Joe Tait: It's Been a Real Ball by Terry Pluto and Joe Tait | Sample
Book Excerpt:

Joe Tait: It's Been a Real Ball

by Terry Pluto and Joe Tait

Introduction

[by Terry Pluto]

For years, people wanted Joe Tait to write a book.

I was never one of those people.

That’s because Joe has been a close friend for nearly 30 years. He always told me that he’d never do a book.

“I don’t want to do one of those tell-all things where you pick up the rocks and look for toads,” he said. “And I also have seen what you’ve been through with some of your co-authors. I’m not sure it’s worth it.”

Most of my co-authors have been very good, but Joe’s point was that a book can be a lot of work. He didn’t need the headaches or the money. And authors of sports books that have a Cleveland-area market will never have to worry about being the next John Grisham and needing an army of accountants and tax specialists to figure out where to put the royalties.

Which is why I was stunned right before the start of the 2010–11 basketball season when Joe called and said, “I’m thinking about doing a book, are you interested?”

“Of course,” I said. “But I need to know if you are committed.”

Joe did a line about needing to “be committed” after doing nearly 40 years of Cleveland sports, mostly on the radio.

If any Cleveland-based broadcaster should do a book, it is Joe Tait. And not just because he is in the media wing of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He came to town in 1970 when the Cavaliers were in their first season. He called Indians games on radio, and later television, from 1973 to ’87. He also called some minor-league hockey games, called some indoor soccer matches and was with the Cavs for 38 of their 40 seasons. No other broadcaster in Cleveland history has called more games than Joe Tait.

“I’ve been around a long time, but I’ve had a boring life,” said Joe. “Bill Fitch said when the coaches would get together and start to tell stories about their play-by-play men, I didn’t give him any material. He said I pretty much lived like a monk.”

Joe also started to read some books done by other broadcasters, “and most of them seemed like the Tower of Babble.”

But many of Joe’s friends told him that he should write a book—and that it should be with me. As we talked about it, we realized that the book should not be in Joe’s first-person voice. He “hated” that idea. I also thought the third-person approach with Joe at the center of the story would lead to a more in-depth look at Cleveland sports and Joe during his 40 years.

Joe and I had spent hours casually discussing our lives and careers over the years—especially in the eight seasons when I covered the Cavs for the Akron Beacon Journal. That involved a lot of time in hotel coffee shops, arena press rooms and in the car. But it wasn’t until Joe discussed his early life for the book did I realize the complex relationship he had with his father, who never believed Joe would have any success as a broadcaster. At one point, Joe father’s sent his son to a psychologist because Joe was spending so much time alone in his bedroom, playing sports board games and doing his own play-by-play. This book also reveals that a young Joe Tait was extremely driven to rise above the small Midwestern radio jobs and make it to a major-league market. He was even fired twice by small stations before being hired to do the Cavs. He actually kept all his rejection letters in a scrapbook, and some are quoted in this book. In his early years in Cleveland, Joe took every radio job he could find—trying to make extra money and increase his exposure in the market.

One of the strange experiences was to be riding in the car, talking to Joe—and then hearing Joe do a commercial on the radio. He just ignored it and talked over himself. He did listen to tapes of games about four times per year, checking his work. His former baseball partner, Herb Score, never did. Herb once told me, “I heard that garbage going out of my mouth, why would I want to bring it back in?”

Joe said he never planned any of the phrases that became his trademarks.

“The first time I said, ‘Wham with the right hand’ was when Hot Rod Williams did it in a game,” he said. “I never recall hearing that phrase before. It just came out. [Producer] Dave Dombrowski told me after the game that ‘Wham with the right hand’ sounded good, and I should use it once in a while . . . and I did.”

Many fans loved it when Craig Ehlo hit a game-winning basket against Utah during the Christmas season, and Joe said, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he comes from Lubbock, Texas.” Ehlo is from Lubbock.

“I still have no idea where that came from,” Joe said.

Joe is like a great basketball player who has several moves—but really doesn’t know when he will use them. He just reacts to the action. One of Joe’s favorite calls was “THREE BALL . . . GOT IT!”

“That also is something that I never heard before,” he said. “The same with ‘Left to right on the radio dial.’ These things just came to me.”

But when it came to baseball, Joe was shocked several years ago to discover how he had been influenced by Bert Wilson, who was a Cubs broadcaster when Joe was growing up.

“I heard some tapes of him, and I realized that he sounded like me,” said Joe. “For him, every night was a beautiful night for baseball. He even said, ‘Up on your feet’ for the seventh-inning stretch. I didn’t set out to imitate him, but it turned out that in some ways, I did.”

Just as many area broadcasters have used Joe’s cadence and some of his phrases when they call local high school and college games. Nev Chandler once said he used some of Joe’s techniques when he did the Cavs on television for a few seasons. He did it “because Joe was the best that I ever heard.”

Many fans will say the same.

“I don’t look at it that way,” said Joe. “I always saw my job as being the guy at the game who was there in place of the guy who wanted to be at the game. I wanted to reflect the excitement and enthusiasm of the game to the fans who wanted to be there—but couldn’t. Doing a good job for them is what meant the most to me.”

Joe always was a sportscaster first, a fan second. He kept the game at the heart of his broadcast, preferring to be the eyes and ears of the fans—and not engaging in a lot of opinion or analysis.

“Too many broadcasters do the games to show off what they know,” he said. “How about giving the score, the time and who has the ball? And recap what has happened. Never assume people have been listening to most of the broadcast. It drives me nuts when I have a game on for 5 to 10 minutes, and they don’t tell me the score.”

In this book, Joe gives you the final score on what it was like to call games for 40 years in Northeast Ohio.

^ top

Working for Free

Once upon a time, Joe Tait had a dream. A big dream.

He wanted to be a sportswriter.

That’s right, a sportswriter, not a sports broadcaster. Even though he broadcasted all those imaginary games to himself in his bedroom and backyard, this was the 1950s. The real source of news was the newspaper.

“I read it in the paper” means you learned it there first . . . and you could trust it. After all, it was in the paper.

Yes, there were radio reports, but the paper counted the most. It made the news official.

Television?

It was still in its infancy with a few channels in black and white. On the screen, everything seemed gray. Television was a strange-looking aerial on the roof which looked like a very inviting place for birds to land. Or it was a pair of wire rabbit ears on top of the TV. The connections could waver; the picture could turn wavy and fuzzy.

“My father never allowed a TV in his house when I was growing up,” said Joe. “He didn’t buy one because he thought they were too expensive . . . and after a while, they’d make them better, and they wouldn’t cost so much.”

Joe saw his first television when he was 12.

“I hid in the bushes,” he said. “There were three other kids with me. We looked through the window of Tommy Dunkell’s house. He had a round TV with the rabbit ears on top. I remember watching Kukla, Fran and Ollie.”

* * *

Joe does not own a computer. He has never even turned on a computer to find anything online. He had a cell phone . . . for a while. He only turned it on to make a call and then turned it off. He never checked messages on it.

Yes, he does have a television, and yes, it’s a color TV with cable . . . not rabbit ears. He has a landline telephone. That’s about as high tech as it ever will get for Joe.

Joe was a strong high school student, and he had scholarship offers to schools such as Northern Illinois. But none of them had journalism or writing programs. He went to Monmouth College in Illinois because they had a program with the University of Missouri, which had one of the top journalism departments in the country. The idea was Joe would spend three years at Monmouth and then do two years at Missouri’s writing department.

At Monmouth, Joe wrote for the school paper and the yearbook. He volunteered in the Sports Information Department and wrote press releases that sometimes found their way into small local newspapers.

“I tell kids to do jobs not for money, but the experience,” he said. “I wasn’t paid anything by the SID department. Three papers used my stories—the Monmouth Review Atlas, the Galesburg Register Mail and the Rock Island Argus. None of them paid me, either. I didn’t care, I was happy to get my work out there. Too many kids worry about what a job will pay rather than what the job can do for them in terms of experience.”

Joe is often annoyed when students tell him they want to be a sportswriter or sportscaster but don’t consider the idea of working for nothing. Or working long hours in a small town for a smaller paycheck. Or they have a sense of entitlement that because they had good grades in college and worked on the school paper or at the school radio station, the best stations and papers should throw open the doors and bow down as they enter.

