“I've Always Said Harry Caray Was My First Friend in Chicago – Even Though I Never Met Him” … A Conversation with Mike GreenbergRead Now
When I started with the Cubs as an intern in 1986, the main press box was positioned where the mezzanine suites are now located – about halfway up the stadium directly behind the home plate screen. As part of Wrigley Field renovation for the 1990 All-Star Game, the press box was relocated to its present location – about halfway up to the clouds, attached to the underside of the roof. It’s the 800 level as far as seating is concerned.
My press box HQ was located in radio row, which made for some interesting times. The media landscape was starting to shift away from newspapers, especially in Chicago. Sports talk radio, once reserved for weekends, was becoming the social media of its day.
In 1992, WSCR – The Score – came on the scene as a daytime-only AM radio station geared solely to sports. And with all of the day games the Cubs played at home, The Score quickly became relevant – especially in the Wrigley Field press box.
There were three spots to the right of my press box seat – and way back when, they were reserved for Les Grobstein, WBBM Radio, and WSCR. And one of the first update people to man the microphone for The Score was a kid by the name of Mike Greenberg.
Earlier this week, I talked to Mr. Greenberg – co-host of ESPN’s “Mike and Mike” morning show since 2000 – about his days working in Chicago and in the Wrigley Field press box.
Chuck: I promise you I won’t ask if it was a thrill to be sitting three seats away from me, but I enjoy telling people I used to sit right near you when you were starting out. When you look back at the beginning of your career, the media landscape was changing with the emergence of sports talk radio. Can you tell me about your early roots, landing at WMAQ Radio right out of Northwestern University and then being part of The Score?
Mike Greenberg: “Absolutely. When I got out of college, I landed a job as a production assistant at WMAQ Radio. I was immediately begging to do anything they’d allow me to do in the sports department – which was very little. But on Saturdays, they gave me the job of keeping the scoreboards for the sports anchors – who at that time were Ron Gleason, Tom Greene, Steve Olken and George Ofman. Especially on college football Saturdays, there was a lot to keep track of. So I would just sit with them and keep track of scoreboards and update little notes and things like that for them. I loved doing that. And then during the week I would do the regular production assistant jobs.
“I had the opportunity to do a few things that caught Ron Gleason’s eye – just by constantly asking to be allowed to do things. Then I got the stereotypical lucky break. Ron got the job as program director of the fledgling all-sports station – The Score. He remembered that I was dedicated and tried hard and did all sorts of things, and he hired me to be on the staff. I was one of the original producers they hired there, and I worked primarily on the afternoon drive show – which was, at that time, Dan McNeil and Terry Boers. They called it ‘The Heavy Fuel Crew’ show, and it was great. I learned a tremendous amount about broadcasting and radio from that show, particularly from working for Dan.
“At the same time, I just begged for opportunities to be allowed to do stuff on the air. One of the things I did was volunteer after my shift; I would produce the shows … they would end … and in those days the station only had a daytime signal. We would go off the air when it went dark. The show would be over – and it would be 6 o’clock. So I volunteered to go to the night games for the Bulls and the Blackhawks, just go over there and do interviews and bring back tape. I would do a little 45-second voicer that would air in the morning on Tom Shaer’s show.
“It went well enough that Tom recommended to Ron that when the Bulls started making their run into the playoffs, that we should start covering them daily. To his everlasting credit, Tom said, ‘You should give this Greenberg kid a chance to do it.’ I was 24 years old, and they sent me on the road with the Bulls. It was the greatest experience ever, and it went well. When that run ended, they let me cover baseball during the summer and the Bears up in Platteville and during the season. That became my job – just covering the local teams. I did that at The Score for three and a half years before being hired by CLTV. That was incredible. I had a great time, and part of that was covering the Cubs.
“I didn’t cover as much baseball as I did football and basketball, but I certainly was there. I obviously remember sitting in that press box a few seats away from you and (media relations director) Sharon Pannozzo. I will say that when I went back the first time when they invited Mike (Golic) and me to sing the Seventh Inning Stretch, I walked right into that press box and I just stood there and looked into the booth from the angle where I used to watch Harry Caray and Steve Stone. I just let it sort of sink in that now, incredibly, I was going to be the one standing in there singing. It was without question one of the great thrills of my career.”
When you did come out to Wrigley Field for baseball, being that The Score was a daylight-only station at the time, that had to be one of your first introductions to live radio, correct?
Greeny: “I would say the overwhelming majority of live shots I did were from the Wrigley Field press box for exactly that reason … they were afternoon games. So I’d be there calling in from the press box – and overcoming the dirty looks that I’d be getting from all the writers I was bothering by being live on-the-air for 45 seconds, or whatever it was. Those would have been among the very first live shots I did in my life – from the press box at Wrigley Field.”
If memory serves right, you had to be very careful of what you said during those live shots – because you couldn’t interfere with the rightsholders of those broadcasts.
Greeny: “Correct, and that’s still the case. You cannot do play-by-play. If they put me on the line … let’s say Andre Dawson hit a home run, and one second later, they put me on the air. I could say ‘Guys, on the strength of an Andre Dawson home run, the Cubs have taken a 2-0 lead.’ What I could not say is, ‘Guys, as we speak, Andre Dawson has just hit a two-run homer.’ It was a subtlety to the difference, as I understood it, between doing what would be constituted to doing live play-by-play and just doing a report of the things that had happened. To my recollection, I don’t think we ever had problems with that. We had other problems, but that wasn’t one of them.”
