By George Castle, CBM Historian
Les Grobstein already was a legend in his travels when he agreed to co-host my syndicated “Diamond Gems” baseball radio show in 2003 after predecessor Red Mottlow had passed away at 76 from a brain tumor.
As the story goes, one seemingly impossible trip had The Grobber finishing his all-night show on The Score AM 670 at dawn Friday, then hopping a plane to Seattle to cover the White Sox-Mariners American League Division Series Game 3 scheduled for 3 p.m. Central Time. When the Sox lost, The Grobber simply turned around on the longest Lower-48 States flight to Chicago and returned home. The next afternoon, he supposedly was in attendance as usual at a Northwestern home football game.
Another all-nighter on radio, then a round-trip to a Cubs-Cardinals game in St. Louis, were also endurance feats to Grobstein’s credit.
“He lived the life that he wanted to live,” said Mark Grote, Grobstein’s Score teammate, former Cubs radio pre-and-post-game host and Frank Gorshin-like imitator of Les and Sweet Lou Piniella.
“What might’ve appeared chaotic to you and me was bliss for him,” Grote said. “He never lost his youthful exuberance, and fierce loyalty as it pertains to sports, even as he often was on the front lines for some of the biggest games in sports history.”
Recognizing Grobstein’s ability to conduct his sleepless travels, I concocted the proper introduction at the start of each show in which Les occupied the second chair. The intro went something like this: “And now here is our co-host, a man who tries to be in two places at once, who must keep moving like a shark to survive, who was born 300 years too early for a Star Trek transporter…Les Grobstein.”
Dozens of attempts at describing The Grobber had been attempted in the days after his body was discovered Jan. 16 at his home in northwest suburban Elk Grove Village, far too young to go at 69. Something went terribly awry – Les had called in sick four days earlier, unable to do his midnight to 5 a.m. talk show on The Score AM 670.
Like other Score hosts, Grobstein had done his show from home during the pandemic. His mindset was reporting to work at 50%, as long as he could talk and think. But not going on the air now from the comfort of home and apparently declining friends’ urging to visit the emergency room was pretty serious.
A celebration of life
Such a sorrowful end was quickly forgotten in all the celebrations of his life that took place, in media and the memorial service in Buffalo Grove on Jan. 20. In keeping with Grobstein’s style, his main eulogists like David Schuster and Bruce Levine did not go short.
Hardly any characters in media have ever been seen like The Grobber. He was driven, he was a technically superb broadcaster, he could ad-lib and fill time like few contemporaries. Personally, he had flaws, like all of us, but so unique to where contemporaries would dare not match. Bottom line, Les Grobstein had the Chicago institutional memory that very few other members of media, sports or news, and certainly executives in local sports front offices possessed.
Even better, Les had uncommon chutzpah. He was unstoppable from Day One, not as a broadcaster, but as a sports-crazed kid in the Peterson Park neighborhood, attending Solomon Elementary School, watching the Cubs and White Sox on WGN-TV and second-guessing the Lou Brock trade at age 12 in 1964.
I shared much of Les’ drive to make it in media coming up three years behind him in a neighborhood two miles east of his. But I never possessed his chutzpah quotient, which is why he finished well, with a 50,000-watt boombox transmitting his all-nighters to most of the continental United States and parts of Canada, to go along with streaming.
Perhaps chutzpah was enhanced out of necessity, starting as a sportscaster in an era where the established, elitist sportswriters kept microphone jockeys at arm’s length. Mottlow surely was a role model for Les, who listened to his 1960s-vintage sports reports in between Top 40 hits on the old WCFL-Radio. Red had an excess of chutzpah to go along with a fiery temperment.
Red also was an operator somewhat like Grobstein. Given a choice between the wartime military draft and Essex-class carrier duty coming out of Marshall High School in 1944, he chose the latter. While assigned as a bugler to the brand-new USS Bon Homme Richard, Red found nice alcoves in the carrier to nap in between toots.
Red tooted his own horn as the first Chicago journalist to tote a tape recorder into locker rooms while working for WCFL. He did not back down from anyone. His press conference duel with Mike Ditka was legendary. In 2002, as the hours counted down to a possible strike, Red — then 75 — chased Cubs President Andy MacPhail down a Wrigley Field press box corridor. He was determined to find out from MacPhail, a lead management negotiator for the Collective Bargaining Agreement, if small-market teams would be required to spend their revenue on player payroll rather than jettison high-paid talent.