Many students miss a good opportunity to make contacts working in the SID office, which puts you in close contact with media members covering events and stories. If you are aggressive and creative, you can make your own job.

Yes, some jobs are based on Who You Know. But you can work hard at getting to know the right people.

That’s something Joe Tait did at Monmouth.

* * *

Joe said he liked to write. But he also loved to talk.

There was one radio station in Monmouth, WRAM.

“We were called ‘The Pride of Prime Beef Country,’ ” Joe said. “It was a daytime station only. They gave me a 15-minute sports show at 5:45 p.m. We signed off at 6 p.m. My show—it had no name—was sponsored by Adelman Green Motors.”

Joe was the manager for the Monmouth basketball team, and he’d also do play-by-play of the games into a tape recorder. The next day, Joe offered the tapes to the student center—which played his account over the loudspeaker.

“Not a lot of people listened,” he said. “Most were members of the basketball team. I’d watch them listening to it . . . sometimes they laughed.”

But what struck Joe was that those athletes cared about what he was saying . . . they were listening to the towel guy do the games on tape in the student center. He was worthy of their attention.

Joe approached the WRAM station manager about doing the Monmouth College football games. But Joe didn’t ask to be paid for it. Rather, he said, “If we sell enough commercials, will you put the games on?”

Joe was making his own job.

The station manager agreed, “But make sure we make a profit.” He meant that Joe must find a way to bring in more money for the commercials than it cost to put the games on the air.

“I found plenty of businesses around town who were willing to buy time on the games,” he said. “The station manager got into it big time. He owned a single-engine Tri-pacer airplane, which would land in fields that were nothing more than cow pastures to do the games on the road.”

Joe also was doing high school games. And the sports news show. And the commercials.

“I’d do a Friday night high school game into a tape recorder and play it back at 7 a.m. on Saturday,” said Joe. “I also was the engineer, so I had to set it up at the station to get the tape on the air. Then I’d go down to the restaurant for breakfast or to get my hair cut. And people would talk to me about the game . . . and also tell me what they thought of the broadcast.”

* * *

Joe had other jobs, the kinds of jobs that were a lesson about what he wanted out of life.

“I worked in a steel mill one summer, and that was tough,” he said. “I worked at a plastic factory—no bargain there, either. The hardest one was when I had a job stirring those big metal corn bins. I stood on top of them and used a long pole to stir the corn so it wouldn’t rot. It was hotter than hell.”

His best summer job other than radio?

“I loaded trucks at a place where I could watch the trains go by,” he said.

Joe paused.

“I disliked that work, that manual labor,” he said. “I didn’t want to just work 9-to-5, punching a clock, going home. I wanted more, but doing those jobs was good. It made me determined to do something else and also to appreciate the radio jobs that I did have.”

* * *

“My parents were divorced when I was a junior in college,” Joe said. “The incident that probably ended it was when my mother drove the car right through the back wall of the garage. They really got into it. Nothing physical, but my father could really lay into you with all the verbiage. I called a fraternity brother and asked him to come get me—I had to get out of there. I said, ‘I’ll pay you, I don’t care how much. Bring your station wagon, empty it out, because I’m putting everything I own into it and going back to Monmouth.’ ”

Joe paused again.

“I didn’t see either parent for a while,” he said. “My dad did start to come to some Monmouth football games when I was a senior.”

* * *

Doing those Monmouth games would change Joe’s life, but it would take about 10 years for him to realize that.

The year was 1957.

Joe Tait was 20 years old.

Coe College had just hired a new basketball coach, a 23-year-old named Bill Fitch.

“I was still doing that daily 15-minute sports show, and I called up Bill Fitch,” Joe said. “[Coe College was] in the same Midwest Conference as Monmouth. I don’t remember why I had Fitch’s home phone, but I did. I just called cold. I never had met Fitch. His wife answered, she brought Bill to the phone and I taped an interview for the show.”

Their next connection came in the fall when Fitch showed up at a Monmouth football game. Fitch had played football at Coe, and he was doing some scouting for the Coe football team. Joe interviewed Fitch again.

“Monmouth was horrible in football,” said Joe. “Fitch would sit by me in the press box when I did the games on radio and Fitch was scouting. He used to kid me how I could make Monmouth ‘the worst team I ever saw sound like Notre Dame.’ I was very enthusiastic back then.”

Fitch always said Joe could make a 66-0 blowout sound like a 6-6 tie.

Think about all of this for a moment.

Joe arrived at Monmouth with no media connections. He got to know people at the radio station, and talked them into giving him a 15-minute show . . . for which he was not paid.

Then he sold commercial time to put the football games on the radio.

Then he made a contact in Bill Fitch, a basketball coach who was scouting for the football team.

“I didn’t know he was going to be a great coach,” said Joe. “But the first time I interviewed him, I knew he was a great guest. I’d just ask him two, three questions, and he’d fill the time. Then I saw that he was a tremendous basketball coach.”

And Fitch saw something in young Joe Tait, the broadcaster.

Oh, it’s not true that Joe worked at the station completely for free.

“I was paid a dollar an hour to be the janitor,” he said. “It was two hours a night, five nights a week—10 bucks.”

But wait, his pay was cut.

“Once I got on the air a lot, the station manager said it was like going to school, and I should pay him,” Joe said. “So he cut my janitorial pay from a dollar to 50 cents an hour—five bucks a week.”

Joe Tait at a kitchen table with microphone in hand

Joe got started at the only radio station in Monmouth: WRAM—“The Pride of Prime Beef Country.” For one promotion, a lucky listener won breakfast with the mayor. “We cooked the breakfast and broadcast right from the kitchen,” said Joe.

^ top

The First Year

Joe Tait had one enormous advantage that no Cavaliers broadcaster will ever have again.

He was the first radio voice of the Cavaliers, who were in their first NBA season. In Cleveland, it was impossible to compare Joe Tait to anyone doing the Cavs, because there were no Cavs. He was setting the standard, teaching the public how pro basketball should sound on the radio.

Broadcaster Casey Coleman was placed in the no-win situation of replacing Nev Chandler as the voice of the Browns in 1994 and 1995. Chandler was wildly popular, extremely charismatic on and off the air. He also was blessed to take over as the Browns’ radio voice in the middle 1980s, just as Bernie Kosar was reviving the franchise and the team went to four consecutive playoff appearances. Chandler was associated with those good times.

He died at age 47 from cancer.

Coleman took over. The Browns were in decline. He was a very solid broadcaster, but Coleman was not Chandler. His Browns were not Chandler’s Browns. At the end of Coleman’s second season, the team moved to Baltimore. Some fans tied Coleman to Bill Belichick, the extremely unpopular coach during that era.

“I would have been better off being the guy who replaced the guy who took over for Nev,” Coleman said more than once. “No one could really replace Nev.”

When the team returned in 1999 as an expansion franchise, Coleman was hired as the radio sideline reporter—and fans liked him in that role. Jim Donovan was named the radio voice, and he was accepted. Browns fans were just happy to have a team back once again.

When Joe arrived in Cleveland, Gib Shanley was the respected radio voice of the Browns. Bob Neal and Herb Score did the Tribe games on the radio. Neal was a “professional” broadcaster, who had also done some national network college football games. But he also made the listener feel as if the game was a bit beneath him. He rarely became excited. He could be extremely sarcastic. He got the facts right and kept up with the action. But there was a sense when listening to Neal that he’d rather be doing something else. This was especially true by the time Joe arrived in town.

So Cleveland’s sports broadcasting landscape was ready for a new voice.

Joe didn’t realize it at the time.

“I was just happy to have the job,” he said. “When Nick Mileti said I was hired, I was relieved, especially after just missing those two jobs in Chicago. And then I found that everyone at my old station in Terre Haute was being fired . . . I was overjoyed to be employed.”

Mileti and Fitch knew this—Joe was what they wanted: a young broadcaster who was thrilled to be in a major market doing a major-league sport.

“Nick never told me what to say,” said Joe. “On the first day, he just said: ‘Remember to have fun. Describe the game. Remember, it’s family entertainment.’ That was it, and he never said anything else in all the years that I worked for him.”

