Reliving the toughest hour in network television

Topeka Capital Journal
August 21, 1995

HARBOR SPRINGS, Mich. – Three men who once were responsible for the production of “the toughest hour in network television” had a reunion here this week. They recalled the horror stories, the good times and bad, and marveled once again that even one show got on the air, and agreed it was a miracle that more than 190 shows made it without a mishap over a 13-year period.

We met here because this is where Bill Flemming, the former ABC-TV sports announcer, spends the summers. Kemper Peacock, the New York City film editor and producer, and yours truly made the long trek here to the far reaches of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

When we were involved in the show, Flemming was the host and Peacock led the production team that actually did the work period as executive producer of NCAA films, I was responsible for the overall operation and for delivering the show to ABC on time. That meant I carried the beads and led the prayers that nothing would go wrong.

The show was College Football Highlights, which aired each Sunday morning during the season.

What we did was film six or seven college football games all over the country on Saturday afternoon, and then put highlights of those games on the air Sunday morning in a neat one-hour package. A sympathetic TV critic gave it the “toughest hour” label.

It sounds pretty simple, and it would be now, but back when we started in the late 1960s, it was considerably more complicated than planning and pulling off the invasion of Normandy.

We had to assign camera crews to the games, and then hope they didn’t miss any crucial plays.

We had to hope they got out of the stadium in time to get the film on a plane to Chicago, where we put the show together.

We had to pray bad weather or mechanical problems didn’t prevent the plane from taking off and that bad weather didn’t prevent it from landing in Chicago.

We counted on off-duty Chicago policemen we hired as couriers to find the film at the airport and deliver it to the film lab. We had to hope nothing went wrong there. The processed film then went to an editing facility where Peacock and his crew cut it to the exact time it had to be. A team of writers then wrote the narration.

Then it was on to still another facility where the film was transferred to videotape. Now it was time for Flemming to appear, and we had to hope he did.

He would announce a game live on ABC on Saturday, then fly, usually in his own plane, into Chicago. He would get a little sleep then report at about 6 a.m. to put the open and close of the show on the tape, and to narrate the game action. Music and sound effects went on at the same time.

Finally, the tape in a backup had to be delivered to ABC in the Chicago loop by 10 a.m. We didn’t always make it by 10, but the show never missed getting on the network at 11 a.m. Central Time.

There were some close calls.

Once, the cab taking us to ABC tore down the Kennedy Expressway at more than 90 mph to make it. We had a couple of lab breakdowns and power failures that threatened us, and there always were technical problems. But the show went on.

Flemming was not a temperamental star, although he occasionally gave us a big-league outburst over mistakes in the script. He knew college football as few men did, and if a writer put the wrong first name on a player, even an obscure player, Flemming would spot it and stop his narration to shout, “Who wrote this garbage?” He wanted the show to be as good as it possibly could be under the circumstances and would stop everything while frantic research was done to determine if John Smith who kicked the winning field goal for Auburn, for example, was the son of Joe Smith, who played there in 1947.

One Saturday night Flemming flew nonstop from his game in Texas and landed at Chicago Midway Airport in marginal weather with red lights on his instrument panel telling him he was low on fuel. Next morning he took off in lousy weather for his home in Detroit. He broke through the overcast into bright sunlight, set the autopilot, and began reading the paper he had brought with him.

“That was a mistake,” he said this week. “I went to sleep, and woke up with a United Airlines pilot calling me and telling me the center had been trying to raise me for about 25 minutes. I looked at my watch and figured I had been asleep about half an hour.”

He saved face by pleading radio trouble. He even did an imitation of a radio voice that was cutting in and out. Controllers were sympathetic, telling him where he was and getting him back on course.

Flemming was at the University of Michigan, preparing to become a doctor, when he became an announcer for the school’s FM radio station.

It was on the air 40 hours a week, but FCC regulations said it had to be on 50 hours. It was decided to make up the difference with sports, so Flemming started doing every sport imaginable.

He became an expert.

He forgot about being a doctor and joined a Detroit TV station. His big break came when NBC’s today show visited Detroit and its sports announcer, Jack Lescoulie, became ill and returned to New York. Flemming filled in, and his career soared.

ABC hired him for football, and his background in a variety of sports also made him a natural for Wide World of Sports. He had a good run at fame and fortune, and now spends summers here and winters in Marco Island, Fla.

He also keeps his hand in by producing syndicated sports shows, but says it’s tough.

