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Les Grobstein knows the score

It ain't easy being the world's biggest sports fan.

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Les Grobstein's sitting in a booth at the back of a fast-food joint on the northwest side, a hot dog in his hand and fries on his plate--too busy talking to eat. He's telling a story about the last days of WMVP, an all-sports station he once worked for, but he can't quite get to his point because every detail sends him off on a tangent. It's not enough to mention the station director's name. Grobstein has to say where he came from, where he's working now, and how he spells his name--no detail's too small to be forgotten, no triviality too obscure to go unmentioned.

He checks the time. It's after five. He has places to get to. "I better wind it up," he says. Then he picks up right where he left off.

To listeners who remember radio in the 70s and 80s, Grobstein remains "the Grobber," the gullible straight man with the phenomenal memory and creaky voice, mercilessly lampooned by Larry Lujack, Steve Dahl, and other WLS jocks for knowing and caring way too much about sports. Many of those DJs have moved on, but Grobstein remains, living his dream as the overnight host on the all-sports station WSCR. Why did he outlast them? Maybe because he's more like most Chicago sports fans than any of us likes to admit.

The first game Grobstein ever saw was the Cubs versus the Phillies at Wrigley Field back in 1959, when he was seven: "Art Mahaffey was the winning pitcher. He beat Glen Hobbie. The Cubs trailed the entire game--they never led, not once. I remember it was a perfect day, sunny. We were sitting in the box seats on the third-base side. I went with my grandfather, Albert Goldstein--he just passed away in June 1996, right after the Bulls won their fourth championship. The Phillies won six to three.

"It was another year before I got to go again. The [Cubs] got shut out by Milwaukee, three to nothing. In 1960 I finally saw them win. Somebody--I don't remember who--hit a sacrifice fly, and Ernie Banks scored the winning run in the bottom of the seventh."

By then he was hooked on all sports, not just the Cubs. His parents--his father, Edward, was a furrier, his mother, Elaine, a housewife--had little interest in the games, so he went with his grandfather or listened to the radio. "Jack Brickhouse, Lou Boudreau, Vince Lloyd, Bob Elson, Lloyd Pettit, Jack Quinlan--I loved all those announcers. They were my heroes. I was heartbroken when Quinlan was killed in a car crash, which happened, by the way, on the same weekend as my bar mitzvah."

Grobstein never played much as a kid, and he was always picked last for a team. "I was never very good. I always ended up batting last and playing right field. If a lefty came up, they would switch me to left--at my suggestion." But by the time he was ten he was impressing his friends with his memory. He knew not only the starting lineup of every team in every sport but the players' ages, hometowns, and key statistics. It didn't matter that every year he had a whole new batch of names and numbers to learn--his brain capacity seemed to be forever expanding.

"He had phenomenal retention, even as a kid," says Paul Vladem, a CPA in Florida who grew up with Grobstein in Peterson Park, a middle-class neighborhood on the far northwest side. "He would go to the games with a little tape recorder and do his own play-by-play. He always kept score--he still does. And he keeps those scorecards. He has hundreds and hundreds of scorecards. He made special tapes for his friends--we called them the Grobbo tapes--which were updates on what was going on in sports."

It's hard for Grobstein, who's not an introspective sort of guy, to explain his obsessions, but he rejects the stereotypical explanations. He wasn't, for instance, a lonely kid who turned to sports because he had no friends. "I had a lot of friends." Sports wasn't his fantasy world. "I knew I'd never make the pros." He didn't need victories to drive any gloom away. He did want the home teams to win, "but I never cried when they lost. And believe me, they lost a lot." And he never used his knowledge of sports to impress girls. "Not that it would have worked." It was just something he was good at, something that came easy, something he craved, something he loved. "I don't think it's such a big deal about my memory. I don't think I'm different than anyone else."

His friends and family thought he might grow out of his obsession, but it grew more intense as he moved on to Von Steuben High School. His friends used to kid him: with your brains you could be Einstein--you could discover a cure for cancer. But he was a lousy student. "I was bored with all the stuff we had to take. I hated it. I was probably the worst student in the whole school. I used to tell people my course book was the same color as the Bulls' road uniforms--and not the new black ones, which really suck, but the red ones!

