Jerry Gross with Stan Musial, St. Louis, 1960. By the time he came to San Diego, Gross had been a broadcaster in two World Series.
Thirty years of accumulated sportscasting experience was about to be marshalled into two hours on the evening of September 30, when Jerry Gross sat down at the microphone to perform his radio show, Hotline Sports, for KVSD-AM. Later he would say that this was one of those times that make all the years of upheaval — the firings, the lawsuits, the closed doors, even the stint on the unemployment line — worth it. His broadcast booth was located in baseball’s craw, the dusky alleyway connecting the dugouts behind home plate at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, so he was close enough to his quarry to hear the screech of cleats on concrete, smell the cowhide and pine tar, and partake of the manly art of cussing with impunity.
Pre-game interview with Pete Rose. Rose is talking about the eight-minute standing ovation he received when he broke Ty Cobb’s record.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
The Padres were in the midst of batting practice behind him, and the Cincinnati Reds were squirming hungrily on the bench, awaiting their turn to create the game’s percussive music in the batting cage. The autumn light slanted through the small windows in the padded walls to Gross’s left, and the autumnal sports season held much to be talked about. For a man whose career has been characterized by a long series of tall highs and deep lows, this night the airwaves would crackle with redemption.
Gross ended up in the unemployment line in the summer of 1976. “It was the lowest point of my life. I was totally mortified. People in line recognized me.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
As usual, he starts with an invitation to callers. “We’re not a shill for any team, not beholden to any ownership.... You may talk about sportswriters, bookies, owners, players, whatever, the show is yours.” Then, before Reds manager Pete Rose comes over to be interviewed. Gross offers some sports news: thirty-three football players (out of 1585) on thirteen NFL teams have broken ranks with their union and crossed the picket line. “We’re living in a practical world of impracticality,” Gross observes, casting the strike in Quixotic shades.
Gross on air with Padres pitcher Eric Show. Show says he’s noticed a fundamental change in sports reporting just since he made it to the bigs (in 1981).
Photo by Robert Burroughs
He goes on to report a KVSD “exclusive,” announcing that two name players on the St. Louis Cardinals crossed the line that afternoon. “As the little boy learned with the dike, you can use your finger, but when you get your thumb in there, and your arm, it’s not going to be long before the dike goes.”
Tunnel behind home plate. “First, they replace me with Jerry Coleman,” Gross jokes, “then, in 1979 they replace me with the Chicken."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
He reads an item about Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling settling his lawsuit with the National Basketball Association, calling it “a major win for the NBA.... And it might mean future litigation between Sterling and the San Diego Sports Arena....” He reads items on the lease problems between the Padres and the City of San Diego, the Aztecs facing Wyoming in three days, the baseball Cardinals being close to clinching the National League Eastern Division championship, NFL players saying the scab football games should be voided, and Dallas running back Tony Dorsett possibly losing six million dollars if he doesn't cross the picket line. "My guess is, Tony will soon cross.” (He did, the next day.)
During a commercial break. Gross is told by an assistant that there are two callers waiting, the first one wanting to talk about basketball, the second one interested in the Sockers. Gross rolls his eyes. "The San Diego Sockers!” He shakes his head and flips through the open briefcase in front of him, which contains alphabetized manila folders with headings: Aztecs, Baseball Strike Zone, Hunting, Jai Alai. He grabs the one marked “Sockers” and sighs. Back live, he takes caller number one. If there’s a single sports subject Gross is more expert in than any other, it’s basketball.
The caller comments that San Diego is better off without the Clippers, if only because their move to Los Angeles relieved us of Don Sterling. This reminds Gross of a couple of stories. He tells the one about how Sterling was once fined several thousand dollars for saying in public that the Clippers’ continued losses would get the team a better draft pick the following year. Gross, who was the Clippers’ broadcaster at the time, recalled telling Sterling about the draft windfall, “But I told him, ‘You cannot say that, because it’ll look like we want to lose.’ ” But at a luncheon before local sports pooh-bahs at Lubach’s restaurant in 1983, Sterling did say it. And Gross relates how at that same luncheon, attended by Leon Parma, owner of the local Budweiser distributorship, a major sponsor of the Clippers, Sterling’s exuberance created yet another faux pas when he said, "Why don’t we get some real drinks in here! Let’s get some champagne! Let’s get rid of this beer!" The beer being served was, of course, Budweiser.
