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WSI News - Sox Interviews

Flashing Back...

...with Joe McConnell.

another EXCLUSIVE from White Sox Interactive!   

By Mark Liptak 

 Recently the American Sportscasters Association put together their list of the top 50 sportscasters of all time. Vin Scully was selected to the top spot. Chicago was well represented on the list as Hall of Fame White Sox announcers like Jack Brickhouse, Harry Caray, Milo Hamilton and Bob Elson made the cut. 

One former Sox announcer who isn’t on that list, but should be, is Joe McConnell.


Joe McConnell speaks!
Sox radio play-by-play man of the Winning Ugly era!

 Now before you say, ‘wait a minute…what did Joe ever do?’ perhaps the better question would be, ‘what didn’t Joe do?’ 

Consider that Joe has been calling games for five decades both pro and college… he has been a play by play announcer for five professional sports leagues (the AFL, NFL, MLB, ABA and NBA), has worked for, or with, Hall Of Famers like Bill Veeck, Calvin Griffith, Harry Caray, Early Wynn, Don Drysdale, Ray Meyer, Wes Unseld and Bob Lanier. He’s covered Hall Of Famers on a regular basis like Connie Hawkins, Alan Page, Jim Marshall, Mike Ditka, Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin.  

He called the Vikings dominating stretch of football in the 1970’s, then got to see the Bears during the late 70’s / early 80’s when one of the most memorable Super Bowl champions was being formed. When the Indiana Pacers were being regarded as the ‘Boston Celtics of the ABA’, winning back to back crowns, Joe was courtside. He called Walter Payton’s 275 yard rushing game in 1977 then called Payton breaking Jim Brown’s career rushing mark against New Orleans in 1984. He called for NBA Radio, Michael Jordan’s first three championships….and let’s not forget his time with the White Sox.  

Joe was one of the main announcers from 1980 through 1984. 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 Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn take over for Bill 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, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, Indianapolis Colts 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, Northwestern and since 1995, Purdue. He’s 70 years young, still going strong. 

Now why wasn’t Joe on that list again? 

I had the chance to speak with Joe from his home in mid-January. Over the phone you could tell he still had a lot of enthusiasm for his job along with still having a “great set of pipes.” He also gave you the impression that to this day, he’s still thankful and amazed at how his life and career turned out. 

ML: 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? 

JMC: “Well remember I was born and raised within about a hundred miles of Chicago and was already doing the Bears (Author’s Note: Joe grew up in Goodland, Indiana). 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 then the Sox offered me because I was comfortable there, but all that station would do was offer me a five thousand dollar raise. I couldn’t turn down the White Sox offer and again it enabled me to stay in town the entire year.” (Author’s Note: Joe also made note of that fact that another future Sox announcer, Jim Durham grew up about ten miles away from where Joe grew up.)   

“In my entire time in Chicago I lived at the Astor House. I was paying 950 dollars 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 three thousand a month.” 

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?


1982

 JMC: “I can’t dispute those comments but I loved the guy. I really enjoyed working with him. I loved his wife Mary Francis and got along well with Mike. 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 my and my family and he told me more then once how much he enjoyed the way I called a game. Bill grew up with radio and appreciated it and so did I.” 

ML: Well 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 pro’s, 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” (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 on? I mean 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.” (laughing) 

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. (Author’s Note: For more on SportsVision and the impact it would have on team history click here.

The 1983 Sox Broadcast line up!

Don Drysdale and Ken Harrelson on TV.

Joe McConnell and Early Wynn on radio.

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 fifty thousand 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 baserunning. 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.” (Author’s Note: In 1981, Almon, leading off, hit .301 with 16 stolen bases and 41 RBI’s. In 1982, playing in more games, he hit .256 with 10 stolen bases and only 26 RBI’s. The team let him go the free agent route after the season.)   

ML: Let’s talk some baseball. 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 ten 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 fulltime DH duties. We knew that if Carlton stayed off the DL, he’d make a major impact on the team.”   

ML: The strike wiped out two months of the season but the Sox still finished at 54-52 then went to 87 wins in 1982. The new owners were getting good players like Fisk, Luzinski, Tom Paciorek, Steve Kemp and had just signed Floyd Bannister. Going into 1983 how did you feel the club would do? 

JMC: “Well first off you mentioned the strike in 1981; I still remember it because I didn’t get paid for that time. Everyone wound up getting paid, including the players for sitting out, but I didn’t! (laughing)” 

“I still have my scorebooks from the 1983 season and I spent the past five days going over them getting ready for your interview. 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 23rd. Rich Dotson won ten in a row and Floyd Bannister won 13 of 14. That’s very hard to beat.” (Author’s Note: In fact the Sox went 46-15 after August 1st. The ‘big three’ of Hoyt, Dotson and Bannister went an unbelievable 40-5 after the All Star Game.) 