"Everybody in high school ditched school for opening day at Wrigley. The difference was that I would ditch for the second game, and third game, and so on. By 1970 most of the guys at Wrigley knew me. They let me sit on the ramps all by myself with the WGN camera guy. We'd just BS between innings. We kept a CTA scoreboard--every time a red-line train or an Evanston express went by we kept track of that. It was stupid, but it was funny.

"I went to the old Chicago Stadium all the time. I'd take the Devon bus to Loyola, ride the Howard el to Washington, take the Lake Street train to Ashland, and walk to the stadium. In those days I didn't have credentials. I got friendly with season-ticket holders who would sell me first-row seats on the blue line for face value."

Grobstein was "into public transportation. I used to ride every stretch of the el, even in supposed rough neighborhoods. I used to take the Howard-Englewood-Jackson Park line down to Stony Island and 63rd or over to Loomis and 63rd just for the hell of it. Because I had nothing better to do, because I liked to ride the trains and look out the window at the city."

And he was into AM radio. "I was always listening to the radio--always. I can tell you what was popular on the radio at almost any time in my life. For instance, when the Blackhawks lost the Stanley Cup finals in 1971 the big hit was 'Joy to the World' by Three Dog Night. And when the Cubs got knocked out in '84 by San Diego everybody was playing the theme from Ghostbusters, only the Padres changed it to 'Cub Busters,' and every Cub fan who lived in California--and don't kid yourself, there are tons of them--got pissed off. And everyone was playing 'We Are Family' by Sister Sledge when the Pirates beat the Orioles in the World Series of 1979. By the way, [former Bulls star] Reggie Theus used to date one of the singers from Sister Sledge. True story."

Grobstein graduated from high school in 1969, when the counterculture was in full swing. "But I wanted no part of that stuff. I was a conservative Democrat. I hated the hippies almost as much as I hated Richard Nixon, because the hippies helped Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey, who I loved almost as much as I loved Mayor Daley. And I mean the first Mayor Daley, the real Mayor Daley--who was the best mayor any city ever had 'cause he could get things done!

"I was straight, very straight. And if some people don't like it, if they don't think that's very cool, well, they can kiss my ass. I wouldn't smoke pot. I never smoked pot. If I was driving in my car and a friend pulled out a joint--and it happened, I won't kid you--I'd screech on the breaks and kick him out. 'Get out, now!' I was anti-antiwar protestor. I wanted the war to end, but I was pissed off for the people who had to fight it." He avoided the war because he had a student deferment and then a high draft number. "I was number 343--it would have taken an all-out nuclear war to get me in."

After high school Grobstein took classes in radio broadcasting at Columbia College and went to games--football, basketball, hockey, baseball--sometimes two or three a day. "I'd see them all--Bears, Cubs, Sox, Bulls, Blackhawks. I'd see college teams-- DePaul, Loyola, Northwestern. And high school--I used to broadcast high school games for small suburban stations."

He had little need for money, since he lived with his parents (who'd moved to Skokie after he graduated from high school), used a college press pass to get into games, and ate the free food that teams provided for the press. He didn't care for material possessions--blue jeans, T-shirts, and tennis shoes were his usual attire. He dated, but girlfriends and wives soon realized that sports came first for Grobstein. Each of his three marriages ended in divorce.

The money he did make--and he didn't make much--came from working as a stringer. The Associated Press paid him to keep score at baseball games, and ABC and CBS paid him to scramble into the locker rooms and interview players after whatever games were in town. Eventually he took that act on the road.

