Boxing was a Springboard for Legendary Sportscaster Dick Enberg

Name the sport and Dick Enberg likely covered it. Perhaps best known nationally as an announcer of NFL games (he called eight Super Bowls), Enberg also did baseball, basketball, tennis, golf, horse racing, you name it. Why he even covered gymnastics, his sport-du-jour at two Olympiads.

Enberg’s last steady gig was as the play-by-play announcer for the San Diego Padres. He loved baseball. “It’s been in my DNA since I was in diapers,” he said. Working for the Padres allowed him to spend more time at his home in the seaside village of La Jolla, a San Diego suburb.

As a sportscaster Enberg adhered to one rule above all: the game is the story, not the announcer; don’t be intrusive. To those of us tuning in, he was as comfortable as a well-worn pair of bedroom slippers.

Dick Enberg died at his home of an apparent heart attack on Thursday, Dec. 21, at age eighty-two. In the wake of his death, there’s been an outpouring of appreciation. Some of the obits noted that his resume also included boxing, but none noted that boxing was his ticket to the big time.

Enberg spent most of his formative years on a farm in Michigan. There were 33 people in his high school graduation class. He majored in physical education at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant where he had first taste of “media.” A job sweeping floors at a local radio station led to a position as a weekend disc jockey.

From there Enberg went on to graduate school at the University of Indiana, earning both masters and doctorate degrees in health sciences. During his time there, a radio network was formed around Hoosier sports and Enberg did some play-by-play, earning $35 per game.

A practical man, Enberg never envisioned back then that broadcasting would be anything more than a sideline. The quiet life of a teacher awaited him when he finished his studies and Enberg was okay with that.

Enberg applied for a full-time job as an instructor at IU, but was told that he was too green. As luck would have it, there was an opening for a health science teacher at San Fernando Valley State College, now Cal State-Northridge. There he continued to do play-by-play work for the school’s athletic teams.

Los Angelenos were slow to embrace professional sports. All that changed when the Dodgers arrived in 1958. The team from Brooklyn uplifted all boats although boxing lagged behind.

There were some outstanding sportscasters in Los Angeles back in those days but there just weren’t enough of them. The problem became more acute in 1964 when Gene Autry purchased KTLA-TV Channel 5 and began devoting more air time to live sporting events. A former rodeo performer, Autry earned his fortune in television and movies as America’s singing cowboy. (Young folks know him for his signature recordings “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” which are dusted off each year for the holidays.)

Beginning in May of 1965, KTLA initiated a series of boxing shows from the Olympic Auditorium. The budget didn’t allow for a big name anchorperson. Dick Enberg got the call.

During Enberg’s three-and-a-half year run, “Boxing from the Olympic” became one of the station’s highest rated programs. He branched out during these years, becoming the voice of UCLA basketball and the play-by-play man for Autry’s California Angels baseball team. Then NBC swept him away with a contract that required exclusivity.

One of Enberg’s strengths as a broadcaster was that he was always well prepared. At the Olympic, the notes provided by his producer were insufficient. He felt the need to delve further and that meant periodically hanging out at the Main Street Gym at Third and Figueroa on the fringe of Skid Row where he could chat with the boxers and their handlers and pick up tidbits for the next show.

Although Enberg’s career took flight at the Olympic Auditorium, not all of his memories were happy ones. The driving force behind boxing at the Olympic was Aileen Eaton. A widow twice over, Eaton was an overbearing woman, a tough old broad in the argot of the fight mob. “She had me in tears more than once,” Enberg told LA Times writer Larry Stewart. “Always yelling in my earplug to read a promo or build up an upcoming fight or something. She was some lady.”

NBC covered boxing sporadically during Enberg’s 25-year stint with the network. In the late 1970s, NBC began a series of Sunday afternoon shows under the “Sports World” rubric. For these shows, Enberg needed to keep his passport handy. Among the bouts he called from ringside were the May 24, 1976 match between Muhammad Ali and Richard Dunn in Munich, Germany, and the June 23, 1979 match in Monte Carlo between Gerrie Coetzee and Leon Spinks. The following year NBC initiated a series of Friday Night fights. The ice-breaker, staged in Las Vegas on July 22, 1980, was a match between super bantamweight title-holder Wilfredo Gomez and Derrik Holmes.

Enberg’s most frequent broadcasting partner at NBC was Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, but at various times he was also joined by Marv Albert, Larry Merchant, and Joe Garagiola, not to mention a revolving cast of retired and active fighters, including Sugar Ray Leonard, Ken Norton, and Mando Ramos.

In 1980, talking with a group of reporters, Enberg waxed philosophical on the nature of boxing: “For sheer athletic competition, I’m convinced boxing is unique in all of sports,” he said. “The concept of two men standing alone in that ring with no optional time-outs, no substitutions, no protective equipment as we know it and literally meeting in hand-to-hand combat until one falls, is something to ponder…It’s pure drama and nothing can quite match it.”

Dick Enberg was no stranger to great drama and he enhanced it in his own understated way. The sports world will miss him. I miss him already.

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