Steve Zalusky: Looking back at the Harry Caray-Milo Hamilton feud and the Elia tirade
Part 2 of 3
As Cubs public relations director in the 1980s, Bob Ibach not only shared in the PR successes of a team coming out of hibernation.
He also had to quench a few PR forest fires.
In a recent telephone conversation, Ibach remembered handling the feud between Cubs announcers Harry Caray and Milo Hamilton.
His involvement began when Ibach was told to show up at the Ambassador East hotel for what turned out to be the press conference announcing Caray's anointment as the successor to the microphone long held by Jack Brickhouse.
"The Tribune Company arranged that. They didn't even tell me. Here I am the PR director of the Cubs. I didn't know it was going to be announced."
Neither did Hamilton, who presumed he would be the heir apparent.
"Milo came down with me. And we drove down in the car together," he said.
To the surprise of both, Caray emerged from behind a curtain.
"Milo looks at me. He says -- because his nickname for Harry was 'the Canary' -- 'What the hell is the Canary doing here?' They never even told him. He was blindsided."
When it was revealed that Caray would be the lead announcer, with Hamilton joining him in the booth, Hamilton said: "This is going to be brutal."
Ibach was handed the job of peacemaker, being told, "Listen, we got to get you to bring these two goofs together and see if they can mend fences."
Ibach said he arranged for the two to have lunch at the Drake Hotel. He said it felt like bringing Khrushchev and JFK together.
"I should have worn a referee's uniform that day. And Harry, of course, being not the diplomat that he was, he says, 'Well, Milo, you know, there's not going to really be room for both of us here.' Milo looked over and he says, 'Harry let me tell you. I got a three-year contract. I ain't going anywhere.' We finally got them to agree that they would show up."
The Caray-Hamilton marriage was definitely not made in Heaven. Ibach said Hamilton would stand on the Wrigley Field catwalk with his back turned as Caray regaled fans with "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh inning stretch.
And then one day, as the team was riding a bus to the Astrodome, Ibach and Hamilton were seated next to each other, with Caray in a seat on the other side of the aisle, when Hamilton opened up a newspaper, only to find a feature article on his booth partner that quoted him saying, "Unlike some people who miss games," he hadn't missed a game in a number of years.
Ibach said, "Milo was undergoing some leukemia treatments and occasionally missed a few ballgames."
As Milo read the article, "His face is getting red. The paper is starting to shake, and he's saying, 'That effin' Canary.' He leaps over me with his fist coiled, and he's going to cold cock Harry in the back of his head."
Ibach said he grabbed Hamilton by the back of his coat and pulled him back.
"Years later, when Milo was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame for the broadcasters, he came up to me and he said, 'Bob, I wouldn't be here today if you hadn't stopped me that day.'"
Ibach found himself face-to-face with a three-alarm fire on April 29, 1983.
Following a 4-3 loss to the Dodgers, Cubs Manager Lee Elia vented his frustration at Cubs fans, liberally lacing his tirade with graphic profanity.
Ibach said WLS sports reporter Les Grobstein gave him the tape of Elia's tirade, which he took to Cubs GM Dallas Green's office and played.
Ibach said, "Lee actually didn't know how bad he sounded, with the 54 F-bombs."
Green put his head down on his desk as the tape rolled. "He finally banged his fist on the desk. He says, 'Ibach. We got to get Lee up here. Get his ass up here right away.'"
Ibach then phoned the locker room -- this was the pre-cell phone era.
But Elia was already in the parking lot, ready to drive to Park Ridge to be a celebrity umpire at his daughter's softball game.
In the parking lot, he realized he had forgotten his keys. Returning to his office, he found the phone ringing in the locker room.
"I said, 'Lee. Dallas wants to talk to you right now.' He says, 'Can it wait? I've got this softball game I'm supposed to be an umpire at.'"
Green then grabbed the phone from Ibach and told Elia if he didn't come up to his office, he might as well clean out his locker, because he would not be the Cubs manager tomorrow.
"So he gets up there. I close the door. Dallas says, 'Sit down.' He says, 'Ibach, play the tape.' Well, I'm playing the tape. It's about five and a half minutes long. And Lee is becoming ghost white, just sitting there. His eyes are, like, bulging."
By this time, Ibach said, Grobstein has aired the tirade and the Cubs were flooded with media calls.
Ibach landed on a solution. Brickhouse had a 6:15 p.m. show on WGN radio. He arranged for Elia to appear with Jack and apologize, followed by a session with the media in Green's office. That way, when the newspapers reported the incident the next day, they could include the detail that Elia had apologized on radio.
With the Elia episode, "I learned very quickly how to act through a crisis when I did public relations. It was PR 101 on the run."
Still, the Elia tape lived on, as radio personality Jonathon Brandmeier inserted a sample of Elia's profanity fest into the Cubs theme song, "Hey, Hey! Holy Mackerel!"
Ibach said, "Dallas would hear that every day and he would call me into his office. He says, 'Can't you get him to stop doing that?' I said, 'Dallas, the more I call Brandmeier and tell him not to do it, the more he's going to do it. Just leave it alone. It will die out eventually.'"
Next week: 1984, Vine Line, and the next generation