Sunday, January 18, 2009

Our only Super Bowl XLIII Fun Fact. (Promise!)

Regular RadioactiveSeattle readers will understand why I'm celebrating today's improbable Super Bowl berth earned by the Arizona Cardinals--nee' the St. Louis Cardinals, hence the unnatural interest in the much-maligned team by this Gateway City native. After all, it's a franchise that, as one astute AP sportswriter phrased it today, "for decades has been widely considered the most dysfunctional of NFL franchises."

The Cardinals clinched their 2009 Super Bowl appearance with a gritty come-from-behind victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at home in suburban Phoenix. RadioactiveSeattle already rhapsodized, with typically intense verbosity, in anticipation of this face-off in the posting immediately below ["Say, Rochcester, Can Ya Fetch My Helmet and Pads?", 1/11/2009]. So gloating about this glorious result of the NFC Championship is certainly not the redundant point of this entry.

Rather, I thought I'd try to be the first blog--or among the first, at least--to highlight an oddity we'll be reading about repeatedly over the next couple weeks, I'd wager:

It so happens that Super Bowl XLIII adversaries the Cardinals and the Steelers were once much closer. I mean, apart from during the 60s when both served as Century Division teams in the Eastern Conference of the old NFL. Indeed, believe it or not, they were once literally the same team.

Now this wasn't the Arizona Cardinals, or even the St. Louis Cardinals I watched so many Sundays under the Arch at Busch Stadium in the 60s. No, it was the Chicago Cardinals, based in the Southside facility they shared with the White Sox, Comiskey Park. One of the NFL's charter franchises two decades earlier, the Cardinals found themselves in a strange situation for one season.

The acute shortage of young, athletic men stateside during World War II had forced the NFL into a novel and, to my knowledge, unique solution in the annals of American major league sport: for a couple years starting in 1943, the League simply combined two of its teams into an ad-hoc squad for the season. The first such cannibalization was between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles, so Phil-Pitt Combine was naturally called by its fans the "Steagles".

But the wartime Steelers would play with a different team the following fall. So, in December 1944, as the Allies were on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, the NFL's Chicago and Pittsburgh franchises were allied across America, concluding an oddball season resulting in the sort of record you'd expect from a bunch of guys who'd never played together before. Finding victory elusive, they played their sole awkward season together under the even-more-clumsy hybrid name "Card-Pitt". They divided their five home games between Comiskey and Forbes Field, the Steelers' (and Pirates') home. The hyphenated combination in the end posted a perfect 0-10 record, something the 2008 Detroit Lions, at 0-16, can only envy. (That's an obvious joke, granted, but one affectionately rendered; I did overnights in Michigan for four years over onetime Lions flagship WJR.)

Anyway, I wonder if anyone on the air at KJR, Seattle's longtime all-sports formatted station--and a RadioactiveSeattle punching bag--has enough of a sense of history of the NFL to know of any of this Card-Pitt and Steagles business.

No need to wonder, actually; of course John Clayton would be aware of it! Indeed, Clayton's such a pro football maven that he'd probably even be able to tell his KJR listeners which Cardinals and Steelers emerged as standouts that weird autumn of '44, though the winless season may not have produced many stars. (But it produced a nickname for Card-Pitt more clever than Phil-Pitt's: The Carpets.)

KJR brass should better utilize the Seattle-based Clayton, of course, the expert analyst who is a bona fide sportscasting treasure on loan from ESPN. If KJR management expanded Clayton's limited role at the station--rather than keeping his often incisive football show almost inaccessible in its obscure Saturday-morning timeslot--those suits wouldn't be quite the sorry excuses for sportstalk radio programmers they have proven themselves to be in recent years.

Now how did I lapse into bellyaching about the talk-radio biz here? See, I've been happily stuck on the NFL ["Rush & McNabb, Tied Intelligently", archived 11/19/2008] and Obama for several weeks now, and I don't see that changing over the next fortnight. I intend to post again shortly after the inauguration hoopla is done, but I won't be surprised if it isn't until after Super Sunday.

A scrappy team upset an overwhelming favorite twelve months ago in the Super Bowl. Now if the scrappy Cardinals somehow in the end manage to plunge longtime Steelers loyalist--and RadioactiveSeattle nominee for Broadcaster of the Millennium--Rush Limbaugh into as deep a funk as I'll surely be sunk, should the Steelers instead prevail in Tampa...well, wouldn't that be somethin'?

BRYAN STYBLE/somewhere

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Say, ROCHester, Can Ya Fetch My Helmet and Pads?

When listening to Westwood One's coverage of the second round of the NFL playoffs aired locally over KJR/Seattle tonight, I could have sworn it was Rochester up in the booth doing color as the Steelers overpowered the San Diego Chargers at home in Pittsburgh.

But maybe my radio bias is showing here; Jack Benny remains an all-time favorite, and whenever recalling him, I never think first of his stage, film or television work.

So it turns out Dennis Green sounds just like Eddie Anderson, the late comic actor who first on radio and then television so memorably played Rochester, Benny's wisecracking valet. Airing locally over all-sports outlet KJR, coach-turned-sportscaster Green was doing his final game as analyst partnered with authorative play-by-play man Ian Eagle for Westwood One's NFL Thursday Night Football games this season. So distinctive was the diction of Anderson's earnest and hilarious Rochester character--and so indistinguishable from Green's excited broadcasting style--that it's highly unlikely I was the only listener struck by the similarity...though maybe the only one ineligible for Social Security.

