A People with Passion series
December 9, 2011: Chuck Swirsky
We are meeting at the Billy Goat Tavern on lower Michigan Ave., and when Chuck arrives we spend the next 45 minutes eating double burgers and talking about broadcasting, Chicago sports, Ron Santo, Bill Wennington, and the glory days of WGN. I am soaking up Chuck’s brand of passion and enthusiasm — he is definitely one of those “What you hear on the air is what you get in person” sorts of people. He spells out tricky last names for my later reference, hops in and out of memories, laughs at old stories, and speaks seriously about his work.
Chuck’s storied career has taken him through the Chicago Stadium, DePaul University, University of Michigan, up to Toronto and back again to the Chicago Bulls. Since the 1980s he has worked as a P.A. announcer, a radio sports director, and a play-by-play man on both radio and television. Since 2008 he has worked as the radio voice of Chicago Bulls basketball.
In the 19th installment of my Chicago journalism People With Passion interview series, ESPN personality Chuck discusses his early announcing days in Bellevue, WA, his view on whether or not play-by-play broadcasting is an act of journalism, and tells the story of Ron Santo’s 1989 hiring at WGN.
When I grew up, there were two newspapers. There was the morning newspaper in Seattle called the Seattle P.I., for Post Intelligencer, and the evening paper was the Seattle Times. I delivered newspapers as a kid – the Seattle P.I. I would get up every morning at 4 o’clock, I would go to the corner of 164th and northeast 8th in Bellevue, Washington. They would give us the newspaper. I remember I would get home and I would read it before school – the sports – and then when I would get home from school the afternoon paper was delivered around 4:30, 5 o’clock. This was the days before the internet, days before cell phones, days before anything, social networking – and I just read and read and read.
I would buy newspapers. My mom, for my birthday when I was 8 years old, bought me a subscription to the Sporting News. Sporting News would come weekly in a brown paper cover, and you’d pull it out of the sleeve, and it always arrived Friday. That was one of my big highlights.
As the years evolved, I got a job in 6th grade at a radio station called KFKF. It was in Bellevue, Washington, and it was a low-wattage station. If you made a left hand turn on northeast 8th you’d pick it up, and if you made a right hand turn you couldn’t.
I was polishing records – we had records back in those days! – polishing records, taking out the trash, keeping stats for the Friday high school football game of the week. The sports director told me that when I turned 14, I was 12 at the time, “When you turn 14, I’ll let you do some halftime announcing, and you can read off the stats.” I was so excited when I turned 14. I remember on my 14th birthday, January 30th, I went to him and said, “You know what? You gotta keep your promise.” And he goes, “Absolutely.”
So I would keep stats for him in high school basketball games, and he would say, “Okay, here’s Charlie Swirsky, and what do you have for us?” at halftime. And I’d say, you know, “John Doe, six points, two fouls.” My mom would be listening and she got all excited.
I was a horrible athlete. I got cut from every team. I was the smallest kid in my class. But I did the P.A. announcing for football and basketball. I was the sports editor of the high school newspaper. It was great. I mean, I made, literally, nothing out of something. That’s the way I looked at it.
Most people would say, “P.A. announcing, whatever. We need a body.” I knew I wanted to get into sports broadcasting since I was 5 years old, and I’m gonna look at this as a tremendous opportunity. I’m going to do my homework. I’m going to do my research. I want to make sure that before the game I go to coaches and say, “How do you pronounce this name?” or “Are the numbers correct?” I really embraced it. I just didn’t say, “I’m going to show up two minutes before a game.” You have to put the work ethic in.
So you were always more drawn to radio? Or was that how it came and then you liked it after the fact?
It just evolved that way. I did weekend TV at WGN-TV, and that was great, but once it got to November, I was on the road with DePaul and they said, “We need somebody full time.” I was doing P.A. for the Bulls, and I had too many satellites floating around in my universe so to speak.
I like a game atmosphere. There’s something about the adrenaline rush that gets you so pumped. I still have the same enthusiasm today, looking back on my life, that I did walking into a high school gym doing P.A. for Interlake and Bellevue High School. The day I lose my enthusiasm for what I do, I’ll get out.
