People With Passion: Chuck Swirsky

People With Passion: Chuck Swirsky
Chuck Swirsky.

A People with Passion series

Chicago journalism

December 9, 2011: Chuck Swirsky

In the 19th installment of Jack M Silverstein's Chicago journalism People With Passion series, Chicago Bulls radio play-by-play man Chuck Swirsky explains his on-air relationship with color man Bill Wennington, and tells the story of Ron Santo's hiring at WGN in 1989.

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Is there more importance in radio broadcasting than in television broadcasting, because you have to fill in more of the information?

That’s Bill Wennington’s thing. Here’s my role: I report what I see. I describe the play. Bill played. He knows, This guy is out of position, he had a bad angle, this guy did a great job because he was able to recognize a double team coming before the double team actually came. He played. I need to bring that out of him.

I think Bill has grown so much in the three years I worked with him. I want to give him the platform to express to the fans that, number one, he doesn’t big-time people on the radio because “I played the game.” He’s put that hat aside. My role and my challenge and objective is to bring, “Okay Bill, it’s 96-95, you got six seconds to go. What do you call here? They’ve doubled Derrick Rose. They’re not going to let him catch the inbounds pass. What option is on the floor? Because you played with Jordan and they tried to take him away by doubling him. Where do we go with this?” If I don’t do that, then I’m not doing my job.

It’s possible for people to look at players that become announcers and say “They’re just there because they’re players.”

Yes.

Do you feel like there’s sort of a symbiotic relationship between you and Bill? You’re bringing out the broadcaster in him and he’s giving you knowledge about the game that allows you to do what you do? Do you see that as the foundation of the partnership?

I do not look at Bill as a broadcaster. I look at Bill as someone who has played the game, who can analyze the game, who is an entertainer – because he is fun. When you’re up by 20 or you’re down by 20, you’ve got to keep our listeners semi involved. I’ve given him the green light. I said, “Bill, you can come in any time.” I said, “When there’s a key play and it’s a one point, two point game, and there’s an inbound, talk it up until the official hands the inbound passer the ball. I need to describe it, and as soon as I’m done saying ‘Bulls win! Bulls win! Bulls win!’ take a deep breath, pause for a second, let the crowd inhale the broadcast, and then boom! It’s all yours.”

This is going to sound really weird, and I mean this: our first preseason game three years ago, it was almost like we had worked together for ten years. I remember I was in the car driving back from the United Center after the first game, and I’m in the car and I’m thinking, You know what? I didn’t step on him. He didn’t step on me. He kind of got the gist of my cadence.

There were times when I think he was surprised that I wanted him to speak more. Maybe it’s because of my TV background, close to ten years in Toronto, but I like to use my analyst. I don’t want him sitting there just going numb for four or five plays. It’s important for the broadcast to have a second voice where he’s engaging, he’s active, he’s involved, because I think it helps his focus. From a self-esteem standpoint, he feels that he’s wanted and needed, which he is, that he is not a cartoon character, some guy that’s there just to be there, or he’s got little quips and sayings without substance. I want him to know that his role is vitally important to the broadcast.

The announcer is very much the voice of the fans –

I would agree with that.

And it’s part of what endeared so many people who never watched Ron Santo play baseball, because when he was in the booth, you felt like everything that you were going through –

You know, I was in the hiring practice. I was there when GN hired him back in 1989. Dan Fabian deserves all the credit in the world. Dewayne Staats left after the ’89 playoff series. The Cubs played the Giants. Dewayne got a huge offer to leave for the Yankees, and Dave Nelson I think wanted to get back on the field. He was our radio analyst, and he wanted to get back into baseball, back in a uniform. Dan Fabian, Lorna Gladstone and myself said, “Where are we going with this?” and [Dan] said, “Chuck, I want you to put a list together, get some tapes.” I said, “I really want Bob Brenly. I grew up with Bob in college, I’ve known Bob since 1972, and we’ve got to get him in the booth. He’s retiring. We got to get him in.” And he goes, “Well, we gotta get a Cub. The play-by-play announcer is probably not going to have Chicago ties, so we need a Cub, and I’m going after Ron Santo.”

