Baseball Way Back: Former White Sox announcer's Kennedy assassination connection

White Sox fans of the Dick Allen era might dimly recall Bill Mercer as Harry Caray's broadcast partner on radio station WMAQ-AM in 1974 and 1975.

It was not, to say the least, a match made in Heaven. In sharp contrast to his cuddly image as a Cub Fan and Bud Man in the 1980s and 1990s, the Harry Caray of the early 1970s was hypercritical of Sox players and management.

Mercer would call 1975 "the worst baseball season I've experienced" in a 1976 article, saying, "Never have I been so frustrated and sick of bickering and feuding between ballplayers and the broadcast crew."

My memories of Mercer were limited to his short stint calling the Sox on WMAQ radio, some examples of which can be found on YouTube.

So it was quite a surprise when I saw another side of him while recently viewing a series on the Kennedy assassination, "JFK: One Day in America," which interspersed historic tape and film footage with anecdotes from those still around to recall that fateful day in Dallas.

Among the survivors giving their accounts was the nonagenarian Mercer, one of the Dallas broadcast journalists covering the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald and the first reporter to tell Oswald he was charged with killing the president.

In the documentary Mercer is seen among the crush of reporters milling about Dallas police headquarters.

When police arranged for Oswald to be questioned by the press, Mercer directly confronted the accused presidential assassin and briefly caught him off guard.

In his book "When the News Went Live: Dallas 1963," he wrote, "Kneeling in the police basement assembly room after midnight, I looked up directly into the face of the man accused of killing President John F. Kennedy," he wrote.

He wrote that Oswald "seemed perfectly at ease as questions were fired at him."

Then, "As police concluded the 'news conference' and Oswald started to turn, I stood up with the mike in my hand. When he was again asked, 'Did you kill the president?' Oswald looked toward me and said: 'No, I have not been charged with that. In fact, nobody has said that to me yet. The first thing I heard about it was when the newspaper reporters in the hall asked me that question.' He pronounced it 'axed.'

"I looked into his face and said, 'You have been charged.' Oswald looked a little blank and moved his head backward in a natural reflective response."

At that point in his career, Mercer had carved out a niche as a play-by-play announcer, a career he chronicled in another book, "Play by Play: Tales From a Sports Broadcasting Insider."

In this entertaining book he said that among his assignments was covering Cotton Bowl games with none other than a St. Louis announcer named Harry Caray.

He wrote that a letter from CBS Sports Director Jimmy Dolan dated Jan. 5, 1962, said, "Both you and Harry were given salutations for the job and, all in all, the whole thing came off fine."

Mercer wrote that he has a picture with Caray, who inscribed the message "to my friend."

That rapport was absent when the two shared the microphone at White Sox Park.

During the first year, Mercer, whose previous baseball experience included calling Texas Rangers games, wrote that Caray was critical of the way Mercer had described a shaky start by Sox pitcher Stan Bahnsen.

"You never say anything bad about anybody, do you?" Caray told him.

As the season progressed, Mercer wrote: "I realized Harry would rather be the sole descriptor of the action. I began staying away during his three innings."

Caray would clash with WMAQ that year and for a time was absent from the radio booth, with his place briefly occupied by Sox catcher Ed Herrmann, who was on the disabled list.

The relationship between the two broadcasters further deteriorated when former Sox catcher J.C. Martin, with no broadcast experience and a Virginia twang, was added to the team. Caray was furious when he learned Mercer agreed to tutor Martin during spring training.

Toward the end of 1975, Caray found an ally in TV-radio critic Gary Deeb, who roasted Mercer and Martin in a September column.

Deeb wrote that Mercer had turned from "a dulcet-toned neuter whose game descriptions were about as tasty as intravenous feeding" into a "shameless electronic flack."

Matters came to a head when Sox players confronted Caray about the column, accusing him of "helping the newspaper guy attack his partner." Mercer wrote that Caray made a caustic comment and Manager Chuck Tanner grabbed Caray by the throat and told him he would regret it if he said "any more bad things about his players or fed (stuff) to the newspapers."

When Bill Veeck regained ownership of the Sox, Mercer would be out of the broadcast picture. Caray would remain with the Sox until after the 1981 season.

Mercer, who also called the 1967 "Ice Bowl" NFL championship and the 1972 Super Bowl, was inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. His granddaughter, Emma Tiedemann, continues his legacy as the voice of the Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs minor-league baseball team.

Bill Mercer's broadcasting legacy includes being the first reporter to tell Lee Harvey Oswald he was charged with the murder of President Kennedy. Courtesy of the Chicago White Sox
Lee Harvey Oswald is shown early Nov. 23, 1963, as he stood before newsmen in a Dallas police station where he repeatedly denied that he had assassinated President Kennedy yesterday. "I did not kill President Kennedy," he said. "I did not kill anyone. I don't know what this is all about." He was brought before the newsmen just after formal charges of murder were filed against him. (AP Photo)
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