As Gross and the caller banter about the chances of another NBA franchise coming to San Diego, Pete Rose and Padres manager Larry Bowa exchange verbal backslaps behind the Padres' bat rack. Rose then takes a seat at the mike.
Gross is clearly delighted to have one of baseball’s all-time greats on his show. Earlier in the afternoon, when Rose was the first Red to come out onto the playing field (at about four o’clock). Gross was gratified that Rose recognized him and greeted him warmly. They hadn’t seen each other in about six years. Gross deferred until later a request that Rose come on his show that night; as Rose lounged on the bench in the dugout, he questioned Gross about how the broadcaster’s sports production company was faring (Gross produces telecasts of college sporting events as a sideline business) and was keenly interested in Gross’s inside knowledge of the basketball team at the Las Vegas campus of the University of Nevada, where Gross is in his second year as a broadcaster. But on the air, the talk is all about baseball.
Gross asks a subtle question about the failure of the Reds’ owner, Marge Schott, to spend the money this year on much-needed pitching help late in the season, but Rose is gracious. He says August killed the Reds off, and he lays the blame on the team’s lack of hitting. “We happened to go sour when the Giants caught fire,” he explains. “We had a five-game lead on August 7.” On September 28, the Giants clinched the division title, in San Diego.
Gross asks about Rose's experience as a manager. “I don’t think players today can do what I did," Rose says candidly. “They aren’t gonna get 4200 hits.” He lays part of the reason on higher salaries, guaranteed contracts, and less incentive to go all-out every day. He says the secret of managing is knowing your players. “Larry Bowa will be a lot better manager next year, because he’ll know his personnel better,” Rose avers.
Gross inquires about Rose’s son. The manager says he went all the way to the World Series this year in American Legion ball. “He was able to hit almost before he could walk,” Rose boasts. A caller asks about Reds/Padres d^als in the offing. Rose says the Padres art talking about trading Eric Show and Andy Hawkins, and the Reds have some young players San Diego is interested in. “But dealing with [Padres general manager] Jack McKeon takes a long time.” By now, callers are clogging the phone lines. One asks about a possible trade — Eric Show for Barry Larkin. Rose says Show is a “tremendous” pitcher, but Larkin is his shortstop of the future. “Yeah,” says the disappointed caller, “I kinda thought you were gonna say that.”
“Sorry,” Rose grunts.
“Did you ever ask Sparky Anderson for advice?” asks a caller, referring to Rose’s former manager when the Reds were winning pennants in the 1970s and the current manager of the Detroit Tigers. "No,” Rose jokes, "but I called him the other day to give him some advice.” Jerry Gross chortles. Rose goes on to explain that Anderson was the best manager he ever played for and that Sparky explained to him the key to managing. “He says there are three kinds of players,” "Rose explains. “Those that need to be patted on the butt, those that need to be kicked in the butt, and those that need to be left alone. The trick is knowing who needs what.”
A caller identifies himself as living in Rainbow. “Where’s Rainbow?” Gross asks. But before the caller can answer. Rose cuts in. “Just down from Heaven" he says. Gross laughs heartily. It’s a good line in the middle of a revealing interview, which continues for another five minutes. Gross and Rose laugh together about famous home runs, old ballparks versus new ballparks, the Padres’ star catcher, Benito Santiago — “I’d hate to be the one that’s gotta pay him in the future,” Rose says — and hitting streaks. In answer to a question about his contract. Rose discloses that he would pick up a $200,000 bonus next season if he puts himself in the lineup for just a single at-bat. There’s even a moment of poignance, when Rose is talking about the eight-minute standing ovation he received when he broke Ty Cobb’s record for most base hits ever notched by a mortal. Rose says he never expected to cry, but he did. “It’s like at the Hall of Fame. There’s tears? It happened to me. You start thinking about all the people that helped you get there. I was thinking about my father, and he’s gone...”
