Bob Elson a broadcast-booth prankster
A few loyal readers have been asking me for some more Bob Elson stories. (This could be because the Chicago baseball season that just ended had so many disappointments, that there’s some nostalgia for “better days”).
Elson certainly encountered more than his share of true stars in his 40 years broadcasting White Sox and some Cubs games. From baseball to Hollywood, he interviewed almost everybody, and the book about “The Commander” should have been written years ago.
Elson may have played it straight as far as reporting the game all those years (without being a shameless “homer” like Harrelson or Harry Caray), but believe me, he was a “character” if ever there was one.
And instead of cozying up to celebrities the way so many broadcasters do now, Elson preferred to tease most of them, and pulled countless pranks on the most famous personalities who dared come up to the booth to visit, or to promote their latest projects.
Basil Rathbone, the actor who played Sherlock Holmes in the movies for years, was in Chicago one week when the Sox were home, and asked if Elson would interview him to promote his new movie.
As Elson’s statistician in those days, I was sitting right next to him when WCFL engineer Carl Swanson put Rathbone’s phone call through to Elson, so I could hear what he told Rathbone. “Come up to the booth at 5:30 before the night game tomorrow, and you can be my guest on the interview show!”
When he hung up the phone, I reminded Elson that he had no on-air show ’til right before gametime.
“Keep that to yourself, young man, and we’ll have some fun with this guy,” The Commander instructed me.
Sure enough, Rathbone and his agent made it up to the radio booth just after 5 p.m. the next night, and it was just the four of us in that tiny, open-air booth. A few minutes after they arrived, Elson motioned for me to put on my headphones and he told Rathbone that “Young Wenk here will point to me when we’re on the air, and we’ll take it from there.”
I shook my head in disgust, but with Elson glaring at me, I finally gave him a fake signal, and Elson went into his usual intro ... “This is BOB Elson, at Comiskey Park, where we’re privileged to be able to visit with Hollywood’s Sherlock Holmes — Basil Rathbone!” Bob was speaking carefully, with plenty of animation, into a “dead mike” that was plugged in, but might as well have been a toy, because the “interview” wasn’t going anywhere further than the booth itself.
I kept checking my watch as if this whole thing was on a time-schedule, and when the conversation seemed to be coming to a close, I held up 10 fingers, and then pointed to Bob as he “signed off.” Rathbone shook Elson’s hand with obvious appreciation, and he and his agent left the booth, hoping thousands of fans had heard him promote his movie.
“Bob, how can you do that to the guy?” I asked him afterward. Elson smiled, having enjoyed another of his frequent pranks, and told me “we’ll probably never see the guy again, and if he asks his friends whether they heard him, of course they’ll all insist they did ... they’ll be afraid to admit they missed the show!”
The next night, both of us were shocked to see Rathbone back up at the booth, presumably to confront us for faking the whole thing. Elson nervously shook his hand, and Rathbone began, ”Bob, I can’t tell you how many of my friends caught the broadcast and loved it! You’re really a sport, Bob, and I appreciate you getting me on the air on short notice!”
Lucky for us, Rathbone only played a sleuth in the movies.
What “The Commander” did to Abe Saperstein, owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, was even worse. I’ll give you that one soon, so tune in, same time, same space.
Chuck Wenk has written a local column for more than 50 years on the North Shore, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.