City Paper is not for tourists
ESPN announced last week that D.C. guy Tony Kornheiser would join D.C. guy Joe Theismann in the booth for its Monday Night Football telecasts. That decision boxed out D.C. guy Mike Patrick, who for years had been a part of the network’s lead NFL announcing team. The name of D.C. guy John Riggins was also thrown around as a leading MNF candidate. Also last week, CBS announced it had lured D.C. guy James Brown away from Fox to emcee its NFL telecasts.
Seems to be a pattern.
“Washington breeds ’em, I guess,” says D.C. guy and broadcasting legend Warner Wolf, of his hometown’s on-air-talent production.
Wolf’s career indicates this town has been a breeding ground for national announcing talent for some time. In 1976, ABC deemed that Wolf was ready for prime time, sending him to the booth for its debut season of Monday Night Baseball. For a time, that program was positioned as the summer equivalent of ABC’s recently departed blockbuster gridiron series. (Wolf’s partner in the ABC booth, Bob Uecker, was for a short time the most popular broadcaster in America thanks to his Monday Night Baseball exposure.)
Wolf has been in New York for most of the last 30 years—his current employer is WABC-AM—but he’s as D.C. as anybody.
He had long been the dominant personality on the local sports-broadcasting scene by the time ABC took him away. Wolf, who grew up at 13th and Sheridan Streets NW, says he fell in love with broadcasting when he first read sports scores over the intercom at Coolidge Senior High School.
During his long sportscasting run in D.C., Wolf wore more hats than Jack Abramoff. His main gig was as the sports anchor on WTOP-TV, the CBS affiliate. Wolf’s exclamations (“Give me a break!” among them) were uttered by every sports fan in the market during his days here. His trademarks also included the “Boo of the week!”—which Wolf regularly bestowed upon a deserving unsportsman—and “Let’s go to the videotape!”—a call that preceded every game-highlights clip. At the time, no other local sportscaster in the country emphasized tape more than Wolf; for better or worse, there would be no George Michael had there not first been a Warner Wolf.
Wolf made his job seem fun: When the Washington Redskins were reportedly interested in signing Andre the Giant, the diminutive Wolf had himself pictured sitting on the pro wrestler’s shoulder, looking not much bigger than a shoulder pad.
He also had a call-in show on WTOP radio in 1965, when sports radio was still a newborn.
“I think there was only one other sports call-in show in the country at that time,” Wolf says. “We just took calls, and we didn’t have any producers or screeners or anything. It was just ‘Hi, you’re on the air!’ That show kind of put me on the map in Washington, because there was no other talk show like it. Probably any success I ever achieved in this business would go right to that show.”
And he broadcast Washington Redskins exhibitions and Washington Bullets games. He served as the color commentator during the very first Washington Capitals season. He did only road games during the team’s 1974–1975 inaugural campaign, the year the Caps put up a road record of 1-39—a mark that still stands as the worst in NHL history. The team’s only road win came on March 28, 1975, against the California Golden Seals.
“I wasn’t there,” says Wolf with an embarrassed chuckle. “I somehow got invited to the White House by President Ford, so I didn’t do that game. I didn’t do a single Caps win all year.”
Washington wasn’t viewed as the greatest sports town in the ’70s. Visitors often say that the media acts as if the Redskins were the only team in town. For a time during Wolf’s reign, after the Senators left and before the Bullets and Caps arrived, the Skins really were the only team. He admits that he didn’t know a whole lot about hockey when the Caps came to town. He says Caps play-by-play man Hal Kelly had fun with his partner’s ignorance of the hockey universe.
“Hal Kelly was from Canada, and he told me to just be quiet,” Wolf says. “But if the Caps score, I’m supposed to just yell out, ‘Goal! Goal! Goal!’ The first time the Caps scored, I was so nervous and excited, I just went, ‘Guh guh guh guh guh goal!’ I was also supposed to do the interviews between periods, and I remember we did a game in Philadelphia, and Hal says he’s lined up an interview for me with a scout from Flyers, some guy named Marcel something. So I ask him a question, and he starts answering me in French. I thought he was joking, but the guy didn’t speak any English. And this is all on the air. Hal just played a joke on me.”
During Wolf’s formative years as a broadcaster, his home market had plenty of role models to let him know there was more to the business than Washington.
Bob Wolff, for example. Along with being the longtime Washington Senators broadcaster and a Channel 5 sportscaster, Bob Wolff had a national profile: He was part of NBC’s Game of the Week baseball team in the late ’50s, and his résumé included calling such landmark events as Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Wolff was also behind the microphone for the 1958 NFL Championship between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, the overtime game often tabbed as the contest that made football a national pastime on par with baseball.
And Chuck Thompson. Though remembered mainly for his later work with the Baltimore Orioles, Thompson called Senators games on radio here from 1957 to 1960 and headed up the national radio broadcast of the 1960 World Series, which meant he was giving the play-by-play for one of baseball’s all-time moments: Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off homer in Game 7, which gave the Pittsburgh Pirates the Series win over the New York Yankees.
And he was particularly swayed by Jim Simpson, a sportscaster at WRC-TV who was a first-generation AFL broadcaster and a member of NBC’s Super Bowl III team.
“I watched that guy do everything,” Wolf says. “He did every big event there was.”
Wolf’s move to New York didn’t work out exactly as planned. In its first year, Monday Night Baseball averaged a 22 share in the ratings book, which would be a huge number for a telecast today but wasn’t much when TV meant three networks and little cable. After just one season, Wolf lost his spot in the Monday Night Baseball booth, and Howard Cosell was brought in.
But he stayed in New York as a sportscaster for local TV news and conquered that market as surely as he had this one. In 1979, he told the Washington Post, “I’m the No. 1 guy on the No. 1 station in the No. 1 market. Can you believe that, man?”
Wolf made a brief comeback in his hometown in 1992, reclaiming his old spot at Channel 9 after the death of Glenn Brenner. That ended badly in 1995 after a dispute with management over, among other things, his announcing horse-racing results during telecasts. He’s had little presence here since. Wolf moved back to New York and got back in the national spotlight thanks to exposure on Imus in the Morning. He’s been at WABC since 2004.
“I don’t get back to D.C. much anymore,” he says. “But I had fun. Washington was good. But all that was so many years ago.”