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Original Issue



Don't talk to meabout cable TV. I don't get it. Oh, I understand it fine, and I like it, but Idon't receive it. My community isn't wired for cable, and dishes aren'tallowed, so I live with blinders on, disgruntled, edgy, like a farmer withoutland. Is it just my impression, or do a lot of the best sporting events occuron cable? To see the games that I love, I have to travel to friends' houses orgo to bars. Any cabled American knows more about sports than I do. He flips onhis living-room tube and relaxes in front of the games, while I drive throughthe night looking for acquaintances with wired homes, order drinks in smokytaverns, suffer fools who think jukeboxes were put in bars to drown out theplay-by-play.

None of thiswould matter if I weren't on cable TV. But I am. I'm on a sports talk show withthree other men-Bill Gleason of Chicago's Southtown Economist and the SouthBend (Ind.) Tribune; Bill Jauss of the Chicago Tribune; and Ben Bentley, acareer p.r. man and former ring announcer. The show is called The SportsWriters on TV. It's taped every Monday at noon in a studio in Chicago, sentinto cableland over Sports-Channel America and picked up at various timesduring the week, I'm told, by more than nine million subscribers and untoldpirates nationwide. But not by me.

I have seen theshow, but not on cable TV. For this article I sat in an editing room atSportsChannel's local head-quarters in Oak Park, Ill., and, for the first timeever, watched hours and hours of the show—a good portion of the program'snearly three-year run—on three-quarter-inch tape. I saw my bald spot grow. Iheard myself say ridiculous things. I watched adult males become enraged overbeach volleyball, boxing cutmen, marathon swimmers, raccoons. I saw strangehats and hideous clothes. I saw Jauss's suspender clasp flip off his pants,vault over his shoulder and land in his coffee mug. I heard Bentley, ourmoderator, call Arizona State basketball coach Bill Frieder "BillFielder" and Bo Schembechler "Bo Schlemblechler" and Packer linemanTony Mandarich "Tony Mawkalotch." I heard Jauss call me a fascist. Iheard Gleason call two owners of Chicago pro sports teams terrorists. I saw afire in the ashtray build until it nearly touched off the felt on our pokertable. I watched myself tell about the time I caught a sea gull while fishingfor perch. I saw pounds of cigar smoke settle on four of the mostremarkable-looking heads ever grouped together and taped for public viewing.Slack-jawed, I thought, People watch this.

After the firstfew hours of viewing, I walked in a daze to a diner and ordered breakfast inmidafternoon. I felt like an empiricist. If a show is on TV but you never seeit, I wondered, does it exist? Then I asked, What is good TV and what is badTV? How do you know? And finally, When everybody on earth has cable, can theapocalypse be far off?

Show No. 1: March9, 1987

Gleason: The darkhorse of the tournament is New Orleans. Watch that team.

Bentley: I got adark horse-DePaul.

(New Orleanswould be eliminated in the second round, DePaul in the third.)

As I continuedwatching The Sports Writers on TV, I fell into something resembling a trance.The world we perceive and the images that flicker on a television screen are sosimilar that we're tricked into seeing them as a unified whole. But TV isweird; you want to pick apart the things you see on it. I've got a mole on myleft cheek that's going to be removed, I guarantee you. I'd never noticed itbefore seeing myself on TV. As a viewer, I'm saying, "Hey, Telander, nicetumor!" and I guess that's because it seems the guy up there—me—can takeit.

"Hey,bozo!" I go on. "How many pro hockey games you ever seen, youlimp-wristed jarhead! Three?" Well, yes, that's all I have seen. Three NHLgames-and maybe two complete ones on TV I don't know anything about hockey.Icing, blue lines—honest to god, I couldn't tell you how many hockey playersare on a rink at one time, before the fights. Still, I think there's somethingimportant about our show, something that transcends rhetoric, even gibberish.The screen somehow endorses whatever appears on it—even us.

Show No. 1

Gleason: Iwouldn't let my kid play for Bobby Knight, because he wouldn't give me acar.

Telander: Who?Bobby Knight or your kid?

Gleason: Hewouldn't give me a car. He wouldn't give my kid a car, so....

Jauss: Hewouldn't give you a shoe box full of money, either.


