Arrayed against the walls of the living room in the Park Avenue apartment of Harry Wismer, the sports announcer who is president of the New York Titans pro football team, are inscribed photographs of General Omar Bradley, Vice-President Richard Nixon, President Dwight Eisenhower, Senator George Smathers, former President Harry Truman, Senator Styles Bridges, Thomas E. Dewey, Moose Krause (the Notre Dame athletic director), George Halas (owner of the Chicago Bears) and J. Edgar Hoover. When a visitor remarks upon the display, Wismer beams. "I've got more inside," he says.
"Those pictures," says a friend, "are Harry's badge of success. Some people work for dollars. Harry works for pictures." Whether at lunch in the Waldorf or in South Bend for a game, Wismer is with tycoons. "Harry," says a college publicity man, "is a radio version of Sugar Ray Robinson. He always has big shots he has to get into the press box."
When not palling around with the power elite, Wismer mingles with the masses. He regards himself as a one man people-to-people program. "I love humanity," he says. He has gotten the wine stewards at El Morocco in New York and the Pump Room in Chicago to become pen pals. "Why shouldn't they write to one another?" he asks. "They're in the two best rooms in the country."
When Wismer runs into an old friend, he is something to behold. "Congratulations!" he exclaims, hurtling his stocky frame forward, his right hand at the ready for a crunching handshake. "I always say congratulations," Wismer explains. "It makes people feel good. 'Congratulations!' Congratulations can mean anything! It rings a note! It's wonderful ! And it's a great opening line. 'Congratulations!' And they say, 'How do you know?' And I say, 'I keep pace.' "
In a crowd Wismer reacts differently: he spreads rumors. His latest is, "So they shot Castro!" Says Wismer, "You get a lot of emotional reaction from people."
With the press Wismer is all business. He doles out scoops alternately to A.P. and U.P.I. "It wouldn't be good sense to take sides," he says. After he calls U.P.I., he dashes to his office to watch the story move on his private teletype. "Harry's got an integrity that a lot of people don't give him credit for," says Mims Thomason, U.P.I, first vice-president. "He's given me dozens of tips on stories and not a bum one yet."
Wismer likes to keep his face as well as his name before the public. His picture on the Titan ad in commuter trains is so large there is barely room for the schedule. When the Los Angeles Chargers requested Titan pictures for the press they received, not photographs of players, but a dozen portraits of Wismer.
"If you knew Harry for a month or two, you'd hate him," says a friend. "After a year, you'd begin to reverse yourself. If Harry would only let his accomplishments speak for themselves instead of letting himself speak for his accomplishments he'd be much better off. There are so many compensating qualities to the man. When a Redskin player got a fractured skull, Harry paid him a year's salary out of his own pocket." Says another friend, "Harry's the greatest contact man in the United States. He's always maneuvering. If he had someone to curb him he'd be a very great man."
Only physical force could curb Wismer—he is immune to criticism, insult, the cold cut or the hot rebuke. Once while broadcasting a pro playoff he announced breathlessly, "He's on the 30, the 35, the 40, the 45, the 50, the 55!" Another time he described a field goal attempt: "He kicks! And it's a beautiful kick! End over end! Terrific! And it's no good!" Wismer has been criticized for broadcasting that celebrities were at a game when, in truth, they were thousands of miles away. "I do that a lot," says Wismer. "I plug my friends. I say, 'Dean Acheson is here. President Eisenhower just walked in. There goes Dick Nixon.' "
Wismer's zest has been with him since birth. He was born in Port Huron, Mich. 47 years ago. His father, now retired, was manager of a clothing store, and the family lived in modest circumstances. His mother had five children, one of whom, a girl, died of diphtheria a few weeks before Harry was born. His mother had also come down with the disease, and Wismer says, "I think I was born to keep driving. My mother often said that she was so determined to have me born that it helped her live, and I think some of the strength and determination might have crossed over. Like What Makes Sammy Run?—only I've never stopped running. I used to read extensively when I was a kid. Those Horatio Alger and Merriwell books. They used to send a chill up and down me! I read every book about this man's success, that man's success. I'd wipe the dishes for my mother and I'd say, 'Don't worry. Someday you won't have to worry about all those bills. I'll take care of everything.' "
A good athlete, Wismer won a scholarship to a Wisconsin prep school and went to the University of Florida on a football scholarship. He stayed a year, then left for Michigan State, taking the coach, Charley Bachman, with him. Wismer had learned through a friend that the State coaching job was open.
A leg injury put Wismer on the sidelines, and when Bill Stern and the late Graham McNamee came out to broadcast a Michigan State game he served as a spotter. "If those two guys can do it, this is the business for me," Wismer told Bachman after the game. He began broadcasting on the college station, and he took Bachman in tow again. "I want to run you for College All-Star coach," he said. "Be great publicity for the school. We ought to go down to Detroit and meet all those industrialists and get some backing." In Detroit, Wismer met G. A. Richards, owner of the Lions and station WJR. "He took a liking to me and I became his protégé," Wismer recalls. "He would go all out for Bachman if the Lions got first crack at Michigan State players."
Wismer put Lion players to work making up petitions for Bachman by copying names from the phone book. Bachman finished second in the voting, but when the winner became ill, he got the All-Star coaching job. Wismer himself got a job as the Lions' public address announcer. He was so enthusiastic that Richards put him on WJR in Detroit five nights a week fat $10 a broadcast) as "Lions' Cub Reporter." He hitchhiked 160 miles a day back and forth from Michigan State to Detroit to keep the job. A year later he quit school.