It didn’t matter to Joe that the Cavs opened the season with 15 consecutive losses.

Think about that: a new team being 0-15.

But think about being Joe Tait . . . age 33. Other than being in the military, his only other plane ride was to New York and Washington D.C. when he traveled there as part of a senior high trip. He had never been to most of the NBA cities.

“I had been to only one NBA game in my life before getting the Cavs job,” said Joe. “It was a game at Purdue, with Fort Wayne being the home team. They played Baltimore. It was hand-to-hand combat. Terry Dischinger of Fort Wayne got two teeth knocked out. I remember telling the person who came with me: ‘If that’s NBA basketball, I don’t want any part of it. It’s like football.’ ”

The next game Joe saw in person was his tryout at the Cleveland Arena, when the Cavs faced San Diego. By then, he was ready to fall in love with NBA basketball.

“When I listen to tapes from that first year, I realize that I was really over the top,” said Joe. “I was yelling, screaming, very excited. I remember when we were playing the Knicks, I was upset that the officials wouldn’t call a foul on [New York forward] Dave DeBusschere. I’m screaming, ‘[Darell] Garretson wouldn’t give a foul to DeBusschere if he pulled out a machine gun!’ But I also can tell you that none of this was fake. It was genuine. It was how I felt. I didn’t create it; the enthusiasm came from inside me.”

That’s because in 1970, Joe felt like part of the team. He was not much older than the players. Most of them, like Joe, were just glad to be in the NBA. They had a few veterans near the end of their careers, such as Johnny Egan, who had played with the Lakers in the 1960s. He was appalled at Fitch’s training camp. The rookie coach had the Cavs practicing for two hours in the morning, two more in the afternoon and film sessions at night. No NBA team would dare do that today, because of the risk of injury and fatigue that it creates. This wasn’t college with two games per week and players between the ages of 18 and 22. It was the NBA of 1970, when everyone flew commercial and took the first flight out, according to NBA rules. That meant a lot of 5 a.m. wakeup calls. It also was when the league allowed something it has since banned—playing three games in three days.

Fitch often said, “War is bad, but expansion is worse.”

Fitch’s players thought he was preparing them for the Navy Seals rather than the NBA.

The NBA did give the Cavs only eight home games by Thanksgiving . . . compared to 16 on the road.

The Cavs were 0-14 when they went to San Francisco for a game with the Warriors.

Joe walked into the arena with Fitch and assistant coach Jim Lessig.

Lessig and Joe had their game passes, Fitch did not. The security guard didn’t want to allow Fitch into the arena.

“I left my pass back at the hotel,” Fitch said. “I’m the coach of the Cavaliers.”

“I’ve got to see some credentials,” said guard said. “How do I know that you’re the coach?”

“Do you know the Cavs’ record?” asked Fitch.

“Yes,” said the guard. “Zero-and-14.”

“Do you think I’d say I’m the coach of the Cavs unless I was the coach of the Cavaliers?” Fitch asked.

“Go right on in,” said the guard.

The Cavs lost that night, 109-74. They were 0-15 and set to play two days later in Portland. Walking around town, Fitch spotted a skull in the window of a Portland magic shop. He bought it for $1.95.

“I was there,” said Joe. “We had just finished eating at the Mustang. It was a Chinese restaurant where you could eat a lot, and it didn’t cost much. Meal money was only $20 a day, and I was trying to save some of that.”

At 0-15, the Cavs had tied Denver for the worst start in NBA history. Before the Portland game, Fitch showed the skull to his players and said that was “all that’s left of the Denver coach.”

The players all touched the skull. They brought it on to the court and beat Portland, 105-103.

The game was over, but the horn failed to sound—the Portland timekeeper probably was in shock.

On the air, Joe was asking: “Did we win? Did we win? Is it over?” He kept looking at the clock, which was down to 0:00. But no horn. Finally, the officials indicated the game was over.

After the sloppy game, Fitch told reporters, “It looked like the gamblers got to both teams.”

The skull worked for only one game, as the Cavs lost their next 12—including another game at Portland.

“We brought the skull out again and put it under Fitch’s chair,” said Joe. “A Portland player came by and dropped a towel over the skull. And we got beat.”

On December 4, 1970, they were 1-27.

* * *

Players were coming and going.

They had a center named Gary Suiter. He was cut when trainer Ron Culp discovered him in line at a concession stand . . . in his Cavs uniform . . . an hour before the game, wanting to buy a hot dog. He also had been nabbed going through teammates’ luggage. And the Cavs received a strange call from a funeral parlor that said Suiter asked to use the phone to call a relative and set up funeral arrangements. The funeral parlor manager left him alone for privacy’s sake. Suiter was gone when the manager returned. A month later, a $700 phone bill arrived at the funeral parlor. Suiter had been calling every NBA team, looking for a tryout.

While some of Suiter’s stories are funny in a twisted way, Wichita Falls, Texas, writer Nick Gholston did a story on Suiter in 2010.

Part of it reads:

I hung around smoky old pool halls in my younger days, and that is where I met Suiter, who spent more time practicing spot shots than he did jump shots. He also had this bad habit of not paying off when he lost. That came natural to a guy who also never paid for his food at restaurants, stole more record albums than the Beatles ever recorded and had a strange habit of driving off and not paying for gasoline.

In other words, in the three years he lived here, Suiter had a reputation of being a hustler, a thief, a liar and a cheat. But he was a nice hustler, thief, liar and cheat. . . . It is true that Suiter never saw a jump shot he wouldn’t take, but in 2 seasons at Midwestern [University], he averaged right at 21 points and 14 rebounds a game. . . .

All I really remember is he left town owing me money. The last time I saw Suiter, he and his girlfriend were leaving town in her car. That was 40 years ago. . . .

Gary Suiter was murdered on Oct. 23, 1982, near Rio Rancho, N.M. He was only 37. According to court records, two men found him at a restaurant. The three left the restaurant in a pickup and drove to a remote wooded area near the Rio Grande River. One of the men got into a heated argument with Suiter over a $275 gambling debt. He shot Suiter in the hand, chest and head at close range with a .357 Magnum. His jewelry was removed and his body was dragged 30 feet away into a brushy area near the river.

A more uplifting story from that era is Bobby Washington, who was signed during the middle of the season.

“I was sitting with Fitch at the Cincinnati airport,” said Joe. “We were waiting for a flight. He said that a player was coming in from Grand Rapids [of the Continental Basketball Association]. He told me to keep my eyes open. I didn’t see anyone who looked liked a basketball player. Then this little stocky guy showed up wearing a cabby hat and a long coat that ran all the down to the floor. I don’t know why, but I just KNEW that was our new point guard.”

Joe pointed him out to Fitch, who sighed and said, “Oh, boy.”

Fitch had not seen Washington play, he just heard he was a good point guard in basketball’s bush leagues.

“Bobby ended up being a terrific player for us,” said Joe. “He was a natural point guard, a real leader. He was not great by NBA standards, but the fans and players loved his hustle and enthusiasm. I remember how I went to Disneyland with Bobby and Ron Culp that first season during an off-day. We were on this ride called ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ Bobby got so scared, he jumped right into my lap.”

The 5-11, 175-pound Washington played only two seasons. His career ended prematurely because of a severely broken leg.

“Bobby became a legendary high school coach in Kentucky,” said Joe. “Just a great guy.”

Tait gave the players nicknames. Washington was “The Little General.” John Johnson was “J.J.”

“Bobby Smith told me that he wanted to be called ‘Bingo,’ ” said Joe. “That was his nickname in college. He could really shoot from the outside, so it fit—and I was glad to use it.”

Early in that season, Joe stayed at the Sheraton Hotel, right across from the Arena. To save money, they had Joe share a room with a player—remember, this was for home games!

“My first roommate was Joe Cooke,” he said. “I remember us being together on Thanksgiving. We had no families, not much was open. We went to eat at some beanery in Lakewood. Had a couple of sandwiches. That was our Thanksgiving.”

When Cooke found a place to stay, Larry Mikan moved in with Joe at the Sheraton.

“He was the son of [NBA great] George Mikan,” said Joe. “A really nice guy, but I never sensed that he liked basketball that much. I can understand why. Everyone figured that he was George Mikan’s son, so he should be great. But he was only 6-foot-7 (his father was 6-foot-10), and it was like he played basketball because he was expected to do it.”