Jauss: JerryTarkanian is badly misrepresented by a lot of people. Do you know that he issincere about trying to help players get through school? Do you know that hetaught remedial reading to some of his players?

Telander: He hasto, because a lot of them can't read.

Jauss (heated):Is that bad?

Gleason: I don'tthink Knight has had many guys who couldn't read.

Jauss: No, we'retalking about Tark.

Gleason: Oh.Well, Tarkanian, he's an outlaw. And this year he's not on probation. I kind ofadmire the guy.

Kelly Sullivan,the p.r. director for SportsChannel Chicago, gave me a bunch of publicitymaterial about our show. Sullivan loves the program, loves us guys, but sufferswhenever we rage about Notre Dame, which is often. She is Irish to the bone, a1983 graduate of the Dome. Her dad, Ed, was a Notre Dame football captain in1957. One day in his senior year Ed hobbled into the team doctor's office witha bum knee and said hello to the receptionist, Rose Ferraro. He proposed to herat the Grotto, the school's stone shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary, andmarried her at Sacred Heart Church on campus. Kelly was born one year later andbaptized within shouting distance of Touchdown Jesus. She was a noseguard onthe Breen-Phillips Hall women's flag football team, campus champion in 1981 and'82, and admires the current varsity noseguard, Chris Zorich. "Yes, thereis bonding," she says reverently.

But all thispraise Sullivan has collected about our show in papers from New York toL.A.—can you trust it? Can you trust a p.r. woman who loves Lou Holtz, MooseKrause and head butts? The Sporting News calls Gleason "a colorful and wisefellow." The Capital Times of Madison, Wis., says our show is "becominga cult hit of sorts for sports junkies all across the country." DebraDiMaio, executive producer of The Oprah Winfrey Show, told the ChicagoSun-Times that her favorite program, besides her own, is The Sports Writers onTV, because "I have a soft spot in my heart for cigar-smoking,Scotch-drinking journalists."

I don't drinkScotch. None of the other guys do, either, which raises a big flag right there.Gleason drinks martinis, Bentley takes vodka on the rocks, and Jauss guzzlesbeer by the keg. I'll drink almost anything but Scotch, which I once mixed withHi-C orange drink as a youth and haven't touched for two decades. Cigars?You're talking Bentley and Gleason there, but we'll deal with that nauseatingmatter later.

Still, you wonderif a print journalist would ever be critical in a review of other printjournalists, especially when the latter scribes are homely, poorly dressed andnot rich. We each get $450 per show, which, after you figure in reruns, taxesand missed shows, comes to about $15,000 per year per man. That's nice but, aswe have discussed on the air, not as good a deal as a punter on a full ride atStanford has. Here's what another columnist wrote:

Over the summer Icame across an absolute must for the true sports fan. It's a show called"The Sports Writers on TV," and if you love sports, you'll love thisshow.

The show'spremise is simple enough: four sports writers engaged in a round tablediscussion of the week's sporting events. A show like this might easily flopwere it not for the dynamic personalities of the writers at the table.

The show's hostand moderator is Ben Bentley. Bentley is not the typical host because he getsinvolved in the discussions of the topics he presents. Bentley also keeps theshow moving because the other writers sometimes get so involved in theirdiscussion they would talk for hours if he wasn't there to pull in thereins.... And that's it. No highlights you've already seen a million times. Noguests with very little to say. Just great sports writer talk that befits thesmoke-filled room in which the show is taped.

I see here inSullivan's file that the writer's name is Paul Firenze, and he wrote the abovein The Fulcrum, the student newspaper at Broome Community College inBinghamton, N.Y. I'm impressed with Sullivan's clipping service. But this kidFirenze caught the flavor of the show when he noted:

One week Jaussshowed how major league pitchers scuff a baseball. Then the next week, "inthe interest of fairness" to the little league hitters who faced scuffedballs for a week (due to Jauss' demonstration), he showed how to cork abat.

I rememberJauss's doing that, and I remember how impressed I was, not only because of thesimplicity of each deed, but also because Jauss knew what he was talking about.His 33-year-old son, Dave, is a coach in the Expos' minor league system.