Harry Caray became the Cubs’ broadcaster in ’81, and I’ll never forget this: for the ’84 playoff series with the Padres, he pulled me aside and said, “You know what kid?” – he never called me Chuck, just (Harry Caray voice) “Hey kid!” And he goes, “You know what? You’re a rare breed. You’re going to die in the booth.” He saw consistency – that to me, there is no such thing as a bad day. Don’t get me wrong – it’s sometimes stressful, and you’ve got issues and all those things like everyone else, but there’s that little boy in me that I never want to lose.
I knew I wanted to be an NBA broadcaster from day one. As a little boy, I would take the NBA register and memorize all the names, where they went to school, where they played, everything. I was doing the University of Michigan, I was happy, everything was great, and out of the blue the Raptors and the Sacramento Kings called, actually the same week. The Kings were offering only a part-time package, and the Raptors said, “You can do all the games.” And so I said, “Done.”
And of course, when you were dreaming about this as a boy, this wasn’t a team that was anywhere near to being around. It wasn’t a glint in the NBA’s eye, so to speak.
Absolutely. In fact, I remember driving from Ann Arbor to Toronto. At the border, the Canadian customs attendant said, “What are you going to be doing in Canada?” I had to present what turns out to be the Canadian green card, the work permit. I said, “I’m the new broadcaster for the Toronto Raptors.” And she goes, “The Toronto Raptors? Oh, we love you boys. You guys play great soccer.” (Laughs.)
To me, the NBA was the NBA. The lockout year, that year, we had Vince Carter as a rookie, and he was spectacular, and we had Charles Oakley, and Kevin Willis, and Doug Christie, and Dee Brown, and we had Tracy McGrady, and it was awesome. Every time it was going into a new venue, it was like, “Hey, I’ve never done a ballgame in Boston.” “I’ve never done a Raptors-Knicks game at the Garden.” I’d been at the Garden with DePaul and Michigan, but never in an NBA setting. So it was great. It really was.
I love Toronto. I love the city. I love the organization. We had a tremendous ownership. Larry Tanenbaum and Tom Anselmi were salt of the earth. One’s the owner and the other was my direct boss, the vice-president. That was a ten-year period that was outstanding, it was fun, but there comes a point where you have to turn the page.
If someone told me in my lifetime that I would be the play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Bulls, I would have said, “You’re kidding, right? Seriously?” The Chicago Bulls brand – obviously it was created with the Jordan era – but still, they’ve led the league in attendance every year, their presentation, game presentation, game opps, is first class, world class. They treat their employees – Jerry Reinsdorf is an unbelievable human being, and now with his son Michael as our president, it’s great. I take it as an honor and as a privilege knowing that there’s no such thing as entitlement in our business, and so I never take anything for granted.
You’ve had a bit of luck – you came for the rookie seasons of Vince Carter and Derrick Rose. I was reading that Stacey King calls Derrick Rose his muse. Do you feel that when you’re announcing exemplary talent that that brings something more out of you as an announcer?
Here’s the way I look at it. It’s two-fold. Number one, I don’t think you can allow a player or the degree of success or failure dictate how you’re going to call the game. I’ve been with teams that won 23 games. You can’t allow a player or the greatness or the ineptness of a club dictate your approach.
Now, when you watch Vince Carter and he’s dunking on everybody his rookie year, and it’s like, Wow, and you see Derrick Rose take over a game as a 19-year-old kid, you’re thinking, You’ve got to be kidding me. So that does add to the flair. I’m not going to lie to you. But at the end of the day, you’re still broadcasting the Chicago Bulls.
Okay. This is a series on journalism, and like I said when we spoke on the phone, until now I’ve been strictly print, and now I’m going into broadcasting. I would guess that if you asked most people who their favorite journalists are, few would mention play-by-play announcers. Do you consider what you do to be an act of journalism?
No. I think I am a sports communicator. I don’t look at myself as a journalist when I’m calling a play-by-play for a team. I was given a lot of advice when I started doing play-by-play. They said “Chuck, report what you see.” If you didn’t see something, you can’t report it, and you can’t guess, and you can’t assume. So report what you see. Never cross the line where you compromise your profession for personal objectives or reasons or agendas, which I don’t.
