By Mark Litpak
Contributor to CBM
Joe McConnell, a truly underrated White Sox radio announcer spanning the Bill Veeck and Jerry Reinsdorf ownership groups from 1980 to 1984, died at 79 on April 8.
McConnell’s time with the Sox overlapped his eight-year stint (1977-84) as the Bears’ chief radio announcer. Timing is everything – McConnell left the year before Super Bowl XX.
He worked alongside two of the best loved Sox announcers in history, Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall. In that time he saw a young manager and future Hall of Famer, Tony LaRussa get his first taste of success. He saw new Sox ownership in Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn take over for Veeck. He saw the formation of a team that had three straight winning seasons, capped off by the 1983 Western Division champion “Winnin’ Ugly” White Sox.
In his career at the professional level, Joe has called games for the Denver Broncos, Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Vikings and Twins, Indianapolis Colts and Pacers, and Tennessee Titans.
At the pro level he has called three Super Bowls, the NBA and ABA Championships, the NBA All-Star Game and the American League Championship Series.
His college resume spans stops at Indiana State, DePaul, Illinois, Notre Dame and Northwestern.
Looking back at a productive career, the CBM is republishing an interview Mark Liptak conducted with McConnell in 2009.
MARK LIPTAK: Joe we literally could spend all days talking about your career but I’d like to concentrate on your time with the White Sox and then maybe if we have a chance to touch on your years with the Bears and the Bulls. I guess the obvious starting point is how did you get the Sox job?
JOE MCCONNELL: “Well remember I was born and raised within about a hundred miles of Chicago (Goodland, Ind.) and was already doing the Bears. When I heard about the Sox job opening up it was an easy decision for me to at least try for it. At the time WBBM was doing both the Sox and the Bears and I know they wanted to try to consolidate the job so I felt I had a good chance of getting it.”
“During the spring and summer I was also doing the Twins and even though I loved Chicago, I also loved Minneapolis… I’m a small town guy at heart and found that in Minnesota. Because of that I would have stayed at WCCO and kept doing the Twins games. I would have stayed for less money than the Sox offered me because I was comfortable there, but all that station would do was offer me a $5,000 raise. I couldn’t turn down the White Sox offer and again it enabled me to stay in town the entire year.”
“In my entire time in Chicago I lived at the Astor House. I was paying $950 a month in rent and all that time I kept telling myself that now I could actually afford to do this! (laughing) Today you’d probably have to pay $3,000.”
ML: You worked for Bill Veeck that first year and a lot has been written and said about him over time, much of it rather uncomplimentary. It goes along the lines that despite his love for baseball and the fan, he was a con-man who sold Sox fans a bill of goods because he never had the finances to really establish the club as a real contender. What was your opinion of Bill?
JMC: “I can’t dispute those comments but I loved the guy. I really enjoyed working with him. I loved his wife Mary Frances and got along well with Mike Veeck. Bill was the type of guy that when my two sons would come to visit in the summer from Phoenix, he would allow them the run of Comiskey Park. My boys were 12 and eight years old at the time and he’d let them go everywhere; they were even allowed into the Bards Room. Basically they were spoiled rotten and part of that was because of Bill (laughing). Now when Jerry and Eddie took over (Reinsdorf and Einhorn) that changed, but Bill was always good to me and my family and he told me more than once how much he enjoyed the way I called a game. Bill grew up with radio and appreciated it and so did I.”
ML: Speaking of Jerry and Eddie what was your opinion of them, especially when they started making the move towards SportsVision and taking a lot of Sox games off free TV?
JMC: “I thought in the early years they did a marvelous job. I had no problem with them as owners although to this day I remember watching the Sox take batting practice behind home plate with Jerry and looking over and telling him if he understood what the cost of winning would be. The Sox were going to win the division in 1983 and the players were expecting to be rewarded financially in 1984.
