Profile of Merle
By Scott Benjamin
Merle Harmon was the voice of the Jets on WABC from 1964 until 1970
Highly-regarded play-by-play sportscaster Merle Harmon said he believes that
there was a lot of crossover between the audience for the Sunday New York Jets
games on Musicradio77 WABC and the listeners that tuned in regularly to hear the
Beatles latest hit and afternoon air personality Dan Ingrams humorous ad-libs.
The people that listened to WABC during the week had an interest in rock stars, and at that time there was no bigger rock star than [Jets quarterback] Joe Namath, said Merle, who was the voice of the Jets on WABC from 1964 through 1970 and continued to do their games for another two years on WOR.
Broadway Joe generated a wave of publicity when he was signed in 1965 for a then unheard of sum of $427,000, making him the biggest bonus baby of that era.
Three years later, while WABC was climbing in the ratings in FUN CITY after eliminating some cumbersome network commitments, the Jets, likewise, were on their way to the only Super Bowl title in their history.
The reports were that Joe was shocked that they offered that much money, Merle said in a Jan. 5, 2008 phone interview with Musicradio77.com from his home in Arlington, Tex.
He said that players told him that all of the sudden they were getting $10,000 raises after only receiving $2,000 or $1,000 previously.
Sonny Werblin had put the Jets and the AFL (American Football League) beyond what Major League Baseball had offered, Merle said referring, to the Jets co-owner who had been called the star-maker during his tenure as the vice president of Music Corporation of America.
The New York Times has reported that, among other things, he negotiated one of the early contracts for legendary NBC Tonight show host Johnny Carson and developed a clothing line with him that earned millions of dollars for both men.
Sonny became a co-owner of the Jets with Leon Hess in 1963 and stayed with the team until just before the 1968 Super Bowl championship season when, apparently due to the massive attention he was getting, Hess bought him out for $1.2 million on a share that had been valued at $250,000 just five years earlier, according to The New York Times.
Sportswriters were flabbergasted, Merle said of the salary that Broadway Joe received after completing his career at the University of Alabama.
That was the story of the year, he said. It was about twice what the highest pro sports salary had been.
There were advertisements with Joe in the New York City newspapers even before he had played a game for the Jets, Merle said.
Fox Sports columnist Mark Kriegel, who wrote an acclaimed 2004 biography on Joe Namath, said that the pro football Hall of Fame inductee became such a commercial spokesman in the 1960s and 1970s that he set an example for National Basketball Association superstar Michael Jordan, who had similar success in the 1980s and 1990s.
Merle recalled that in 1970, the last year that WABC carried the Jets, he did interviews along with Roger Smith, the husband of actress Ann Margaret, outside a theater in New York City immediately before the premier of the feature film C.C. Ryder, which starred Broadway Joe and Ann.
He said the crowd of people outside the theater was so massive that he and Roger almost were knocked off a riser platform where they were standing.
Broadway Joe was considered a part of the youth movement of the late 1960s and the Jets 16-7 victory over the Baltimore Colts on Jan. 12, 1969 in Super Bowl III at the Orange Bowl in Miami is still considered one of the most memorable games in pro football history and the exclamation point that the AFL was on a par with the established National Football League (NFL).
They had lots of money to throw around, Merle said of the owners in the upstart league, which had begun play in 1960.
They had more money than many of the NFL owners, he said of the AFL owners, a group that included the Kansas City Chiefs Lamar Hunt, the son of an oil tycoon.
All of the original AFL teams, plus such additions as the Miami Dolphins (1966) and Cincinnati Bengals (1968) merged with the NFL in 1970.
Sonny Werblin and Al Davis were against the merger, Merle said, making reference to the long-time Oakland Raiders managing general partner. They thought that they could beat the NFL.
In contrast, the American Basketball Association would only put four of its teams into the National Basketball Association six years later when those leagues merged.
In his 1998 autobiography, Stories (with Sam Blair, Reid Productions, 144 pages), Merle wrote that WABC sportscaster Howard Cosell, who became a friend, called him in 1964 and told him to clear his schedule from commitments to the then-Milwaukee Braves of Major League Baseball and to University of Wisconsin football games to become the play-by-play announcer for the Jets games, which the station had just acquired.
Merle stated that he had turned down a chance earlier that same day to become the voice of the famed Green Bay Packers, who were then the best team in the NFL under Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi.
He wrote that he was surprised that not only was he able to clear his schedule, but that his boss encouraged him to take the position because the exposure might make it easier to attract national clients along Madison Avenue for the Braves baseball broadcasts.
Merle said in the phone interview that he is not sure why WABC acquired the games, since it was already establishing itself as the most listened to Top 40 station in the country and was selling out most of its commercial time slots.
The station had carried the New York Mets games in the early 1960s, starting a little more than a year after it became a Top 40 station. However, its regular sports programming largely surrounded Howard Cosells local and network sports commentaries.
However, Merle said that the station benefited from the association after Broadway Joe arrived and the Jets began their eventual march to the Super Bowl, which generated much attention even though some observers thought the Sunday afternoon broadcasts might hurt WABC because they interrupted the popular music programming.