"You could make a little money covering a Brewers game in Milwaukee for ABC or whatever," Grobstein says. "I went everywhere--I mean everywhere. One time in 1977 I drove my car to Cleveland to cover the Indians versus Boston. Then I drove all night to New York to cover the Cubs versus the Mets--a game the Cubs lost, by the way, on a homer by Steve Henderson off of Bruce Sutter. The next day I went to the Belmont racetrack and did a radio thing on Steve Cauthen, the great young jockey. The next day I was at Shea Stadium when Steve Ontiveros hit a two-run homer and the Cubs were ahead--Ray Burris was pitching a helluva game--when, poof, the lights went out. It was the New York blackout! I got on the phone and called 'BBM news radio. They put me on the air immediately and kept me there for 15 minutes. I was the guy breaking that story.

"Well, the game got called off, and Jerome Holtzman, who was then writing for the Sun-Times, says to me, 'Are you going to Philly?' I say, 'Sure, why not?' So the next day I drove him to Philly, where we saw Greg Gross win the game for the Cubs with a three-run triple. Ironically, a year later Gross would be a Philly.

"Oh, I almost forgot the best part of the story. After the game was called off at Shea I took Holtzman back to the Waldorf-Astoria, where he was staying. Jerome's room was on the 45th floor, but of course the elevators weren't working--and I ended up lugging his bags down the stairs. True story."

In 1977 Grobstein got his first full-time job, as a reporter for Sportsphone, ATT's old score-update service. "This was an era before all-sports radio or cable, when junkies had no other place to turn to for up-to-date scores. We had a ball. I'd go out to cover Cubs games or news conferences and phone in the updates. We had a huge cult following. The busiest day would be the NBA draft. Initially I was making $5 an hour, but I was up to about twice that amount when I left."

As the years wore on Grobstein earned a reputation among his peers as the hardest-working reporter in local sports. "The thing about Les is that he bases his thoughts and comments on things that he's seen," says Steve Kohn, former owner of and writer for the Blue Line, an irreverent "alternative" guide to Blackhawk games. "I mean, he's so damn devoted to the games. He loves going to the games--all the games. I'd see him at the Wolves [a semipro hockey team] and UIC Flames games and even Cheetahs [in-line skating] games, which shows you what a hockey geek I must be, because I go to all those games too. The other reporters make fun of him because he's wearing disheveled clothes or he didn't take a shower. But here's the deal--he didn't take a shower because he probably flew in from doing a Flames game somewhere, and instead of going home and resting up he drove right over to Wrigley."

In 1979 Grobstein got the biggest break of his career, when WLS hired him as a sportscaster. "It was more than a break. It was the job of my dreams," he says. "I was a big fan of most of these DJs. I mean, Larry Lujack, 'Superjock'--it was hard not to be in awe of him. But he made me feel right at home. My first day was, coincidentally, after my only child, Scott, was born. Somebody must have told Larry it was a boy--a big boy, by the way, about 12 pounds four ounces--because Lujack said, 'What are you gonna name him, Horse Grobstein?'"

Grobstein's job was to provide regular updates and banter with the DJs at the end of each news segment. But his role soon expanded, because the jocks couldn't get enough of Grobstein. Everything about him made him ripe for ribbing: his sloppy appearance, his passion for greasy press-table food, his penchant for taking every media kit and press guide ball clubs gave away, his blunt pronouncements ("this guy stinks" or "this team sucks"), his obsessive recall of trivial events, his unbelievable memory, his inability to avoid long digressions no one wanted to hear. He never tried to be hip by camouflaging his obsession with wry asides (like Bob Costas). He was so square he was almost cool.

"Les was the world's greatest straight man," says Tommy Edwards, who was a DJ at WLS and now works at KCBS in Los Angeles. "He'd be talking about the Blackhawk game, and he'd play a play-by-play of himself calling the game. And Larry [Lujack] would say, 'Where did you get that thing, radio Peking?' Larry was merciless. He wouldn't let Les get away with it. I mean, here's Les at age 30 or whatever up in the booth doing his own private play-by-play of the game.

"I remember Larry and I did a bit on our old 'Animal Stories' routine called Cow Plops. It seems there was this stuff scientists were putting in feed that goes through a cow's system and causes manure to explode when it's heated in the sun and scatter all over the field, so you can fertilize a whole crop. And Larry said, 'Nobody knows this, but I just put some of that in Les Grobstein's cheeseburger.' Just the thought of Les eating that cheeseburger and--well, I was laughing so hard I almost fell off of my chair."