Do I want the Chicago Bulls to win? Absolutely. I feel that I am an extension of the club. But I am not going to compromise my values. If they’re not playing well, you can’t sugar coat it. But at the same time, it’s one of 82 games, and I’m not a judge and jury. I don’t know if a player’s hurt or not hurt. Sometimes the information isn’t available. So at the end of the day, I always try to give someone the benefit of the doubt, because if I was walking in their shoes…
This is not solving the issues of Occupy, and this is not solving what’s going on with our economy. There are people listening to the radio who want to be entertained, they want to be informed, they want to find out what’s going on. To me, it’s kind of a package that should be kept confined to that, not where I’m going off and starting to pontificate, because I don’t think people really want to hear that.
Okay, but journalism is in the seeds of announcing, because once upon a time it was a guy reading the ticker tape.
And you’re talking about what are basically journalistic ethics, about reporting what you see and keeping people informed. So is there some sort of –
Well, the basic staples, I guess, from your view, is correct, that there is a journalistic hallmark of making sure that integrity is kept, because I think that is important. And the players are aware of this: if a guy has a bad night at the office and goes 0-10, you can’t say, “Hey! He’s having a spectacular – ” you can’t do that. You can’t lose credibility. On the other hand, you state it, “Hey, he’s 0-10, he’s having a bad shooting night,” and you move on.
Is there more importance in radio broadcasting than in television broadcasting, because you have to fill in more of the information?
That’s Bill Wennington’s thing. Here’s my role: I report what I see. I describe the play. Bill played. He knows, This guy is out of position, he had a bad angle, this guy did a great job because he was able to recognize a double team coming before the double team actually came. He played. I need to bring that out of him.
I think Bill has grown so much in the three years I worked with him. I want to give him the platform to express to the fans that, number one, he doesn’t big-time people on the radio because “I played the game.” He’s put that hat aside. My role and my challenge and objective is to bring, “Okay Bill, it’s 96-95, you got six seconds to go. What do you call here? They’ve doubled Derrick Rose. They’re not going to let him catch the inbounds pass. What option is on the floor? Because you played with Jordan and they tried to take him away by doubling him. Where do we go with this?” If I don’t do that, then I’m not doing my job.
It’s possible for people to look at players that become announcers and say “They’re just there because they’re players.”
Do you feel like there’s sort of a symbiotic relationship between you and Bill? You’re bringing out the broadcaster in him and he’s giving you knowledge about the game that allows you to do what you do? Do you see that as the foundation of the partnership?
I do not look at Bill as a broadcaster. I look at Bill as someone who has played the game, who can analyze the game, who is an entertainer – because he is fun. When you’re up by 20 or you’re down by 20, you’ve got to keep our listeners semi involved. I’ve given him the green light. I said, “Bill, you can come in any time.” I said, “When there’s a key play and it’s a one point, two point game, and there’s an inbound, talk it up until the official hands the inbound passer the ball. I need to describe it, and as soon as I’m done saying ‘Bulls win! Bulls win! Bulls win!’ take a deep breath, pause for a second, let the crowd inhale the broadcast, and then boom! It’s all yours.”
This is going to sound really weird, and I mean this: our first preseason game three years ago, it was almost like we had worked together for ten years. I remember I was in the car driving back from the United Center after the first game, and I’m in the car and I’m thinking, You know what? I didn’t step on him. He didn’t step on me. He kind of got the gist of my cadence.
There were times when I think he was surprised that I wanted him to speak more. Maybe it’s because of my TV background, close to ten years in Toronto, but I like to use my analyst. I don’t want him sitting there just going numb for four or five plays. It’s important for the broadcast to have a second voice where he’s engaging, he’s active, he’s involved, because I think it helps his focus. From a self-esteem standpoint, he feels that he’s wanted and needed, which he is, that he is not a cartoon character, some guy that’s there just to be there, or he’s got little quips and sayings without substance. I want him to know that his role is vitally important to the broadcast.
The announcer is very much the voice of the fans –
I would agree with that.