Being only 54, I of course never got to hear Anderson and Benny during their radio heyday. But I did watch Green at his zenith as an NFL head coach a few years ago, when he led the Minnesota Vikings into the playoffs a couple times. The affable Green also happens to have been one of several guys who have haplessly head-coached the Arizona Cardinals, a franchise that until this weekend had for decades been laughably disdained and dismissed by virtually every NFL fan outside the Grand Canyon State.

That widespread and longstanding contempt is due to several reasons actually, but mainly because the Cardinals have the distinction of being the only old NFC team never to even play for a conference championship, much less win one, since 1966. That's when the AFL merged with the NFL, of which the Cardinals were one of the charter franchises in 1920.
It's also the only NFL team I've been following since childhood.

The Chicago Cardinals deserted their longtime Comiskey Park digs for my hometown of St. Louis prior to the 1960 season. Of course, first they had to legally sort out the duplicative-name problem; the baseball Cardinals had been a fixture in town for generations, not to mention a storied National League club. Then, from the start these
footballers also clad in crimson-and-white uniforms settled into what would prove to be decades of mediocrity. They initially shared with those other Cardinals historic Sportman's Park on the city's north side, and eventually the new downtown Busch Stadium under the Arch as well, but precious little of the fabled Gashouse Gang success ever rubbed off on their new gridiron counterparts. The Big Red, as their Gateway City fans often called them, were never really a lousy NFL team, but never a great one either.

Sure, the Chicago Cardinals had won the NFL Championship in 1947 and then even managed to play for it again in '48--both title games featuring the same Eagles-Cards match-up we'll see under the dome in the Glendale, Arizona next week, incidentally--but that was in a primitive, ten-team NFL which played only a 12-game schedule. Whereas the Cardinals team the Styble clan would watch each home game--from four season-ticketed seats eight rows up from the southern goal line at Busch--never even made the playoffs until I was away at Boston University in the 70s. Neither future Hall of Famer Larry Wilson nor later, more-mortal Cardinals would post even a single post-season victory until 1998, more than a decade after their longtime ownership had uprooted the vagabond franchise again, this time to Phoenix. And never a second playoff win until yesterday.

Now, if you're wondering why I'm talking football in a blog about newstalk radio--and curious as to why I've been so unreliable about regular RadioactiveSeattle posting recently--both questions are answered by a single, if lengthy,
posting below ["Rush and McNabb, Tied Intelligently", archived 11/19/2008]. By the time it was finally ready for publishing herein, it had morphed into something of a treatise on both my favorite sport and my favorite subject.

That is, I first conceived it merely as an opportunity to gleefully excoriate in text a certain Philadelphia-based athlete whose off-field behavior I'd long felt had been besmirching a wonderful game and America's best-run professional sport. And with an interesting newstalk radio tie-in--the Limbaugh connection--"Rush and McNabb, Tied Intelligently" would thus be appropriate for RadioactiveSeattle publication. But then Arthur Godfrey, of all people, somehow insinuated himself into the piece, and that changed everything. You see, that single addition immediately mushroomed it into a mega-essay, since of course it was vital to explain how arguably the biggest radio personality ever ended up a forgotten name today. This and other required augmentations touching on everything from simulcasting to advanced mathematics necessitated massive textual reworking that in turn effectively exhausted my writing energies for awhile. Add some other distractions, and the result was my just slacking on RadioactiveSeattle maintenance and instead reverting to NFL and Obama watching and all the rest, but not much writing, or at least publishing.

But then yesterday, the Cardinals so unexpectedly steamrolled the Carolina Panthers. And thus this much-relocated and much-maligned football franchise is now but one defeat of the Eagles away from an improbable Super Bowl appearance--and with Donovan McNabb, of all people, blocking their way toward that figurative and literal goal!

So fateful circumstance itself has jolted me with the energy required to finally craft it into presentable prose, albeit something vastly different than the essay I'd originally envisioned. Two paragraphs back, I intimated the resultant textual montrosity is about radio, which of course it is, and also about football, which is also true. Yet it's also about the medium's Golden Age and tie-games and race relations and architecture and intelligence and old-school broadcast values and Godfrey and Reagan and Orson Welles and Shakespeare and biases and scrupulous word-choice and oh yes, smiling. Plus it details not just one but two of the most legendary incidents in live-broadcasting history.

But maybe most fundamentally, the seemingly-endless piece ended up as a sort of meditation on a certain unpleasantry. One which most of us have experienced here or there if not repeatedly over the years, and which oddly enough, also happens for me to be a certain sensitive subject which several RadioactiveSeattle readers have been requesting I address herein. Now I shan't tip my hand further; you'll have to slog through at least a third of it to figure out what's being referenced here. (Okay, one hint: it's an indisputably hot topic these days.)

Ergo, the re-posting below [archived at Wednesday, November 19, 2008] of "Rush and McNabb, Tied Intelligently".

BRYAN STYBLE/somewhere