He successfully ran Gus Dorais for 1937 All-Star coach (he substituted Dorais' name for the names of former office seekers on petitions stored in the county building) and began doing the Lions' games on radio. The next year Wismer decided to run Harry Kipke, who had been fired from Michigan, as All-Star coach. Kipke told Wismer to check with Harry Bennett, Henry Ford's chief lieutenant. Wismer did, and Bennett, who was planning to make Kipke a regent at Michigan, agreed that Kipke should try for the All-Star job.
"When Bennett spoke, people jumped," Wismer says. "We had petitions made out and sent to every Ford plant in the world. We were getting millions of votes! It was like a presidential election! But Arch Ward [sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, the paper sponsoring the vote] was running Bo McMillin, and Kipke couldn't catch up. I even offered Ward a Lincoln car to get Kipke in—I was young and foolish—but he wouldn't take it, of course. On the last day I wired in two and a half million votes, and we were still second. But Kipke was elected regent of the university."
In 1941 Wismer married Betty Bryant, the favorite niece of Henry Ford. They have two children, a son, Henry, named after Ford, and a daughter, Wendy. Wismer and his wife are now divorced, and she is married to Charles Potter, former Senator from Michigan. When he was an intimate of the Ford family, Wismer lunched at noon with old Henry and again at one with Bennett. "I would have lunch to meet people," he says. "The more people I could meet the better it was. In many ways it's true—it's not what you know but who you know. If you're lucky enough to have any brains and coordinate them with who you know, you've got a chance of getting someplace."
In 1942 Wismer went to Washington, D.C. to broadcast the Washington Redskin games. "I had found that government was having more to do with the running of business," he says, "and I felt it would be wise for me to know the people who had so much to say."
Wismer prospered. Today he is worth almost $2 million. He bought a 25% interest in the Redskins from their owner, George Marshall, the laundry executive. As a stockholder Wismer began to make his complaints known to Marshall. "I told him," Wismer says, "that it was very obvious that Negroes were playing an important part in pro football, and that we should draft Negroes. He was adamant against it. He said, 'I was born in West Virginia,'—or some damn place—'and I will never play a Negro on the Redskins.' " The breach widened, and Wismer now has his stock up for sale. "They always call M arshall 'The Laundryman,' " says Wismer. "Hell, the only laundry he knows about is the shirt he's wearing."
At present Wismer is rocketing back and forth across the country broadcasting Notre Dame games and pushing both the Titans and the new American Football League, even if it means knocking the rival National Football League. "We don't have any ex-bookmakers or dog track operators in our league!" he tells one and all. AFL attendance has been low, but each team gets $200,000 or more a year for television rights. "The whole difference in this league is the sale of television, and your old buddy here sold it," Wismer says, modestly. "The American Football League is the league of the future!"
To protect that future Wismer will go to any lengths. When he heard that Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams, the young Texas millionaires who founded the league, were going to meet secretly with an NFL representative, he had them tailed by a private eye. "They were going to meet with Halas at the Chicago Athletic Club," he says. "I know the rooms, everything. Certainly I know they met with Halas. I had to make sure these boys would stand up. They did. After all, we weren't lifelong friends. We're going all the way, and I've got to make sure the people with me are going all the way. I've gambled everything. I'm not getting a dime. I don't have an H.L. Hunt, a Boots Adams or a Conrad Hilton to back me up."
Wismer's day begins at 6:30 in the morning and lasts till midnight. He is constantly on the go. His personal phone bill averages $1,200 a month. In the evening he often roams his home turf, the East 40s and 50s of Manhattan, boosting his Titans. One night last week, for example, he ranged from the Quo Vadis to a Lexington Avenue bar distributing passes and Titan pens. His foray into Le Pavilion was typical.
"Congratulations!" he cried to Henri Soulé, the proprietor. When Henri looked blank, Wismer added, "You're doing the greatest job in the country!"
Wismer gave passes to André, the bartender, and to the girl behind the cashier's counter. He moved into the dining room, where he greeted Corrine Griffith, the silent screen star who is George Marshall's ex-wife. Then he spied an old friend. "Hi, Richard!" he called.
"Harry!" exclaimed the Vice-President of the United States.
"Pat!" said Wismer. "Fred!" said Wismer to the Secretary of the Interior. "Bill!" said Wismer to the Attorney General.
Back at the bar, Wismer exulted. "I'm not afraid of anyone," he said, "and I know how to operate. What the hell, how many guys would go in and say what I said to Nixon? What the hell, he's an American citizen! If he doesn't like it, he can get lost."
Wismer left Le Pavilion joyous. "Those people genuinely like me! See that little girl?" He stopped, closed his eyes and clasped his hands together in imitation of the cashier. "She's praying for me!"
BEAMING WISMER holds football autographed by AFL owners and officials.
WINNING AWARD as one of the 10 outstanding young men of 1946, Wismer (third from left) is speechless. The young man in the striped suit is John F. Kennedy, then a Congressman. Others (left to right) are Management Engineer J. A. Patton, Junior Chamber of Commerce President Sheldon Walde, Physicist Philip Morrison, Lawyer Dan Duke, Union Leader J. A. Beirne.