Yet Grobstein became one of the more popular members of the station's softball and basketball teams that played charity games. "Les was the official statistician--he kept obsessive track of what everyone batted and what everyone scored," says Edwards. "There was a basketball game where someone blocked Les's shot, and the fans started in on him--and he gave them the finger. The next day Larry goes on the air and apologizes to the greater Chicago school system for what Les did to corrupt the young. It became legendary after that--people [at games] tried to provoke Les to do something, anything. The funny thing is, Les was a sports geek--no doubt about that. But he became a big celebrity in Chicago because of the ribbing he took from us. And Les loved being a celebrity."

Grobstein says, "In reality, nobody blocked my shot. Our six-foot-eight-inch center, 'Big Ed' Marcin, accidentally elbowed me--I had a black eye for two weeks. I was lying on the ground screaming for a time-out, and the crowd was yelling, 'Get up and play.' And that's why I flipped the bird. The next day when Larry said that thing I said, 'I apologize for nothing.'"

In general Grobstein says he has fond memories of those days. He regularly out-scooped and out-hustled reporters from competing stations. It was Grobstein, for instance, who taped manager Lee Elia's infamous obscenity-filled locker-room tirade against Cub fans. Edwards says, "Les called me on the studio hot line and says, 'Tommy, Lee Elia went bonkers, and I got it all on tape-- I'm bringing it in.' I promoed it on the air, and he fed it to the newsroom. We bleeped the obscenities, and then we ran it. We got more phone calls about that--it became a classic."

Grobstein has played that tape so many times at parties and for friends that he can recite it by heart--which he does, including the most memorable outburst: "Eighty-five percent of the fuckin' world's workin'. The other 15 percent come out here. Rip them motherfuckers, rip them country cocksuckers." Grobstein adds, "To this day there are guys in the press box at Wrigley and Comiskey who greet the start of the seventh-inning stretch by saying, 'All right you country cocksuckers, on your feet.'"

It was also Grobstein who snared Bill Buckner for a good-bye interview hours after the Cubs had traded him to the Red Sox. "Les set it up for Buckner to call the station and do a live interview," says Edwards. "This was very emotional, this was Billy Buck saying good-bye to Chicago. We were the only ones who had it. And we only had it because Les was there. Les was always there. We made fun of the guy day and night, but give him credit, nobody worked harder."

Grobstein says he took most of the ribbing in stride. "If you take it personal you'll get an ulcer. They did all sorts of hygiene jokes. They said I was always chowing down on free press food. Most of that crap wasn't true. They just did it for laughs. Steve [Dahl] went further than the others, but I understood what he was doing. The weirdest thing happened in January of '83. Steve and Garry [Meier] were doing a remote from Hawaii. By this time I'd been divorced from my first wife and was married to my second. Anyway, I'm up in Green Bay at the Brown County Arena doing the play-by-play of a UIC basketball game, when I get this call from a guy at the station who says, 'You're not going to believe this, but your ex-wife happened to be staying at the same resort in Hawaii as Dahl, and he put her on the air.' It turns out Dahl was saying things like 'Why didn't the marriage work out?' And 'He must have been pathetic in bed.' And Garry would go, 'He can't be that bad--he fathered a child.' And Steve says, 'Anyone can make a mistake.' Then he asks her, 'So who's better in bed, Les or your current husband?' Well, if she had any brains she'd say her current husband. But she said, 'I have no comment on that.' Her husband got really pissed. I motored home and took the car to the studio and heard the tape--and holy cripes, I hit the ceiling. Steve calls and says, 'Are you mad at us?' I said, 'I was at the time, but I'm not mad at you guys for putting her on. If you didn't do it you wouldn't be doing your job, because that's what you do. My ex-wife was wrong for doing it.' But, yeah, there were days it bothered me. Off the air Dahl all the time said, 'Thanks for putting up with my crap.'"