The station was noted for listeners who tuned in for short periods of time because the number one song was played every 60 minutes.
WABC had so much commercial time sold that you could hardly breath, Merle said. There were times when it was difficult to get a Jets promo on the air.
However, the station was helped because Sonny Werblin knew how to attract attention, he said.
When I went to the 1964 World Series between the Yankees and the Cardinals, I saw a sign on a building near the subway platform by Yankee Stadium that said,
Congratulations to the Yankees from the New York Jets, Merle recalled. Even though the football Giants played in Yankee Stadium, Sonny was making a statement about attracting publicity wherever there were people that might notice the Jets.
Merle said that shortly after agreeing to become the play-by-play announcer, he met with Wally Schwartz, then the general manager of WABC, who invited him to a sales meeting.
At that session, Merle, who had attended sales and marketing meetings for years with stations carrying the then Kansas City Athletics and the then Milwaukee Braves, offered to help WABC attract sponsors.
After the meeting ended, Larry Wynn, who was considered to be the best account executive at the station at that time, spoke to him and arranged for Merle to accompany him on a meeting with an advertising agency for Midas Muffler, which became a Jets sponsor.
We were sold out for the pre-game, all four quarters and the post game, he said. During the game, if you were a sponsor, you had to buy a full quarter of the game.
The Jets eventually wanted WABC to build a network of stations, Merle said. But WABC said we are a network with our strong signal.
At night the station reportedly reached 39 states and some foreign countries.
Merle recalled being in Nebraska to broadcast a basketball game and he was able to hear WABC loud and clear.
WABC wanted to sell the commercials that related to their immediate audience in New York City, he said. If you sold to a sponsor that was only based in New York, it wasnt going to be of any interest to the person listening in Hartford, Conn.
During the 1964-65 seasons, his analyst was pro football Hall of Famer Otto Graham, who also was serving at the time as the head coach at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.
He was so intelligent that he probably could have played three or four different positions, Merle said of the noted quarterback, who guided his teams to the championship game in each of the 10 seasons that he was in pro football.
After Otto was hired as the coach of the NFLs Washington Redskins, then New York Daily News sports columnist Dick Young served as the color commentator during the 1966-67 seasons as the Jets started to show promise that they could eventually capture the AFL title.
Merle said, ironically, Howard Cosell hired Dick, although years later they became enemies.
Former ABC Sports Senior Vice President Jim Spence wrote in his 1988 autobiography, Up Close And Personal, that in his later years no sports writer angered Howard Cosell more than Dick Young.
Dick had some of the funniest columns I ever read, said Merle, who indicated that he enjoyed his interaction with the longtime columnist, who, according to Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated, should have received a Pulitzer Prize for his work.
He provided anecdotes about the players, Merle said of Dick. He knew a lot about the players. He had a quick mind and was very glib.
Dick would ask questions in interview that no one else would think of, Merle added.
Sam DeLuca - who had played six years in the AFL, including 1964-66 with the Jets before suffering a severe knee injury became the analyst in 1968 and continued with Merle through the 1972 season.
Merle wrote in Stories that Sam was always well-prepared as he wrote pages of notes on both teams before each weeks game.
He stated that the former offensive lineman quickly learned that given the time constraints of the broadcast that only a fraction of those notes could be used.
Sam watched the whole field, Merle said.
What I saw a lot with former players when they started as color commentators was that they would watch their position and not see the whole field, he said. I would tell them to analyze all parts of the game.
Merle said that although football moves at a more rapid pace than baseball, which he broadcast for many years, announcers need to allow for pauses over the air.
You can talk the audience to death, he said. At the game, people want to have a second or two after a great play to talk about that with the person sitting next to them.
Its the same way on radio, Merle added. After you describe a great play, the person listening to the game wants to discuss it briefly with the people they are with.
The Jets, under Coach Weeb Ewbank, had gone 8-5-1 in 1967, finishing one game behind the first-place Houston Oilers in the AFLs Eastern Division.
I thought that they had a chance, Merle said regarding the possibility of the Jets winning the Super Bowl that season.
What impressed me about that years team was the dedication of the players, he said.
Broadway Joe, who was known for hanging out with Frank Sinatra and other members of the Rat Pack and dating some of the most attractive women in New York City and Miami, emerged as one of pro footballs premier quarterbacks.
I dont think Joe ever got enough credit for what he did on the field, Merle said. He could read defenses better than any quarterback that Ive seen.
He said that even though Broadway Joe was then considered a playboy, he believed that one day he would become a devoted father.
He loved his family, Merle said regarding his recollections of Broadway Joe during his years with the New York Jets.
Mark Kriegel wrote in his biography of Broadway Joe that after getting divorced from his wife he became a devoted single father who would take his two daughters regularly to soccer practices near their home in Florida.
Merle recalled that when he and Broadway Joe were assigned to work an NFL game in Detroit for NBC in the late 1980s, the first thing Joe did when he saw him at the hotel registration desk was show him a photograph from his wallet of his older daughter, who was then a pre-schooler.
