Interview With Jim Zabel of WHO Radio in Des Moines, Iowa

February 20, 1984

Mr. Zabel. My name is Jim Zabel. I've been sports director of WHO Radio since 1944. And obviously we're honored and excited today to have the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who sat behind this microphone on many occasions from 1933 to 1937 when he had my job. He was sports director here at WHO. President, great to have you here. And, of course, your friend, and a great friend of WHO's, Charlie Gross -- H.R. Gross, the former news director here.

The President. Yes.

Mr. Zabel. Now, the memories that this microphone right here evokes in you -- what are they?

The President. Oh, my goodness. [Laughter] There are so many. It's like a film montage there of everything, the various events and the -- I remember probably one outstanding occasion -- the microphone of that kind -- out at Birdland Park, and they were having the Olympic tryouts out there, the AAU tryouts for the Olympic team. And we were feeding network -- going to feed the NBC network, and that was really tops. We had half an hour to fill. And some of the Olympic officials got in an argument, and I was on the air for 30 minutes, nationwide -- [laughter] -- and they did not run off one single swimming event.

I think I described every drop of water in the pool -- [laughter] -- everyone that was warming up, and what they were doing, and talking about, what events were going to be held. Went off the air and 2 minutes after we were off the air, they had the first event.

Mr. Zabel. But your adlib ability was really put to a super test with that machine right there, the old Western Union tickertape that used to bring in the Chicago Cubs re-creations to you.

The President. Yes.

Mr. Zabel. And you had a stick one time -- in that famous story -- you fouled it off 34 times, 35 times -- --

The President. [Laughing] Yes. It was -- you sat -- there was a window here. Curly Waddel was the operator, sat on that side with the headphones, and he would type and slip it under the window to me. And they used to keep track -- because there'd be seven or eight stations competing and broadcasting, and most of them live, right at the park -- and we were within half a pitch of right up with the live ballgame all the time.

Mr. Zabel. Sure.

The President. To do that, he had to abbreviate things down, like in would come the paper, and it would say, ``Out 4 - 3.'' Well, that meant out from second base to first base, that meant it had to be a grounder. So, you'd take it, and you'd say, ``And Dean comes out of the windup, and here comes the pitch, and it's a hard hit ground ball down toward second base. So-and-so going over after the ball, picks it up, flips it over to first, just in time for the out.'' And by this time you're waiting for the next one. Or he would send you ``S - 1 - C.'' And that meant strike one called. So, you'd say, ``He's got the sign, comes out of the windup, here's the pitch, and it's a called strike, breaking over the outside corner just'' -- [laughter] -- ``above the knees.'' And all of that.

But the thing that you're talking about was the time that -- it was the ninth inning, the Cards and the Cubs, tied up 0 - 0, and he was typing, and I thought there's a play coming. And he kept shaking his head when I had -- and it was Dean on the mound -- and I had Billy Jurgess at the plate. And I had him getting a sign from the catcher, and finally here comes the slip of paper, and it said, ``The wires have gone dead.'' And I knew in that ninth inning if I suddenly said, ``Well, we'll have a little interlude of music while we get back connected with the ballpark,'' we'd lose every -- they'd all turn on some of those other stations. So, I thought, ``There's only one thing that can get in the -- doesn't get in the score book: foul ball.''

So, I had Jurgess foul one, and then I had him foul another. And then I had him foul one that missed a homerun by a foot. Then I described two kids down back of third base that -- [laughter] -- were in a fight over the ball that had gone into the stands there. And pretty soon I know I'm beginning to set a world record for somebody standing at the plate and hitting successive fouls, if anyone ever kept those figures. And I was beginning to sweat a little, because I knew now that if I told them we'd lost the wire they'd know I hadn't been telling the truth.

Mr. Zabel. Who finally did get the hit in that game?