It was great radio, and both men knew it. By the end of the interview, both Gross and Rose were beaming at each other. After Rose headed for his dugout and the show went on a commercial break. Gross could hardly contain his excitement. Behind him, the reassuring drum of batting practice continued, and the sun sank lower, and ahead of him in the show was another illuminating interview with Padres pitcher Eric Show. Jerry Gross was feeling ... reborn.
He can still do it. He’s learned that now, but it wasn’t something he was sure of before last June 8, when his radio sports show first took to the airwaves. Sure, it was on some jerkwater station out of Vista that nobody ever heard of, and yes, he had negotiated his own contract that in retrospect was embarrassing for a former network sportscaster (“I’ve learned I can’t negotiate my own contract anymore. I’m too emotional; it works against me”), and okay, this station took the show only after it was turned down by the big stations in San Diego — KSDO, XTRA, KFMB, a couple of others. Gross’s conviction that a sports talk show in drive time (5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.) with a proven host is a guaranteed success evidently isn’t shared by San Diego’s major radio station executives. But then again, there’s always the chance that it’s Gross himself who provides the pivotal argument against doing such a show on a major station. Gross could be volatile cargo in the old days.
In the 1970s, Gross’s name became synonymous with controversy, in the days when controversy was a dirty word in broadcasting. Gross was the prototype of a Ted Leitner, but with substance, and he was capable of being a devastating reporter. He was also sometimes an unthinking reporter, an “idiot,” in his own words, and he eventually talked and fought his way out of so many sports broadcasting jobs that even he has trouble keeping them all straight. He crossed many lines, blurring the distinction between reporter and commentator, commentator and sports entrepreneur, business associate and friend, friend and enemy, that his judgment became twisted. He ended up filing a lawsuit against former Padres general manager Buzzie Bavasi, a dumb, selfdestructive move that everyone close to him counseled against, and, as everyone predicted, he lost. It cost him dearly, but now he’s starting again at his beginnings — and Buzzie Bavasi is a regular guest on his show. Gross has traveled from the top, a network play-by-play man at the age of twenty-seven, to the bottom, just another face on the unemployment line at the age of forty-two, to this: a fifty-three-year-old seasoned sportscaster in his prime, acknowledged as one of the best basketball broadcasters in the country, reduced to producing a local radio talk show, of occasionally national caliber, on a nowhere station. And Gross finds himself trying to break into a game whose rules have changed significantly since he last competed.
Eric Show can explain this. Show, who passes for the resident thinker on the Padres’ pitching staff (now that fellow John Bircher Dave Dravecky has found happiness with the Giants), says he’s noticed a fundamental change in sports reporting just since he made it to the bigs (in 1981). “The emphasis is no longer on accuracy,” he says, standing near the Padres’ dugout as Jerry Gross speaks into the microphone a few paces away. “Now it’s what’s controversial, or heartbreaking, or negative. Sports journalism isn't just about the games or the field anymore.” Show lives in a sports world whose relationship with the press is vastly different from the one Gross lived in when he dominated television and radio sports in the 1970s. To illustrate the point. Show uses Ted Leitner, sports anchor on KFMB Channel 8, top sports “personality” in town and a Padres broadcaster. “Ted’s an entertainment type rather than a journalist,” Show says. “You never see him down here. You almost never see him talking to players.” As to the chief Padre broadcaster, Jerry Coleman, Show chuckles, “Jerry’s become sort of a cherished relic. You gotta love him for his heart. But if you wanted someone up there to be accurate, he’d be out of a job.”
Ted Leitner, a verbal exhibitionist, and Jerry Coleman, a verbal demolitionist, are both indisputably successful San Diego sportscasters. And Jerry Gross, a sports journalist who may have started the local trend of elevating the sportscaster’s personality higher than the game he’s reporting, scratches to make a living. Did the business pass him by, or did Gross’s intensity and judgment do him in?