“I was paid by WBBM when they had the rights… the Sox had a say in the announcers but they didn’t pay me. In fact I didn’t get on the Sox payroll until WMAQ got the rights starting in 1982, so them going to SportsVision didn’t really impact me. I think from the first day, Eddie had the idea of getting the Sox and making a marriage between them and cable TV. My only issues with the new owners were from a broadcasting standpoint. I don’t think they ever really knew what they wanted to do with me. Jerry and Eddie always had a fascination with former players and I never played in the big leagues.”
ML: In your five seasons you worked with quite a collection of people…solid pros, former players and some guys with very big egos. How about a thumbnail sketch of the folks you shared a booth with.
JMC: “I remember sitting down with Bill (Veeck) and he told me, ‘I know what you’re going to go through working with Harry (Caray), don’t let it bother you.’ Harry was going to do things his way, I understood that and just did my job. I admired Don Drysdale. He was just a hell of a guy. He was an excellent broadcaster. I always enjoyed working with Jimmy (Piersall). I remember when the Sox owners asked me if I’d have a problem working with him and I said no and I didn’t. You’ll remember that in the half season we worked a lot together on-air, Jimmy never got into trouble because of things he said. That’s because I never set him up, I never put him into that box where he’d have to respond with something that could be taken the wrong way.
“Lorn Brown was a professional. Rich (King) at that time was the youngest and the least experienced but he did a fine job and remains a personal friend to this day. ‘Gus’ (Early Wynn) was a great guy but he was brutal as a broadcaster. I think when we worked together I basically called the entire game although I do remember at one point he tried to call, I think, an inning of the broadcast. I never worked a lot with Hawk (Ken Harrelson). I remember the few times we worked on the radio he was disinterested. Hawk never wanted to work on radio; he didn’t want to be there…he wanted to be on TV where he could be seen.”
ML: Earlier you said that you never had an issue with Jerry Reinsorf and Eddie Einhorn as owners but I get the sense that there may be something else left unsaid with that statement as far as the actual broadcasting end is concerned.
JMC: “There was a period where I never knew if I was going to work on radio or TV that evening. They were using a lot of announcers and moving them back and forth and at first that really surprised me. SportsVision may have had something to do with that. I also think they were auditioning guys to maybe hire in the future, perhaps even for my job.”
“One summer it seemed that I’d work a few games with a different person every home stand. I remember I did some games with Ken Wilson who at that time was doing the Blackhawks.”
ML: Was that hard not knowing what medium you were going to be working in? Broadcasting for radio and broadcasting for TV are two completely different entities.
JCM: “Like I said I was surprised at first but it was never an issue because I prepared the same way for both areas. I basically did a radio play by play even if I was on TV. I called the game… I took a lot of pride in that regardless of the circumstances.”
ML: Tell me about the preparation work for a broadcast.
JMC: “I’d keep my own stats and after the game I’d go back to the hotel and update everything for the next day. I learned a lot of baseball doing that and with Tony (LaRussa) as manager it got to be a little game that we’d play. I’d go over the stats and put together what I thought would be the starting lineup for the next game. I’d get to the clubhouse and Tony would say, OK meat, who’ve you got?’ and I’d rattle off my starters and batting order. Tony would sometimes ask me why I’d put someone in a certain spot but usually he’d just shake his head and start laughing! But I also knew that Tony respected the hard work that I’d put in.”
ML: Getting back to SportsVision, it was controversial for its time and caused Harry to say in Bob Logan’s book, “Miracle On 35th Street” that had the Sox stayed on free TV (WGN) in 1983 they’d have owned the city and been a national byword.
JMC: “Well, Harry was right, although he had his own reasons for saying it. Harry wanted to be on where a lot of fans could see him and not just 50,000 or so. It was a fact that in 1983 the Sox were by far the best team in Chicago, one of the best teams in baseball, but nobody saw them. SportsVision was probably the first time someone had tried to put a lot of games on cable and that might have hurt it.”