The President. Well, just -- pretty soon, Curly started typing. And I had him throw another pitch, and in came the slip, and then I started giggling. I had trouble getting it out, because the slip said Jurgess popped out on the first ball pitched. [Laughter]

Mr. Zabel. That's good.

Charlie Gross, let's bring you in here. You were known as kind of a meticulous perfectionist at the time. Here was a young sportscaster. Did he live up to your standards when you were here?

Representative Gross. The young sportscaster?

Mr. Zabel. Yes.

Representative Gross. Oh, yes, sir. Yes, sir.

Mr. Zabel. You kind of made him toe the line?

Representative Gross. This was the source of all sports news around here -- that is, by way of radio -- this gentleman here, the President.

Mr. Zabel. Did you project in him at that time, when he was 22, 23 years old, the qualities that enabled him to become President of the United States?

Representative Gross. No, I never -- he was a Democrat. He belonged to the wrong party -- [laughter] -- at this time, but -- --

The President. Yeah, but I outgrew that.

Representative Gross. Yes, but he outgrew it. That's right. [Laughter] No, I never thought, of course, that he would become President of the United States and that I would be here at his side tonight.

Mr. Zabel. Mr. President, this microphone brings back -- you were selected Wheaties Sportscaster of the Year one time. You did -- --

The President. Yeah.

Mr. Zabel. -- -- the Wheaties commercial, you did the Kentucky Club commercial -- --

The President. Yeah, they sponsored an awful lot of baseball, Wheaties did.

Mr. Zabel. And when you came into Des Moines today, down Fleur Drive from the airport did you notice some changes about the city of Des Moines?

The President. Well, long about the time we got here -- by the time that I got here, I was just prepared to turn right and go to 914 Walnut Street. And here I am in a whole new institution.

I've got to tell you one about -- --

Mr. Zabel. I want to hear one that you've got down here -- --

The President. -- -- Charlie Gross. Well, let me just tell you, he is a pioneer, and a true pioneer. Under the Fair Trade Practices Act back in the those depression days, radio was not allowed to do news, because it would be unfair. They thought that you could just go and put it in a microphone instead of having to have it put in print and out on the streets. And B.J. Palmer, who was then the head of the central broadcasting, decided that he was going to challenge that and we were going to have news. And only one news service would provide us with a newswire. And Charlie was the whole news department, including the writing and rewriting of the stories. And we went on the air with news, and it was a first in radio. It became a daily twice-a-day feature for his news.

And then, of course, he was a pioneer in another thing, as you know -- when he went to Congress. It was no surprise to those of us that knew him that he would be known as the conscience of the Congress, that his colleagues would go to him because they knew he had read the bills, and they'd go to him before they voted to find out.

Representative Gross. You're being overly generous.

The President. No, I'm not.

Mr. Zabel. Okay, Charlie. Mr. President, you told me when I did an interview with you in 1974 on the 50th anniversary of WHO Radio that the 5 years you spent here were 5 of the happiest years of your life.

The President. Oh, yes.

Mr. Zabel. Do you still look back on those that fondly?

The President. Oh, yes. They were really -- those were foundation years, and I think everything that happened came out of this.

Mr. Zabel. Well, it's the true American hero story -- hitchhiking to Davenport, I believe, to get the job in the first place.

The President. Yes. Had a rather unusual audition from Pete McArthur, who was the program director then.

I had been told that in looking for a job in those depression days -- and I'd hitchhiked all the way around the country quite a bit -- I'd been told that you should ask an employer not for what you wanted to be -- a sports announcer -- just tell him you'd take any job to get in the station and then take your chances on moving up from there. So, I made my usual pitch of that kind after a number of turndowns to Pete. And this time, the turndown was really disappointing because he said, ``Where were you last week? We auditioned 90 people and hired an announcer.'' And on my way out the door, I said, ``How do you ever get to be a sports announcer if you can't get in a station?'', and went on down to the elevator, which, fortunately, wasn't there.