We have broughtour own baseball gloves to the show and talked about them. We have laced onevery manner of sneaker. We have tried on football helmets and peered throughvarious face guards and tinted visors. Bentley and Gleason have slipped ongolf, scuba, football and even baseball gloves to see which ones give them thebest grip on their smoldering cigars. I guess audiences might like such ahands-on approach to the increasingly high-tech world of sport. It's hard forme to know.

It's possiblepeople see us as their buddies, or as themselves. I cringe, however, when I seemyself on tape. It's embarrassing to be Everyman in a medium filled with malemodels, actors and the frighteningly glib.

It's obvious weweren't put on to be just a bunch of pretty faces. I was talking to a guy inL.A. and he said we're the only guys on TV who need liposuction on theirheads.
Michigan City, Ind., News Dispatch,
July 19, 1988

Did I say that? Idon't remember it. But I probably did. What we're seeing in sports is thetrickle-down of fame and influence to those who are merely the observers of thegames and athletes. We Americans are so desperate for our sports fix that whenthe balls and gloves and pucks and clubs have been put away and the players aregone, we'll listen to writers talk about things they have seen.

It's prettycrazy, but it's happening in other fields, too. Siskel and Ebert are now morefamous than many of the movie actors and directors they dissect. The politicalround tables on Sunday morning TV often include, as guests, governmentofficials who seem like irritating interlopers among the renowned mediaanalysts. The McLaughlin Group reminds me a bit of our own gang, guys sittingaround yelling at each other, whipped into a frenzy by host John McLaughlin, abellicose former priest.

I see Gleason asa former priest, though he's not. Gleason reminds me in appearance and style ofthe regal bishop who confirmed me years ago in Peoria. Gleason wears strangehats on the show, and I've asked him to consider wearing, for at least part ofone program, a miter. Gleason is the kind of guy who might do that—he seemsuntouched by good taste and public opinion. A year ago he shaved his head,walked in for a taping looking like a prisoner of war and said, "It's goodto let your hair lie fallow every so often."

Show No. 129:Aug. 21, 1989

Gleason: What weshould consider, especially because we're in a cellar in Chicago, is thatSteinbrenner, in a loud way, is doing the same thing that the late Phil Wrigleydid in a very subtle and quiet way—he's playing a practical, personal joke onthe fans. Wrigley did all those things. He did bizarre things. This guy'snonsense is at least standard, in baseball tradition. Just look at the nuttyownership we have with the White Sox.

Telander: Wouldyou like to get all the managers from the Yankees together in one room and say,"Let's just talk about George for a while"? Like Mickey Rooney'sex-wives?

Gleason: What agreat TV show that would make. A series.

Jauss:"George's Exes."

Bentley: The guyis a winner.

(General hue andcry.)

Jauss: He is nota winner!

Bentley: Stopthrowing your fingernails at me!

Jauss: That was aspitball!

Even with all ourviewers, we are in no way famous. Half of America isn't wired for cable yet,and a lot of the wired viewers either don't get our show or skim past it sofast that our heads are just part of the clutter that flickers endlessly acrossTV screens. Many "zappers" or "browsers," guys who canmanipulate a remote control to watch a dozen or so programs at once, areprobably only subliminally aware that they've seen us on TV and not down at theLaundromat. People sometimes stop me in airports and say things like. "Iknow you, don't I? From dartball?"

Show No. 71: July11, 1988

Bentley: YoungTelander wants to talk about—are you ready for this?—raccoons.

Telander: Yeah,Ben, it's a good time of year to be talking about raccoons, because they'reassaulting my garbage cans even as we speak. But it is kind of serious-well,there is a virus that has been genetically engineered that when given toraccoons can wipe out rabies in the animals. You put it on things called"Racky Snacks."


Gleason: Hey,this is serious!

Bentley: I don'tsee raccoons in Chicago. Where do you live?

Jauss: Where I'mat, we got squirrels.

Gleason: Hey, youshould be in Beverly, where I live. There are more raccoons than people.

Jauss: A squirrelfrom Chicago can beat up a raccoon from the suburbs.

Bentley: I'm withyou.

Gleason: Let theman tell his story!