There's no bitterness or anger in Grobstein's voice. "You have to understand, in this kind of radio some people have to play the role I played. That was part of my shtick at WLS. People who never saw me pictured me as this 200-pound bald guy with glasses. Instead I weighed 180 pounds and had a full head of hair. When we started playing softball games people would say, 'You're nothing like they claim.' Women would say, 'You're actually good-looking.' I remember one morning [a newsman] went on the air and introduced me as the guy with the bubble butt. Well, after that a woman came up to me at a softball game and said, 'You know something? I can see you don't have a bubble butt.' So, you know something? It all sorta worked out."

And then it all fell apart. In September 1989 WLS switched to an all-talk format, and three months later Grobstein was out of a job. "The management told me they would keep me on even after the format change, and then they went back on their word," he says. "I gave the previous management ten years of service and loyalty, and the loyalty was returned by them. When the new management arrived things changed. I never begrudge them for that. It's their station--they can do what they want. What pisses me off is that they told me they would keep me on, and then they broke their word. In my opinion they were goddamn liars."

For over a year he worked as a stringer, and then in August 1991 WLUP/WMVP hired him. In October 1993 WMVP became an all-sports station that featured loud and obnoxious out-of-town personalities, like the Fabulous Sports Babe and Scott Ferrell, who clearly couldn't care less about the Bulls, Bears, Cubs, or Sox. How anyone thought this would go over in Chicago, where fans live and die rooting for the home teams, defies all common sense. The management was particularly ungracious toward Grobstein, moving him from nights to days and back to nights. In 1996 the station changed formats, and he, like most of the other personalities, was unceremoniously fired.

If there was ever a time for spiritual collapse this was it. Grobstein's third marriage had just ended in divorce, and now his career seemed to have hit a dead end. He was 44 years old and without a full-time job. "I'd see him at various hockey games, and though he never said anything, though he put up a strong front, it had to be tough," says Kohn. "His whole life was about talking to the fans over the radio--and then they took him off the air. That was cruel. I think about all the crap he had to put up with to get to where he was. I know he hated the Sports Babe and all that other junk 'MVP was putting on, but he had to keep quiet to keep his job. He had to hate the crap he took at WLS, always having to play Jerry Lewis to the Dean Martins of the world. I think he took all that abuse from Dahl because it was the price he paid for getting heard. Personally, I think a lot of those guys making fun of Les are just a bunch of jock sniffers trying to pretend they're above sports. A lot of guys on sports radio today don't even watch the games. If there's not an elevator taking them to the press box they're upset. It's all verbal masturbation when they get on the air. But Les doesn't pretend he's anything other than what he is--a lover of the games. With Les there's no lying about it--he let his life go to hell following sports."

As he had when he was fired from WLS, Grobstein refrained from blasting management to reporters who called looking for the inside scoop on 'MVP's demise. He went back to stringing and kept on doing play-by-play for UIC hockey and basketball games. In August 1996 he began providing sports reports for WSCR, and last April, when the station went to a 24-hour format, the management gave him the overnight show.

"I've never been happier," says Grobstein. "I do my show from 1 to 5:30. I go home, get some sleep, get up around one, go cover whoever's in town, and get back to the studio to go on the air. This way I never miss a game."

Grobstein's show is odd, even for an all-sports station. He forgoes most of the usual gimmicks--funny noises, girlie jokes, silly anecdotes about wives, dogs, and children. He's all business, his show a sanctuary of sorts for listeners compelled to talk sports in the predawn hours.

Many of those listeners call to reminisce. "I'll get guys who call up about a game between Roosevelt and Von Steuben 20 years ago," says Grobstein. "Or someone will call about the Buffalo Grove Bison. I've seen almost all the games they're talking about."

It's too early to tell how he's doing in the ratings, though he seems to be going over well with the station honchos--he got the plum assignment of covering the Bulls in Paris--and the critics. "Les is a Chicago original who's the best there is at what he does--a fabulous character and a first-rate broadcaster," says Rob Feder, the TV and radio columnist for the Sun-Times. "But he's a little unique for WSCR. Their hosts tend to be entertainers first. It's almost as if the sports were secondary and they could do their act if it was about something else. I guess that's what carries them through the 20th caller saying the same thing. But Les is much more focused on the content and substance than he is on being the cleverest guy or being deliberately outrageous. Over time I think it wears better, because his success will not be dependent on constantly having to top himself."

