Remembering Nat Allbright – I don’t particularly care to write obituaries about notable boxing figures because I hate to see the sport’s legends depart this mortal coil, even if it is to begin their journey to what we all would like to hope is a better place. The last such piece I authored for The Sweet Science was posted on March 8 and celebrated the life and times of Hall of Fame trainer Lou Duva, who was 94 when he passed away and was affectionately, if mournfully, dubbed the “Yogi Berra of boxing” by promoter and former HBO executive Lou DiBella.
But sometimes the Grim Reaper slips in and out of a side door I wasn’t watching closely enough, taking with him another iconic personality with ties to the fight game who deserved a proper tribute. But late recognition is preferable to never getting it at all, so I take this occasion to tell TSS readers the remarkable true story of Nat Allbright, who was 87 when he left us on July 18, 2011, an earthly exit I surely would have commemorated had I been aware of it. Oh, sure, Mr. Allbright – a sports re-creator – wasn’t exactly what you’d call a boxing legend, certainly not on the level of, say, the irascible Duva. In fact, he only occasionally lent his vocal talents to the fantasy fulfillment of lovers of the pugilistic arts. But what he did was unique, and to the many satisfied customers he served, he was Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy rolled into one.
You say you used to daydream about putting Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson down for the count? Of miraculously shedding 50 or 75 or 100 pounds of unwanted flab to become a youthful, hard-bodied welterweight capable of taking it to Sugar Ray Robinson or Sugar Ray Leonard? Nat Allbright could make it happen, and inexpensively as well.
And if the ring wasn’t your thing, Allbright could personalize your fantasy to fit whomever and whatever you chose to be. Short guys with no hops could know the thrill of lighting up Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals, of smacking a couple of home runs or pitching a no-hitter in Game 7 of the World Series, of catching a pass (or throwing it) for the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. You could also hole out from the rough to win the Masters, score a hat trick to lead your favorite team to the Stanley Cup title, win the decathlon at the Olympics. Anything, really, your mind might envision, he could turn into sort-of reality.
A former radio re-creator of Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers games from 1951 to ’62, Allbright was hired by the team because the Dodgers and a number of other MLB franchises refrained from live broadcasts of out-of-town games as a cost-cutting measure. So while fans in the Brooklyn and L.A. areas could hear the dulcet tones of Red Barber and, a bit later on, Vin Scully, those in other parts of the country heard Allbright giving play-by-play accounts of games which he didn’t actually see, taking bare-bones telegraph messages transmitted by Morse code and embellishing them with imagination and sound effects. It was a fairly standard practice that predated Allbright; before he went into acting and politics, Ronald Reagan re-created Chicago Cubs games for a station in Des Moines, Iowa. Almost a half-century later, then-President Reagan said what he learned from his time as a baseball re-creator was that “the truth can be attractively packaged.”
But the future Gipper was a comparative novice when measured against Allbright, who called 1,500 games so well that most of his listeners – by 1953 there were 117 radio outlets from Cleveland to Miami Beach carrying the broadcasts — never knew he was basically winging it, and blindly at that. To help himself prepare for an upcoming season, he would travel to the Dodgers’ spring training base in Vero Beach, Fla., for a month, where he interviewed players and learned their quirks and mannerisms, the better to envision what they might actually be doing in the batter’s box, on the mound, in the field or on the base paths.
By 1962, however, Allbright was tiring of the gig he had done so well for so long, and, truth be told, it was a profession that was becoming increasingly obsolete. For Allbright, who lived in Arlington, Va., West Coast games began at 11 p.m. East Coast time, meaning he’d often be up to 2 a.m. and sometimes later. With his audience shrinking and the physical toll on him increasing – in addition to his broadcasting work, he and his wife Angela operated an advertising agency for many years, and Allbright also worked for a time as a car salesman – he decided the prudent thing to do was to step away from the microphone.
After two decades of semi-retirement, however, Allbright was ready to again put his gift for gab to good use. In 1983 he launched Fantasy Personalized Sports Tapes, through which he would tailor half-hour broadcasts that put his customers smack dab in the middle of the action for a modest fee of $40. The orders poured in pretty fast, too, after he had the good fortune to be featured in Sport magazine and on ABC World News Tonight.
“I was doing five a day, six days a week,” Albright told me in November 1998 for a story that appeared in my newspaper, the Philadelphia Daily News. “I’ve probably done 6,000 to 8,000 of them by now. But I have only one voice, and it takes an hour to record each tape. It’s not like I have an inventory and send them out in bulk.”
Obviously, the questions I posed to him dealt with that portion of his business that dealt with boxing. What were some of the scenarios fight fans wanted him to commit to audio?
“A lot of people tell me they want to knock out Tyson,” Allbright said. “He’s the most frequently mentioned fighter. After Tyson, the next ones, I guess, would be Evander Holyfield and Oscar De La Hoya. And I still get a lot of requests for Muhammad Ali, believe it or not.”
Allbright said he received a lot of reorders from satisfied customers, who presumably wanted to update their sports fantasies, “and if I put information about my service on the Internet, I’d probably be swamped again.”
Anything unusual about the boxing fantasies he received?
“Some of the people want Tyson to try to bite their ears,” Allbright said, “but they tell me to make sure they knock him out before he gets the chance.”
Even after Allbright hiked the price of his tapes to $60, he remained one of the sports world’s best bargains. In 2003, Bruce Silverglade, proprietor of the famous Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, began an enterprise he called “Fantasy Boxing Camp,” in response to the fantasy baseball camps popping up all over in which wannabe players with dubious hand-eye coordination could, for fees of $2,000 and up, embarrass themselves by allowing soft ground balls to roll between their legs or to whiff on lobbed batting-practice pitches.
Silverglade’s venture brought together 50 or so well-heeled Rocky Balboas who ponied up $2,400 apiece for 3½ days of roadwork, gym workouts and low-intensity sparring (with headgear and large pillow gloves) alongside real legends of the ring at Kutsher’s Country Club in the Catskill Mountains. Camp counselors for the inaugural event included Emile Griffith, Carlos Ortiz, Mark Breland, Gerry Cooney, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Joey Gamache and Zab Judah.
“I still can’t believe how costly it is to put this together,” Silverglade, who will host the 15th annual camp Aug. 10-13 at Honors Haven, also in the Catskills, said in 2003. “It’s not cheap to bring in all these real fighters, to pay them and for their room and board. I also have to rent all the equipment, which includes two rings. There’s printing and postage to get the word out. It adds up. Plus, we’ll have doctors and an EMS team up there, just in case.”
At $60 per tape, a fight fan getting his (or her) jollies from Allbright could have flattened 40 all-time greats in the arena of the mind for the price of attending Silverglade’s first camp (which is now down to $1,799). It’s too late now, but I kind of wish I had submitted an order. My fantasy, in addition to my spectacular, crowd-pleasing knockout of a Hall of Famer of my choosing in the Superdome (New Orleans is my hometown, after all), would have called for a Mayweather-sized purse of $200 million.
Hey, it doesn’t cost anything to dream.
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