During the 1968 season Merle and Sam picked up some additional listeners late in the game Nov. 17 when the Jets appeared to have a clinched a victory over the arch rival Oakland Raiders on the west coast. Both teams entered the game with 7-2 records.
In what became known as the Heidi Game, the Jets led 32-29 with 65 seconds remaining when NBC Television, which was carrying the game, cut to Heidi, a film based on the classic childrens story. Timex, the sponsor, had bought commercial time for 7 to 9 p.m. eastern.
However, over the final minute of play the Raiders scored 14 points to win the game, 43-32.
Jeff Long wrote in his 2003 book on the AFL, Going Long, that the more resourceful Jets fans in the New York City area immediately switched to WABC to hear Merle and Sams call of the final 65 seconds of action.
The game has been voted the 10th most memorable football game of the 20th century and has been the topic of several stories through the years, including one in T.V. Guide.
Merle said that after Coach Weeb Ewbank did his post-game interviews his wife reportedly called him in Oakland and congratulated him on the victory because she had just watched the television coverage and presumed that the Jets had held on for a victory.
WABC also had a huge audience on Dec. 29, 1968, when the Jets, who had finished the regular season 11-3, and the Raiders, who were the defending league champions, had a rematch in the AFL Championship Game at Shea Stadium, which, surprisingly, was not sold out.
We had started having sell outs in 1966, Merle recalled. I was shocked that they didnt sell out for what was then the biggest game in the teams history.
Due to the local blackout rule for local television, which was only lifted in the event of a sell out, the only electronic media play-by-play in the New York City area was the broadcast on WABC.
I thought they should have sold the commercials for double the rate that day, Merle said with a laugh.
The Jets prevailed 27-23 and immediately following the post game show, WABC air personality Chuck Leonard played Were A Winner, by the Impressions, which was the stations number 91 hit for 1968, to celebrate the Jets triumph.
Two weeks later they stunned the world, by defeating the Colts, who were 17-point favorites.
When the Jets left the hotel in Ft. Lauderdale that day, they knew that they were going to win, Merle said.
He said that Jerry Kramer, the noted offensive lineman of the Green Bay Packers, who had won the Super Bowl the previous two years, said that he was amazed by the Jets preparation in the days leading up to the game at the Orange Bowl.
He was surprised that Namath was out at the pool speaking with sports writers., Merle said. With the Packers the previous two years, they were so confined during the days before the game.
They were loose and confident before they even took the field, said Merle, who called the game on WABC with Sam.
A record album narrated by Merle with some of the calls that he and Sam made during that 1968 season was made a short time later and is now available on compact disc at eBay.
Merle said his work on the Jets games for Musicradio77 opened a lot of doors over the ensuing years as he did network sports for NBC and other media outlets.
He had worked as the play by play announcer for ABC on its Major League Baseball package in 1965, when his analyst was Jackie Robinson, and other assignments through the 1960s.
Merle said that he maintained a friendship with Howard Cosell, who died in 1995.
Howard did the Jets pre-game shows and by 1970 saw his career reach a much higher level after he became a commentator for ABCs Monday Night Football, which was the first regular sports package to air in prime time.
Howard came to the level of Joe Namath as far as recognition, Merle said.
I saw Howard in his office at ABC, and I saw some of the hate mail that he got, Merle said. It really bothered him. Deep down, even though he knew that he was controversial, he wanted everyone to like him.
Merle, who has been rated by baseball broadcasting historian Curt Smith as the 32nd best announcer in the history of that sport, did Texas Rangers games from 1982 through 1989 and retired from sportscasting in 1996.
As a businessman, his Fan Fair sports clothing concept, which began with one store in Milwaukee in 1977 grew to 140 outlets by the time he sold the business in 1996, according to his autobiography.
He currently does a small number of speaking engagements each year on such topics as sports, business and life.
Merle said that he believes that ESPN, which began operations in 1979, has changed the sports media landscape.
The New York Times, for example, reported in December 2007 that the all-sports network and Internet competitors, such as Yahoo, have lured away top sports writers, such as Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated, to work on their web sites and broadcasts, causing such prominent newspaper sports sections as The Washington Post and New York Times to no longer necessarily be the ultimate destination for talented sportswriters.
What impresses me are the people that have been with ESPN from the early days, Merle said. There was talk in the first year and the second year that they might not make it because it was a new concept and there wasnt much of a cable audience.
I could do play-by-play for ESPN, but I couldnt do the studio shows that they have, he added. Their announcers have a very good rapport with the audience and sometimes theyre not reading from a script, but are winging it.
Merle has fond memories of the Jets 1968 season.
Its hard to believe that were coming up on the 39th anniversary of that Super Bowl, he said a week before that milestone arrived.
They were not a dominant team and they didnt become a dynasty, but very few championship teams fit those categories, Merle added. But that was the point that the AFL topped the NFL. That war between the two leagues in the 1960s was fun to watch.
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