Larry Mikan lasted only a year in the NBA.

Finally, Joe moved out of the Sheraton and found a place in Parma Heights for his family to live.

* * *

Joe had fun with the games and the team.

“I remember a game where we were losing, 96-66,” recalled Joe. “In the huddle, J.J. [John Johnson] was telling the guys, ‘Come on, we’re only down by 10. We can get back into this thing.’ Fitch heard that and just shook his head.”

In another game, Joe screamed, “Bobby Lewis . . . 15-footer . . . GOOD!” These were the days when Joe was sitting at the press table on the floor, right near the team bench.

Fitch heard that call, turned to Joe and said: “Are you kidding? A 15-footer? That wasn’t even 10 feet! You’re worse than J.J.”

The most famous—or infamous—play of that first season came when the Cavs were playing Portland on December 9. They had a 2-27 record. They trailed by three points at the half. The Cavs’ Walt Wesley won the opening jump ball, tipping it to guard Bobby Lewis. Fellow guard John Warren bolted to the basket, as Portland’s Leroy Ellis chased Warren, trying for the blocked shot.

No problem.

Warren eluded Ellis and made the layup.

Only it was the wrong basket.

Two points for Portland.

Fitch said he thought Ellis could have been called for a foul on the play, which would have confused matters even more.

Later in that same game, Portland left a timeout with six players on the court.

Joe was the first to spot it. He was screaming on the air, “Portland has six guys out there!”

Fitch heard Joe, counted the players, came up with six and complained to the officials.

They called Portland for a technical foul for too many men on the court.

No matter, the Cavs still lost, 109-102.

The “crowd” at the old Arena was 2,002.

* * *

There were only five games on television that season, done by Browns broadcaster Gib Shanley and Plain Dealer sports editor Hal Lebovitz. The Cavs were on WERE radio, which had a very limited signal.

Whatever voice of the Cavs could be heard, it belonged to Joe Tait.

“The first time that I really felt as if I were in the NBA was when we played at Boston,” said Joe. “Growing up, the only time that I saw pro basketball on TV was on Sunday, and about 80 percent of the time, the game was from Boston. It was the parquet floor. When I walked out there and saw that floor, I thought, ‘I really have made it.’ Even though Boston Garden was a dump back then, it was still Boston Garden with all the championship banners and that parquet floor.”

The Cavs had one of those three-games-in-three-days stretches from December 25 to 27. That’s right, they played on Christmas Day and lost, 117-100, at Cincinnati. The next night, they were at home and beat expansion Buffalo, 120-107. The following night, it was another home victory—a 114-101 stunner over Philadelphia. Yes, that was the same Sixers team that beat the Cavs, 141-87, when Joe was listening to the game and wondering if he had made the right decision about coming to Cleveland.

“[Broadcaster] Andy Musser told me that he was sitting in his hotel room in Minneapolis after doing a Vikings game, and the score of our win over Philadelphia came on the TV, and he dropped the glass of beer on his lap,” said Joe. “He kept saying that he couldn’t believe the Cavs beat the Sixers. He did that first Cavs-Sixers game on the radio.”

In another game, the Cavs were tied with New York at the end of the first quarter. Joe said on the air, “The Cavs have played the Knicks on even terms so far.”

Fitch heard that, turned and asked Joe, “Good, can we go home now?”

They lost that game, 102-94.

* * *

That was the Cavs’ first two-game winning streak, watched by a small circle of friends. They drew 2,332 for the victory over Buffalo. You’d think more people would show up the next night? It was 2,022 for the Sixers game.

The 1970 calendar year ended with the Cavs at 5-39. They had drawn only two crowds of more than 4,000. Most nights, it was in the 2,300 range. No one was talking about this publicly, but everyone with the Cavs (including Joe) knew that Mileti had bought the team with other people’s money, and that cash was tight. They had about 1,500 season-ticket holders.

The Plain Dealer’s Raymond Hart wrote his first of several complimentary stories about Joe in those early Cavs seasons. Hart quoted Joe talking about the 108-106 victory over Buffalo, the first home victory of the season.

“It’s all over, the Cavaliers have won their first home game,” Hart quoted Joe as saying on the air, and then the Plain Dealer writer said “that was his spiel as the 2,001 fans sounded like 20,002 in their roar of approval after seeing history made.”

The story had a very light tone, with Joe saying how losing didn’t bother him—his Monmouth College football team won only six games in five years. Joe said, “Other announcers say they feel sorry for me. . . . Heck, this is only the second time in my life that I’ve worked with an engineer. I’ve done high school games from a stepladder in a gym. . . . I’m having a ball because it’s part of being in the NBA.”

The first major media endorsement for Joe came from Don Robertson, a Cleveland Press columnist. He also was a well-known novelist and did television commentaries on the news along with some movie reviews. He was not a sportswriter, but he loved Joe and the expansion Cavaliers.

On January 4, 1971, he wrote a rave about Joe. He sat next to the Cavs broadcaster during a game: “If you listen to him describe the games, you know he has remarkable glottal dexterity in what must be the most difficult sports broadcasting job—describing the furious pace of an NBA game.

Robertson quoted this part of Joe’s broadcast: “McLemore in traffic, can’t drive . . . passes off to J.J. at baseline right, into Wesley . . . 6-foot hook. No . . . rebound, McLemore . . . No . . . rebound, Wesley. No . . . cut to Warren, who is 2-timed, into Sorenson, 4-footer . . . No . . . ball off Alcindor’s wrist . . . out to Joe Cooke, who shoots from 20 feet . . . GOOD! Score: Milwaukee 45, Cleveland 22.”

Robertson noted that Joe was “absolutely accurate” in his machine-gun account.

“Once you learn the terminology, a Joe Tait broadcast is a joy,” wrote Robertson. “He is still young (33), and his enthusiasm has not been worn away by a lot of foolish cynicism.”

Joe received very little criticism that first season, other than Plain Dealer columnist Hal Lebovitz insisting Joe was “too tough on officials.” Looking back, Joe agrees with that assessment. But at the time, he was a rookie broadcaster making $100 per game with two kids and a third on the way—and the team was terrible with an average attendance of 3,518—lowest in the NBA.

“Joe was a great announcer, you knew it from the beginning,” recalled Fitch. “He could broadcast anything, from baseball to a cow-milking contest. He just had it.”

After the 15-67 season, The Plain Dealer’s Raymond Hart wrote: “Tait, like the team he was describing, was a rookie in basketball’s big league. But he wound up in the All-Star category. . . . He is unquestionably the best sportscaster to hit town since Gib Shanley blew in from Toledo in 1961.”

Joe said the team’s losing combined with WERE’s weak signal meant that not a lot of people were listening.

“I got only five fan letters all year,” he recalled. “I got 10 the year I was Morning Mayor of Monmouth, Illinois. I swear, at night, I don’t think WERE’s signal carried past the Greyhound station that was only a mile from the arena. Some fans say that they were there that first year for all the games—I say, ‘You and two others.’ That was it. No one was there.”

The NBA’s approach to expansion in 1970 was horrible, admitting three teams at once. That diluted the available talent—both players and coaches. The teams played 24 of the 82 games against each other.

“We were 2-10 against Portland and 7-5 against Buffalo,” recalled Joe, 40 years after the end of that season.

That also means they were 6-52 against established NBA teams.

“The league was such a mess that the NBA playoffs began, but we still had one regular-season game left with Portland,” said Joe. “We lost.”

On January 4, 1971, Joe received a letter from the Chicago White Sox. He had applied to do their games on radio. A manager, wrote Joe: “There was one man who could help us bring more people back to the park and more stations on the air.”

The man wasn’t named. But Joe knew it wasn’t him, especially as the letter concluded: “All tapes presented to us will be returned as soon as possible.”

Hard to argue with their selection—it was the great Harry Caray.

So Joe had to make Cleveland work, because he needed the work.

“We knew that the team could fold after the first year. Mileti told us that he had no money,” Joe said. “No one was showing up. Fitch kept hoping we could get the first draft pick and end up with a good player who could create some interest. We knew something had to happen.”