Simply watchingthe hours of tape has given me a new perspective on what I do for a living,which is write. Writing-sitting at a typewriter or word processor and trying toput your thoughts into coherent, stimulating sentences and paragraphs—is themost solitary of acts, done without concern for personal appearance. Being onTV is the opposite. If you appeared on TV and said the smartest thing ever saidby man, but picked your nose while saying it, you would just be more fodder forthe blooper show.

I never dreamed Iwould be on TV for any reason. Never wanted to be. (Well, I've always covetedBrent Musburger's salary, but not the job.) Now I wish I had taken a course ortwo in Making Love to the Camera, or whatever it was that Ronald Reagan tookbefore entering politics. In truth, I don't see how a real writer can ever be areal TV person. The two don't transmit information the same way. But maybethat's the key to our show—the fact that we're a posse from the anti-TVleague.

What's thecoolest TV show in America?

"DavidLetterman?" Too predictable. "Pee Wee's Playhouse?" Too esoteric."L.A. Law?" No way, gelato-breath.

All over thecountry sofa spuds in the know are tuning in the one-hour weekly program thatmanages to combine the forensic fire of "People's Court," thetitillating suspense of "Dynasty" and the fashion savvy of "Fishin'with Orlando Wilson." That program is "The Sports Writers on TV,"one of the more bizarre yet compelling outgrowths of the Cable Age.
—The Phoenix Gazette, Jan. 30, 1988

"I don't haveto initiate interest in the show," says Sullivan. "Honest. People arefascinated. The first thing they say is, 'That thing is great!' Then they say,'Are they like that in real life?' "

Sullivan is sosweet and sincere, she almost makes me want to ask forgiveness from Father MonkMalloy, the president of Notre Dame, for every cheap barb I've tossed at theschool through the years. However, Gleason, the South Side Irish Catholic, haslobbed more bombs at the school than I ever could. Gleason has more than atouch of the anarchist in him. In a recent column he even urged Notre Dame togive up football and thus become pure once more. Jauss has done his share ofIrish-bashing as well. The Chicago area has so damn many Notre Dame alums andsubway alums that you feel compelled to rip into the sanctimonious little peabrains whenever the chance occurs. No offense, Kelly.

"And I alwaystell them that's exactly the way you guys are," she continues. "I knowit's true, because I spent two hours with you in that motor home, and I saw itall."

Ah yes, the motorhome. It took us to a Lake Michigan harbor somewhere down near Gary, Ind.,where we went out on a charter boat with Captain John Beliveau and fished forsteelhead. The day was overcast and calm, the radar showed fish all over theplace, and we caught nothing. In 4¼ years of fishing, Captain Beliveau hadnever been skunked. We blamed Jauss, who has never caught a fish. For somereason he brought along his father's muskie lures, and we blamed them, too.

Our fish coolerwas filled with cans of Budweiser, and Jauss drank most of them to kill thepain. Bentley was seasick, and Gleason talked about Richie Allen and Ron Santoand having gone to Scotland with Bulls announcer Johnny (Red) Kerr and drivendown the wrong side of the road through a herd of sheep. I watched thefish-finder and marveled that the lovely dunes on shore could be so near slumsand a nuclear power plant.

That day weproved to our p.r. woman that we are what she sees on the TV show. No more, noless. We've gone to baseball and basketball games as a group and spoken atdinners and benefits. Once we even performed onstage at an auditorium inSkokie, Ill. Gleason and Jauss read sports poems; I backed up Bentley on guitarwhile he sang Toot, Toot, Tootsie! to a stunned audience. Through it all, Ibelieve, we have been nothing but what we truly are-three sportswriters and afight guy.

Jauss once saw mecombing my hair before a show. "What are you doing?" he growled. We getno makeup, no blazers, no favorable lighting, no cue cards, no TelePrompTers,no cutaways, no nothing from the realm of "phony" TV, as Jauss callsit. It's great, unless you have nothing to say.

"This isminimalist TV," says our producer, John Roach, a 35-year-old sports junkieand award-winning independent TV-production hipster, who drives in each Mondayfrom his home in Madison. "You know how you can overwrite? You canoverproduce, too. How often do you hear unedited truth on TV? Bob Costas andMusburger might want to rail, but they don't even have a format. We shoot itthis way by design—over-the-shoulder camera angles, no video, no acknowledgingthat we're going to commercials. One advertiser bought on our show because hesaid you guys were the last four real human beings left on television."

