Joe Tait: It's Been a Real Ball: Stories from a Hall-of-Fame Sports Broadcasting Career

Joe Tait: It's Been a Real Ball: Stories from a Hall-of-Fame Sports Broadcasting Career

by Terry Pluto, Joe Tait
     
 

“An easy, fun book to read and will surely bring back good memories for Cleveland sports fans who listened to Tait’s trademark calls since 1970.” — 20SecondTimeout.com

Joe Tait is like a family friend to three generations of Cleveland sports fans. This book celebrates his Hall-of-Fame broadcasting career with stories from Joe and

Overview

“An easy, fun book to read and will surely bring back good memories for Cleveland sports fans who listened to Tait’s trademark calls since 1970.” — 20SecondTimeout.com

Joe Tait is like a family friend to three generations of Cleveland sports fans. This book celebrates his Hall-of-Fame broadcasting career with stories from Joe and dozens of fans, media colleagues, and players.

He was “the Voice of the Cleveland Cavaliers.” But to fans, Joe was also “one of us.” Cavs basketball, Indians baseball, or Mount Union football, he made the game come alive, and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind—even when it might get him in trouble with the coach or the owner.

In high school, Joe loved sports but wasn’t always good enough to make the team. Then he discovered play-by-play announcing. Combining two passions, he began to carefully build a broadcasting career that would eventually touch the lives of countless other sports fans.

Pluto weaves a roughly chronological narrative that hits the highlights of a long career. It also uncovers some touching personal details. For example, one chapter describes how Joe’s father, a stern man with a deep-rooted distrust of black people, came to become good friends with Cavaliers center Nate Thurmond, to Joe’s surprise and delight.

With fans, Joe was often more popular than the players on the court—especially during the Cavs’ dimmer days. When notoriously incompetent team owner Ted Stepien fired Joe in the 1980s, fans protested and staged a rally in his honor. When new owner Gordon Gund took over the team, the first thing did was hire Joe back. “He is the franchise,” Gund said. “To have a basketball team in Cleveland, you have to have Joe Tait.”

His work inspired a generation of young broadcasters. Language he invented became part of the common broadcast language in Northeast Ohio. “Left to right on your radio dial” . . . “Wham, with the right hand” . . . “It’s a beautiful day for baseball!” . . . “To the line, to the lane . . .”

The stories in this book will make fans feel like they’re sitting alongside Joe enjoying a play-by-play recap of the remarkable career they shared together.

Editorial Reviews

Daily Record
A fun, eclectic read telling a variety of stories from Joe’s life on and off the radio.
— Aaron Dorksen
clevelandclassicmedia.com
The book is just a delight. While it covers much of Joe’s life biographically, it is just as much a book of Cleveland sports history from 1970–2011 as anything else. I guarantee you will not be able to put it down.
— Tim Lones
letsgotribe.com
Tait comes across in print just as he did when doing Cavaliers games: he’s honest, unpretentious, and at times funny. Pluto deftly balances Joe’s life as a broadcaster with the events happening around him, and the result is a memoir that reads like his sports history books.
— Ryan Richards
StepienRules.com
Honest, interesting, and thoroughly entertaining.
— Brendan Bowers
Ashtabula Star Beacon
A wonderful tribute to a true icon in the business that is sports media.
— Don McCormack
letsgotribe.com - Ryan Richards
Tait comes across in print just as he did when doing Cavaliers games: he’s honest, unpretentious, and at times funny. Pluto deftly balances Joe’s life as a broadcaster with the events happening around him, and the result is a memoir that reads like his sports history books.
clevelandclassicmedia.com - Tim Lones
The book is just a delight. While it covers much of Joe’s life biographically, it is just as much a book of Cleveland sports history from 1970–2011 as anything else. I guarantee you will not be able to put it down.
StepienRules.com - Brendan Bowers
Honest, interesting, and thoroughly entertaining.
Ashtabula Star Beacon - Don McCormack
A wonderful tribute to a true icon in the business that is sports media.
Daily Record - Aaron Dorksen
A fun, eclectic read telling a variety of stories from Joe’s life on and off the radio.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781598510706
Publisher:
Gray & Company, Publishers
Publication date:
11/01/2011
Pages:
259
Sales rank:
857,180
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Joe Teams Up With Bill Fitch

Bill Fitch doesn’t remember the note, just The Voice.

“The first time I was in the Monmouth press box, I heard Joe,” said Fitch. “I didn’t know his name, just The Voice. And it was The Voice of an announcer. You could just tell that he was going to be good.”

Fitch was the basketball coach at Coe College in the late 1950s, but he also helped coach the school’s freshman football team. And he also scouted the next opponent for the Coe varsity football team. So he showed up a few times a year in Monmouth’s press box, where he heard The Voice.