Joe Tate alone at table with empty arena behind him

Joe put in a lot of hours preparing for the broadcast. “There I am laboring away at the old Arena,” said Joe. “This is before a game, but back in those days, the stands could have looked like that at halftime. I would arrive at least two hours before the game.”

^ top

The Coliseum

A few years before the Coliseum opened, Nick Mileti drove Joe to a spot in Richfield, the Interstate 271 exit at State Route 303.

“There was nothing more than a huge hole in the ground,” said Joe.

Mileti told Joe: “This will be where the Cavs will soon be playing. And that’s only the beginning.”

Mileti talked about how a shopping mall would soon be built there. And a hotel. And restaurants. And other businesses. The Coliseum would be a magnet. Who knew what it would attract?

Joe just saw the hole. He saw some sheep grazing at a nearby farm. He saw trees and lots of empty land near Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

“Nick, if you’re wrong, you will have the biggest corn crib in Summit County,” said Joe.

Mileti just laughed.

He was sure that somehow, it would all work out.

“I loved the Coliseum,” said Joe. “It was a big building but didn’t feel big. You could walk all over the place, find friends and sit with them. It had great sight lines. Now that it’s gone, people out there forget how they hated the idea of it in the first place.”

Looking back, it’s hard to believe Mileti ever managed to get it built.

Then again, it was amazing how Mileti was able to find enough people to invest so he could buy the old Cleveland Barons and the Cleveland Arena for $1.9 million in 1968. He did that with the backing of Leo McKenna, a friend from the army who later worked on Wall Street.

Or how he bought the Cavaliers for $3 million in 1970.

Or the Indians for $10 million in 1972.

Or radio stations WWWE (now WTAM) and WWWM for $3.5 million—also in 1972.

Or a World Hockey Association franchise—called the Cleveland Crusaders—for $250,000.

When talking about Mileti, former Cavs coach Bill Fitch kept saying, “He did it all with other people’s money.”

At one point, Mileti had 54 different investors in the Indians.

“I had no choice but to buy the Indians,” Mileti insisted for years. “Otherwise, they were moving to New Orleans.”

Not quite.

The Indians were owned by Vernon Stouffer, of Stouffer frozen foods. His stock had collapsed. He was in big financial trouble, and he had to sell the team. Yes, New Orleans wanted the Indians.

But so did another group headed by a couple of guys with strong Cleveland connections. One was Al Rosen, a former Tribe All-Star third baseman. The other was George Steinbrenner, a Cleveland native. They offered Stouffer about $8 million in cash. Mileti came in at $10 million, but it was to be paid out over several years.

Stouffer was sold more on Mileti’s charisma and big vision for the team than his offer.

Mileti talked his way into owning the Indians. Yes, he thought he was the best owner for the team. Mileti thought he was the best owner for almost anything in Cleveland—it was how he was wired. But it’s not fair to insist that had Mileti dropped out of the bidding . . . well, the Indians would have left town.

No, they would have been owned by Steinbrenner, Rosen and their investors—the same core group that bought the Yankees about a year later and turned them into an American League power once again.

* * *

Mileti’s biggest and most expensive gamble was the Richfield Coliseum.

According to a 1975 Plain Dealer story by Amos A. Kermisch, the Coliseum cost Mileti $32 million. That included 107 acres on the intersection of State Route 303 and Interstate 271 in Richfield. It was farmland on the edge of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

“Middle of nowhere,” was what the critics charged.

Mileti had research revealing about 4.7 million people lived within a 60-minute drive of Richfield. He said 2.8 million were within a 30-minute drive.

“Nick was just ahead of his time,” said Joe. “He saw how people were moving to the suburbs. He saw how Akron and Cleveland were moving toward each other—in terms of where people were buying houses.”

While the location was a problem for some people, the real trouble for Mileti was financing.

In this case, the “other people’s money” came from Chase Manhattan Bank. According to The Plain Dealer, Mileti was financing nearly all of the $32 million with loans at least 4 percent over prime: “Even at the lowest interest rate (11.5 percent), the Coliseum would have to generate $3.7 million annually to meet the interest payment alone,” wrote Kermisch in his Plain Dealer story.

In a July 3, 1973, Plain Dealer story, Hal Lebovitz wrote: “The gangsters who occupy the bar stools at some of our town’s better taverns have come up with a Mileti Cocktail. It works this way: The gent who orders one throws down a quarter for the ginger ale, and everyone else in the bar is supposed to buy a whiskey for him. . . . The Mileti Cocktail gag is an outgrowth of his own actions. Nick provides the token two bits and somehow cons everybody else into putting up the rest while he savors the drink. That’s the way it seems to the public, and it’s not far from the truth.”

Mileti never owned more than 10 percent of the Indians or Cavs, according to a Sports Illustrated story by Jerry Kirshenbaum. He compared Mileti to “a bouncy little man who resembles Danny Thomas.”

According to The Plain Dealer, Mileti had “pledged 50 percent of the radio stations’ profits to the two banks that put up a portion of the funds needed.”

Joe doesn’t disagree with any of this, but he was one of Mileti’s most successful projects. While it was Fitch’s idea to hire Joe, Mileti loved his work. He promised Joe that if he remained loyal, he’d “make it up to me.”

Mileti did just that.

When Mileti bought the Indians, Joe became the radio voice. He did games for Mileti’s hockey teams. Joe became tied to the Coliseum because he did so many games from there. Along with Pete Franklin, Joe was the star of Mileti’s 50,000-watt station, WWWE.

And the checks from Mileti never bounced as Joe’s salary was gradually raised.

In the 1970s, Joe’s career reflected the Cavaliers. It began in the old dungeon of an arena on Euclid Avenue and East 36th Street.

“The visiting players hated it,” he said. “They wouldn’t even shower there. They stayed at the Sheraton across the street, changed in their rooms and walked into the arena wearing their uniforms. One winter, there was a tremendous snowstorm. It was almost a whiteout as I drove down Euclid to the game—and there was this purple thing in front of me. As I got closer, I realized it was Wilt Chamberlain in his Lakers uniform and warm-ups. Thank God I was going slow or I’d have killed him.”

Joe paused.

“We really needed a new building,” he said.

* * *

In February 1974, Mileti had to secure a $2 million loan from First Pennsylvania Bank and Trust so the Cavs had enough money to pay their bills. Rumors persisted the team was in financial trouble, even as its new home in Richfield was being constructed.

The Cavs’ average attendances in their first four seasons at Cleveland Arena were 3,518, 5,222, 4,548 and 4,013. So when they received the loan, they were in their third season of declining attendance.

Bill Fitch was quoted in the Plain Dealer story by Bill Nichols about the loan as saying: “This bank has been in business for many, many years. Anyone who has doubts about us can just look at the bank. It’s confident of our future, and so are we . . . this loan is built on our strengths. We wouldn’t have done this if we didn’t have faith in our future.”

Most Cavs fans were not aware of the franchise’s fragile finances.

At the same press conference, Mileti bragged that the team was making its final $175,000 payment to the NBA to pay off the purchase price of the franchise. Sounds good, but this was the team’s fourth year of operation. Mileti then blamed the team’s low attendance on “10 lawsuits” filed by various groups that wanted to prevent the building of the Coliseum in Richfield.

“This should be our third year there [in Richfield],” Mileti insisted.

His version of reality didn’t exactly match the math, but Mileti didn’t worry about that. He was more concerned with buying time to get his basketball team in the new building—and generating more revenue.

“Guess who he assigned to sell the Coliseum to the public?” asked Joe.

You know the answer.

“Now that it’s gone, everyone tells me how they loved the old Coliseum,” said Joe. “But I spoke to all these groups around Richfield, and they were angry about Nick building it there. They were worried about the traffic. They thought it would destroy the pristine little towns in the area. They were afraid of it.”

Joe said it would be great for the area, great for the Cavs—even if the projected shopping mall and hotels never materialized.

“Turned out, I was right,” said Joe. “I wish the Cavs had stayed there.”

