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Charlie Brotman left his schedule open last Friday. He didn’t want to miss Tiger Woods’ call.
“If we don’t hear from Tiger by 5, he’s not coming,” said Brotman, pacing the AstroTurf-covered floor of his downtown office. “If he calls, we’ve got a lot of work to do. If not, we’re ready to go, business as usual. But we’re going to wait here, just in case.”
Brotman’s public relations firm is handling publicity and media for this week’s Kemper Open, as it has every year since the tournament relocated to the Washington area in 1980. In the Kemper’s early years here, the PGA’s big-name players avoided the event like a sand trap (1988 Kemper champion: Morris Hatalsky), but nobody rates the tournament as subpar anymore. The mere possibility that Woods would bring his woods and irons to Avenel shows that the event has at long last arrived.
Brotman himself arrived much earlier. For several decades, he has been to sports promotion in D.C. what Tiger Woods is to golf: the only name that really matters. Essentially every men’s or women’s tennis or golf tournament, star-studded charity fundraiser, boxing card, or sportscentric soiree thrown in town has Brotman’s name attached to it somewhere, somehow. The corridors of his agency’s headquarters provide photographic proof that Brotman has rubbed elbows with basically every jock or jock-sniffer who’s ambled through the nation’s capital. There’s Charlie, smiling and glad-handing with, in no particular order: DiMaggio and Mantle and Ali and O.J. and Coach Allen and Coach Lombardi and Coach Gibbs and Edward Bennett Williams and Jack Kent Cooke and every president since Eisenhowerand that’s just in one hallway. He’s got even more stories than photos.
“I know I’ve been a lucky guy,” laughs Brotman, 70. “I believe in reincarnation, and I want to come back as me.”
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Dick Clark has nothing on Brotman when it come to looking younger than his age, so it’s hard to believe he’s been a part of the local sports landscape for as long as he has. Brotman established his own athletic credentials on playgrounds and gymnasiums all over Northeast D.C.he was the city’s marbles champion at 9, and he captained the McKinley Tech basketball team to a league championship in 1947. (His parents, who owned and operated Mother’s Market on 4th and T Streets NE, couldn’t afford the $25 an official letter sweater cost, so his grandmother knitted one for him. “I always say I got to wear a facsimile letter sweater,” Brotman says.)
But his size, or lack thereof (5 foot 6 1/2 inches), prevented Brotman from even dreaming about a career on the playing fields. So he made a play for the announcing booth. After attending broadcasting school locally, he left his hometown for a string of radio jobs in Podunk towns like Ronceverte, W.Va., (a suburb of White Sulphur Springs) and pre-Disney Orlando.
Orlando happened to be the spring training home of his boyhood idols, the Washington Senators. One day, owner Calvin Griffith approached Brotman and told him the team was holding auditions for its public address announcer’s position in D.C. Without any guarantees of getting hired, Brotman packed up his wife and young child and headed back to his hometown.
Good move. Brotman got the job, and Griffith stuck the then-28-year-old greenhorn in front of a mike for the first time on Opening Day, 1956. The opponents for his debut were the vaunted New York Yankees, and President Eisenhower, observing the now-dead presidential custom of throwing out the first ball, was in attendance.
“I used to take the trolley to Griffith Stadium and wait outside after Senators games to get autographs from anybody carrying a satchel,” Brotman says. “And now I’m announcing the names of the players, of all of my heroes? And I’m calling the names of the Yankees, of Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle? And telling the president when to throw out the first ball? I’m thinking: ‘A little guy like me? Are you kidding?’”
With the team on the road half a season, Brotman didn’t always have a microphone to talk into, so Griffith put him to work in the public relations office. The Senators were huge losers throughout the 1950shence the team’s capacity in Damn Yankeesand lacked a single star worth promoting, so getting people in the stands wasn’t easy. Brotman ended up resorting to such tacks as asking Mickey Mantle to participate in a pregame hitting contest and bringing Joe DiMaggio in for an old-timers’ ceremony.
