Saturday, September 12, 2009

Les Grobstein

Les Grobstein has been an integral part of the Chicago sports radio landscape for thirty years. He currently hosts late nights at the Score, 670AM. He also hosts a weekend show at WKRS-AM.

Rick: First of all, congrats on being back at the Score. How does it feel to return to that frequency and that time slot?

Les: You can go home again. This is the second time I’ve done that. I was with WLS almost the entire decade of the 80s and they dropped the music and went all-talk, then 2 years ago they did the Memorial Day Rewind and brought me back again. I did a show with Larry Lujack and Tommy Edwards and another one with Fred Winston (photo), and then we did it again in ’08. I told Robert Feder "you can go home again," but that was nothing compared to this. This is really being back. Even though we're not on Belmont anymore, the studios are in a different location, this really feels like home.

Rick: How have you been received by former/current colleagues?

Les: I’ve been received well. It's been great seeing so many people that are still here from before. But to tell you the truth, I'm still on a bit of an island because of the time I'm on the air. I’m not ever there during the daytime, unless we have a meeting or something.

Rick: I almost don't know where to start with you because you've done so much and been involved in so many interesting radio moments. But there is one thing I don't think I've ever heard you speak about: your first job in the business, with Sports Phone. That wasn't technically radio, it was a phone recording, but it was done as if it was a radio broadcast. For people that are too young to remember that, would you mind talking about what that was, and give us a few of the names of people that worked there?

Les: Dick Gonski, the former Bulls color commentator, was our GM. I had the daytime shift. Ron Gleason was the nighttime guy. Tom Greene, who later did sports huddle on WMAQ, was also there. Pat Benkowski was there. Ted Robinson, who went on to be a big time play by play guy, was there. We also had George Ofman, David Schuster, Fred Huebner, geez, I know I'm leaving some people out, but the list goes on and on.

I was on the daytime shift by myself and didn’t have to alternate like some of the other guys. I got to do quickie quizzes every day, which I’ve always been good at it. We even had a quickie quiz hall of fame. The others at nights and weekends were basically a scoreboard. During the daytime there wasn't as much going on, the Cubs were the only ones playing day games, everyone else played at night, so I was given much more leeway.

Some days I would go to the game and do the updates from the game, but what really helped me was I was allowed to do creative stuff. It really was more like a show. When Rick Talley left for the LA Times, they went looking for someone to replace him at WLS, and Bud Miller said that hearing what I was doing on Sportsphone helped me. I also knew two people at WLS--Bob Sirott and Tommy Edwards, who was already doing the Bulls public address. So, they asked me to come into the station. I met everyone else there, including the program director John Gehron, and they all liked what they heard, but Bud told me, yeah, we’ll get back to you. We’re looking at 50 other people.

I didn’t think I had a chance. In the interim, I was called in by Reed Pence at the Loop and a couple of other people over there, and they were interested in having a sportscaster too...and we were in the same building as they were (the Hancock) that seemed like it could really happen. That chance died when they put together their deal for Disco Demolition. Part of the deal was Mike Veeck would come in and do what was basically nothing more than a promotional announcement for the White Sox. He did that for about a week and a half before the actual event. Obviously after it blew up in their faces, they dumped the idea. Mike Veeck was out.

Now we're in early fall, and I'm traveling to cover the 1979 World Series; the Baltimore Orioles against the "We are Family" Pittsburgh Pirates. I got a call from Bud Miller saying "we want to put you on the air tomorrow with Lujack and Sirott, and we’ll see how it goes for a few weeks." I did those first few reports from the World Series. When I got back from the World Series, the very next morning my son was born. At his wedding a few years ago they played “We are Family," as a sort of remembrance of what was happening when he was born.

As for WLS, I did my first in-studio thing with Bob Sirott (photo), and they called me into a meeting right after that, and offered me a 5-year-contract. I stayed there for the next ten years.

Rick: You’ve done play by play (WNBA, UIC, Northwestern, The Sting, etc.), talk shows (WLUP-FM 97.9, WMVP-AM 1000, WSCR-AM 670 and WCSN-AM 820), and sports reporter, live on site. What is your favorite and why?

