Tuesday, October 17, 2006

"Teddy Ballgame" A Softy After All, Diles Says

(reprinted from my senior blog, Out of Bounds)

He had never told it to anyone, at anytime, except to his family. Nobody but Dave Diles’ loved ones knew about his friendship with Ted Williams. Just the way Williams preferred it. For it turns out that Teddy Ballgame wasn’t always the irascible, pugnacious sort after all. And Williams couldn’t have folks possibly know that.

Diles, 75 last Saturday, was as much Detroit sports television as snow is winter. From the early-1960’s until the late-1970’s, Diles casted sports during the six o’clock and 11 o’clock shows, hosted a radio show, did some freelance TV shows, and, perhaps most famously, flew to New York on weekends to work for ABC, most notably during the college football season as host of the halftime and postgame scoreboard shows.

“I never lived in New York. Let’s get that straight,” Diles said, correcting me when I asked him how long he’d lived in the Big Apple. “I commuted every weekend, about ten months out of the year,” he said on the telephone from his home near Athens, Ohio.

Well, it sure seemed like Diles lived in New York, because I remember him on ABC almost as much as, if not more so, than watching him on WXYZ-TV channel 7. Diles was happy to discuss a career that was fulfilling, if not one that rose to superstar status (“I was no Keith Jackson or Howard Cosell,” Diles says), while we chatted the other day for a nostalgic piece for Motor City Sports Magazine.

There were good friends, for one. And one of those was the iconic Williams.

“I first met him when he was nearing the end of his career with the (Boston) Red Sox,” Diles told me. “I was leaning on a bat near the batting cage in spring training. And here comes Williams. He kicks the bat out from me, and I fell onto my ass. I looked up and he was grinning and razzing me about something (Red Sox manager) Mike Higgins had supposedly said about me. “We kind of struck up a relationship, then it became a friendship.”

Back in those days, newspapers were smitten about homerun hitters. The papers and their art departments had a fetish for publishing wide shots of the ballpark the day after a big homerun. The flight of the longball was drawn onto the photo with an elliptical black line with an arrow at the end. And always, the estimated distance was superimposed, too.

“Ted used to love playing in Detroit,” Diles said. “The hitting background was great, and there was the upper deck in rightfield. He used to call Briggs (later Tiger) Stadium his favorite ballpark, outside of Boston.”

It was then that Diles, who was a young AP reporter at the time, began a sort of routine.

“So when Teddy would hit one out, and the papers in Detroit created one of those photos, I’d have them make an extra one,” he recalled. “And I’d take it to the ballpark and put it in [Williams’] locker. I’d see him on the field during batting practice and I’d say, ‘I put something in your locker.’ He liked that. He liked me. And I liked him.”

“If you ever f***ing tell anyone that I was here, I’ll never f***ing talk to you ever again, you hear me?”

But, Diles said, there was a soft side of Williams that the Hall of Fame slugger was very careful to keep from the public eye.

“One time I was scheduled to visit some sick kids over at Detroit Osteopathic Hospital, and Williams came along. He and I talked to the kids, and he was great with them. “On the way out of the hospital, he said, ‘If you ever f***ing tell anyone that I was here, I’ll never f***ing talk to you ever again, you hear me?’” And Diles never did, until the very moment he let his caller in on the secret.

“I had the good fortune of being invited to his home in Florida after he retired,” Diles said. “And when I retired, we kept in touch, usually by telephone. It was quite a friendship. And I never told anyone about it, other than my family, until this very second.”

Regarding his time in Detroit, Diles spoke of violations of code when it came to former Lions player and coach Joe Schmidt.

“I know that you’re never supposed to become friends with those whose careers you are chronicling, either in print or on the air,” Diles said, “but I violated that code when it came to Joe Schmidt. I found him to be wonderful. I had a very special relationship with him.”

But at the top of his list as far as professional relationships go, was #9 himself, Gordie Howe. “I think God broke the mold when He made Gordie. He was always good for a quote, and he was always accessible. If I asked him to do a charity event, his only question was, ‘When do you want me to be there?’”

Diles quit channel 7 in 1972 over a dispute with management. Already bogged down with his ABC work and the radio shows, Diles asked out of doing the 11 p.m. newscast. But management, citing the increased ratings at 11 versus other times, wouldn’t allow it. So he quit, but only after being assured that his not working for channel 7 wouldn’t affect his status with ABC. He returned to channel 7 in 1979. Diles’ replacement at channel 7 was an ascerbic, snarling man named Al Ackerman. And that hiring also contributed to Diles’ crankiness with WXYZ.

“I was the sports director [at channel 7], and I thought it was underhanded that they should bring in someone (Ackerman) without consulting me first. I had wanted Larry Adderly to do the 11 o’clock show, but of course they wouldn’t let me out of it. But then they hired Al, who I never really respected professionally. I thought he was just about shtick. I had no relationship with him personally. So shortly after Al replaced me, I walked into the station manager’s office, and I quit.”

Diles will be inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame on October 30, at a gala dinner at Cobo Hall. He’ll go in, along with other inductees who include Tigers pitcher Frank Tanana; MSU football star Sonny Grandelius; Pistons GM Jack McCloskey; Red Wings vice president Jimmy Devellano; and NBA forwards Dan Majerle and Greg Kelser.

Of turning 75, Diles said, “Bet you didn’t think I’d make it, did you?”

Not only did he make it, he sounds fit enough to eventually have 75 way back in his rearview mirror.

He’s not ready to re-join his friend Ted Williams just yet.


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