“Today’s young and ad agency people think Bud Wilkinson has something to do with razor blades, and think Red Grange must be some kind of farm show.

“They would tell us what we did couldn’t be done.”

After Philly, before Oakland, Finley, Bauer and the A’s

Topeka Daily Capital
June 28, 1961

WASHINGTON – When the Kansas City A’s last played here, about three weeks ago, one of the things I heard while visiting with them was that owner Charles O. Finley had wanted to release Hank Bauer before the season opened.

They say that the loudest protests came from Joe Gordon, then the manager. He said Bauer not only was a good ballplayer, but also was a good influence on the younger players and was popular with Kansas City fans.

They say, too, that general manager Frank Lane agreed with Gordon and the two of them combined to save Bauer’s job. Continue reading

O’Neill on Paige and the National Pastime

Topeka Daily Capital
May 14, 1958

Jackie Robinson’s recent uproar over when and how Negroes reached the major leagues brings to mind again the great number of Negro stars who came along too early to take advantage of the memorable day when Branch Rickey erased the color line.

One of those is John (Buck) O’Neill, who played with and saw the biggest names in baseball for 18 years. He was a star first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs for 17 of those years, and managed them for seven years. He now is a scout for the Chicago Cubs.

John (Buck) O’Neil

He had a lifetime batting average of .300 in the Negro major league and twice led the league in hitting with a mark of .350. He once was telling Sec Taylor of the Des Moines Register about life in the league, and the conversation went like this:

Is Satchel Paige the best pitcher Buck has seen? “I haven’t seen anyone better than old Satch,” O’Neill declared. “He was a competitor when he got in that ballpark. The trouble was to get him in it.

“Time meant nothing to him. He might go fishing just before an important game or he might get to the park gate, see you or anybody else and stand there and talk till after the game had started. Continue reading

Bud Wilkinson: To a Very Rare Man

Topeka Capital-Journal
February 14, 1994

Last Wednesday night Jay Wilkinson called to say his dad, Bud, who made history as football coach at Oklahoma, was dying and probably wouldn’t make it through the night. He didn’t. Next morning we heard on the radio he had died.

Later in the morning I tried to call Charlie Hoag to tell him about Bud, but I couldn’t reach him. It wasn’t until the five o’clock TV news that we heard there had been a wreck on the Turnpike and that Charlie’s wife, Salli, was killed and he was seriously injured. The day had provided a double dose of bad news.

Wilkinson and Hoag had closer ties than you might think. In the early 1950s, Bud was one of the best coaches in the country and Charlie was a superb running back at KU , as well as being a key member of a national championship basketball squad. Continue reading

Rockne, Gipp and Jess Harper: On the Ranch with a Football Legend

(Editor’s Note: In September 1956, Topeka Daily Capital Sports Editor Dick Snider devoted a series of his Capitalizing on Sports columns one week to a sports legend living in southwestern Kansas.)

It’s inspiring to visit some of Kansas’ old-time athletic greats and see how and what they’re doing now. It inspires you to live to a ripe old age and settle down in the peaceful surroundings of beef cattle, oil wells and wheat. Or, the moral might be, you don’t have to be young and in Las Vegas to live it up.

Proof came first from 82-year-old Fred Clarke, who enjoys life amid his 1,300 acres and modest handful of oil wells near Winfield. And now we have Jess Harper.

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Harper’s little empire is located seven and a half miles South of Sitka, which is west of Wichita and south of civilization. He calls it a ranch, probably because it includes some 20,000 acres. He calls it a good ranch, because it has 35 producing oil wells.

“I’ve got the most successful breeding secret ever known on this ranch,“ chuckles Harper, a comparative stripling of 71. “I’ve crossed Hereford cows with oil wells, and you can’t beat that.”

Continue reading

Mantle’s Legend Born in Topeka

Topeka Capital Journal
June 14, 1995

In his second year in professional baseball, Mickey Charles Mantle, at age 19, played the entire season for Joplin, Mo., in the Western Association, a Class C league that included Topeka, Hutchinson and Salina. The year was 1950, and Mantle had the kind of season that left no doubt he was headed for fame and fortune in the majors.

It would be wrong to say he led the league in everything but stolen towels, a popular swift phrase of that day. In fact, he led only in runs, hits and batting average, but that gave you some idea of what he could do with a bat.

