A Couple Of Old(ish) Pros Who Both Love Whitefish

I’m sure Whitefish, Montana is absolutely beautiful at certain times of the year, although I strongly suspect this isn’t the ideal tourism season.  I do love small towns in the Northwest, but this is one that perhaps is a bit lower on my list of priorities for future travel, assuming I even get to that point again in this lifetime.

I also am pretty sure the town doesn’t have many residents with as many interesting stories and a history of big-city importance than the guy who is currently the PA announcer for their beloved Glacier Range Riders, who finished the 2023 Pioneer League season in second place overall a mere 12 1/2 games behind their arch-rival Missoula PaddleHeads but didn’t even qualify for their playoffs.

But at least for Tony Hernandez, he’s got the memory of covering, let alone attending, a few World Series, a couple of Super Bowls and even a couple of championships of the Showtime Era Los Angeles Lakers.  Does he remember WINNING TIMES?  He was a part of it.  And a lot more.

And in his autobiography, ALWAYS TURN DOWN THE FIRST OFFER: MEMOIRS OF A SPORTSCASTER”, he brings you right into that long-ago, wide-eyed world of a guy who couldn’t quite make it as a Pioneer League player but was more than major league with a microphone.  As he related to Julie Engler of his hometown WHITEFISH PILOT, he’s kind of come full circle, with a 36-year stint in the middle with some truly impressive credentials.

He played baseball for four years at San Jose State and was called to play in the Chicago Cubs’ rookie league. Hernandez played second base for the Pioneer League team in Caldwell, Idaho, in 1967.

“I didn’t really have the tools to be a major league baseball player,” Hernandez said. “The fact I got to play for one year and call myself a professional and have Phil K. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate who then owned the Chicago Cubs, sign my paychecks — that was a fabulous thrill.”

Not long after that was when I first became familiar with Hernandez.   My family was loyal to Channel 2 News in New York; we LOVED the 10 PM dramas like MEDICAL CENTER and, on perhaps the greatest night of network television ever created, the Saturday night CBS prime time lineup of the early 70s, THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW.  There was no SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE to beckon us to change the channel, and in an era before remote controls we were too damn lazy to get up, anyhow.  My mom soon began to notice the presence of a good-looking new young sportscaster with, as she put it, a “Jew-fro”.  She was convinced Tony Hernandez was an MOT.  He’s not, for the record, but he was indeed an up-and-coming talent, and clearly appealed to housewives 18-49.  A fact not lost on game show executives, either.

During his ride at WCBS-TV, Tony got a chance to be part of a daytime lineup that at the time would have included Bob Barker, Gene Rayburn and Wink Martindale.  He hosted two different attempts at a format called TAKE 5, the brainchild of a one-time Goodson-Todman executive named Chester Feldman which taped at the very same Ed Sullivan Theatre that is now the home to Stephen Colbert.  His announcer was none other than Don Pardo, on a rare hiatus from NBC just before his own star took off on SNL.   Thanks to fellow obsessives who love turning up what they perceive to be diamonds in the rough, one of those pilots is readily available on YouTube.  It’s a stark reminder of how simplistic and behind the times New York productions of the era were compared to their more technlogically progressive Los Angeles counterparts; the end game that involved Tony having to stand in for the contestant as they tried to identify correct answers from a list of possible choices while he furiously tried to keep pace by moving art cards with failing magnets from one board to another against a ticking clock is downright hilarious.  Here, watch for yourself.

He did get an on-air gig not long after he left Channel 2 as the replacement for Mets announcer Bob Murphy on their flagship station’s 7 PM “franchise”, BOWLING FOR DOLLARS.  Mom, an avid bowler herself despite the fact she could barely roll a ball down the alley, took notice.  “It’s that Jew-fro guy!”  Sadly, by the time he got his chance, ratings for that iteration were declining.  By the time it returned, Tony was elsewhere and, as it turned out, we both wound up in California.

For decades, Tony was on air at several Los Angeles stations.  He even was briefly doing play-by-play for the Los Angeles Dodgers on their pay TV home games on Z Channel, side-by-side with the guy who was relegated to radio and over-the-air TV.  You might have heard of Vin Scully,  We both knew the same general managers, news directors and top executives.  Colorful characters, some even reputable.  One of them even tried to make me into a sportscaster.   I was surreptiously auditioned on a whim amidst a whispering newsroom–why is the chubby executive squinting into the prompter? (Dry contact lenses, if you must know).  Somehow, I actually was offered an on-air opportunity, but it would have been a 50 per cent pay cut at the time.  This greedy young kid passed.   So Tony, I suspect you dodged a bullet.

Tony did get a chance to further his own career and to satisfy the acting chops he honed during his New York days, as he related to Engler:

He recalls a phone call he received when he was at work at KABC-TV, from someone in the film industry. The man on the phone asked if he’d like to be in the movie, Rocky III. Hernandez leapt at the chance. “We’re gonna give you 300 bucks, we want you to play a sportscaster. To be in the movie you have to join the Screen Actors Guild,” Hernandez recalled the man saying. It was incredible just to be on that set and watch how everything works. And to be on camera working with Mr. T,” he said with enthusiasm. “It was just unbelievable.

“I still get residual checks. Anywhere Rocky III plays in the world, I get a check,” Hernandez added. “It’s not big dollars but I’ve been getting these checks since 1982, so that’s four decades of lunch money.”

As someone who greatly envies proud card-carrying SAG members, more power to you, sir.

So while occasional work in the 162nd largest DMA may be a comedown in market size for someone who once was a regular in four of the Top 5, as a lifestyle, especially with his lovely wife of more than 40 years Dale and other family members close by, Hernandez seems more than content with living a town called Whitefish rather than working in cities that serve it up chopped with mayo and cucumber on a toasted bagel.  As he concluded to Engler:

I love the beauty here, the people here, the lifestyle here. I know it’s changing but I still love it,” Hernandez said. “I can’t think of a better place to be in my life right now.”

Hmm.  Maybe I should move Whitefish up on my to-do list.  Especially during Pioneer League season.  I’m sure there’s plenty more stories he and I could swap.

For the rest of you, why not start by reading more of his?  Like almost anything else, it’s available on Amazon, and you probably already have more than enough earned points where it won’t set you back a whole lot.

Tell him I sent you.  Enjoy it.  And then, as always, you’d best remember to Take 5.

Until next time…


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