And it’s part of what endeared so many people who never watched Ron Santo play baseball, because when he was in the booth, you felt like everything that you were going through –
You know, I was in the hiring practice. I was there when GN hired him back in 1989. Dan Fabian deserves all the credit in the world. Dewayne Staats left after the ’89 playoff series. The Cubs played the Giants. Dewayne got a huge offer to leave for the Yankees, and Dave Nelson I think wanted to get back on the field. He was our radio analyst, and he wanted to get back into baseball, back in a uniform. Dan Fabian, Lorna Gladstone and myself said, “Where are we going with this?” and [Dan] said, “Chuck, I want you to put a list together, get some tapes.” I said, “I really want Bob Brenly. I grew up with Bob in college, I’ve known Bob since 1972, and we’ve got to get him in the booth. He’s retiring. We got to get him in.” And he goes, “Well, we gotta get a Cub. The play-by-play announcer is probably not going to have Chicago ties, so we need a Cub, and I’m going after Ron Santo.”
I’ll never forget one of the meetings Ron Santo had in Dan Fabian office. Dan Fabian says to him, “Ron, I want you in the booth because people love the blue hat,” meaning the Cubs hat, “and no one wore that hat better than you.” There was silence, and I’m looking at Dan and Dan’s looking at me and Ron’s looking at Dan, and I thought, Wow, he gets it. Dan got it.
Dan put him in that position because he did not want Ron to become, “Well, you know, on that 2 and 1 pitch, the guy really had to turn and use those legs – ” He didn’t want to hear where his hips need to be, you know? Just, “Ron, be a Cub. Just do your thing.”
*** Dan Fabian tells the Santo hiring story, and other Santo stories, on WGN sports ***
So what made Santo a great announcer? When you look at him –
He’s not an announcer. He’s a Cub. He’s a Cub who happens to be in the booth. His passion, you know what I mean? The first two years, he tried so hard to still be technical, but then all of a sudden he couldn’t help himself, in a good way. “I got to be myself.” It was almost like that little boy who clicked his heels in ’69 took off that broadcasting jacket, and the Cub jersey #10 came in.
It was a great period. At GN, I worked with Jack Brickhouse, Milo Hamilton, Harry Caray, Ron Santo. We went through Dewayne Staats, we went through Thom Brennaman. It was unbelievable for me at 28-years-old to go through that period. I mean, we had Lou Boudreau and Vince Lloyd. It was like an encyclopedia.
I’ll never forget the day John Elway was drafted, and he didn’t want to play for the Colts, and I’m doing a talk show with Jack Brickhouse and Jack says, “I’m gonna get Bob Irsay on the phone.” Bob Irsay actually lived in Chicago. He was the owner of the Colts. I said, “Jack, you can get Bob Irsay?” And he said, “Hey my boy! Gimme the phone!” and (snaps fingers) gets Bob Irsay. I will never forget the day when there was all this stuff going on about Artis Gilmore – is he gonna be traded? He goes, “I’m gonna get Arthur Wirtz on.” Not Bill Wirtz. Arthur. And Jack picked up the phone. Jack picked up the phone and got George Halas. It was like, Woo! You know, Vince Lloyd, Lou Boudreau, they’re in the booth. Just, wow.
I love the people connected with sports, because I do believe they’re very passionate, whether it’s a player, a coach, a GM. I like the electricity of walking into an arena and not knowing the outcome of a game, where you have the theatre played out. When you go to the Chicago Theatre, the actors know what the final act is. You go to the Bulls playing the Dallas Mavericks, you have no idea what you’re going to see that night. When you go to a ballpark, you don’t know if a guy’s going to pitch a no-hitter or get shelled in the first inning. I think that alone, the majestic side of sport and the uncertainty of the outcome is something that still is very alluring. You go there and you hear the national anthem and the Bulls theme song and the ripples of the emotions just go right down your spine, and you think Whoa! I get to be a small part of it. It’s still the players. It’s still about them. It’s not about the broadcasters. But I get to describe what’s going on.
Check back every Wednesday at Eye on Chi for more of Jack M Silverstein’s People with Passion interviews with Chicago journalists. We’re taking a week off in the series. Coming up Wednesday, January 11: Ben Joravsky, Chicago Reader. HAPPY NEW YEAR!
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)