If you’re an older Philadelphia sports fan, you would enjoy talking sports with Bill Werndl.
Werndl’s been there: he was the first ever sports producer at Channel 6, a long time spotter for local and national football broadcasts, a co-host of Eagles pre- and post-game shows on WYSP, and a panelist on several networks. In 30-plus years in Philly, he’s seen a lot of things.
His coming book, No Curveballs, is the story of a life inside the Philly sports scene, covering the city’s best-known names…Chamberlain, Bednarik, Vermeil, Schmidt and Shero to name just a few. In it he shares behind the scenes stories of Philly legends, and his sometimes surprising takes on events in the city’s sports history.
Recently JerseyMan caught up with Werndl (above left) and co-author Joe Vallee (above right) to chat about No Curveballs. If you want to learn more, check out the website www.nocurveballs.com.
What made you decide to write a book?
Bill Werndl: Bill White, Al Meltzer, my wife, my daughter…there were so many people that said, you’ve got a lot of great stories, you’ve had such a diversified career.
I’ve seen it all, and I’ve run into so many great people. I’ve lived the dream for over 50 years.
Your first ever interview was with Wilt Chamberlain?
Bill: This man had just signed the biggest contract in sports history, I think for $250,000 a year. I was nervous, and he could tell, and he put his arm around me and said, “young fella, don’t worry about a thing.” It was a thrill of a lifetime, because I remember listening on the radio as a kid when he scored 100 points. He was very gracious.
There wasn’t a greater basketball player than Wilt. It’s a shame they don’t have more video of him. Jordan was a great player, I’m not disputing that, but Wilt changed the way the game was played!
People who remember Wilt’s departure from Philadelphia might be surprised at what happened.
Joe Vallee: A lot of issues came into play with Wilt. According to the book, Wilt put them in a position where they had to trade him. His father had some health issues, he went to California to smooth things over and apparently a lot changed when he came back.
One of the funniest chapters in the book is the Chuck Bednarik chapter. You asked him to demonstrate the Frank Gifford tackle on you?
Bill: I was in the newsroom at Channel 6, he’s standing there, and I said, ‘Chuck, can you demonstrate that hit on Gifford?’ He gave me a little love tap, a forearm shiver. I was like 155 pounds, and I thought his forearm was going through my chest! He gave me that shot and said ‘that’s how I hit Gifford. And I meant it.’
Chuck was a character. I was bold back then, I’m still bold to a certain extent, but Joe has calmed me down a little bit.
It’s impressive that Dick Vermeil made an appearance for you, given that you managed to tick him off a few times.
Bill: If Tony Dungy is in the Hall of Fame, Dick Vermeil better get into the Hall of Fame. What he accomplished in Philadelphia, with no draft picks and no free agency, this man was a miracle worker, to get that team not only into the playoffs, but to the Super Bowl. He had to build the team, guys off the street, and when they drafted players, they came in like Wilbert Montgomery in the sixth round.
Then he goes to St. Louis, the Greatest Show on Turf. If Vermeil was still there, I think they would have won a couple more Super Bowls.
Vermeil was able to get these guys to work hard and to understand. The practices were rough. Two a day, he was a grinder.
The word intensity cannot be said enough about Vermeil. The man represented what coaching is all about.
You tell a great story about what happened with the USFL. I remember the Stars moving to Baltimore and thinking that there was a problem then. (The Stars moved when the USFL changed their schedule to the fall, at the urging of then-New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump.)
Bill: The league would have lasted if they followed the blueprint they had laid out initially. Like or dislike Donald Trump, he’s obviously a good businessman, but he didn’t understand that you had football in the spring. And TV was looking for programming.
I agree with Ken Dunek. [Editors note: Dunek, JerseyMan Magazine publisher, won two USFL championships with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars.] If the USFL would have been there, it would have been a tremendous alternative to the NFL. Because people can’t get enough football. You can do an NFL draft show on July 4th at 3:00 in the morning, and you’ll light up the phone lines. It’s just amazing. And I loved the USFL.