It is instructive to peruse a market study completed by Channel 8 in the summer of 1975, when Gross was the sports director of the station. The study showed that among the twenty-one Channel 8 “personalities,” Gross netted the highest percentage of negative comments from viewers. Of the 326 comments about Gross, 105, or thirty-two percent, were considered negative. The study listed some of the “negative” words viewers used in describing Gross: biased, bigoted, conceited, controversial, critical, emotional, involved, mad, opinionated, outspoken, rash, and reckless, to list a few. Today those same words could be used to describe Leitner’s broadcasting virtues. But in 1975, this study was one of the factors that led to Gross’s being fired from Channel 8. Things have definitely changed in sports broadcasting, but it’s still too early to tell whether Gross is a dinosaur, an Edsel, or a late bloomer.
Another factor leading to Gross’s termination as Channel 8 sports director was his feud with Padres president Buzzie Bavasi, who ran the team under two succeeding owners (C. Arnholt Smith and Ray Kroc) between 1969 and 1977. Gross had worked for Bavasi beginning in 1969, when he was hired as the announcer for the newly enfranchised San Diego Padres. After the 1970 season. Gross was replaced by Jerry Coleman. (He worked as a broadcaster for the Padres again in 1978 but wasn’t hired back the following year. “First, they replace me with Jerry Coleman,” Gross jokes, “then, in 1979 they replace me with the Chicken, Teddy G!“) Today, Bavasi is retired from baseball and living in La Jolla, and he has only good things to say about Gross. “The man deserves a break," Bavasi says. “If somebody wanted Jerry as a broadcaster. I’d recommend him highly.” But earlier in the conversation, Bavasi had said that while Gross is a good a basketball announcer, in baseball, “he was average. Not a Vin Scully by any means. He’s adequate.” Still, Bavasi maintains that “Jerry’s severance from the Padres had nothing to do with his ability at the mike. It was a personality conflict.”
Indeed. “I hated that man, I hated everything he stood for,” Gross says now, grimacing at the memory. “I hated his hypocrisy, his conniving. And it cost me.” He points to his heart. "I was leading with this, instead of this.” He points to his head.
Still, there were a lot of shenanigans to report about Bavasi throughout the early 1970s. The team never finished higher than fourth place in the nine years of Bavasi’s stewardship, and six times it finished dead last. The organization never produced a notable pitcher besides Randy Jones, and in the heart of the baseball season, July and August, when the new franchise most needed alert leadership, Bavasi laid down roots at the Del Mar racetrack. When the organization promoted a Hank Aaron day one year, 40,000 people showed up to see Aaron ride the bench, and Gross reported that Bavasi knew all along that Aaron sat out games played the day after doubleheaders.
It appeared, and Gross reported, albeit sometimes with skimpy documentation, that Bavasi was intentionally creating economic chaos within the organization in order to strengthen his plans to move the club to Toronto or Washington. How else to explain some of Bavasi’s actions, or inactions, such as this one contained in an internal memo he wrote to his son Peter, whom he brought into the organization as his general manager? Dated October 5. 1972, it reads, in part, “[Charlie] Finley [owner of the Oakland A’s] has called twice re the possibility of securing [Nate] Colbert. I really doubt if I would give up Colbert for [Reggie] Jackson and [Vida] Blue, although if he made the offer. I’d grab it even though we would have to throw someone else in.” Colbert retired in 1976 with 173 home runs and a career .243 batting average, and he disappeared into baseball obscurity. Jackson, a future Hall of Famer, retired this year with 563 career homers and numerous World Series records. Blue enjoyed a distinguished pitching career up until last year, amassing 209 wins against 161 losses.
Gross’s constant haranguing on television of the Padres’ ownership weaknesses were not conducive to feelings of good will in Bavasi. Bavasi and his attorneys often contacted Channel 8 to complain about the sportscaster, and this eventually took its toll. “I attacked ownership, and ownership sticks together,” Gross says.