“Joe interviewed me a few times, and I could tell that he was prepared,” said Fitch. “His teams were terrible, but he made them sound so good. I just knew that one day, he was going somewhere special.”

As if Fitch didn’t have enough jobs, he also was the head baseball coach at Creighton from 1956 to ’58, where his star was future Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson. And Fitch scouted for the Milwaukee Braves. To Fitch, The Voice of Joe Tait was like the sound of a line drive off the bat of a pure hitter. Or the pop of a Bob Gibson fastball into the catcher’s glove.

There was something pure and true about it.

“I never forgot that voice,” said Fitch.

And Joe never forgot Fitch as he watched Bill climb the coaching ladder.

In the summer of 1967, Fitch was hired to be the men’s basketball coach at Bowling Green University. Joe was at Ohio University, teaching broadcasting and also broadcasting the school’s football and basketball games. In the Mid-American Conference preseason basketball poll, Bowling Green received one first-place vote.

It belonged to Joe.

“Fitch had taken over a bad team, but he knew I was at Ohio—and right away, he knew who voted for his team,” said Joe. “He said, ‘It’s that crazy guy down in Athens [Ohio].’ But I knew Bill was a great coach and that he would surprise the MAC.”

Bowling Green did win the 1967–68 MAC title in Fitch’s only season at the school.

“When Bill took over at BG, he brought the players together and asked who was the toughest S.O.B. on the team,” said Joe. “A player stepped forward—and bang, Bill popped the guy.”

Joe laughed as he recalled the story.

“Then Bill asked the players, ‘Now who is the toughest S.O.B. on the team?’ ” said Joe. “Bill was still young, 33, and he was a former Marine. He was the toughest S.O.B. on that team.”

By 1970, Fitch was running the Cavaliers.

That’s when Joe sent him the note reading: “I knew you’d always make it in the big time. . . . By the way, if you ever need anyone to do for the Cleveland Cavaliers what I did for those Monmouth Fighting Scots (66-0), let me know. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

When Joe mailed the note, he was “Morning Mayor” of a station in Terre Haute, Indiana . . . WBOW: ON THE BANKS OF THE WABASH!

“I also was the station manager, because the general manager had died and someone had to do it,” said Joe.

*
• *

Fitch was hired as the Cavs’ coach and general manager on March 18, 1970. Six months later, the team that started without a player or even a basketball was set to open the season. The Cavaliers didn’t get around to hiring a broadcaster until after the season opened. Public relations director Bob Brown did the first seven games in team history. All on the road. They played at Buffalo, at Portland, at San Francisco, at Portland (again), at San Diego, at Phoenix and at Los Angeles.

They returned to Cleveland with an 0-7 record, losing by an average of 17.3 points.

The Cavs had no money in the early days, but Brown discovered he couldn’t help owner Nick Mileti run the front office and do the games on the radio. They needed to hire a broadcaster.

Mileti, Fitch and Brown talked about who should be the voice of the Cavs.

Joe said Mileti later told him that he said: “We need a guy who will come in and be so excited about being in a big city that he won’t think about the fact that I’m not paying him that much.”

So the Cavs wanted someone cheap. They also wanted someone who would be glad to have a job, and that would temper any criticism of the team.

At this point, they all knew the Cavs were going to be a bad team. A very, very bad team. Hiring a Cleveland broadcaster or even someone from another major market meant running the risk of having their own radio voice being perhaps a bit too candid.

“I know just the guy,” said Fitch. “He used to make the worst football team that I ever saw sound good.”

Fitch said the name . . . Joe Tait.

It meant nothing to Mileti and Brown.

Here is where the story takes two different roads.

According to Joe, Fitch had kept the letter on his desk. He used it to call and say, “Joe, are you interested in doing the Cavs’ games?”

“Absolutely,” said Joe.

“Can you drive to Cleveland and do a tryout for us?” Fitch asked.

“I’ll drive right over,” he said.

More than 40 years later, Fitch doesn’t remember anything about the letter from Joe. He said he “had four guys in mind” from his days as a college coach, four broadcasters he had heard and met over the years.

“But Joe was the best, and I always kept track of him,” said Fitch.

Note or no note . . . Joe received his chance. He was 33 years old. He had spent 10 years bouncing from one small town to another . . . from one station to another . . . from one rejection to another.

“I was making $10,000 a year,” said Joe. “I figured I didn’t have much to lose.”

*
• *

The Cavs brought Joe to town without anyone hearing even a tape. Mileti and Brown just took Fitch’s word, and then asked Joe to take a tape player and climb all the way to the top of the old Cleveland Arena.

The Cavs were having their home opener against San Diego. It was October 28, 1970. The attendance was 6,144 for the first NBA game in Cleveland.

