Radio host authors book based on old interviews
After writing two books which tug at the hearts of local sports fans, journalist George Von Benko's third book stirs memories and brings new information to light about renowned sports figures nationwide.
Inspired by his deceased father to turn his newspaper columns into books, he penned two volumes of “Memory Lane.” Both books recount the accomplishments of western Pennsylvania elite athletes and coaches who have excelled at the scholastic, collegiate and professional level.
John Von Benko died in June 2011, and while cleaning out his father's house, George found a box in a corner of a closet that contained 200 taped interviews from his 45-year radio career. That find started the production of “Sports Talk,” a book of his most memorable radio interviews.
“I was a pack rat all throughout my career and saved everything dating back to my days at WTAE,” Von Benko said. “I thought the tapes were lost as we moved a couple of times, and some of them were so old they were reel-to-reel and I had to go find a projector for them because I did not have one.”
Von Benko explained that oxidation ruined some of the tapes, including an interview he did with Muhammad Ali at his training camp in Deer Lakes, Pa. However, many of the interviews were salvaged, including one with the late Harvey Haddix, whom Von Benko interviewed in 1989, 30 years after his 12 perfect innings against the Milwaukee Braves that turned into a 1-0, 13 inning setback.
Von Benko explained that Haddix revealed that former Braves pitcher Bob Buhl told him at an old-timer's game in Chicago years later than he was stealing signs during that legendary game.
According to Von Benko's interview, Buhl was in the bullpen with binoculars, and there was a guy sitting next to him on a chair. If the pitch was a fastball there would be a towel around the guy's shoulder and if it was a breaking ball there would be no towel.
“That makes what Haddix did even more amazing,” said an enthusiastic Von Benko. “They knew what pitch was coming and still couldn't get a hit off him.”
Also a longtime college basketball and football broadcaster, Von Benko shares an interview about the late Marquette coach Al McGuire.
In the interview McGuire retells a story about his early years when his 6-foot-3-inch center Pat Smith induced DePaul's star center into an on-court tussle that resulted in both players getting ejected. The situation caused longtime DePaul coach Ray Meyer to scream at the referee that he kicked out his star player and a Marquette player who could not hit the ocean while standing on the shore.
Von Benko's interview adds that shortly after that game McGuire had a Milwaukee newspaper photographer take a photo of him and Pat Smith throwing a basketball into Lake Michigan.
“He was a master of getting under opponents' skin,” Von Benko said about the 1977 NCAA championship winning coach. “Al then needles Meyer by saying of the photo that Pat had a harder shot because Lake Michigan isn't as big as the ocean.” That photo is in Von Benko's book.
Von Benko still has his own radio show on WMBS Saturday mornings from 10:15 a.m. to noon but looks back with considerable pride when his talk show followed Myron Cope and Stan Savran at WTAE on weeknights.
“Stan always says that was the golden age of radio talk in Pittsburgh,” said Von Benko, who is pictured with Cope on the back cover of his book.
He also includes a trio of famous broadcasters — boxing's Don Dunphy, Dick Enberg, and football's Ray Scott.
Dunphy called more than 2,000 fights, including 200 title bouts, and 50 of those were for the heavyweight crown such as Joe Louis knockout of Max Schmeling. He once called Tony Zale the best piece of steel to ever come out of Gary, Ind.
Enberg talks about kissing John Wooden on the forehead the last time he saw him in a WMBS interview with Von Benko at PNC Park shortly before the UCLA coach passed away in 2010. Enberg was the Bruins' play-by-play television announcer for the majority of the team's 10 NCAA national titles in 12 years from 1964-75.
“He (Enberg) knew it was going to be the last time he'd see Wooden and he was frail but still so sharp that he knew Enberg had returned to baseball announcing with the Padres,” Von Benko said. “Ray Scott talks about the Dallas-Green Bay ‘Ice Bowl' (1967 NFL championship) and we have a great picture of him down on Lambeau Field wearing an overcoat introducing Max Magee.”
Von Benko has a 2008 interview with Bob Knight he conducted at Heinz Field's press room when the college basketball coach with 902 career victories and three national titles was in town to visit his Ohio State classmate and friend, Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau.
Several other of the many sports interviews that can be found in the book include Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Jerry West, Maurice Lucas, John Brodie, Lance Alworth, Chipper Jones, Ron Santo, Hank Stram and Terry Bradshaw.
Von Benko's interviews begin with a brief biography of the sports figure along with the year of the interview, and are presented in a question-and-answer format. It took Von Benko nearly four months to transcribe the tapes and some of the questions were taken by callers into his shows.
“It really was a labor of love, and the book is chock full of history and great photos,” he said. “I did it the way the interviews unfolded on the radio.”
“Sports Talk” and Von Benko's previous two books are available at all Bradley's book outlets in western Pennsylvania, selected Barnes and Noble stores and at the Uniontown Public Library.
He has upcoming book signings from 3-7 p.m. June 14 at Bradley's in Washington Crown Center Mall and also 3-7 p.m. June 15 at Bradley's in Uniontown.
Bruce Wald is a freelance writer.