The station managers also were uneasy with Gross’s involvement in a local attempt to organize an NBA franchise in San Diego. Bob Breitbard had sold the San Diego Rockets in 1971. and local businessmen and fans had been hankering for a new basketball team ever since. Gross became part of a group of nine investors, including Big Bear supermarkets founder John Mabee and restaurateurs Bob Payne and George Pernicano, who tried to win a new basketball franchise between 1973 and 1975. Gross helped with strategy and contacts, while at the same time he reported on the group’s progress on Channel 8.
Gross was fired from Channel 8 ostensibly for insubordination toward news director Ray Wilson, but it was actually more because of his open feud with Bavasi. From the station’s standpoint, this feud was much bigger than a simple personality clash between its sports director and a baseball executive. A letter dated May 21, 1975, from Buzzie Bavasi to KFMB station manager Paul Fulmer discusses the possibility of the Padres’ moving their radio broadcasting contract from KOGO to KFMB. The last paragraph reads, “On the other hand, should we decide not to move to KFMB, the reason will be, of course, due to the presence of one Jerry Gross in the organization. I have no intention of making someone rich from my efforts and then have my brains knocked out at the same time.” Six months later. Gross was gone. KFMB got the Padres’ broadcasting rights in 1978.
Of course. Gross’s extensive reporting on the business side of sports netted him plenty of other troubles. Just after filing suit against Bavasi for slander, libel, and interference with contractual agreements. Gross was quoted as saying, “[Channel 8] supported me for two years, and all of a sudden this incident. One month before I was fired, I broke eight major stories — the John McKay departure, scoops on the Aztecs, scoops on Wilt Chamberlain ... But apparently the pressure of big business got to them. I was not taking the teams’ press releases and just reading them. I was not shilling for any franchise. And there were the usual jealous reporters and announcers. I criticized Bob Breitbard for selling the San Diego Rockets to Houston; I questioned Dr. Leonard Bloom, who had the [American Basketball Association] San Diego Conquistadors; I challenged Buzzie Bavasi, who lied to the public about Hank Aaron.... I ripped Harland Svare of the Chargers, and I attacked Neil Morgan for his yellow journalism. Morgan implicated the [World Hockey Association] Mariners’ Joe Schwartz with the criminal element even before he came to San Diego. Hell, that’s like making Bob Cousy out to be a criminal just because he knew all those characters in the Boston underworld. And Mayor [Pete] Wilson jumped on Morgan’s bandwagon to try to keep Schwartz out of San Diego. Hell, Wilson talks of keeping the Padres here. It was C. Arnholt Smith who kept the Padres here by aborting the sale of the Padres to Joseph Danzansky in Washington, D.C., and it cost him $100,000.”
Gross was an angry young man who liked to keep up on the doings inside the back doors of sports. After being fired from Channel 8, he found it difficult to land work in this town, and the more he stewed on that, the larger Bavasi’s countenance loomed. After filing suit against Bavasi, Gross couldn’t find work at the other two television stations here, nor at any local radio outlets. He ended up in the unemployment line in the summer of 1976. “It was the lowest point of my life. I was totally mortified. People in line recognized me,” Gross says today. They recognized the man who cut against the journalistic grain and actually defended Sports Arena operator Peter Graham, when everybody else wanted to chase Graham back home to Canada (which eventually happened). And they recognized the man who not only jousted with the management of the baseball Padres but also had entertained them in sublimely absurd fracases with the football Chargers.
The San Diego sports scene either was more interesting in the early 1970s than it is now or sports reporting was just more trenchant then. Gross had made himself into a pariah around the Chargers’ executive offices, because he simply would not tone down his criticism of coach Harland Svare. The Chargers were a lousy team dwelling in the lower catacombs of the NFL in those days, and Gross was not lighthearted or charitable in his approach to covering the team. In the beginning of the 1973 season, Svare and majority owner Gene Klein decided they’d had enough, and they barred Gross from the press box at the stadium, from training camp (along with Channel 8 cameras), and from practice sessions.