The teen-age Les must have crossed paths at the ballpark with idol Mottlow, then still the only regular radio man in the press box. Les’ mother, of all people, called the Cubs to ask if he could come to the ballpark to practice his play by play on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Access was far easier in those more innocent times, and her request was granted. The Grobber was placed in an unused press box booth.
Reeling in the big fish for softball benefit
Thus, Les was already known to the Cubs when he brashly called 1060 W. Addison St. again in the high summer of 1969. He asked if the Cubs could provide a couple of players for a cancer-charity softball benefit Les had organized in honor of his grandmother at Thillens Stadium at Devon and Kedzie avenues. Famed several decades later as a softball impresario for a wandering media team, the 17-year-old Grobstein was rewarded when Ernie Banks and Fergie Jenkins showed up on a 90-degree early evening on July 15, 1969. Players were happy to get appearance fees of $100 then, but many decades later Les kept close to his vest what he paid the future Hall of Famers.
Fergie even took the mound in the 16-inch underhanded Chicago-style game, and pitched two shutout innings. But he had shot his bolt this time around in the Cubs rotation. The next afternoon, Jenkins was racked by the Mets for five runs in one-plus innings in a 9-5 loss. An ace pitcher could not get away with that amid today’s social media, hurling in a benefit game – even in the stress-free 16-inch style – the night before a start.
Landing Fergie and Ernie was a coup for a teenager fresh out of Von Steuben. Many of the rest of the Cubs, including fellow Cooperstown-bound Billy Williams and Ron Santo, were 20 miles south at the moment. They appeared at the “We Love the Cubs” special night staged by the Back of the Yards Council, just two miles southwest of old Comiskey Park. Some 12,000 fans swarmed the event as Cubs Mania took over the town.
Les’ chutzpah was still in peak form in 2004. I planned a 40th anniversary Diamond Gems retrospective on the disastrous Lou Brock trade. Doing production for the show, I landed 88-year-old Bing Devine, the Cards’ GM who fleeced Cubs counterpart John Holland in the deal. Devine angrily denied a long-simmering report that he knowingly traded an injured Ernie Broglio, whose career was over 1 ½ years after elbow surgery in November 1964. Hearing the Devine interview as we taped the show, Les insisted Broglio was hurt and Devine knew it, heisting Brock after the easily-tricked, impulsive Holland did not perform his homework.
All the evidence backed The Grobber, who said he thought as a middle-school-age Cubs fan he did not like the trade, as did other Chicagoans who had closely followed the raw-but-talented Brock in his North Side days. Broglio told me decades ago he had taken numerous cortisone shots in the years prior to the deal. An unspecified Broglio groin injury in early June 1964 aggravated the Cardinals, whose strict-Catholic manager, Johnny Keane, did not like the fun-loving right-hander hanging out at the St. Louis Playboy Club. Then-Cubs reliever Lindy McDaniel, a former teammate of Broglio’s, said word was around the National League that Broglio’s arm was not right early that season.
The Grobber smelled a rat, and it gnawed through Cubs history in destructive fashion.
Two great pros as Diamond Gems co-hosts
For another six seasons, until I pulled Diamond Gems off the air after 17 seasons in September 2010 due to worsening radio-industry economics, Les provided both sharp analysis, insight and his historical deep-dive into our shows. If the Bears were grossly over-covered by Chicago-area media, we tried to make up ground for baseball through the show. I was fortunate to have both Les and Red as my co-hosts in the final 13 seasons. Previously, I saw how hard of a job any host had in doing his show solo. That’s why Les’ ability to go five hours a night as the lone host with only insomniac callers for company was truly an accomplishment.
Low points marred Grobstein’s personal annals. For all the acclaim and loyalty from listeners on The Score since 2009, he experienced many hungry years in varying increments of time. He had an early mailroom-type job with WLS-TV that did not last long. Les spent too many years cobbling together free-lance income via sports assignments from ABC Radio, AP Radio and others. Although he dabbled in play-by-play gigs, Grobstein did not land a full-time sports or media job until age 25 in 1977, when he became one of the $8-an-hour voices of the new Chicago Sports Phone scoreboard and recorded interviews service that inflated so many parents’ phone bills.
