tomorrow, because I’m very busy in the control room.”
Do you recite the phrase for your fans?
Sure I do. I’m glad they remember. You can’t say it on the radio.
Listen to Wolf on Imus in the Morning, Monday-Friday from 6-10 a.m. on 77WABC. The show is simulcast on Fox Business Network.