Those were the early vestiges of social media – as sports talk emerged. Especially in Chicago, that was new … sports during the middle of the day.
Greeny: “What’s funny to me is that because I was part of that, I have always thought of myself as being part of the outsiders in media – because that’s what we were. And the reality is that – right now – there is no more mainstream media in the sports world than we are. Then blogs came along, and now social media and Twitter have changed everything. But in those days, we really were the outsiders.
“We were driven by the opinions of our talk show hosts – particularly the more controversial ones like Mike North and people like that. They would upset the players, the coaches and whoever else – and they weren’t there like the writers were in the press box or in the locker rooms afterwards. So I definitely suffered a lot of little slings and arrows. I don’t mean that to say I minded it; it was part of the job.
“But I remember a day that Andre Dawson was furious about something that was said on our station – and he was asking everybody, ‘Who’s here from The Score? Who’s here from The Score?’ And I went slinking, crawling over to (media relations director) Sharon Pannozzo and said, ‘Listen, someone has to tell him that while he’s mad, it’s not me he’s mad at.’ To me, he was a pretty scary dude. Andre Dawson was not the kind of guy you wanted mad at you. I think for the most part, people got that, but it definitely was a new concept.
“The controversial people prior to that had been newspaper columnists; at that time, it was Bernie Lincicome and Bob Verdi – and Jay Mariotti had just arrived in town. But all of a sudden, the primary controversial opinion shapers became the talk show hosts. And I was sort of on the front line of relations with the different teams and the players, so I heard a lot of it – for sure.”
In some ways, that had to help you as your career progressed. It sort of put you into a PR type of mode. It had to help you be able to smooth your way into being able to talk to athletes.
Greeny: “I think that in covering sports, for me, that time was invaluable. I’m not a former player, so having been out there (as a sports reporter) for seven years – being in clubhouses, being at practices, being at spring training – I got an up close and personal look at what it actually takes to do this stuff. So I think I have a better understanding of that than most fans – which is all I really am at the end of the day when it comes to sports. I have training as a journalist, but I don’t have training as a sports person – or I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t had those seven years, so that was invaluable.
“I also think that being there and seeing the way the opinions affected the people that were involved, it gave me an understanding … you’re not just talking into a microphone and letting the chips fall where they may. The stuff you say actually does affect people, and it does impact people, and it sometimes hurts people a lot. So I hope that it has made me a little more sensitive to – or a little more careful about – not criticizing people without justification. And hopefully not criticizing people personally – and seeing the line between what’s fair, which is reasonable criticism about a person’s performance, and unfair, which is unreasonable criticism of a person’s character. A person misplaying a fly ball to rightfield is not an indication of poor character.”
Including your time at Northwestern, you spent 11 years in Chicago before heading to ESPN. Were there any particular people you looked up to or tried to emulate?
Greeny: “There were plenty of people. First and foremost, I’ve always said Harry Caray was my first friend in Chicago – even though I never met him. When I got to Northwestern, I didn’t know anybody there. I was far away from home. I was lonely. And I quickly discovered that on Channel 9, the Cubs played every single day – and they had this announcer named Harry Caray who was phenomenal. It didn’t make any difference what the score of the game was, if they were winning or losing, or who they were playing. He was just incredibly entertaining to listen to, and I loved Harry. I was in the same room with him a number of times, and I think I shook his hand a time or two, but I certainly couldn’t say that I knew him at all – and I would have loved to.
“As I went on in the business, I learned an enormous amount directly from working with people. The people I would say jump immediately to mind … I owe Tom Shaer an enormous debt of gratitude. He and Ron Gleason are the two people who believed in me and gave me chances to do stuff that I couldn’t prove I could do – because I had never done them. If they hadn’t, I don’t know what would have ever happened. But those guys gave me great opportunities. So did Jeff Joniak, who’s now the voice of the Bears. He gave me my first on-air job.
“I learned a lot from Mike North. What I learned from him was the courage that it takes just to be yourself. When we went on the air, Mike North was immediately a lightning rod; people were yelling and screaming and criticizing him. I can’t tell you how many times different executives came in and told him he needed to do this, he needed to do that, he needed to change the way he did things. And he just said, ‘No. I’m going to stick to the way I believe this should be done.’ And he believed it himself. As a consequence, he wound up having enormous success. Whether you loved Mike or you hated him, no one ignored him. And that was solely because he didn’t listen to other people telling him what he should be doing. I always remembered that.
“The other one was Dan McNeil. As a pure ‘fundamentals of the medium’ talk show host, he was the best radio talk show host I’ve ever heard. There’s no question that everything I’m doing, I learned from Dan: The pacing … the use of sound. Our show has changed a lot now because we’re on TV, but in the earliest days when we were a pure radio show, almost all of the fundamentals that I learned were from being the producer for Dan McNeil. There are many others, but those are the first few who jump immediately to mind.”
Final question for you … when you get back into town, do you still head to Buffalo Joe’s (an Evanston restaurant across the street from Northwestern’s campus)?
Greeny: “Oh yes. My senior year at Northwestern, I lived in an apartment on Clark Street (in Evanston) – above what used to be called J K Sweets. I was just in Evanston recently with my son and took him to his first Northwestern basketball game – which was great – and we went to Buffalo Joe’s. I said to him, ‘I think my senior year in college, I averaged eating seven meals per week at Buffalo Joe’s.’ For every time I did not eat dinner there, I would add a lunch. There were just as many days that I ate there twice as there were zero days. I loved Buffalo Joe’s, and my mouth still waters sometimes at the thought of it.”