The Grobber was able to leverage the Sports Phone job into his first big media gig as WLS-AM sportscaster and foil to Larry Lujack, Tommy Edwards, Steve Dahl and other “superjocks” of the day. With the backing of an ABC-owned station, Les was able to go almost 24-hours-a-day between studio sportscasts and game coverage. By the time Sharon Pannozzo hired on to her own first full-time baseball job in the Cubs’ media relations department in late 1982, Grobstein was truly ubiquitous in Chicago sports.
“Les was truly one of a kind,” said Pannozzo, now running her own PR shop after 24 years with the Cubs (the final 15 as media-relations director) and 10 as NBC’s Vice President of East Coast Publicity.
“Through the years I got to know Les as one of the most passionate and knowledgeable sports broadcasters I had ever met,” Pannozzo added. “He loved to collect media guides and souvenir promo items and was one of the hardest working people in the press box. I had so much respect for him as a journalist…and how much he loved his family, bringing son Scott to many games. He was a very proud dad and grandfather.”
A special Grobstein soft spot was for his Yorkshire terrier he named Moose. His longtime e-mail began with “MooseDogYork.”
A lone radio mic to record an all-time rant
Pannozzo’s first real experience dealing with The Grobber was the infamous Lee Elia Rant after the April 29, 1983 Cubs loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field. In ’83, no micro-recorders and certainly IPhones to tape Elia’s diatribe existed. Les’ Sony TC-110B cassette recorder preserved great sound, but was semi-bulky compared to the later tiny machines. In the mid-2000s, Bob Costas spotted my own Marantz recorder near the Wrigley Field home dugout and asked, “Is that from 1948?”
Eighties’ print reporters took down quotes in their own shorthand. Les was the only radio reporter in the tiny Cubs manager’s office, then located down the left-field line. The profanity-laden narrative has been copied uncounted times over nearly four decades, and those with sensitive ears are urged to skip this video:
The Grobber was truly in his glory every April 29, commemorating his snare of the rant on and off the air to anyone who would listen. He still had the original equipment. The Sox’ Paul Konerko offered Les a good price for the microphone, but he refused the deal. WMAQ-TV’s Mark Giangreco was also in Elia’s office with his camera operator and captured only part of the rant as the only video recording. But unlike a ton of news shots from the Eighties, the NBC-5 version has gone missing. In true Giangreco style, he mused Chet Coppock, then lead sports anchor at WMAQ, might have made off with the tape, and maybe a family member has it?
Unabashed Cubs fan Les was truly in heaven in Pittsburgh in 1984. He can be seen clearly on videotapes of the clubhouse celebration of the first Cubs’ clinching of a postseason berth since 1945. More than a year later, he became enmeshed in the biggest controversy of Super Bowl XX, when a headline-seeking New Orleans sportscaster claimed the Bears’ Punky QB Jim McMahon had called Crescent City women “sluts” on a WLS show. No such broadcast was ever made, claimed Grobstein, as the master interviewer became the interviewee himself for mobs of media.
Tom Shaer, the longtime Chicago sportscaster and currently a media consultant, became a Grobstein colleague in this era during his first jobs in the market at WGN Radio and WBBM Radio. When Les was upset at projected inferior access for broadcasters during the 1984 Cubs post-season, Shaer and, he recalled, George Ofman handled negotiations with the Baseball Writers Association of America.
“Les was a very surprising combination of sharp broadcast talent, savant-like total recall, wackiness, intelligence and pure goodness,” said Shaer. “My conversations with him ranged from Billy Williams to Ron Blomberg to Jimmy Carter to Mayor Daley The First to Jerry Reinsdorf. Les knew so much and sought to acquire even more knowledge.”
Laying off a pro, hiring an amateur
The Grobber’s second hungry period took place in 1989 through the mid-1990s. As did sister WABC Radio in New York, WLS switched from Top 40 to all-talk. Although keeping key newscasters and reporters, new station boss Drew Hayes did not see fit to retain a talent as superb as Grobstein, despite the audience’s natural interest in sports.
But soon afterward, Hayes recruited Mike Murphy, the bugler of the 1969 Wrigley Field Left Field Bleacher Bums, for a “fan talking to fans” Sunday-night show. Hayes had met Murphy, who had no previous broadcast experience, at a WMAQ Radio company picnic a few years earlier. The gig enabled Murphy to vault to a longtime run at The Score starting at its Jan. 2, 1992 inception (Shaer was the first voice heard on the station). Grobstein, though, was not hired at the daytime-only sports-talker at the time.