Klein said at the time that Gross personally attacked Svare and Klein, calling them liars in an affair involving the trade of quarterback John Hadl. Gross said Klein had called him vindictive and stupid. Both denied saying what the other alleged. Gross’s press credentials were suspended for six games, before an outcry led by San Diego Union sports columnist Jack Murphy eventually resulted in the team relenting. City Councilman (now Congressman) Jim Bates entered the fray by asking City Attorney John Witt to investigate the Chargers’ “possible violation of (Gross’s) civil rights and his right to pursue a vocation.” In the end, according to Gross, network sportscaster Howard Cosell asked NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to intervene, and in September of 1973, Gross’s accreditation was restored.
But less than two weeks later, head coach Harland Svare literally pulled the plug on Jerry Gross, during a locker room interview. Gross had entered the locker room after the Chargers had broken a long losing streak by beating Buffalo 34-7. Gross, feeling exultant, decided that he would enter the locker room with a cameraman, even though television interviews were supposedly prohibited there. In the middle of an interview with linebacker Tim Rossovich, the television lights suddenly went dark. “I turned around, and there’s Svare holding up the plug,” Gross recalls, still incredulous. “He was beet red. I said, ‘Coach, what are you doing? You just won a ballgame! I'm doing you a goddamn favor!’ He just turned and walked out.” Gross’s broadcasting life is filled with such nuggets, providing a deep pool of chatter to fall back on during his current radio show and giving him many claims to fame. For example. Gross figures in one of the all-time great Jerry Colemanisms. During the 1978 season, when Gross was a color man for the Padres, Coleman opened a Padres telecast by announcing, “Hello, everybody. I’m Jerry Gross.” Gross says he and Coleman’s partner, Dave Campbell, fell laughing out of the booth. And then there is his list of firsts, which he is fond of handing out as a kind of shorthand resume:
— First broadcaster for the NBA San Diego Rockets.
— First broadcaster for the San Diego Padres.
— First San Diego sportscaster to assist the move of a sports franchise to San Diego. (He says he got Sports Arena operator Peter Graham together with NBA Commissioner Lawrence O’Brien to work out a lease for the Clippers.)
— First San Diego sportscaster to assist bringing a head coach to San Diego. (He claims credit for helping Don Coryell to make contact with Chargers owner Gene Klein.)
— First and only San Diego sportscaster seen and heard on eleven national radio/television networks. (CBS, ABC. HBO, ESPN, USA, Hughes, CBS radio, AFN-AM, CFN, FNN, NBA-network TV.)
The list includes twenty “firsts,” except the one about being the first sportscaster to sue a major-league baseball team owner for libel and slander and live to tell about it. “I lost everything,” he says now. “You can’t be an appreciative human being until you lose everything. Losing it all made me a better guy. I appreciate my friends now. I think if a man makes six good friends in his life, he’s a millionaire.” Even Buzzie Bavasi, a qualified expert on Jerry Gross, sees the change in him. “I find Jerry’s a different personality now,” says Bavasi. “Sometimes Jerry used to be his own worst enemy, but I think he realizes now he needs people. Everybody needs people.”
Ironically, Gross thinks part of his problem in local sportscasting may be attributable to his early success on the national level. “I got lucky at age twenty-six,” he says, referring to his being hired to broadcast the NBA St. Louis Hawks’ basketball games in 1960 and then signing on the same year as a rookie baseball announcer with the Cardinals. In the mid-Sixties, he was a regular play-by-play man on the NBA Game of the Week, and by the time he came to San Diego, he had been a broadcaster in two World Series. “When you attain a degree of stardom in this business, you’re like an athlete,” Gross explains as he walks in the stadium’s outfield grass before batting practice begins. “You stay in the best hotels, eat in the best restaurants, people ask for your autograph. It’s an ego builder and a character destroyer. When you’re on the road, just like an athlete, you become one of five things: a moviegoer, a drinker, a doper, a woman chaser, or a bookworm. I’ve tried them all except two.’’
The inflated ego he brought to San Diego in 1967 as the Rockets’ announcer is symbolized by a ring he still wears; a World Series ring inscribed with his name, just like the ones worn by the 1967 world champion Cardinals. As a Cardinals broadcaster, he’s entitled to it, but it does illustrate the extent to which sportscasters can identify with their subjects. While the ring has worn well, the ego has shrunk considerably, and now Gross finds himself struggling to reenter the San Diego sports broadcasting scene. But is it too late now?