“Nick Mileti ordered miniature wineglasses with the Cavs logo on them to be given to the fans,” said Joe. “His idea was to hand everyone a glass, pass out some wine—and have the fans toast the new team before the game. But there was a problem: They couldn’t get a liquor license from the state of Ohio. So they toasted the team with empty wineglasses, which was perfect fodder for the newspapers. Here was a team that had lost all its games, playing in a half-empty arena with empty wineglasses.”

Bob Brown did the game on the radio. Joe was in the hockey press box. It was right under the roof, behind one of the baskets. It was a horrible place from which to watch a game. From that spot, Joe talked into the tape recorder, pretending to be on the radio.

“I was really nervous,” Joe said. “I knew this was my chance.”

After the game, he handed the tape to Bob Brown. Joe was staying at the Midtown Sheraton on Euclid Avenue, right across from the old arena.

“I’ll give the tape to Nick, and we’ll call you in the morning,” said Brown. “We’ll let you know what’s going on.”

Joe spent a long night trying with little success to sleep. This was the closest he had ever been to a job in a major market. Having been turned down so many times before, it was easy for him to imagine it would happen again.

“At 8:30 that morning, Bob Brown called and said to come across the street and meet with Nick in 30 minutes,” said Joe. “His office was on the second floor of the old Arena. He shook my hand and said: ‘Joe, I like your work. I’ve gotta tell you, I don’t have any money. I can’t pay you very much. In fact, all I can pay you is $100 a game. But if you are willing to work for $100 a game, it’s yours. And someday, I will make it up to you.”

Joe did some quick math—the Cavs had 74 games left, meaning he’d be paid $7,400. He had to leave the $10,000 job in Terre Haute and move his family. It was a 25 percent pay cut.

Mileti put out his hand.

Joe shook it.

Welcome to the NBA.

Did Fitch ever listen to the tape that convinced Mileti to hire Joe?

“Never,” said Fitch. “I didn’t need to hear Joe’s tape. I knew he was good.”

As for the game Joe called from the hockey press box, the Cavs lost, 110-99. At the end of the first quarter, San Diego had a 38-17 lead, and it was 59-45 at the half. Elvin Hayes scored 40 points. Rookie John Johnson led the Cavs with 19, Bobby Smith had 18. Fans left in the middle of the fourth quarter.

“It was a perfect introduction to what was coming next,” said Joe, who still has the homemade scorecard from the game that he drew on a long, yellow legal pad.

The loss dropped the Cavs’ record to 0-8 as Joe drove home to tell his family that they were moving to Cleveland.

*
• *

Joe becoming the voice of the Cavs is something that probably wouldn’t happen today.

Think about it:

The coach picks him after not hearing him do a game for 10 years . . .

The owner is looking for someone young and really, really cheap . . .

The team didn’t even consider hiring a radio voice until two weeks into the regular season . . .

But the hiring of Fitch as coach would seem to be just as improbable in the modern NBA.

Mileti was a Bowling Green graduate. Fitch was the coach there for only one season, 1967–68.

“I got to know Nick when he wanted to promote a game at the Arena between Bowling Green and Niagara,” said Fitch. “Niagara had Calvin Murphy, and we upset them. That had something to do with him hiring me.”

Mileti was thrilled when the game drew nearly 11,000 fans—and his alma mater knocked off Murphy. Several months later, Mileti put together a group of investors and purchased the Arena and the Cleveland Barons minor-league hockey team.

His goal was to bring the NBA to Cleveland. That happened in the spring of 1970, when the NBA added three teams—Portland, Buffalo and Cleveland.

The league didn’t spend a lot of time checking Mileti’s finances. He already owned an arena and a hockey team. The upstart American Basketball Association kept expanding and was looking to add Cleveland. The NBA wanted Cleveland, Portland and Buffalo in their league—so in came three teams. The NBA of today would never bring in three expansion teams in the same year. It also would be very alarmed about how Mileti was paying for the team with several investors, very little of his own money and not much cash in reserve.

But in 1970, Mileti looked good as an NBA owner.

And he needed a coach. He was proud of what Fitch had done in his one season at Bowling Green. He remembered the electricity in the old Arena when Fitch coached Bowling Green to that victory. While Mileti told reporters that he had “more than 100 applicants” to be coach, he had only one name in capital letters on his list—BILL FITCH.

After leaving Bowling Green, Fitch had coached at Minnesota for two years. He was scouting a junior college tournament when Mileti called him.

“I was in Hutchinson, Kansas, and Nick called me at 5:30 in the morning,” said Fitch. “At 8, we were still talking.”

Mileti had several gifts, but his best was the power of persuasion. He not only made Fitch the coach but also the general manager.

“I wasn’t taking it unless I could pick my own players,” Fitch said.

