What a rotten week. Aside from losing comedian Gary Shandling on Thursday, we lost three celebrities with sports connections.
The first was baseball-player-turned-legendary-broadcaster Joe Garagiola, who died Wednesday at the age of 90. For those who grew up in the 1970s, Garagiola was the voice of baseball, calling play by play on NBC's Game of the Week. And, in those days, it was truly a game of the week. Unlike today with several cable outlets broadcasting games nationally throughout the week, NBC showed the lone national game of the week, usually on Saturday afternoons. (ABC later carried Monday Night Baseball from 1976 to 1988.)
The interesting part about Garagiola is he is one of the rare cases of a player who became a play-by-play man, as opposed to former athletes who typically work in an analyst role. Pat Summerall, Frank Gifford and, going way back, Dizzy Dean are among the most famous former athletes who became play-by-play announcers. For my money, Garagiola and Summerall were so good that they rank up there with any traditional play-by-play announcer.
Oh, one other note about Garagiola. Many know he hosted the Today show and his work on the Westminster Dog Show was the inspiration for Fred Willard's wacky character in the comedy Best in Show. However, Garagiola also filled in as host on The Tonight Show on what turned out be a historic show. Garagiola conducted a rather awkward interview with then-Beatles Paul McCartney and John Lennon in May of 1968. The two were there to promote the start of their new company, Apple Corps. The show also featured what was thought to be the last TV appearance of a possibly slightly drunk actor, Tallulah Bankhead. She died later that year.
Meantime, also on Wednesday, actor Ken Howard died at age 71. A long-time film and television actor, Howard is best known by sports fans as coach Ken Reeves from the TV show The White Shadow. The show was about a white former NBA player coaching a mostly black team in south central Los Angeles. The show consisted of 54 episodes on CBS from 1978 to 1981. Bruce Paltrow, the father actor Gwyneth Paltrow, was the executive producer and one of the show's writers was Steven Bochco, who went on create such shows as Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and L.A. Law.
Originally, the network wanted it to be a half-hour comedy, sort of like Welcome Back, Kotter, but Howard and Paltrow fought to make it a 60-minute drama about teen and race issues with just a little comedy mixed in.
Finally, on Friday, Earl Hamner died at age 92. He was best known for his novel, Spencer's Mountain, a semi-autography which became the basis for the popular TV show, The Waltons. He was, essentially, John Boy and he narrated the popular CBS show, which ran from 1972 to 1981.
But he had a big sports connection, too. Well, indirectly. Hamner wrote the made-for-TV movie Heidi, which made its debut on NBC on Nov. 17, 1968. The movie pre-empted the end of the AFL game between the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets. When NBC cut off the game to go to Heidi at 7 p.m., the Jets led the Raiders, 32-29, with 1:01 left. But the Raiders scored two touchdowns in the final minute for a wild 43-32 victory that no one in the country saw.
Because of that incident, the networks changed its policy that all games will be final before switching to regularly-scheduled programming.