* * *

Mileti was 44 when the Coliseum opened with a Frank Sinatra concert on October 26, 1974. It was reported that Sinatra was paid $250,000 . . . remember, this was 1974. That’s more than $1 million in 2011 dollars. The Plain Dealer reported the building contained 3,300 tons of structural steel, 490,000 cubic feet of concrete. Some of the windows were 28 feet high. There were 11 restrooms—six for women, five for men. It had 18,000 seats for hockey, nearly 20,000 for basketball—basically twice the size of the old Cleveland Arena. The Plain Dealer story by Roy W. Adams about the opening of the building also stated: “It could swallow three football fields, 37 million basketballs or seven billion hockey pucks. Do 189 pucks really equal one basketball?”

Some questions, such as the ratio of hockey pucks to basketballs, just can never be fully answered, but the only parking lot could hold 6,000 cars, and the Coliseum hosted about 300 events some years—everything from sports to the circus to the Ice Capades to tractor pulls.

When it opened, there were traffic problems (when the crowds were large) on Interstate 271, and it often took at least 30 minutes to get out of the parking lot after big games. But the building was terrific. The worst move Mileti made (other than his usual risky financing) was putting the corporate suites up near the ceiling, instead of near the floor where they would have been more attractive to businesses.

In its first season (1974–75), the Cavs averaged 8,161 fans—more than double the 4,013 of the final season at the Cleveland Arena. But his other teams were losing money. According to a Plain Dealer story by Amos A. Kermisch on May 25, 1975, the Indians were $2.8 million in the red during the first three years of Mileti’s ownership. The Crusaders lost $1.2 million in their first year. The Cavs lost $779,000 in their four years at Cleveland Arena. Their only profitable year was 1971—$38,353.

The Coliseum created another problem for Mileti: What to do with the now-obsolete Cleveland Arena? He tried to sell it. There were no buyers. In the end, Mileti had the building demolished and donated the land to his alma mater, Bowling Green. The university eventually sold it to the Red Cross, which put up a building.

While the Coliseum was a very successful venue, Mileti was being chewed up by all his other investments and teams—and the nearly 12 percent annual interest on the building.

“I was talking to [former Cavs assistant coach] Jim Lessig,” said Joe. “He said Nick was the best at putting deals together and the worst at keeping them together. That’s really true.”

By 1980, Mileti had sold the Indians, the Cavs, the radio stations and lost the Coliseum to Chase Manhattan Bank.

Enter Gordon Gund.

“In 1976, when my brother George owned the Cleveland Barons [of the National Hockey League], he asked me to join him,” said Gordon Gund. “Nick Mileti owned the Cavs. Both of us played at the Richfield Coliseum. By 1977, Chase Manhattan Bank had foreclosed on the building and taken over the Coliseum. We didn’t think hockey could make it in the market, and we were ready to move the Barons. The bank said they’d give us a significant ownership in the Coliseum if we’d try to keep the Barons there for one more year [1977–78]. We did, but we couldn’t draw enough to make it worth our while. We moved the Barons to Minnesota, where they combined with the North Stars.”

But he kept the building and eventually ended up with the Cavaliers in 1983.

The Cavs moved to Gund Arena (later named Quicken Loans Arena) in downtown Cleveland in 1994.

“When Gordon was negotiating with Gateway about them building an arena in downtown Cleveland, he also had plans to put about $40 million in upgrades into the Coliseum,” said Joe. “He was going to move the suites down from the ceiling and really make it into a great place. But he’d only do that if the plans to move downtown fell apart.”

But they didn’t.

“Too bad,” said Joe. “I would have loved to see what they’d have done to the Coliseum.”

Today, that site is not the biggest corn crib in Summit County. But the building is gone, the hole is filled in and it belongs to the National Park Service.

“Now, when I speak in Summit County and people say they wished the Coliseum were still around, I remind them of when I was there years ago and they gave me all kinds of crap about it being built in Richfield,” said Joe. “I tell them that I don’t want to hear it. . . . But I’m like them, I do miss it.”

Joe Tait at broadcast table in the Coliseum, with basketball game in foreground

Broadcasting from the floor at the Coliseum.

^ top

If Only Pete Franklin Hadn’t Gone to the Dentist

How Joe Tait Ended Up In the Middle of a Controversy With Frank Robinson

The year was 1977, and a man named Pete Franklin ruled Cleveland sports talk. Knowing what media was like in 1977 is critical to understanding this story. It was an age of most television sets having only five channels—three national networks, a public TV station and an independent station. It was before cable television, before the Internet. It was when sports talk was just emerging from the radio cradle, and it was Pete Franklin who ruled the airwaves. A few others had weekend sports shows on smaller stations, but Franklin’s voice boomed in “38 states and half of Canada” at night on 50,000-watt WWWE radio.

Fans really did listen to the outrageous Franklin not only for hundreds of miles, but the signal carried more than 1,000 miles on some clear evenings. He not only was the Godfather of Cleveland sports talk, but perhaps the nation’s most popular sports show host—partly because the medium was so new. Hardly anyone else was doing it.

Certainly, no one did it quite like Franklin, who once asked a caller: “Explain this to me. . . . How can you dial a phone and wear a straitjacket at the same time?”

He called people idiots and morons and bozos and mental patients and sounded as if he meant every word on the air. But sitting with Franklin as he did his show, he’d smile and wink as he fired those insults. It was all show to Pete Franklin. He also loved to duel with The Plain Dealer, especially sports editor Hal Lebovitz and baseball writer Russell Schneider. It was a battle for the hearts and minds of Tribe fans—whom do you trust more? Is it Franklin or the newspaper guys?

Franklin called Lebovitz “Lo-Bo” on the air.

Lebovitz called Franklin “Frank Petelin” in print.

There were two Cleveland Papers—The Plain Dealer and The Press. They had their own grudge war, as there was a sense that eventually one of them would die. Cleveland Press baseball writer Bob Sudyk and Schneider didn’t speak, despite being in the same press box, the same hotels on the road and in the same interview sessions. They acted as if they wished the other would drink a bottle of battery acid and endure a long, painful death.

And that was how they felt about each other on a good day.

That also was Schneider’s opinion of Franklin.

Enter Joe Tait.

“Pete was having some serious dental work done, and they asked me to fill in for him,” said Joe. “He was going to be gone for a month. I’d do Sportsline on the nights when the Indians were off and I wasn’t calling the games. Back then, I was always looking for ways to make some extra cash, so I figured—why not?”

Joe couldn’t recall what he was paid, but it was probably about $100 a show. At this point, Joe had no problems with Schneider or anyone else . . . he steered clear of all the Cleveland media feuds. He considered Franklin a friend, but he also was friends with several writers.

Near the end of April, the Indians were 5-11. This was Frank Robinson’s third year managing the team. One night, a caller asked Joe, “If you were general manager of the Indians, what would you do with Frank Robinson?”

Joe said: “If I were general manager, I would not have brought him back. I would have fired him at the end of last season. But now that he’s back, I see no reason to let him go. So maybe he’ll get better.”

At least, that’s how Joe remembers it . . . and that part is fairly accurate.

But Joe also said: “I don’t think Robinson has the mental or emotional capacity to manage well . . . It’s tough for a superstar to communicate with guys of less talent. I just don’t think Frank knows how to stir them up the way he stirred himself up when he played.”

Remember that Robinson was the first black manager in major-league history. He also was 39 when he got the job, the Indians wanting him not only to manage—but to play. It’s doubtful general manager Phil Seghi wanted to hire Robinson. It has long been believed that making Robinson the manager was the idea of team president Ted Bonda, who was interested in making a social statement and stirring up some interest in the incredibly mediocre franchise. Robinson had managed several winters in Puerto Rico but had never managed or coached in the minors. This was-on-the-job training for him.

The Indians were 77-85 under Ken Aspromonte, a good friend of Joe’s. The manager and radio broadcaster often had breakfast together on the road. But late in that 1974 season, the Indians traded for Robinson—and it seemed clear he was being brought in to eventually manage. It created a very sticky situation for Aspromonte, who indeed was fired after that season. Nonetheless, Joe and Frank Robinson got along reasonably well in the first two seasons. They occasionally played tennis together, part of a doubles group with sportswriters Bob Sudyk and Hank Kozlowski.

While filling in for Franklin, Joe candidly answered that question about Robinson. That led to this headline in The Plain Dealer: “TAIT RAPS ROBBY: Tribe broadcaster says the manager must go.”

In the story by Bob Dolgan, Joe also said, “There is no attitude [on the team], the club is dead.”