Eisenhower liked his work: He asked Brotman to be the announcer for his second inauguration in 1957. (Last year, while calling his 11th consecutive inaugural parade, Brotman incited the crowd along Pennsylvania Avenue to do the wave for President Clinton.) But his words over the stadium PA and his PR ploys while in the Senators’ employ weren’t enough to keep Griffith from moving the team to Minnesota after the 1960 season. Though Griffith invited Brotman to go north, he opted to stay behind, lacking a job but not career focus.
“Before the Senators, I didn’t know anything about PR,” he says. “But that was a great learning experience for me, because we had to come up with every way we could think of to get people’s minds off the home team. Almost everybody in the front office went to Minnesota, but I wasn’t going to leave again.”
Brotman learned plenty more about shilling for losers after Griffith left town: He did hard time with a succession of sports enterprises every bit as lousy as the Senators. He got ink for the ill-fated Washington Capitols basketball team, for example, by very publicly offering a season ticket to President Nixon, a big sports fan and a casual acquaintance of Brotman’s from his Griffith Stadium days. “Most people in PR think that buying advertising is the way to promote something. I always try to make news,” Brotman says of that exploit.
The chief executive declined the offer of hoop tickets, and just six weeks after the team’s inaugural season tipped off, the Capitols’ owner ran out of money. A New York adhesive-tape magnate bought the team, and changed its name, midseason, to the Washington Tapers. The Tapers didn’t stick around a second season. Brotman later barked for the Washington Whips soccer team and even invested in the Washington Federals of the USFL. Remember them?
After all those years of pushing losers while on somebody else’s payroll, he opened up a PR boutique of his own in 1969. Since no other firm in town was doing sports PR, he quickly gobbled up accounts like Rosecroft Raceway (he almost got Liz Taylor into a sulky one night) and the multi-monickered men’s tennis tournament held annually at Carter Barron.
Then, in 1976, Brotman landed his biggest gig. That’s when Sugar Ray Leonard, hot from a gold-medal performance in the Montreal Olympics, came to his office.
At the time, Leonard was broke and had announced that he would never pursue a pro boxing career. An adviser to Leonard recommended that he talk to Brotman, who had written a press release about the boxer when he was entered in a Golden Gloves tournament at age 13. Brotman got him a job signing autographs at a World of Wheels show in Los Angeles for $2 a pop.
“For five days, I stood next to a table and collected money while Ray signed,” Brotman says. “Neither of
us had ever seen so much money. We stayed in the same hotel room, and at the end of each day we’d go home and just throw all those dollar bills up in
the air around our room and laugh like two little kids. I
had a blast.”
Leonard must also have enjoyed his trip to L.A., which included a visit with Brotman to the set of Charlie’s Angels. After going back on his pledge not to turn pro, Leonard retained Brotman as his PR man from his first fight all the way through last year’s career-ending (?) debacle against Macho Camacho.
Brotman enjoyed his time with Leonard so much that he took on additional roles within the Leonard camp without remuneration. “I carried the spit bucket in his corner at all his big fights,” Brotman says. And just as Leonard deflected so many jabs and dodged all those haymakers thrown at him in the ring, Brotman brilliantly steered his client and friend past all the domestic abuse charges and drug abuse allegations thrown the fighter’s way outside the squared circle through the years. That’s why Leonard still has the public image of a choirboy, the same one he had when he first visited Brotman’s office in 1976.
Tiger Woods kept Brotman waiting all day Friday, but right at 5 p.m. the agency announced it had gotten the call confirming that Woods would bring his big driver and bigger name to the Kemper. Local TV stations led off their evening newscasts with the story. Woods eventually backed out of the commitment to play here, citing a back injury, but the withdrawal came after a weekend of Tiger-hyped ticket sales. Everybody involved in the tournament swears the player is really injured. Of course, Brotman would never pull a stunt like that… Dave McKenna