Can you get tooreal? Jauss once came on with fresh stitches in his head—dried blood, threadsprotruding—the result of a fall in the dark. What did Roach tell him? "Nexttime, Jaussie, bring a hat."

Show No. 133:
Sept. 18, 1989

Gleason: ThatNotre Dame-Michigan game was the most boring since the Notre Dame-Army game of1946.

Show No. 145:
Dec. 18, 1989

Bentley: All youneed today is a quarter, a fighter and a phone booth.

Show No. 81:
Sept. 19, 1988

Telander: Therewas a yuppie Korean woman going puppy shopping. She finds a little puppy,nuzzles it, gives it to the man at the store. He takes it, twists its neck,wraps it up in paper, and she puts it in her purse and walks on.

Bentley:(Nauseated groan.)

Telander: Ben, Ican see you getting that look. It's almost lunchtime.

Gleason:Domestically raised dogs might be a heck of a lot more nutritional than some ofthe stuff Americans eat.


Jauss (irate):Bentley, grab control of these idiots! Bang their heads together!

Bentley is thefront man, the guy who reads our only acquiescence to traditional TV, thedisclaimer at the start of each program: "This show was taped Monday. Sofor those of you watching later in the week, you'll know why these guys aremaking even less sense than usual."

He introduceseach of the show's seven segments, tossing the ball to one of us before sittingback, igniting his stogie and playing the straight man. Periodically, he willthrow out an "I don't know nuttin' about dat," or "This talk abouthair, it's making me crazy."

It's worth tuningin the program for Bentley's voice alone. He mates the sound of a Chicagoalderman with that of a foghorn. Bentley was born to say, "And in theeeeedark trunks.... "—which he said hundreds of times in his career as a ringannouncer.

"Remember theWednesday night fights on TV?" he asks me one day off-camera. "I didthose."

"Were youthat guy in the tux waiting for the mike to come down from the ceiling?" Iask.

"Yeah,"says Bentley.

"Or am Ithinking of Rocky?"

"Just likethat," he says. "The Wednesday night fights were brought to you byPabst Blue Ribbon." He sings, "What'll you have? Pabst Blue Ribbon.What'll you have?..."

Bentley loves tosing. Hardly a month goes by when he doesn't croon some ditty on the show.Rarely is it a tune from this half of the 20th century. When he wasyoung—before he was a ring announcer or Rocky Marciano's p.r. man or thepublicity director for the Chicago Bulls (1966-73) or the project coordinatorfor the Communications Department of the Chicago Park District (the last 17years)—he was a nightclub entertainer. The Feb. 22, 1941, Chicago American rana photo of Bentley wearing a derby, sticking his tongue out and crossing hiseyes. The caption read, "Ben Bentley, master of ceremonies at the ClubJo-Yash, on W. Roosevelt Road, thinks up all kinds of antics and nonsense toamuse patrons."

"My realforte was impressions," he says from behind his Park District desk. "Ialways got big applause when I did my routine 'Jolson, Cantor and Me—We'reDefinitely the Big Three.' "

In truth, the ageof The Sports Writers cast probably separates our show from mainstream TV morethan any other element. Bentley admits to being 69; Gleason is 67; Jauss is 58.You don't see older people on TV unless they're hawking dentures or geriatrichealth coverage. But these three guys are the show, and at its best The SportsWriters is about their collected knowledge, not their gags or nostalgia or rantings. Me, I'm 41 and the replaceable part. "We needed somebody without aprostate problem," says Roach with a shrug.

Like Gleason andJauss, Bentley is pure Chicago. None of the men has lived away from the cityfor more than a few weeks, excluding military service, college attendance and,in Jauss's case, a year and a half spent working in Wisconsin. Bentley comesfrom Humboldt Park, where Baby-Face Nelson once bought him and his playgroundbuddies a softball. "After that he joined the Dillinger group," saysBentley.

Born BentleyGoldberg, he changed his name because, he says, "fighters and everybody didit back then." His hero was welterweight Barney Ross, who, says Bentley,was "born Beryl Rosofsky. Jewish. Like Jackie Fields, another welterweight,whose real name was Jacob Finkelstein."