The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

July 18, 2009

Cronkite learned from OU football

By Bruce Campbell, Commentary

Who would have thought the young man doing University of Oklahoma football games over WKY Radio in 1937 in Oklahoma City would become the icon of broadcast journalism.

The lessons Walter Cronkite learned doing the Sooner games would serve him well in career in which he would earn the title “the most trusted man in America.’’

Cronkite, in his biography “A Reporter’s Life’’ told of his disastrous first broadcast as the OU play-by-play man — a game at Tulsa.

He had an electronic board where spotters would press buttons to light the bulbs that would indicate who carried the ball and who made the tackle. He said he felt doing live games would be no different from the recreated ones he did on radio in Kansas City.

“The broadcast was a disaster,’’ he wrote. “My spotters weren’t worth a darn and the electronic board was worthless. I was trying to get the numbers off the jerseys as the plays progressed, refer to the program and finally deliver some sort of report on the play, which by then had unfolded some minutes before.

“The cheer for the play had long since died down and were being succeeded by the cheers for the next play before I had identified the players in the first one. I was hopelessly behind.’’

His boss, Gayle Grubb, told him after the game he would want to see him in his office the first thing Monday morning. Grubb called him early Monday to say Edward Gaylord, the station owner, wanted to see them at 8:30 a.m.

Gaylord, to Cronkite’s surprise, told him he thought the broadcast was good.

“A few little things I know you’re going to fix up, but I just wanted you to know that we liked it around here.’’

He fixed those little things by learning the names, numbers, positions, hometown, weight, height and record of every player on both teams. Perry Ward, his color man, volunteered to be his spotter.

Ward and Cronkite on Thursdays and Fridays would drill each other. The rest of the season went much better because of his preparation.

“I had learned a lesson that would prove highly valuable as the years went on. Never again would I be caught without having done whatever research was possible for whatever it was I was going to cover.’’

The only problem he would have for the rest of the season was when he tried to do a game at Nebraska in a snowstorm in a booth so far from the action it would be difficult to follow on a good day with binoculars.

He thought he might have to try the imagination he used in recreating games when the wires went down. His engineer tapped Cronkite into the coaches’ telephone circuit on the sidelines.

“The assistant coach’s dry recitation of the events on the field did require a little of the old telegraphed-report buildup, but I never heard any complaints.’’

Cronkite’s audition for the job, he wrote was doing an imaginary game for five minutes. WKY officials asked him what he wanted. He asked for $75 a week, triple his salary at United Press International.

“I was dumbfounded when they agreed on the spot — dumbfounded that I was dumb in more ways than founded. Clearly I should have asked for more.’’

Cronkite, in a 1974 article in an OU game program, said he remained a Sooner fan even though he went to the University of Texas. Cronkite would leave soon after the season. He said his heart was still with print at the time. The Sooners were 5-2-2 that season. Like Cronkite, they would go on to bigger and better things.

Campbell is a News & Eagle sports writer.