Joe: They would have given the NFL a run for its money, and I think a lot of people in the NFL were afraid of that. I remember being a young kid going to Stars games, and the Stars were so good, and the Eagles were not. They were ruffling some feathers, and just like that, everything changed.
In your chapter on Dick Allen, you call him the most misunderstood athlete in Philly history.
Bill: Not only misunderstood, but the greatest offensive player I ever saw in a Phillies uniform. That includes Mike Schmidt.
Remember, 1964-65 was a very tumultuous time in the Philadelphia area. And here’s a guy who had to deal with all of this racial unrest. The Phillies sent him down to Little Rock; Frank Lucchesi was his manager. Lucchesi never defended that kid. And that kid needed somebody.
You have some choice words for Hall of Fame voters regarding Dick.
Bill: I’ve talked to Hall of Famers about Dick Allen. To a man, they all say, are you kidding me? I’m in the Hall and Allen’s not? He missed it by one vote one year. One stinking vote.
They tried to say Dick was a cancer. But if you asked Jim Kaat, Goose Gossage, any of those guys, who was the best teammate they ever had? These guys loved him! If he was such a bad guy, why’d these players love him so much?
Joe: He had a long memory, as Stan Hochman discusses in the book. Stan talked about the clothes he wore when they called him up in 1963. 18 years later, Dick remembered exactly what Stan wrote about him. Stan didn’t mean it; he wasn’t malicious that way. I think Dick was sensitive and took it the wrong way, but then again I’m not him.
There’s a revelation in the book about Pete Rose. You offer up more, if not evidence, certainly eyewitness accounts that he was probably gambling as a player even in Philly. You had an opportunity to break one of the biggest scandals in baseball history.
Bill: I remember driving down with Bill White to Baltimore in June of 1987. I said, ‘Bill, I have a funny feeling that there’s a player in baseball that’s gonna get in a lot of trouble.’ He says, ‘Who’s that?’ I said, ‘Pete Rose.’
White became the National League President in January of 1989, and I called to congratulate him. He said ‘Bill, how’d you know about Pete Rose? I’ve got 12 volumes of evidence on my desk!’
I just saw the types of people he was associating with in the Phillies’ clubhouse.
Joe: There were rumblings throughout the 70s that Pete was fraternizing with undesirables. But it was swept under the rug. He was always great with quotes, he took the heat off of Mike Schmidt…and then hmmm, all of a sudden this pay phone is missing from the Veterans Stadium clubhouse.
Bill: Stan Hochman says that very eloquently in the book. We dropped the ball.
You are generally kind to athletes and media types, until the Howard Cosell chapter. I won’t say what he did at the one Eagles game in the magazine, but that story is incredible!
Bill: It was on the south side of Franklin Field. A cold November night, it was a bitterly cold game. That was the game where Howard supposedly had the flu. I was in the box when they set up for him to get out of there, because he was drunk as a skunk.
He tried to find a bathroom, there was an auxiliary bathroom there. And he missed the toilet, and it was so cold, people didn’t know what was coming down. He thought he was in the bathroom.
Cosell was always looking for something outside the box to ruffle feathers. Monday Night Football, at the water cooler, you could always remember what Howard said on Monday night.
Like or dislike Cosell, there’s nobody like that anymore. Everybody is afraid of their credentials being pulled, afraid of this and that. I do miss guys that come out and are opinionated.
I got the impression reading the book that it’s impossible to do what you do, to be in sports reporting, and not ruffle feathers from time to time. You seem to accept responsibility for that.
Bill: We all make mistakes. That’s why we have erasers on pencils.
What would you say is your proudest moment throughout the years?
Bill: The thing that makes me so gratified is that so many people have helped me along the way. The people in the business, the Bill Whites, the Merrill Reeses, Ron Franklin, on and on. The relationships I’ve built with so many great people over the years, that’s the proudest moment for me.
That may not answer your question, but that’s what makes it very, very special. The greatest moment, I think, is when people take time to help you.