Thank goodness for the Sports Huddle, broadcasting every Sunday night from 7-11 p.m. -- most prominently remembered on then WEEI 590 and WHDH 850 AM in Boston. From the "big top" circus music leading into Eddie Andelman, Jim McCarthy and Mark Witkin announcing phony sports news with bad puns and jokes to the sign off with Gene Autry singing "Happy Trails," and Donald Duck giving the station identification, the Sports Huddle provided the most fun, entertaining radio show in that glorious era of Boston radio.
They made Sunday nights a lot better for us brothers, as well as mom and dad, too -- that's for sure. We would all sit around laughing at what Eddie and crew would come up with on a given night. No matter how limited the Zenith, Hitachi and Magnavox transistor radio were in consistently bringing in the signal, the Sports Huddle always came through the small speakers loud, clear and always with an incredible spirit and love for sports -- well, maybe, except for hockey from Eddie's perspective. More on that later. Eddie, Mark and Jim weren't supposed to be talk show hosts. In a generation with big, booming top 40 voices, conversational middle of the road (MOR) radio personalities, and serious analytical talk show hosts, Eddie, Mark and Jim came from different backgrounds as a real estate broker, insurance salesman and lawyer, respectively. They bridged professional broadcasters and amateurs masterfully without virtually a minute of downtime. The amateur part made perfect sense: a WUNR 1600 AM executive reportedly discovered the trio talking sports in a Boston bar. Next thing they knew, a show was born on WUNR with an ensuing short stint on 50,000 watt powerhouse WBZ AM -- which Eddie later frequently referred to as the "Wyoming Blasting and Zoning Company."
Eddie, as you could see in that last quip, was the wisecracking, humorous leader with a Catskill sense of humor and a thick Boston accent. Jim sounded like the opinionated Boston guy you would meet at a summer cookout. Mark came across as the true gentleman of the group and one with a thoughtful, balanced approached although he was fully capable of subtly throwing in a few zingers. Although one could say that the free-form Sports Huddle format was a precursor to today's loud, opinionated, "anything goes" sports shows of today, the reality is Eddie, Mark and Jim's show differed greatly. The key in the Sports Huddle success was to have fun and be original and creative in a G to PG-rated way, while many of today's "shock jock" sports shows rely more on mean-spirited cheap shots, too much emphasis on talking about about things other than sports, and an overall self-importance that, at times, is not very likable. With that said -- and for the record -- I do enjoy the modern day sports talk shows for different reasons, but just not as much as the Sports Huddle back in the day. Eddie, Mark and Jim were quite likable and full of memorable moments that I remember fondly, to this very day.
Not only did Eddie, Mark and Jim make the show special, but also superbly talented newscasters like Joe Klemente (hope the spelling is correct) and Vin Maloney added funny spoofs, as well as the callers contributing everything from incredible depth to priceless shallowness. Eddie seemed to love the Kowloon Chinese Restaurant in Saugus, Mass., and made frequent references to the gracious Wong family (the owners) pu-pu platters and all the other great food there. Eddie just talking about the Kowloon made my mouth water -- he really brought life to that place by enthusiastically talking about the food. Eddie wasn't so kind, however, when describing the former Joe and Nemo's restaurant.
For some reason, Eddie seemed to insult the game of hockey frequently. He used names like Pierre LaPoop as a default hockey name. I suspect he was behind the Doka-Cola commercials with Witkin mimicking Boston Bruins defenseman Gary Doak (you know, the guy who blocked hockey pucks with his face) for the phony ad. There was this running gag with callers always asking, "Hey, what did you think of the Vadnais trade?" Let me explain, or refresh you on that one: Carol Vadnais and Phil Esposito were traded in 1975 to the New York Rangers for Brad Park, Jean Ratelle and Joe Zanussi! Speaking of Esposito, Eddie continuously played a sound bite of him stammering repeatedly saying, "I don't know" and ending by saying "It's really stupid." Eddie would start by saying "We asked Phil Esposito what he thought and here's what he had to say..." Eddie also had sound bites of former boxer Leon Spinks and and Korean religious leader Sun Myung Moon that came in handy when pressing questions need to be answered. On one show, Eddie asked callers how they would improve hockey if in charge. One caller suggested putting a huge pit in the middle of the ice. Another thought having a "jump puck" (like a jump ball in basketball) would liven things up. Someone else said that turning the nets around to face the boards would create a better challenge and more entertainment. I called in and said that the game would be better if fans moved the hockey players around with levers just like in the toy hockey games.
In addition to the hockey schtick (no pun intended), here were some of my favorite moments...Eddie, Mark and Jim called a San Diego hotel in hopes of getting in touch with someone at the Major League winter baseball meetings. With the request once again rejected on the final call, Eddie heard someone in the background stating that someone was having a problem in one of the rooms -- to the best I recall, it was a lack of hot water running. Eddie heard the room number given, hung up and called back the hotel asking for that room number. The lady in the room answered the phone and Eddie took on the role of the hotel manager. You probably get the rest of the picture, but the lady seemed to assume the role of an outraged Margaret Dumont (a Marx Brothers foil) and Eddie as Groucho Marx for more than a few minutes. When she demanded to talk with Eddie's " hotel manager," he refused, and a verbal war broke out to the point of hilarity.Eddie didn't like former Red Sox manager Don Zimmer -- at least that's the way it came across on the radio. Whenever anyone mentioned his name on the show, Eddie would play this sound bite: "I'm sorry, You are not to refer to the Red Sox manager by name. His code name is: 'Chiang Kai-shek'."
The callers. Violet, a lovely-sounding older lady, would call in regularly and talk genuinely, sweetly and with common sense about the sports issues at hand. Eddie, Mark and Jim really seemed to enjoy her calls and treated her so well -- like a beloved aunt. Tony from Everett would phone in with his easily identifiable "hot ticket" personality. His calls were definitely "quality," but I think his determination and commitment to be a regular caller was more prominent. "Paul the Poet" would call in this these incoherent, marble-mouthed poems. I, for one, thought they were brilliant and preferred the readings over Emily Dickinson. Eddie Costello phoned in with normal-sounding banter, at first, but then transitioned into a one-man musical band with his voice (drums were the dominant instrument, it seemed), toward the end of the phone calls.How about the time they called the commander of the Buckingham Palace Guards hoping for a "changing of the guards" -- that is, the English Queen trading her best for a pair of New England Patriots guards?
Sure, the Sports Huddle provided great, one-of-a-kind entertainment for many years, but it would all be to no avail if the trio didn't know their subject matter. I learned so much about sports from them. If not for their encyclopedic sports knowledge, the show would have worn out its welcome sooner. Funny is good and depth is the catalyst to keep the entertainment rolling. The Sports Huddle brilliantly connected the two and, ultimately, hit a home run for us on virtually every show. What a great show -- often imitated, but never duplicated!