“But the newspaper story ignored the fact that I said since the season had started, I saw no reason to change managers at this point,” said Joe.

Robinson was having problems with players. When he joined the team in 1974, the star was Gaylord Perry. They didn’t get along, and Perry was traded to Texas in June 1975. He also was the fan favorite on the team, and that didn’t help Robinson. He had conflicts with Rico Carty, a popular designated hitter. At a Wahoo Club Luncheon, Carty challenged Robinson to lead the team—this was from the podium in front a more than 100 fans and several media members.

When I wrote The Curse of Rocky Colavito, Robinson told me Carty had been second-guessing him in front of the players in the dugout during games. Catcher John Ellis countered that Robinson was second-guessing his pitch selection when calling the game behind the plate. So we had a player second-guessing the manager, who was second-guessing the catcher. These were the type of things that bothered Joe, because they so easily could have been solved with better communication and more experienced leadership.

Robinson had a game where two Minnesota players batted out of order, but he and his coaches failed to notice it. That same game, Robinson gave a squeeze sign . . . the bunt play failed . . . and later admitted that he didn’t mean to give the sign. In 1976, Robinson was unhappy with an infielder named Larvell Blanks. Nicknamed “Sugar Bear,” Blanks was unhappy with not being in the lineup and threw his equipment and uniform into a trash can. Robinson found Blanks in the clubhouse, sitting in his underwear, not ready to play. In another game, Blanks protested being fined by Robinson by wearing a piece of tape over his mouth when sitting in the dugout. There was an exhibition game in Toledo, home of the Tribe’s Class AAA team. Bob Reynolds was pitching for Toledo. He was mad because when Robinson cut him that spring, he learned of it first from a sportswriter. Robinson played in that game—and Reynolds fired a pitch behind his head. Robinson didn’t get hit. He hit a fly ball to the outfield a few pitches later. As he headed back to the dugout, Reynolds yelled at him. Robinson screamed back—then the manager charged the mound and punched the Class AAA pitcher.

When Joe was talking about Robinson lacking “the mental and emotional capacity to manage,” Joe was not speaking in racial terms. He was referring to incidents such as these, showing a clear lack of maturity. It was not a statement on the ability of African-Americans to manage and coach—remember, Joe’s first love is the NBA, which is dominated by minorities. He was talking about Frank Robinson in the mid-1970s.

“Joe Tait’s comments were probably the last straw,” Robinson told me when I interviewed him for The Curse of Rocky Colavito. “It blindsided me and really pushed me over the edge. I didn’t care if he was being paid by the radio station, he was working for the club. The team had to OK him to do the games. I didn’t think it was right for him to take a shot at me on the air. I really believe the front office coerced him into doing it.”

Schneider came back with a column ripping Joe: “Who the hell is Joe Tait and why should his opinion of Frank Robinson mean so gosh-awful much? It’s absurd that Tait’s opinion of Robinson should be considered any more highly than that of any good fan who sees most of the Indians games . . . because when you get right down to it, that’s all Joe is . . . Tait is almost as great a phantom in the clubhouse as his mouth colleague, Pete Franklin.”

Schneider also hammered Joe for not being in spring training—of course, Joe was also doing the Cavs’ games and traveling with that team when the Tribe trained in March. It obviously bothered the baseball writer that Joe’s opinion received so much attention from the fans and credibility from many media outlets. Schneider also liked Robinson—who was terrific for the writers to cover. He was thoughtful and loved to talk baseball with those he considered to be serious about the game. Like many old-line baseball men, he preferred the writers to most in the electronic media.

Joe’s comments led to a meeting between Bonda, Seghi, Robinson and Joe.

“When I sat down, Frank pulled out The Plain Dealer with the headline saying Robby must go,” said Joe. “Of course, that was not what I said. But Frank was screaming, ‘How could you do this to me, you S.O.B? . . .’ As for the rest of the words, I’d never heard them all put together in such combinations before . . . not fit for a family audience, that’s for sure.”

Joe said as Robinson continued his tirade, Seghi was lighting his ever-present pipe, and he winked at Joe.

“Right there, I knew Robby was done,” said Joe. “I looked at Bonda, and he had his eyes closed. I realized that they had been very close to firing him, and I probably had extended his career. In fact, after he finally was fired, Phil Seghi told me that they waited about 10 days longer before finally firing him.”

After the meeting, sportswriter Hank Kozlowski still wanted Joe to take part in the doubles tennis games on the road. He asked Robinson if he’d play with Joe, and the manager said, “I’ll play against him, but I won’t play with him.”

Sportswriter Bob Sudyk was also part of those games and warned Joe that Robinson “may hit a ball about 120 miles [per hour] right at you.” But the manager never did. He played his normal game but also never spoke to Joe.

Robinson was fired about five weeks after Joe took him to task on Sportsline. There were stories in both papers about the impact of what Joe said on Robinson’s future. Some backed Joe’s right to speak out, others said he should have been more subtle because he did play-by-play for the team.

“I vowed to NEVER, EVER host a talk show again,” said Joe. “If someone were to come to me now about hosting a show—more than ever, I’d never do it. It’s even worse now with all the garbage on the Internet. I don’t listen to talk shows. I don’t like talk shows. Some are like cesspools. I am even reticent about appearing on a talk show.”

For months after Robinson was fired, more stories came out that Tait and Franklin (also a Robinson critic) were wrong because the team didn’t improve under new manager Jeff Torborg. It was partly the print media’s way of getting back at the new influence of sports talk shows.

“The two venues can’t coexist, play-by-play and sports talk,” said Joe. “Doing games, you are talking about things as they happen—not about if someone should be hired or fired. But in sports talk, you give opinions on about everything. The Frank Robinson thing was the first time that I ever said anything like that on the air . . . about firing someone. I haven’t done it since, because I haven’t done any talk shows. I’d tell any broadcaster to stay away from hosting a talk show because you end up talking to some half-wit who can barely dial a phone and who knows absolutely nothing about what he wants to say. It’s just babble.”

A few years later, Robinson was hired to manage the San Francisco Giants. Joe said he sent Robinson this note: “I’m not going to apologize because I said what I honestly felt. I really am sorry that I put myself in that talk show position when my real job was play-by-play. I wish you all the best. [Former Indians second baseman] Duane Kuiper tells me that you are doing a great job in San Francisco and I’m happy to hear it. Good luck.”

Joe said he never received a response from Robinson.

I knew Robinson reasonably well because I covered the Baltimore Orioles in 1979 when he was a coach. He was never thrilled with Joe, but his real animosity was aimed at Seghi. To this day, it’s a safe bet Robinson believes Joe made those remarks at the urging of Seghi. Anyone who knows Joe can be sure that’s not true. If anything, a general manager pushing Joe in that direction would probably cause Joe to push back—and not do it. Joe simply didn’t think that the Frank Robinson in Cleveland was prepared to manage a big-league team. Robinson did learn quite a bit from his time with the Tribe and matured into a very solid manager.

“When Pete Franklin got back from his dental surgery, he told me, ‘I knew you were going to fill in . . . but WOW!’ ” said Joe. “They asked me to fill in again for Pete, and I said NOT NOW, NOT EVER.”

^ top

Influenced by Joe Tait

[Fans write in]

One of the greatest nights of my life was sharing the Cavs’ first-ever trip to the NBA Finals with Joe in 2007. Saturday night, June 2nd, at The Q. I was working for the opposition, the Pistons, as their radio pregame and postgame host. I got the chance to sit in “The Perch,” just two seats away from Joe.

As a native Clevelander and longtime Cavs fan, I had to admit I was torn. The Pistons are my employer, and the more they win, the more I get to work and enjoy a run to the NBA Finals again. But I wanted to see history, and I wanted to see Joe finally get to the biggest stage.

Fast forward to the fourth quarter and the Cavs clinging to a one-point lead. Daniel “Boobie” Gibson hit back-to-back 3-pointers, and the crowd at The Q went crazy!

The Cavs were ahead by six points, and the Pistons called a timeout. I leaned back in my chair, and I looked at Joe. He looked at me.

I said, “Joe, this is it, brother! Are you going nuts?”