One day a few weeks ago Grobstein took me for a nostalgia ride in his beat-up '92 Plymouth. The passenger seat was filled with newspapers, magazines, and programs. "Just sit on that stuff," he said. "Nothing's not dirty."

He took me to Von Steuben and showed me his locker and homeroom. Outside the gym he bumped into Clint Lewis, the current coach, and started reminiscing about a game Lewis's team lost to Roosevelt in 1993. "You couldn't get a call from the referee, remember?" he said, as Lewis nodded his head. At the door Grobstein saw a security man who used to work for the White Sox, and that got him recollecting being at the ballpark a few days before the state legislature voted to subsidize the construction of a new stadium.

Grobstein headed off for Peterson Park, pulling up alongside his old house, a brick bungalow, where two little boys were using a long pole to try to dislodge a house key that was stuck in the branches of a tree. "Let me try," said Grobstein. He whacked at the tree with his pole, then started to recite the telephone numbers of his old neighbors who lived on the block.

After the key fell to the ground Grobstein slipped down the alleyway into the backyard and emerged a few minutes later with a middle-aged couple who'd bought a house from one of his old neighbors. "I remember all the people who used to live here," he told them. "There used to be an apple tree over there--I can't believe the apple tree's gone."

"You never should have sold," the wife said. "Property values are going up. The area's gentrifying."

"I didn't sell--my parents did. I hated moving to Skokie. It sucked. The people were stuck up. I have to stay in the suburbs to be near my son. But one day I'll probably come back to the city."

It was almost seven, and Grobstein was in a hurry to get home to walk his puppy, a Yorkshire terrier named Moose. On the way back to Mount Prospect I started throwing questions at him.

"What's the greatest home run you ever saw?" I asked.
"Willie Smith--opening day 1969 against the Phillies. I was there."

"What's the worst deal the Cubs ever made?"
"Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio. I was 12 years old at the time, and I said it was a horseshit trade."

"What was the number-one song when Richard Nixon first got elected president?"
"'Midnight Confessions' by the Grass Roots. I don't know if it reached number one on the national charts, but I can tell you it hit the top of the WLS hit parade."

"What about when you graduated from high school?"
"'Theme From Romeo and Juliet' by Henry Mancini."

"Number-one song for all of '69?"
"Easy--'Sugar, Sugar' by the Archies."

"Who wrote it?"
He paused and pursed his lips. I could almost feel his brain sifting through volumes of information.
He shrugged. "I dunno--who?"
"Andy Kim."
"Andy Kim--very good. I'll have to remember that."

Grobstein pulled into the parking lot of a large apartment complex near a major intersection. Upstairs in his one-bedroom apartment the walls were lined with bookcases filled with hundreds of media guides. "This is it--my collection," he explained. "I file them by sport. I keep them chronological. There's basketball, there's baseball, there's hockey, there's football. I got 'em going back 20 years. I keep every scorecard of every game I ever went to. I must have thousands. I have all my old tapes. Most of them are in boxes. But it's all here somewhere."

He stepped over several boxes filled with more media guides. "Excuse the mess," he said. "I just moved in, and I haven't had time to unpack."

We headed back to the city. A playoff game had just started on the radio--Yankees versus Cleveland with Jaret Wright on the mound. "If you remember," said Grobstein, "his father, Clyde Wright, was the American League pitcher in the 1970 all-star game who Jim Hickman got the single off of that sent Pete Rose home from second, where he barreled into Ray Fosse." Then he went into a long riff about interviewing Jaret Wright and about Leo Durocher waving Rose home and about dozens of other gorgeous moments from the 1970 game--all stored in his brain next to Willie Smith's homer and Andy Kim's songs, ready to be retrieved for insomniacs with a sports craving in the early morning.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Jon Randolph.

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