There’s the age factor, which may be only minor, but Gross is old enough to father some of the happy faces now smilecasting local television news. Gross likes to compare apples to these oranges by pointing out that he’s younger than Jerry Coleman, Vin Scully, Rat Summerall, and the same age as Dick Enberg, one of his idols. But Ted Leitner is only forty, and the sportscasters at the other two local network stations are younger than that. Still, one local news director commented, “I don't think Jerry Gross’s age has anything to do with his ability or inability to get back into the San Diego sports market. He’s a great basketball announcer, but as far as anything else goes. I’m not particularly enamored of him.”
On the radio side, it would appear that Gross has to buck a strong headwind. Several major stations turned down his sports talk show before KVSD picked it up, and even though the show has had a full summer to develop, the chances of the stations’ changing their minds seems slim. KSDO is said to be de-emphasizing sports and saving sports interview subjects for the popular Roger Hedgecock show in the morning; XTRA broadcasts Chargers games and provides the new play-by-play man, Lee Hamilton, with a nightly phone-in talk show of his own. During baseball season, Leitner does a pregame phone-in show on KFMB, and that station can also tap disc jockeys and other Channel 8 sportscasters for sports news. The fact that Gross can whup any other radio sportscaster in town when it comes to conducting live interviews with athletes, agents, executives, and callers may not be enough cause for any major station to rattle its own status quo.
Of course, Leitner is the big game that Gross would love to be pitted against. He thinks of himself as the only sportscaster in town who might be able to budge Leitner off his pedestal as number-one sports talker. And Leitner may be vulnerable. He was close to Ballard Smith when Smith was the Padres’ president, but Chub Feeney has replaced Smith, and Feeney is known to be much more old-school conservative. Plus, owner Joan Kroc has expressed differences with Leitner’s style. Leitner has talked about giving up the Padres broadcasting job in favor of some new Phil Donahue-style interview show. But who has Leitner ever interviewed, other than himself? And after almost ten years of his thin sports segments, made up almost exclusively of clips and personal commentary, he seems ripe to be knocked off by a sports segment with more reportorial depth.
Leitner and Gross have already had a run-in. In mid-June Leitner fielded a caller on his pregame talk show who wanted to talk about Jerry Gross. Leitner launched into a tirade about never wanting to hear Gross’s name mentioned on his show, and how passe Gross was, and that nobody wants to listen to 1950-style sports journalism. He added that Gross had been fired from every job he ever had in San Diego, that Gross’s show was a nonentity, and nobody cared about it.
Nine years ago. Gross had called Leitner “a clown act,” and Leitner evidently has a long memory. But this year Gross says he hasn’t said anything about Leitner on the air. He was mystified by Leitner’s attack, and all he cares to say about Leitner is that “the players call Ted the ‘Benny Hill’ of sports and refer to him as the host of the ‘sports Gong Show.’ And when I listen to his show, which I have to now as part of my job, I get very little out of it in terms of sports content. He doesn’t give the market an accurate report of what’s happening in sports. I’ve talked to other network announcers who think he’s an insult to the profession. He should be doing the Larry Himmel show. He’s a communicator, not a sportscaster. Other than that, I have nothing to say about him.”
The future of Gross’s radio show is uncertain. His contract with KVSD expires on November 8, and although station executives say they’re behind the show and want to keep it, they’ve given it very little promotion. The recent summer ratings period was not encouraging. The station’s overall listenership in the 25-54 age group declined slightly. Gross is understandably apprehensive about the future of the show on KVSD. He’s not making much money on it, only about $2000 a month, an embarrassing figure for someone of his experience. But aside from that, one gets the impression that he just needed to prove to himself that he could still do such a show. Now that he’s done it, if a bigger radio station doesn’t want the show, it will hurt. But he’s been plenty hurt before. “I know I can get numbers,” he says, standing in short right field in the empty stadium. “If they hated me or loved me, I don’t care, but they’d watch me.”