In classic Joe Tait fashion, he takes off his headset and answers back, “Matthew, win or lose, I get to go home in 10 minutes and 45 seconds, and this is just another ballgame.”

He then resumed his spot at his table next to his mini lamp and continued to call the action. The Cavs were not going to be denied. Gibson hit another triple, and then the Cavs were up, 83-71. The dagger 3-pointer had the crowd in a frenzy.

Timeout, Pistons.

I could not help myself. I leaned back in my seat again, looked to the right and made eye contact with my idol. We smiled at each other, and I said, “Come on, man, admit it—this is awesome! You are going to the Finals, Joe!”

I didn’t know what Joe would say. Would he acknowledge the moment? He looked to his right and then his left, almost to make sure that nobody was creeping in on our conversation. I waited for a response.

Joe then nodded his head in approval and says, “OK, you got me. This is pretty neat!”

That was all I needed to hear. It was so special. I was so happy for him, and I felt so lucky and honored to be able to share that moment with him. The Cavs won, and after the game, Joe even donned an Eastern Conference Champions hat.

—Matt Dery, Royal Oak, Michigan

In 1966–67, Joe gave his proteges at Ohio University assignments to cover various team sports for the Bobcats. I remember being assigned the Ohio U. wrestling team with coach Harry Houska, a Cleveland native. I didn’t know anything about wrestling but sure learned in a hurry. He also assigned me to the 6 a.m. sportscast on a daily basis. That was nice—waking up at 5 a.m. Joe would listen to tapes and make his critique. With FM radio still a passing thought in those days, Joe gave us the OU freshman football and basketball games to broadcast as well as plenty of high school action in both football and basketball.

Joe was also able to experiment covering lots of sports that you would never hear on radio back then. We covered the track meets, lacrosse games and created opportunities for great learning experiences that helped us all in our broadcast careers. I do remember Joe creating a post-football scoreboard show that I anchored. We were able to put our own twist into the show.

Joe gave me great advice when I became the sports anchor on WFMJ TV in Youngstown. Work hard, meet and greet as many people and coaches, and get involved in the community. I did just that. He also said when people criticize you, make sure they spell your name right. I use that philosophy today in my radio career.

—Art Greenberg, Akron, Ohio

Over the past few years, my mother has baked her famous chocolate chip cookies for Joe. I delivered them to him at his perch personally before Cavs games. The cookies are actually really fantastic and, during the broadcast, Joe made it a point to sing my mother’s praises. A few weeks after this tradition began, my girlfriend wanted to get into the act, so she baked peanut butter squares. As always, I delivered them to Joe pregame, but noticed that he didn’t mention her or her squares the entire night. About a week later, Joe was approaching in the hallway near the Cavaliers locker room. As he got closer, I asked, “Joe, what did you think of my girlfriend’s peanut butter squares?”

Without breaking stride, Joe smiled and said, “I hope she’s good-looking.”

—Joe Gabriele, writer for Cavs.com, Rocky River, Ohio

I first met Joe Tait as a high school student-athlete in the early 1990s, when he was the emcee at the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame/Awards ceremony—which he continues to do to this day. Later on, early on in my career in sports public relations, I worked for the Cavs and got to work with Joe on a regular basis. I loved his honesty, sense of humor, approach and work ethic, even in the midst of one of the worst seasons of all time (2002–03). Most of all, I loved how he made me feel welcome and asked how I was doing—be it during a home game or on a Cavs road trip. I’ll never forget the conversations we had regarding his interests in trains, history and the best places to eat in NBA cities. He went out of his way to take me to breakfast before shootaround, and was simply a class act in his own way.

—Karen Kase, Medina, Ohio

I had the pleasure of working with Joe for many years as one of his radio engineers. I now live in Chicago, and when Joe would come to town for the Bulls-Cavs game, we would usually get together for a bite to eat. One evening, I picked up Joe, and we went back to his hometown of Aurora, Illinois. As we drove down the streets of the town, I only wish I had a tape recorder with me.

Joe showed me where his old house was. He showed me where the old fish market was where his mother use to have him pick up fish for his family fish fry on Friday nights. We came to a street corner, and he said this was where he broke his foot and had one of his worst summers as a kid because he had to wear a cast and couldn’t play in ballgames.

Since it was so long ago, I asked Joe if he had a job lighting the candles in the street lights, too. We had a good laugh. On the way back, Joe said he knew a short cut, soooo, I took his advice and ended up in a huge housing development big enough to look like a city itself!

Joe said, “Well, it USED to be all cornfields here. I guess it was longer than I thought since I came this way.”

—Steve Foltin, Darien, Illinois

I was working in radio in Bellevue, Ohio, back in 1975 when we hired a kid part time who had graduated from high school in Streetsboro. He had told me time and time again he knew Joe Tait, which, of course, I didn’t believe. We went to a Tribe game together. My friend said, “C’mon let’s go meet Joe—I’ll introduce you.” He then headed up to the booth. I thought for sure we were going to get bounced from the stadium. We got up there, and I’ll be damned, he did know Joe Tait, who I found to be very genuine and friendly during that short meeting that I’ve never forgotten.

By the way, our part-timer was Vince Koza, who graduated from Ohio University and was sports director at a TV station in Lima, Ohio, for some time.

—Tom Goodsite, Kirksville, Missouri

I am the radio voice of the D-League’s Erie Bayhawks. Back in the summer of 1977, I was a 10-year-old Indians fan living here in Erie. I listened to every game on the radio, as telecasts were only occasional in those days. In June or July, the Tribe sent Ron Pruitt down to AAA. I was incensed because, for some reason, I thought he was a valuable piece. So I wrote a letter to Joe in search of an explanation.

A few weeks later, I received a detailed, handwritten letter from Joe that was written on stationery from the Anaheim Hilton. He explained the “option process” and pointed out that Pruitt still had options remaining while other candidates did not.

Recently, I met Joe before a Cavs game and related the story to him, asking him if he recalled it.

He told me he didn’t remember what he had for lunch that day.

Good guy.

—Chris Hughes, Erie, Pennsylvania

I was working at WSWR Radio in Shelby, Ohio, as the sports director. We were a small-time station, trying to be a big boy in the Mansfield market. The station was a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers Basketball Radio Network. The time frame was 1989 to 1992. What always impressed me was that when Joe Tait and Dave Dombrowski made their yearly visit to Shelby, Ohio, Joe always treated us like we were the most important radio station on the network. He didn’t show up with an attitude that “Joe Tait has entered the building.” Joe and Dave gave us respect and showed us true appreciation for the work we did to promote the Cavaliers. It was a great lesson for me!

—Michael Reinhart, New Riegel, Ohio

I had the privilege of broadcasting two high school basketball games with Joe in the 1990s for WLKR FM 95.3. We would talk by phone before the season, to see when he would be available to come to Norwalk, Ohio, for a broadcast. It was simply amazing. He would show up, sit in the broadcast chair and rattle off two quarters of play-by-play and two quarters of color commentary.

And of course, Joe being Joe, it sounded like he knew each of the players and coaches personally.

I’d like to note this—Joe would make the hour-long drive on his night off, in not-so-great weather, and wouldn’t accept a dime. Not even for gas.

—Scott Truxell, Sports Director, WLKR FM 95.3, Norwalk, Ohio

^ top
About the Book
Joe Tait: It's Been a Real Ball by Terry Pluto
Joe Tait: It's Been a Real Ball

by Terry Pluto and Joe Tait

Legendary broadcaster Joe Tait is like an old family friend to three generations of Cleveland sports fans. This book celebrates the inspiring career of "the Voice of the Cleveland Cavaliers" with stories from Joe and dozens of fans, media colleagues . . . [ Read More ]

About Terry Pluto
Terry Pluto author of Joe Tait: It's Been a Real Ball

Terry Pluto is a sports columnist for the Plain Dealer. He has twice been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the nation's top sports columnist for medium-sized newspapers. He is a nine- . . . [ Read More ]

About Joe Tait
Joe Tait author of Joe Tait: It's Been a Real Ball

Joe Tait was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010 after 40 years on the air as the radio voice of the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was the play by play announcer from the team's first year, 19 . . . [ Read More ]

TerryPluto.com
Follow Us:
  • Follow us on Facebook
  • Follow us on Twitter