Les: I like play by play and doing shows. Those would be Favorite A and 1A. I’m still doing the Chicago Sky play by play. I love hosting talk shows too.

I did my first remote since I'm back at the Score at this year's All-Star Game and that was fantastic. I love doing those. I’ve done shows from Super Bowls and World Series too, but one of my favorite shows was at the Wyndam Hotel, right across the street from Delta Center in Utah the night of the last Bulls Championship. MJ hit the game winning bucket over Bryan Russell of the Jazz. That all night show was a blast thanks mostly to the listeners and callers. All that week North and Jiggets were doing their show from there too. When the Bulls won the game and the championship, it was amazing.

I love doing those shows, but I love the play by play too. I think I've folded seven or eight teams. The Chicago hustle owed me about 13 grand when they went out of biz. (Photo: Les with Chicago Hustle President John Garrity). I did the first ever broadcast from the UIC Pavilion and the Rosemont Horizon. The Horizon game was an indoor soccer game, and it was the same night as the famous "Who Shot JR" Dallas episode, a show I'm proud to say, I've never seen.

Rick: You're one of the many sportscasters in town who have done the sports radio shuffle, going from one sports station to the other and back again.

Les: Greg Solk was the first guy who put me on overnights on WMVP. I'll always appreciate him for that. At the time they were mainly going syndicated. Larry Wert was the GM there then, and I really like him--we get along great--but when he signed the Fabulous Sports Babe, I told him: "You just signed our death certificate." They put her up head to head with North & Jiggets, and those guys kicked our butts.

Rick: I know you’re best known for getting that Lee Elia tape, and I’ll get to that in a second, but you were also one of the select few live witnesses to one of the most compelling moments in Chicago radio history. Tell me about the day that Larry Lujack burst into the Steve & Garry studio and challenged him to a fight. You were right there in the studio when it happened.

Les: I thought I was going to have to break up a fist fight. It was Thanksgiving eve, the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, and the office was almost totally empty. Steve was ripping Larry on the air, which he did nearly every day. Garry had a broken foot. Larry (photo) was hanging out at the station, which is something he did on occasion, long after his show was over.

Well, Larry walked into the studio and wished Steve & Garry a happy Thanksgiving. It was very tense. They went back and forth, and back and forth, and one of Steve’s kids was there, and he started crying. After that, Larry left. After Larry was gone, Steve said "If he ever comes back in here, I’ll break both of his legs."

Well, things continued in the days to come. I flew to Miami for the Dolphins-Bears game (1985), because Steve & Garry were doing the show from Miami Beach. I got a lot of Bears players live on the air with Steve and Garry. We had Fridge, Fencik, etc. So anyway, I'm doing a sportscast from there, and at the end of the sportscast, Larry came on from Chicago to say “Hey Les, did you hear about my new feature? It's called 'Whose afraid of the big fat pig? The truth about to Steve Dahl.' Needless to say, this got back to Steve.

So, we're back in the studio in Chicago, and I'm doing my sportscast, talking about the Bears, when all of a sudden the door opens and Larry comes in and my mic is still open and I say “Lar, why couldn't you do this when Jim Johnson was in here?” Of course, he came in while I was there on purpose because I was on both of their shows. Jim was a Steve & Garry partisan, but I wasn't allowed to choose sides.

Steve says “Larry get out.” But Larry says, "I heard what you said the other day, so I just wanted to see if you’re going to break both my legs before I throw your head through the wall." It wasn’t a bit. It wasn’t fake. Then Larry says he is going to promote his new feature, so Steve and Garry leave the studio, and Steve says "Let’s leave Mr. Insane alone in his insane world." Garry, who has a broken leg remember, hobbles out of the studio. Lujack sits down at the console and says "So, I guess I’m finishing the show. He said 'Les, we were talking about football, right?' I did the sign off and got the f*** out of there.

About ten minutes later three Chicago coppers got off the elevators and most of the employees were gone. I greeted the cops and they said they got a report that a riot had broken out at WLS, and I told them there was nothing to worry about.