ML: Well the team started off poorly and there were media reports that Tony LaRussa was about to get fired in May. The Sox brass also brought in Bobby Winkles to evaluate the situation and according to Eddie Einhorn, if Bobby said they needed to make a change, Tony would have been gone. “Hawk” Harrelson said that what saved the season was that Tony never became paranoid about things. You were around him every day, how did he react to the slow start and the building pressure? 

JMC: “The only time I ever heard a complaint about the media coverage and the comments about him getting fired was once in a while Tony would get upset over something “Hawk” would say during the telecast. He was always after things Jimmy said but other than that just a time or two with “Hawk”. 

ML: One of the other things that folks say was key for that year was the trade to get Julio Cruz. I remember at the time that it wasn’t a popular deal with the fans although since then I’ve found out that Tony Bernazard wasn’t the most popular guy with his teammates or with Tony. 

JMC: “It’s true that it was unpopular at the time. I don’t know about Tony not being liked by his teammates…all I know was that he was a solid second baseman who had some pop. Julio was a good player with speed and he gave the Sox basically a second leadoff man in the lineup when he would hit ninth. He didn’t hit for as high an average as Rudy Law, but like Rudy he could bunt and run. 

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 last year 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 in Game #2. (Author’s Note: Boddicker shut out the Sox 4-0, striking out a record 14 hitters.) 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: I’ve also heard over the years that Tony LaRussa made a tactical mistake when he asked guys like Greg Luzinski to speak at the pep rally the city had for the Sox right before they went to Baltimore. The thinking was that additional pressure was put on some of the team to produce and that compounded things as the LCS went along. 

JMC: “Come on Mark, “Bull” Luzinski, who played for ten years and had been in previous playoff series with the Phillies is going to be intimidated because he spoke at a rally? I can’t imagine that happening.” 

ML: So when all was said and done how did you feel when the 1983 season ended?


Joe McConnell (fourth from left) with the entire Purdue University broadcast crew.

 JMC: “I felt empty like everyone. I thought it was a missed opportunity.” 

ML: 1984 was a bitter disappointment for the Sox. They were the consensus pick to win, they added Tom Seaver, yet they fell apart in the second half and had a losing year. What happened there? 

JMC: “I think that the way the Sox ended the 1983 season, that amazing run, was a little like finding ‘fool’s gold.’ Maybe the team wasn’t as good as some thought. All I know is that things slipped away in the second half. Who knows what else was going on? Maybe LaMarr started to get into his off the field issues. There’s lot of things that may have been taking place that as an announcer you just don’t know about. 

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.”  

ML: Did the way your Chicago tenure ended put a sour taste on your years with the Sox? 

JMC: “Oh no. I had a good time, I was very busy which was the way I wanted it. I enjoyed my years with the Sox and being in Chicago. I was doing what I wanted to do and I was making good money for the time.”  

ML: Before we touch a little bit on your days covering the Bears and the Bulls I’ve got to ask you, is it true that you broadcast two games in a single day involving two different teams you were working for? 

JMC: “Not only is it true I did it twice! (laughing)” 

“The first time it happened it was in Dallas. I broadcast a Sunday afternoon game that had the Vikings playing at Texas Stadium against the Cowboys. When it was over I hopped in a cab and got to Arlington about a half hour before the White Sox played the Rangers. In those days Texas was allowed to play Sunday night home games because of the heat, that’s the only way I was able to pull that off.” 

“The second time was in Chicago. I was able to do a Bears game in the afternoon then get over to Comiskey Park in time to go on the air for the White Sox.” 

ML: How about a few moments talking about your time with the Bears. They went to three post seasons while you were doing their games (Author’s Note: 1977, 1979 and 1984) and that was the formative years for one of the greatest teams in NFL history. 

JMC: “I knew that I was replacing a legend in Jack Brickhouse, that’s for sure.” 

“I knew that Jim Finks (Author’s Note: Then Bears G.M.) was a big fan of mine from back when we were both with the Vikings. When the opportunity presented itself I applied for the job and discussed it with Bill O’Donnell. (Author’s Note: The father of actor Chris O’Donnell) I wound up being hired.” 

“The first year I was doing the games was Jack Pardee’s last season as head coach. I knew his days were numbered even though he got them into the playoffs because of what happened in a game at Houston. (Author’s Note: The Oilers destroyed the Bears 47-0) I never saw Jim Finks madder then that afternoon. He’d replace Pardee with Neill Armstrong.” 

ML: Did you work much with Mike Ditka? 

JMC: “I really didn’t outside of just the normal game preparation. Brad Palmer did the “Mike Ditka Show” so he actually spent more time with him then I did.” 

ML: How about being around the great Walter Payton? 

JMC: “Nobody ever worked harder then Walter. He was a happy go lucky fellow who loved to play the jokester. He’d come up behind you and just pinch you and because he had such strong hands that really hurt! Then he’d let out that high pitched laugh of his. I don’t know if I can say he was the greatest runner or greatest player of all time but overall he was certainly as good as anybody who ever played.” 

