Vin ScullyI grew up listening to the Houston Astros on the radio. It was not because my family was totally retro. We were not that cool at all, it was simply at the time I grew up, in a time, the 1960s and a place, Bryan, Texas, where we did not get baseball on television, as our town did not have a NBC affiliate to watch Saturday’s NBC Game of the Week hosted by Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean. Even if we had gotten that channel, I can assure you the Astros were not featured. Further, as my father also grew up in a town that did not have a major league team, he listened to baseball on the radio as a boy. So I got to listen to the Astros on the radio and was able to imagine the game in my head, with the tales of Astros baseball crafted by Gene Elston and Loel Passe.

All of this means I came to love great baseball announcers as the game is slow and deliberate enough that a good announcer has time to paint a portrait of action for your imagination. While I have been fortunate to listen to many of the great ones who have passed over the years, one of them is still alive and on his swansong tour, Vin Scully, who has announced the Los Angeles Dodgers for some 67 years, is finally retiring at the end of this season.

In an article in the New York Times (NYT), entitled “How Scully-Madden Almost Came to Pass, Rob Weintraub detailed how the great baseball announcer was almost paired with now-equally legendary football color man John Madden in 1981 on the CBS television network. After going through essentially a one-on-one audition process, Scully eventually lost out to Pat Summerall. The story told by Weintraub is fascinating for any fan of either sport as both Madden and Scully are in the Hall of Fame for their respective sports as announcers. Yet what ultimately struck me about the story was the leadership lesson for a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) about the process which eventually led to the selection of Madden over Scully as the lead color man for the CBS National Football League lead game each week.

The first part was about the person who brought Summerall and Madden together, Terry O’Neil, a television producer and “a fallen wunderkind” who took over the reigns at the ABC telecast of its most prestigious Monday Night Football event at the age of 31. Unfortunately O’Neil’s run ended just six weeks into it, as he ran afoul of then ABC commentator Howard Cosell “who ran O’Neil off the show and eventually off ABC.”

O’Neil was soon hired by the President of CBS Sport, Van Gordon Sauter, to help turn around CBS sports in general and to remake the football games announcing teams specifically. This inspired hire by Sauter demonstrates there are a wide variety of reasons why people leave jobs and unfortunately sometimes personality conflict is one of them. It also shows that if you perform enough quality due diligence, you can find out solid information which can allow you to make not only an informed but sometimes an inspired decision.

It was O’Neil who saw the great potential in Madden as the color man for the network. However, it was Sauter who wanted to pair Scully with Madden. As a CCO, what can or even should you do if your Chief Executive Officer (CEO) wants you do go in a direction other than the one your vision sees? You might consider some of the techniques that O’Neil used in persuading his boss that Summerall was the right person because of the mesh of their styles. Summerall was much more concise in his announcing while Scully is rightfully known for his flights of loquaciousness.

O’Neil convinced his boss that to achieve the correct outcome of pairing Summerall with Madden and not Scully with Madden, they needed “to listen to both teams together in actual game action.” O’Neil accomplished this by having Madden work with Scully for four games in September 1981 and then in October, when Scully     returned to calling post season baseball games, Madden was paired with Summerall. The NYT noted, “It swiftly became apparent that O’Neil’s initial judgment had been correct. Summerall’s concision worked far better with the bombastic Madden than did Scully’s “pull up a chair” storytelling. “Once you saw the two combos on the air,” O’Neil said, “it was very easy to see.””

Yet the big boss Sauter remained unconvinced. Even with this attitude and the boss’s stature that could have allowed Sauter to have “brute-forced it on me” he was open to allowing his subordinate to present additional information to put forward his case. This additional information came in the form of a straw poll of CBS executives who had viewed the tapes of both Scully-Madden and Summerall-Madden. Such a straw poll was taken after a lunch in late October 1981 and the entire group polled in favor of the Summerall-Madden announcing team.

Here the lesson is that additional information can help to persuade those executives who might not see things quite your way. O’Neil used the announcing examples as data points which other executives could view and listen to, to help them not only make their own decisions but to help O’Neil state a positive case for his boss. Did he out-maneuver Sauter or simply present solid information from which the best decision was obvious? The article quotes O’Neil for the following, “The fact Sauter allowed himself to be outvoted tells you a lot about him.”

Yet there is one more significant piece of information that does not reflect quite as well on O’Neil as his use of information to persuade his boss to select Summerall over Scully. Sauter tasked O’Neil with telling Scully he had not been selected. In this communication with Scully, O’Neil certainly   dropped the ball, giving Scully “some ham-handed spin” by telling Scully he had “good news” before laying out the schedule that Scully would take in announcing the rest of the season, which did not include calling the Super Bowl. Scully immediately understood he had lost out as a pairing with Madden.

As O’Neil later said, “I just should have said the decisions been made, in Pat’s [Summerall] favor.” For any CCO who has to deliver disappointing news, the moral is clear, do not engage in “ham-handed spin”, just give the person the information.

I found it interesting that in this tale of how one of baseball’s greatest announcers was almost paired with one of football’s greatest commentators, there were multiple lessons to be learned for the CCO, CEO or other senior executives. So as we move past Memorial Day and into the final summer of baseball announcing for Vin Scully, I hope that you will have the chance to hear him call one more game.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2016