The next morning I was in studio with Larry for what was supposed to be the "Whose afraid of the big fat pig" thing, but he didn't do it. He said that he and Steve had a nice chat and had resolved their differences. Of course, within two days Steve was ripping him again and the war stayed on for the rest of their time there.

Rick: You were also in the middle of that Bears Super Bowl controversy regarding the alleged Jim McMahon comment about women in New Orleans. How did that go down?

Les: That was just a few months later. I was covering the Bears in the Super Bowl. We were doing the show down there in New Orleans, and Catherine Johns called to say, "Les, what’s the story about Jim McMahon calling the women of New Orleans sluts? It supposedly happened on Fred's show." I said it didn’t happen. He wasn’t on our show. First of all, McMahon would never have gotten up that early to do the show.

Then Fred says to me, we're getting calls from all over the place. Toward the end of Fred’s show, and leading into the midday show, I was leaving Tony’s House of Spaghetti (where we doing the show), and was heading over to the Hilton. We were carrying Ditka’s news conference live on the air at the time, the first station to ever do that. Today anyone could carry it, but not then.

Anyway, I get there for the news conference and Mark Giangreco (photo) comes up to me and asks about the McMahon thing. Again, I denied it ever happened. So he says I gotta interview you. They roll, turn on the lights, and I said that it wasn’t true, he wasn’t there, blah blah blah. I said 'Mark, this is a bunch of bullshit.' They bleeped it out.

Suddenly there were three of four writers floating around, and Jim Rose of Channel 7 says I gotta get you next. By the time he turns the lights out there were 40 writers around me asking questions. Then Johnny Morris says that Jeannie needs to get you next. Channel 9, ESPN, CNN, a Boston station, a Providence station, you name it. By the time the last one ended there were 150 writers around. Ditka was being interviewed by maybe 3 people.

Buddy DeLoberto was the guy that had "broken” the story and started up the whole firestorm. The Bears got calls from a redneck threatening to bomb the hotel, and DeLoberto had told women to show up and give McMahon a hard time by throwing toilet paper at him. There were 150 women outside the hotel, armed with toilet paper.

So, I was brought into a room with Paul Tagliabue (who was Rozelle’s right hand man). The McCaskeys were there, a Bears PR person, and a few others, and they start grilling me, so I said what I had already told the press: “DID NOT HAPPEN.” Then they got Buddy's station on the phone, and they admitted that their guy had made a mistake. Tagliabue says "Do you know what kind of liability you’re facing?” The station calms him down by telling him that they’re suspending Buddy.

After it was over, the NFL folks thanked me, and Ed McCaskey thanked me, but the one person that looked unhappy was Mike McCaskey. I'm convinced he was disappointed that McMahon was off the hook because he hated McMahon and wanted him suspended. He knew they could win that Super Bowl without him.

I got to my room and there were like 20 messages. I did a bunch of interviews and this thing just didn’t want to go away. McMahon in his book said he was going to the ballroom to deny it, after being tipped off by his agent Steve Zucker, "and I see Les Grobstein looking like an unmade bed surrounded by reporters."

I didn’t get to talk to him about it until the next year and he thanked me for what I did. He said “As far as I’m concerned, you’re alright.”

Rick: OK, finally, I want to hear about that famous Lee Elia moment.

Les: That tape was on every continent of the planet in three days. Only Antartica we’re not sure about, but they probably heard it there too.

(YouTube clip of Les' Lee Elia tape. Warning: This one is unbleeped.)

Tommy Edwards on AM and Steve & Garry on FM were the first two shows to actually play it on the air. But the Cubs announcers heard it first. I played it for them in the press box. Vince Lloyd, said “Geezus Lou, he's going to get his ass fired.” Lou said, "You may be right, Good Kid." And Harry couldn't believe it was really Lee at first. I said: "I have a feeling the Lee Elia pre-game show is going to be canceled." They didn't fire Lee right away, but he was gone before the season was over.

Speaking of the Cubs, I'm pulling into the Wrigley Field lot right now.

Rick: Have fun. Thanks for your time, Les.

Les: Any time, Rick. Talk to you soon.