ML: How about working in the booth with Brad Palmer? 

JMC: “I can’t say enough good things about Brad. I’m sure he was disappointed that he didn’t get the play by play job, he was certainly qualified for it but rather then get upset he dedicated himself into becoming the best game analyst he could be. He threw himself into learning the game and that showed on the air. We had a great relationship and it was rare that you had two play by play guys in the booth, yet that’s what we had and it worked very well.” 

ML: You left the Bears after 1984 and missed out on that magical 1985 season…what happened? 

JMC: “I was disappointed I couldn’t have been in Chicago for that amazing year. My contract was up and WGN got the broadcast rights so we started discussing the possibility of me remaining with the Bears but also doing the Cubs. From what I was told that stalled, in part, because Harry Caray didn’t want me involved with things at his end. I never could get an answer out of WGN and by then the Vikings actually got involved. I had to have a job and I told WGN that I needed an answer in two weeks or I was going to have to begin discussions with Minnesota. I actually tossed out a salary figure to Minnesota not expecting them to say ‘yes’ to it. They did however, which surprised me. After two weeks I still hadn’t heard anything from WGN so I talked with the Vikings and was rehired to do their games.” 

“The funny thing was that soon after it was announced I was going back to Minnesota, WGN offered me the opportunity to do a lot of college basketball involving schools like Notre Dame, Illinois and DePaul.” 

ML: And how about working for the NBA calling the Bulls first three titles? 

JMC: “The best boss I ever had, a guy named Brad Soll, put together a network and asked me to do a sports talk show, which I did. Soll continued to aggressively pursue getting rights to an NBA Game Of The Week on radio and the league gave him the chance. When he got the rights he asked me and Frank Layden to do the games and we did a little over fifty including the playoffs. Soll lost the rights after one year but the league liked what I did and asked me to stay on. I worked the rest of the time with Bob Lanier and then in my last year with Wes Unseld.” 

“Michael (Jordan) was the greatest player I ever saw and he usually did something every game that I had never seen done. I think that layup where he switched hands against the Lakers in the Finals may have been the greatest move I ever saw. I interviewed him a few times and one of the things that I gave to both of my sons was a picture of me interviewing him as a keepsake.” 

“Phil Jackson was an interesting guy too. He had Indian artifacts hanging on the walls of his office, he believed in that Zen philosophy and he ran the triangle offense although a lot of that came about because of his assistant coach Tex Winter.” 

ML: Finally Joe you are still doing Purdue University football and for a few years before that you also did their basketball games and handled the coach’s show. Obviously you still love what you’re doing…even after forty years! 

JMC: “If it wasn’t for some health issues that are creeping up, my eyesight is giving me trouble, I’d do this forever (laughing). I’ve been very fortunate to do what I’ve wanted to do in life for so many years. 

Joe McConnell Audio Memories: 

  • April 23, 1981…In the first game of what would be a double header sweep by the Sox; Chet Lemon strokes a two run single off the Birds’ Dennis Martinez. The Sox would blow away Baltimore 18-5. Chet had four hits and four RBI’s on the afternoon. It’s Joe McConnell and Jimmy Piersall with the action. Courtesy: WGN-TV.
    LET ME HEAR IT! 
  • June 21, 1982…It wasn’t a ‘rooftop’ shot but it was a long, long home run. Against Minnesota, Harold Baines launched one that just missed going into the center field bleachers under the exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park. The Sox would beat Minnesota 5-4. It’s Joe McConnell and Early Wynn calling the play by play. Courtesy: WMAQ Radio.
    LET ME HEAR IT!  
     
  • June 26, 1983…It was quite a summer for the Sox and this guy was a big reason why. Greg Luzinski would blast three ‘rooftop’ home runs that season and this was the first of them. It was a monster blast off the Twins Brian Oelkers and helped the Sox eventually win 9-7. It’s Joe McConnell hitting the high notes! Courtesy: WMAQ Radio.
    LET ME HEAR IT!    
      
  • October 5, 1983It took almost a quarter century but finally the Sox got back to playing October postseason baseball. In Game #1 of the A.L.C.S. LaMarr Hoyt was brilliant in the 2-1 win. This is the last out of the game as he retires Eddie Murray. Once again it’s Joe McConnell with the call. Courtesy: WMAQ Radio.
    LET ME HEAR IT!     

 


Editor's Note:  Mark Liptak is an experienced sports journalist, holding several awards for both his electronic and print media work.  He has held numerous sports reporting positions for various TV and newspaper organizations, including Director of Sports for KNOE-TV (Monroe, Louisiana) and KPVI-TV (Pocatello, Idaho), and sports writer for the Idaho Falls Free Press, where his column "Lip Service" has appeared for for a number of years.  "Lip", his wife, and cats presently live in Chubbuck, Idaho, where they collectively comprise 100 percent of the Pocatello River Valley's long-time Sox Fan population.  

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