ML: You never seemed to get involved in any of the controversial aspects of broadcasting. By that, I mean making outrageous statements on the air, or looking to stir up things, yet you were also honest about what you were seeing. Did that ever cause you any issues with players? For example I’ve heard many, many stories about players being upset with things being said by Harry or Jimmy from the booth.
JCM: “It only happened to me one time with the White Sox and it was with Billy Almon
“In 1981, especially the last month of that season, many times on air, I’d say that Billy was the MVP of the team. He did everything that season and played very well and as it turned out the Sox thought the same thing and gave him the team MVP award. Then something happened in 1982. He wasn’t hitting and he let that carry over to his fielding and his base running. He was a mess and I had to report how badly he was performing. He didn’t like that and came up to me on the field one time and starting calling me out over it. I asked him if he specifically heard what I was saying about him, or if he heard it from someone else.
“Naturally he heard it from a third party and I told him exactly what I said and also let him know how often the previous season I talked up the good things that he was doing.”
ML: The Sox revitalization started in 1981, the first of three straight winning seasons and the big news that spring was when the Sox signed Carlton Fisk and made the deal for Greg Luzinski. How did you react?
JMC: “We were all thrilled. Carlton brought instant credibility to the franchise and to the new owners. I’m not saying Greg’s acquisition wasn’t important, but at the time we looked on the Fisk signing as the most important move. Greg had already spent 10 years or so in the big leagues and there were questions about if he could still play in the outfield or if he’d be able to handle the full-time DH duties. We knew that if Carlton stayed off the DL, he’d make a major impact on the team.”
ML: Going into 1983 how did you feel the club would do?
JMC: “I still have my scorebooks from the 1983 season. I took notes during the games and I found this one that I wrote… ‘Pennant talk in unlikely places…San Diego, San Francisco, Minnesota, Atlanta, the White Sox.’ This was a very good team… they started slow but what carried them was their pitching. Not only the starters but guys like Jerry Koosman and Dennis Lamp.
“They also had one of the greatest streaks that I’ve ever heard of in baseball…remember they won 22 out of their last 25 games! And the starters, when they got it going, were unbeatable. LaMarr Hoyt won 13 straight and his last loss that season was on July 23. Rich Dotson won 10 in a row and Floyd Bannister won 13 of 14. That’s very hard to beat.”
ML: So as good as this team was, what happened in the 1983 American League Championship Series? I know I’ve interviewed some guys off that team, Jerry Koosman, Vance Law, Ron Kittle, Scott Fletcher for example and they all give credit to the Orioles but they also all say the Sox were the better team.
JMC: “They just didn’t play well…it was parallel to what happened to the Cubs in 2008 when they played the Dodgers. The Sox didn’t drop kick the series away but Baltimore simply played better. They just stopped hitting. Even in the game that Hoyt won the Sox didn’t hit. (Author’s Note: The Sox won Game #1, 2-1 at Memorial Stadium)”
“I’ll tell you what really may have hurt them and that was when Mike Boddicker beat them so badly (shutout with 14 strikeout) in Game No. 2. He threw all that off-speed stuff and I think that just screwed up the Sox hitters timing. They never recovered the rest of the series.”
ML: So after the 1984 season ended, why did you leave the Sox? You had been there for five years and were well liked by the fans.
JMC: “I was let go the week after the season ended. I wanted to stay, but I guess the Sox wanted to go in a different direction. Like I said, I know ownership wanted to get ex-players involved in the broadcasting end and they wound up hiring Del Crandall.
“I had worked it so that all of my deals with everyone would expire after the 1984 seasons. I was hoping to work it out where I could stay in Chicago and do a few teams at the same time. I even talked to WGN about doing the Cubs and the Bears since both teams were being broadcast by them, but I heard that Harry didn’t want me anywhere near the Cubs situation. Nothing worked out in Chicago and I went back to Minnesota.”
Category Baseball Under Glass Blog Tags Bill Veeck, Chicago Sports Broadcasting, Chicago White Sox, Harry Caray, Jack Brickhouse, Jerry Reinsdorf, Jimmy Piersall, Joe McConnel, Rich King