Jim O'Donnell: Even when Grobstein had no other place to go, Chicago sports radio had to take him in

  • Les Grobstein at Soldier Field.

    Les Grobstein at Soldier Field.

 
Updated 1/20/2022 9:50 AM

THE LAUDATORY FAREWELLS to Les Grobstein are beginning to slow.

All that have been broadcast and written have been well-deserved.

 

A handful have touched magnificence in texture and tone.

There is a marked degree of duty above discomfort in adding yet another.

That's because it's about a colleague and chum of more than four decades who, even at age 69, bid adieu too soon.

That sort of doorbell of fate rings far too close to home.

In a perfect cosmos, the recipient would have the option -- before entering the passage to The Big Transmitter -- to text, "Cancel my delivery."

THE MOST ACCURATE SUMMARY IS RELATIVELY CONCISE:

He was a good guy.

He recognized his passion in life early on and pursued it with an unremitting relentlessness.

He caught the break of a lifetime in 1979 when he suddenly went from an $8-an-hour voice on SportsPhone Chicago to working alongside giants of the major-market radio business such as Larry Lujack, Li'l Tommy Edwards and Catherine Johns at WLS-AM (890).

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A "Sports Jeopardy!" game in that era between he and fellow fast starters Chuck Swirsky and Bruce Wolf would have been an intellectual cage match worthy of a championship debate between Harvard, Yale and Brandeis.

He muffed a few along the way -- including one glaring gaffe involving an out-of-bounds "extra" credential at the 2001 MLB All-Star Game in Seattle that cost him close to a decade of his career.

But isn't that part of being a different sort of human being who aimed for the stars and, more often than not, touched one?

IF THIS WERE VARIETY -- the showbiz bible -- the lede could be ever more succinct:

"Les Grobstein, one of the great character actors in the history of American sports radio, died in a suburb of his native Chicago last Sunday."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The problem with that, even for those who frequently intersected with him on media rows at Chicago Stadium and the United Center many dribbles and puck bounces ago, would be:

How could the character ever be consistently distinguished from the actor?

He was wise enough to quickly recognize a sustainable professional persona alongside Lujack, Li'l Tommy and all while at that grand WLS-AM finishing school.

And publicly, he almost never deviated.

He played the reliably likable neighborhood nebbish.

The sports know-it-all who as likely as not might walk into a CTA bus stop sign lost in thought about who was on deck when Willie Smith hit his walk-off home run over the ivies at Wrigley Field off Philadelphia's Barry Lersch on Opening Day 1969.

THE CHICAGO SPORTS PRESENCE with whom he shared a remarkable number of foundational touchpoints wasn't any fellow broadcaster.

Instead, it was Jerry Krause.

Both grew up on the Northwest Side. Both realized their athletic limitations at young ages -- although Krause pressed it a bit as a recurring annoyance at Bradley University.

Both started working alternative but associated stairsteps up as determined adolescents.

Both pushed doors from the outset that less-driven might have considered behaviors far too audacious to consider.

And both eventually mounted some very high vistas in their chosen professions.

THE DISPARITY WAS that Grobstein never lost his likability.

He had neither a mean nor venal bone in his body.

He felt no compulsion to imply that he was always the smartest man at the news conference.

Which will always activate the lazy-moment consideration:

If you could have implanted Grobstein's propensity for rubbing people the right way inside of Krause and his frustrating knack for embracing the implosive, what kind of beloved Chicago sports icon might you have had?

ON THE SUNDAY NIGHT of Memorial Day weekend 1997, Michael Jordan and the mammoth championship Bulls traveling playoffs herd was in Miami.

The Bulls were up 3-0 on the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. The first closeout opportunity would present itself the following afternoon.

Much of the teeming media was downtown, staying relatively close to Miami Arena.

Jordan and the Bulls -- plus Grobstein -- were 17 miles to the northeast at the swank Turnberry Isle Resort and Country Club.

Grobstein was going to do his WSCR-AM (1160 at the time) overnight show from the spa.

AT THE BULLS' SUNDAY LEG-STRETCHER, The Insouciant -- an absolutely incorrigible night owl -- told ol' Les, "I might just come up tonight and watch a master at work."

And he did, hopping a midnight cab after a marvelous late-night dinner with Tim Weigel and WBBM-Channel 2 cameraman Chuck Davidson in Coconut Grove.

At Turnberry, Grobstein was set up, alone, in a side "salon."

There were no other people in sight. Just an energetic pro, with a portable board, an ISDN link back to Chicago, cooling pizza and some Diet Coke.

And typically, a Les Grobstein scoop du jour.

"DO YOU KNOW JORDAN played 46 holes of golf today after the shootaround?" he asked his bearded visitor.

"You mean 45," the mathematical sage within replied, quickly adding 18 plus 18 plus 9.

"No," Grobstein said. "Forty-six. With some assistant pro named Steve Settoski. They quit because it was getting too dark.

"How do you think he's going to play against (Alonzo) Mourning and (Tim) Hardaway later today?

"The Bulls have no shot of winning this game."

GROBSTEIN PROVED RIGHT, as he braced and informed his listeners all night long.

He handed programming over to Brian Hanley back in Chicago sometime after dawn.

Jordan went 9-for-35 from the floor in Game 4 and the Bulls lost.

His Airness admitted it was 46 holes on Sunday.

And predictably, Les Grobstein was correct -- on all counts.

HE LEAVES BEHIND a sports media market unquestionably diminished by his exit.

He also flies away from a struggling station desperately in need of fresh sound, more compelling direction and significant cultural overhaul.

Grobstein played his role well, a character actor spawned from another age, with the chameleon-like consistency of a Strother Martin or L.Q. Jones.

And whatever his foibles, like the destiny of Robert Frost's Silas in "The Death of the Hired Man," he always had sports radio.

A place where, when a singular, impassioned talent like his had no other place to go, they had to take him in.

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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