Subsisting strictly on network-radio stringing and oddball play-by-play jobs, Grobstein again scuffled for income. During this period, he also became known for brown-bagging from press-box food spreads, which were still free in the 1990s. He actually “distinguished” himself like few others. I have heard of similar chow hounds in other cities. But Les literally may have taken the cake.
Apparently, Les found that no dining room had a “carry-outs prohibited” sign. No rule existed against packing away leftovers.
Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger…
One day after a game, a few cheeseburgers were sitting in the Wrigley Field lunchroom. The Grobber extracted and consumed the meat from each one, then told a bystander he needed the buns, placed into his briefcase, for sandwiches at home.
On the road another time, Les doubled back to the press box before leaving for the airport to pack something in his bag. Later, while hurrying to the gate at the airport, he slipped on a freshly-washed floor while the bag split open. A gaggle of Coke cans rolled on the floor with one exploding to ruin the custodian’s recent work. Grobstein quickly gathered the cans, re-packed them and just made the departure gate before it was shuttered.
Les’ massive collection of media guides and team programs was unprecedented. He’d get into trouble from some team and league bluenoses who thought their rules were the Ten Commandments. But Grobstein wasn’t the only media person collecting programs. Old Chicago warhorse writer Bob “Lefty” Logan, then working for the Daily Herald, was spotted several times after games picking among the refuse in Wrigley Field’s left field upper deck boxes for leftover publications and what-nots.
The Grobber finally got into the sports-talk game at the first incarnation of AM-1000 in 1994. He did not survive a programming change, but was snapped up by The Score in 1997. He finally found his niche as overnight host, roaming the country at big events to do the show remotely. Still keeping his stringer gigs and exceeding the speed limit, he might be covering a Bulls game in Indianapolis, then racing back to Chicago to do the overnight show. Unable to zoom at Warp 9, he’d sometimes open the show in his car, then finally made it into the studio during a commercial break.
“Les did very well a job few would want: The overnight show – and he did it brilliantly,” said Shaer. “The importance of a healthy overnight show is usually underestimated, and Les was thus taken for granted by some around the industry.”
One was Harvey Wells, a longtime apparatchik in The Score management who came from the sales department. He fired Grobstein in 2001 after a dispute over the use of an All-Star credential. The punishment did not seem to fit the crime. Les ended up with his longest stretch on the outside looking in, although his voice was heard weekly during the baseball season on Diamond Gems on up to 35 stations.
Mitch Rosen, who took over The Score in the mid-2000s, recognized Les’ under-utilized talents and returned him to the overnight show, leading to his greatest success. Rosen recounted his 4:45 a.m. daily briefings with Grobstein in a heartfelt eulogy at his memorial service.
Among the overnight radio greats
In his second tour on The Score, The Grobber established an overnight radio institution in the manner of 20th century stalwarts Franklyn MacCormack on WGN, Jay Andres with “Music ‘Til Dawn” on WBBM and “Chicago Eddie” Schwartz on WIND, WGN and WLUP.
“I lost contact with Les during my time at NBC Universal when I lived in New York,” said Pannozzo. “But I was fortunate to reconnect with him last year when I was working on a baseball documentary project, ‘War on the Diamond,’ and needed a favor of him to have my director on his show. It was so generous of Les to accommodate the request and he and I got to catch up on life. I’m not sure he would realize how much he will be missed by everyone.”
Pannozzo had dispatched deputy Samantha Morales to represent the Cubs at Red Mottlow’s funeral in 2003. The Blackhawks, for whom Mottlow once served as PA announcer, were heavily represented. Similarly, the Bears and Bulls honored Grobstein after his passing. Even the Milwaukee Bucks, their three different arenas an easy trip for the traveling Les, remembered him in the Bulls’ first visit after his death.
Always, always, there is one more story involving The Grobber.
“The only time I showed caution around him was the first time I met him, in 1983,” said Shaer. “Les was offering to share a sandwich he had pilfered from the Chicago Blitz press box after a Monday night game. This was at Bears mini-camp on a Thursday. The sandwich, therefore, was three days old! I declined.
“I wish I could break bread with Les now, for I shall miss him.”
May Les’ – and Red’s – memories be for a blessing.
Hey, guys, I’ve saved most of the tapes.Category Chicago Baseball History Feature Tags Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Diamond Gems, Lee Elia Rant, Les Grobstein, Mark Grote, Sharon Pannozzo, The Grobber, The Score AM 670, Tom Shaer