And his own announcer, too.

*
• *

Along with tracing their roots to small colleges in the Midwest, Fitch (Coe) and Joe (Monmouth) also were very determined and ambitious young men. Just as Joe went from small market to small market, never staying anywhere longer than three years, Fitch kept chasing his dream.

He coached freshman basketball and varsity baseball at Creighton (1956–58).

He was the head basketball coach and freshman football coach at Coe (1958–62).

He was the basketball coach at North Dakota (1962–67).

He was the basketball coach at Bowling Green (1967–68), his first Division I college basketball job.

He was the basketball coach at Minnesota (1968–70). That gave him three total seasons as a major-level head coach when he was hired by the Cavs at age 36. His record at Minnesota was 25-23 in two years.

“I don’t think it was that strange,” said Fitch, about his hiring.

Of course, he was speaking 41 years after it happened. He was speaking after a career of coaching 2,050 games with five NBA teams. But today, some in the media would ask: “Why are you turning over the entire franchise to a guy with zero background in the NBA? You are going to let him draft the players, make trades and coach?”

But that question wasn’t raised in 1970.

The Cavs were new, and Cleveland was not familiar with the ways of the NBA. This also was when the NBA was looking to the colleges for coaches. Dick Motta (Weber State) and Jack Ramsay (St. Joseph’s) were hired before Fitch. There was a theory that the NBA had little coaching because it was mostly former players who rolled out the balls and watched the guys scrimmage. It was the college guys who really knew the X’s and O’s.

In Cleveland, Fitch was warmly received because he did win the MAC at Bowling Green. He did coach in the Big Ten at Minnesota.

How did he prepare for the NBA expansion draft?

They had done no scouting because everyone was hired so late. There was no Internet. There were no private scouting services. But there were basketball cards, which had names, records and basics statistics on the back.

Fitch’s assistant was Jim Lessig, whose son had the cards. As they talked about preparing for the NBA, Lessig said his son had just bought five packs for a quarter, and they did have some information about the players. Fitch sent Lessig back to the store to buy all he could. Twenty bucks and lots of doubles later, they had about 100 different player cards. And from there, they began picking their team.

Joe just laughs thinking about when he joined the Cavs, who were playing like a bunch of rejects from a card collection. He did two more home games after the audition tape . . . a 125-110 loss to Cincinnati in front of 3,199 fans and a 131-107 loss to Atlanta watched by 3,533 fans . . . making the Cavs 0-10.

“After I was hired, I called my wife and could tell she wasn’t thrilled about having to move our two kids—and me taking a pay cut—from $10,000 to $7,400,” said Joe. “I drove back to Terre Haute to pack some clothes. At home, I listened to the Cavs’ radio broadcast from Philadelphia. The Cavs lost, 141-87. The game was on WCAU out of Philadelphia, and the broadcasters were saying things like: ‘This is the worst basketball team that I’ve ever seen in my life. Why would anyone pay to see this atrocity?’ Sonny Hill [the analyst] said he doubted the team would even last past the All-Star break before it folded.”

Joe’s first wife also was listening to the game.

“Edith was slam-dunking my socks in the suitcase, and she was really upset,” said Joe. “I was wondering, ‘What have I done?’ ”

But he was committed to Cleveland, and he drove back to join those 0-11 Cavaliers.

“Had I stayed in Terre Haute, I’d have been fired,” Joe said. “Right after that, the station was sold, and they wiped out everyone.”

Joe was just glad Edith didn’t ask him what the Cleveland Arena was like.

“I remember walking into it and thinking: ‘This is the NBA?’ It was dark. It was cold. It was a dump,” Joe said. “And it was usually empty.”

“That was true,” said Fitch, 41 years later. “But it was a great place to shoot rats.”

What?

“After the game, they’d throw out the old hot dogs and food in the dumpsters behind the Arena,” said Fitch. “I’d go back there with another guy, and we’d shoot rats with a pistol. Those things were huge!”

[Excerpted from Joe Tait: It's Been a Real Ball, © Terry Pluto and Joe Tait. All rights reserved. Gray & Company, Publishers.]

Meet the Author

Terry Pluto is a sports columnist for The Plain Dealer. He has twice been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the nation’s top sports columnist for medium-sized newspapers. He is a nine-time winner of the Ohio Sports Writer of the Year award and has received more than 50 state and local writing awards. In 2005 he was inducted into the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame. He is the author of 23 books, including The Curse of Rocky Colavito (selected by the New York Times as one of the five notable sports books of 1989), and Loose Balls, which was ranked number 13 on Sports Illustrated’s list of the top 100 sports books of all time. He was called “Perhaps the best American writer of sports books,” by the Chicago Tribune in 1997. He lives in Akron, Ohio.

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