I’ll never forget one of the meetings Ron Santo had in Dan Fabian office. Dan Fabian says to him, “Ron, I want you in the booth because people love the blue hat,” meaning the Cubs hat, “and no one wore that hat better than you.” There was silence, and I’m looking at Dan and Dan’s looking at me and Ron’s looking at Dan, and I thought, Wow, he gets it. Dan got it.

Dan put him in that position because he did not want Ron to become, “Well, you know, on that 2 and 1 pitch, the guy really had to turn and use those legs – ” He didn’t want to hear where his hips need to be, you know? Just, “Ron, be a Cub. Just do your thing.”

*** Dan Fabian tells the Santo hiring story, and other Santo stories, on WGN sports ***

So what made Santo a great announcer? When you look at him –

He’s not an announcer. He’s a Cub. He’s a Cub who happens to be in the booth. His passion, you know what I mean? The first two years, he tried so hard to still be technical, but then all of a sudden he couldn’t help himself, in a good way. “I got to be myself.” It was almost like that little boy who clicked his heels in ’69 took off that broadcasting jacket, and the Cub jersey #10 came in.

It was a great period. At GN, I worked with Jack Brickhouse, Milo Hamilton, Harry Caray, Ron Santo. We went through Dewayne Staats, we went through Thom Brennaman. It was unbelievable for me at 28-years-old to go through that period. I mean, we had Lou Boudreau and Vince Lloyd. It was like an encyclopedia.

I’ll never forget the day John Elway was drafted, and he didn’t want to play for the Colts, and I’m doing a talk show with Jack Brickhouse and Jack says, “I’m gonna get Bob Irsay on the phone.” Bob Irsay actually lived in Chicago. He was the owner of the Colts. I said, “Jack, you can get Bob Irsay?” And he said, “Hey my boy! Gimme the phone!” and (snaps fingers) gets Bob Irsay. I will never forget the day when there was all this stuff going on about Artis Gilmore – is he gonna be traded? He goes, “I’m gonna get Arthur Wirtz on.” Not Bill Wirtz. Arthur. And Jack picked up the phone. Jack picked up the phone and got George Halas. It was like, Woo! You know, Vince Lloyd, Lou Boudreau, they’re in the booth. Just, wow.

Jack M Silverstein is an oral historian working in Chicago. His non-fiction novella Our President about Barack Obama's inauguration is available at Amazon. Say hey on Twitter @ReadJack.

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Enjoy this interview? Click here for a longer version as Chuck discusses his early announcing days in Bellevue, WA, his view on whether or not his job makes him a journalist, and his love of the Chicago Bulls.

Check back every Wednesday at Eye on Chi for more of Jack M Silverstein’s People with Passion interviews with Chicago journalists. We're taking a week off in the series. Coming up Wednesday, January 11: Ben Joravsky, Chicago Reader. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:

(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)

December 14, 2011: Sarah Spain, ESPN personality

December 6, 2011: Jon Greenberg, ESPN Chicago, columnist

October 21, 2011: William Lee, Chicago Tribune breaking news crime reporter

November 4, 2011: Elaine Coorens, Our Urban Times founder

November 4, 2011: Andrew Barber, Fake Shore Drive founder

October 21, 2011: Jane Hirt, Chicago Tribune, managing editor

September 19, 2011: Andrew Huff, Gapers Block founder

September 21, 2011: Chris Cascarano, Chicago News Cooperative, video producer

September 30, 2011: Christie Hefner, Playboy, former CEO

September 15, 2011: Alden Loury, Chicago Reporter, publisher

August 17, 2011: Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune, editorial board and columnist

September 13, 2011: Kimbriell Kelly, Chicago Reporter, editor

August 26, 2011: Chuck Sudo, Chicagoist, editor

August 17, 2011: Clayton Hauck, photographer

August 18, 2011: Rick Telander, Chicago Sun-Times, sports columnist

August 15, 2011: Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader, investigative reporter

December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)

August 10, 2011: Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, columnist

August 4, 2011: Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune, columnist

Comments

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  • Onions, baby, onions.

    One thing I could never figure out, after coming back to Chicago, is that if the people were pining about Swirsky and Grobstein being gone, why were they elsewhere, but now both are back.

  • Great piece on Swirsky. Love this whole series, you have some serious talent in doing interviews.

  • Thanks Peter! Appreciate the reads and encouragement.

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