And Pete, who was badly handicapped with arthritis and on two canes -- I didn't know until I heard him thumping down the hall yelling at me -- and he asked me what that was I said about sports. And I told him that's what I'd like to be. And he said, ``You know anything about football?'' And I said, ``I played it for 8 years.'' He said, ``Do you think you could tell me about a game and, if I was sitting there listening, I could see the game?'' And I said, ``I think so.'' And he took me in a studio, put me in front of one of these. No, they weren't even this one then -- this was a modern one. This was the old carbon mike.

Mr. Zabel. Right.

The President. And he put me in front of that, and he said, ``When the red light goes on, you start broadcasting an imaginary football game.'' And I did for about 15 minutes. It wasn't really imaginary. I knew I had to have names. So, I picked a game that I'd played in -- in college, the previous fall -- which we'd won in the last 20 seconds by a 65-yard touchdown run -- I did not make the run. So, I chose that game and said, when the light came on, started -- that we were in the 4th quarter. You know, I had everything. I had the long, blue shadows settling over the field -- --

Mr. Zabel. The famous long, blue shadows -- [laughter] -- --

The President. Yes -- the chill wind coming in through the end of the stadium -- we didn't have a stadium, we had bleachers. [Laughter] And I did it for about the 15 minutes and made that winning touchdown. One thing I did put in. As a running guard, coming out and around and leading the interference -- on that play, that day, Eureka College, I missed my man, the first man in the secondary. And I don't know how Bud Cole got by and reversed the field, because I missed him. In the broadcast, I nailed him. [Laughter] It was a magnificent block -- [laughter] -- key to the whole success of the play.

And he came in and told me to be there on Saturday, that I was broadcasting the Iowa-Minnesota game, and he would give me $5 and bus fare.

Mr. Zabel. The price hasn't changed any. [Laughter] No, I'm saying that facetiously. Well, Mr. President, obviously we're just thrilled and happy to have you here to reminisce about the old -- let me ask you one question, from sportscaster to sportscaster -- would you have stayed a sportscaster if the telegram had not come from Warner Brothers, do you think?

The President. I think so, yes. There had always been a sneaking lust in my heart for it -- [laughter] -- the theatric end of the business.

Mr. Zabel. Well, we have about eight to ten thousand people, I think, a full house waiting up at the auditorium. Can you tell us what you're going to tell them up there tonight?

The President. Well, I don't think anything that I say has been said by any of the eight other candidates who've been running around the State. [Laughter] I might have a little different twist on things than that. But I'm going to talk about this recovery that we have going and what I think is needed to keep it going.

Mr. Zabel. How does it feel to be back in Des Moines?

The President. Oh, great. It's too short, as always, but give me another 7\1/2\ minutes, and I'd be so far down nostalgia lane -- [laughter] -- --

Mr. Zabel. Let me ask you one question a lot of people ask of me about you. What type of sportscaster were you? I mean, how do you categorize your style? What was it?

The President. Oh, I don't know. I always thought -- I always had in mind a listener out there, and I thought that I was painting a word picture. If I was in the stadium over at University of Iowa broadcasting an Iowa football game, I always tried to use references like saying not just that they're on the 20-yard line, 15 yards in from the side of the field; I would say, ``They're down here to the right on their own 20-yard line, 15 yards in from this side of the field'' or place them. I always figured that he -- that viewer out there -- he or she must be able to get a picture in their minds of what it looked like.

Mr. Zabel. Well, you gave them a lot of pictures, Mr. President. A thrill to have you here at WHO today.

The President. I rambled on, but you shouldn't have turned me loose.

Mr. Zabel. Well, the fans love it, I'm sure. Thank you very much. Good luck to you tonight.

The President. Well, thank you.

Mr. Zabel. Congressman Gross, thank you for being here with us.

Representative Gross. Not at all. A pleasure to see you, sir.

Mr. Zabel. Thank you.

Note: The interview began at 5:21 p.m. at the WHO broadcasting studio.