In 137 games, he hit .383, scored 141 runs and drove in 136 more. He had 199 hits, 26 of them home runs, and was walked 94 times. Obviously, he was a productive young man, very dangerous at the plate, so why didn’t he lead the league in homers, runs batted in and walks?

Considering the career he had, why didn’t he light up this minor league?

And if he didn’t, who did? Continue reading

On Assignment from the President

Topeka Capital-Journal
June 1, 1992

I ended the month of May with a blooper, and probably I’m starting June with another one, but some of us never learn. Last week I wrote that State Senator Frank Gaines of Augusta, who has announced his retirement, was a good man. It turns out he was a better man than I gave him credit for being. I should have known .

He was in the Legislature 24 years, and I noted that if he signed up for the plush pension plan legislators voted for themselves, he would qualify for about $25,000 per year. I added there was no reason to believe he hadn’t signed.

Since then I have been informed by a good friend of his, who would know, that Gaines didn’t take advantage of the souped-up pension. He deserves this apology and the respect of all of us.

I also have sentenced myself to do severe penance for this mistake, but not before I start June on the wrong foot by giving in to the irresistible urge to drop big names. It comes over me occasionally, and I am a pushover.

Maybe this one was caused by the recent new evidence from the two doctors that president John F. Kennedy was killed by two shots, fired by one man. Maybe it started me thinking about him and about my days as a dedicated public servant in Washington.

The story goes back 30 years, to the days when all public servants were dedicated and all Kansas State football fans were long-suffering. The story doesn’t have anything to do with K-State, but it does have a little to do with football. Continue reading

Lessons in Family and Basketball

Topeka Capital-Journal
March 17, 1993

For weeks, our two sons, Steve in Maryland and Kurt in California, have taken turns calling me to make sure I know the game plan. I have it down pat. I am to pick them up at the New Orleans airport today. It is Saint Patrick’s Day, but that has no bearing, since the Snider family is about as Irish as Paddy’s bratwurst.

It was decided weeks ago it was time for another reunion, and the two of them, without consulting me, chose New Orleans as the meeting place. They explained it was “convenient” for all three of us.

That’s easy for them to say. They fly a few hours nonstop to get there and back, while I drive a few days to get there and back. That’s their idea of a square deal, and it gets even worse. In the four days we’ll be together, I will provide the transportation and who knows what else.

The plan calls for us to explore New Orleans, visit Natchez, Miss., the Civil War battlefield at Vicksburg, play a little golf along the way, and seek out food and spirits sufficient to maintain our stamina and morale. My stomach churns at the thought. Continue reading

Kansas Newspapermen Linked by Sports

Topeka Capital-Journal
Dec. 15, 1999

There were a couple of send-off parties earlier this month for Mark Nusbaum and his family, wishing them well in Lubbock, Texas, where he is the new publisher of the uniquely named Avalanche-Journal. I remember it as the only newspaper I ever saw printed blue raindrops on the front page of the weather report.

Nusbaum is a local boy who made good. He started at the Topeka Capital-Journal as a copy boy, almost as low on the totem pole as a local retiree columnist, and he was executive editor when he left.

He became a sportswriter, and as he moved up, he worked on both the news and business sides of the paper. He became a good newspaperman, well qualified to go off at the tender age of 44 and take over a big daily.

When he told his wife he was surprised by how well he got along with the key players on his new team in Lubbock, a West Texas city of 186,000, she said it was because he had enough redneck in him to make it work. It wasn’t the answer he was expecting, but he agrees. Continue reading

Once More with a Bunch of Bums

Topeka Capital Journal
August 8, 1989

Harold McGraw called from Oklahoma City a couple of weeks ago and said he was inviting a few guys for a weekend at his place on Lake Eufaula, in eastern Oklahoma. He said Joe Trosper and Pat Horan would be there, and I told him to count me in.

The four of us have been friends for what seems like forever. In our last joint venture, in the years right after World War II, we were on the same softball team, and we were as hooked on the game then as we are on golf now.

This was fast pitch, long before slow pitch was invented, and we played with and against some hot shots like the late Clyde “Little Abner” Woods, Greenie Malone, and Hollywood actor-to-be Dale Robertson, who was as good as softballer as he is an actor. Maybe better.

So, last Friday I drove to Oklahoma. When I saw a sign that said “Henryetta” I laughed, remembering the time I covered a football game there when I was a fledgling. The public address announcer had blasted me out of my seat in the tiny press box that night when he screamed, “And here come the HENS, now!” Continue reading