Touching Greatness by Ted Sobel

 

I admit I’ve a stack of books that I’m reading, I’ve a bit of a backlog. But one book I’m looking forward to reading is a unique memoir written by sportscaster Ted Sobel. Touching Greatness is based on his experience with over 750 Hall of Famers in sports, music, and show biz. They range from getting to know and later work with his boyhood idols, to covering the entire careers of greats like Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods, and to even breaking stories on the origins of songs by the Eagles. Add Sobel’s personal retro experiences of being an L.A. kid in the 60s, and its a book for readers of varied interests.


The three-time Golden Mike winner is now in his 17th year as a studio host/reporter for Sports USA radio network broadcasts of the NFL and NHL and still covers important events worldwide. He’s served as sports reporter and anchor at KNX, KMPC, and KFWB, all-news and all-sports stations in Southern California since the mid 1980s. And while at KLAA radio, he did play-by-play for the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the now defunct International Hockey League. Sobel also called games for Long Beach State football and basketball on KNAC and UC Irvine basketball on KWVE-FM back in the early 80s.

The Los Angeles native who was raised in Culver City and later graduated from Fairfax High School decided on his future at an early age. “Growing up in L.A. meant everything to my wanting to get into the radio business and also sports,” recalled Sobel. “I first began listening to (Vin) Scully in about 1959 (at age 6) and spent the next decade with a transistor radio stuck in my ear until the last word was spoken on the Dodgers postgame show.” Sobel also credits his Dad for his initial interest in baseball. Bernie Sobel worked at Yankee Stadium as an early teen when Babe Ruth played and loved sharing those stories with his youngest son.

 

I was always doing play-by-play as a kid in our house or at the park, so I guess that's what I've wanted to do since as far back as I can remember,” said Sobel. He lists Scully and the Lakers’ Chick Hearn as mentors, more so the latter “taking me into his old office at the Forum and showing me how to best make a basketball play-by-play chart (while offering) some critiquing of my work. And then I got to work with them both, which was always just a real special time.” 

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His book describes who inspired Sobel’s love for sports and music, “including what Don Drysdale, Elgin Baylor, and Bart Starr meant to me as early sports idols and then getting to know them.” He describes his earliest interview with Lakers legend and former Clipper General Manager Baylor “giving me my first one-on-one interview in his house when I was 19 and just barely considering my future career. That was amazingly inspiring!”

 

One legendary L.A. disc jockey who helped out Sobel was Dave Hull. “The Hullabalooer was my non-sports radio idol and mentor and I learned so much from him in studio at KFI and from our many chats,” another story detailed in the book.

“My decades in L.A. radio have not only been a dream fulfilled, but to get to work with some of our greatest has been a real kick. Twenty-three years at KFWB (through four different formats), 32 years intermittently at KNX, and my two years at the old KMPC (L.A.’s first all-sports station) gave me the opportunity to be alongside some of our city’s all-time top broadcasters,” said Sobel. A second volume has already been written which will include a chapter about working with Jim Healy plus recapping stories about “how Robert W. Morgan tried to test my on-air prowess,” plus his personal stories with “the Mount Rushmore of L.A. Sportscasters Scully, Hearn, (Bob) Miller, and (Dick) Enberg.”

"Nobody more qualified to share these stories than Ted," said Fred Roggin, who worked with Sobel at "The Beast 980" (KFWB).  "He's done it all and seen it all.  He chronicled all of it in a masterful way."

Sobel offers a 1995 tale about Chick Hearn (written for a future volume of Touching Greatness) who he describes as “our nightly bartender / standup comic after calling Lakers games at the Forum,” involving an “almost” pay-per-view event pitting Shaquille O’Neal versus Hakeem Olajuwon in a one-on-one match:

I had been hired to be the reporter to interview the two stars who had just met in the NBA Finals with Houston sweeping Orlando. Magic center Shaq then challenged Hakeem to a one-on-one battle that I had spent a few weeks on working with O’Neal’s agent and others to get the word out to as many as possible. 

I flew to New York for the big news conference followed by a limo ride to New Jersey with then teenage rookie Kevin Garnett, who was on the undercard of this event that was set up like boxing matches. The morning of this scheduled event, I got into my hotel elevator to get breakfast and when the door opened, there were Chick and Marge Hearn heading down to do the same. Chick who was set to call these matches  was openly upset when he immediately said, “Ted, did you hear this whole damn thing is being canceled?”

I had heard rumors but knew no facts and we sat down to eat at the same table with enough expletives coming out of Chick’s mouth the rest of the morning that I’ll NEVER forget! Needless to say he was NOT happy flying all the way to the East Coast for nothing, but he contributed to this great story to tell which we later had our share of laughs over.

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When asked what was his most memorable interview, Sobel said it was “easily” the aforementioned interview with Baylor. “Imagine any kid or hopeful sportscaster getting to interview the best player in his sport and an idol in his city, as their first interview before ever knowing how to handle a microphone?” He recalled sitting in Baylor’s trophy room after their initial meeting a few years earlier. Sobel even befriended the Laker forward, enough for offered rides to Laker games during the latter stage of Baylor’s playing career. “And the cherry on top was going with the Baylor family to ‘Elgin Baylor Night’ before he retired. Imagine any of that happening today?”

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He said the interview which got the most attention recently was a 2019 conversation with Vin Scully and former Dodger pitcher Carl Erskine, “a podcast for the ages.” Scully and Erskine had not had the opportunity to speak in over a decade. “The two men in their 90s reminisced about starting out together in Brooklyn almost 70 years earlier with stories about Jackie Robinson and other inside stuff that I’d never heard.” You can hear the interview online. “I’m as proud of putting that together as anything I’ve ever done.”

 

“And there have been many challenging athletes to interview, Clayton Kershaw, Kirk Gibson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar just to name a few.” Sobel said his most challenging interview wasn’t with an athlete, but Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson, “who accepted my interviewing him but gave me absolutely nothing that I could use…and that after gladly telling me that he had heard his group’s song on the radio for the first time on my KFWB.”

"Ted Sobel has the sportscaster gig most everyone wants," said Randy Kerdoon, former KNX colleague. "To be at the games, talking to the athletes, and being front and center for some of the biggest moments in SoCal sports." Kerdoon admired Sobel's versatility. "When (Sobel) worked at KFWB (then all news, then news/talk) he would also provide practice and post game comments for us at KNX. Ted is a pro and his book is a fun read!"

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With the notable exception of KLAC’s Vic “the Brick” Jacobs, the sports anchor providing scores and updates has disappeared from the local radio dial. Sobel thinks that’s a real loss to listeners. “What’s missing with L.A. radio all but eliminating sports anchors is not only the content that listeners have always craved, but the personalities that presented that material.” Sobel said a select group of reporters, including himself, “consider ourselves to be sports personalities besides being anchors/reporters, and it’s not the same getting your scores and news from those who are not local by whatever means.” Yet he realizes radio continues to cut costs, “and sports is the easiest to delete from their budgets, so now we all get the shaft.”

 

“All local sports journalism should always have a place for the people of any city to get the inside story from those who cover and know their teams best,” said Sobel. He noted teams (pro and college) “used to beg us” to cover their games, but now social media allows teams to use their own people and manage the message, “and we are now only a nuisance to them.” He added “of course that means the people who pay for tickets and merchandise will forever get what the teams want to tell them and not always the real story from hopefully unbiased reporters. Sad but true, and the future doesn’t look very bright for those fans who really care to know what’s really going on!”

The book is now available at Amazon, order it here, Sobel's website is touchinggreatness.com.

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