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Book review: “Limping On Water” by Phil Beuth with K.C. Schulberg

Limping On Water

By Phil Beuth with K.C. Schulberg

Smart Business Network

359 pages, $25

By Michael D. Langan

“Limping On Water” is the story of a remarkable man, Phil Beuth, and his equally estimable career. It chronicles his 40-year love affair with Capital Cities Communications. Beuth was Cap Cities’ first employee, hired by its founder Tom Murphy. And, before Beuth retired, he became one of its five senior vice presidents.

It’s rare that a personal story can adequately serve as a history of a company, but because the company concentrated on people, Beuth’s humble and evocative memoir comes close. “Cap Cities” by common consent became “one of the world’s premier media conglomerates, a company widely heralded for its … brilliant stewardship” and principled behavior. Tom Murphy, its founder, concluded his address to the Harvard business graduating class of 1985 by telling them, “Avoid anything ethically questionable. You will lose more than you could ever gain.”

No less than News owner Warren Buffett called the company the “gold standard for ethical corporate behavior.”

Beuth is well-remembered in Buffalo for his stewardship of WKBW-TV in one of its most successful and talent-rich eras – the ’70s.

Beuth’s limp, which derived from his cerebral palsy, became an outward marker of his inner determination and achievement and is the reason for the book’s title, “Limping On Water.”

It came about as an insiders’ joke. Years ago, Sev Severino, the ABC Los Angeles boss, was kidding about the largesse of Beuth’s boss at Cap Cities, Murphy, who gave innumerable “attaboys” to Beuth and others over the years. Severino’s response to this incessant praise was, “For chrissakes, if you listen to Murphy, you’d think Philly Beuth limped on water.”

Open disclosure: I’ve known Beuth since his Buffalo days in the 1970s, when he raised Cap Cities’ WKBW-TV to even greater heights. I was headmaster at Nardin Academy in those years, the school from which his daughter Jane graduated. She has become a lifelong friend. In the years after Capital Cities owned Channel 7, it purchased the entire ABC network.

Here are two quick stories of Beuth’s Buffalo days.

• Don Polec ran a neighborhood Burger King for $8,000 a year. He was a friend of the legendary WKBW newsman, Irv Weinstein. Weinstein told Beuth to interview his friend. Polec was shy and retiring but he had a way of seeing things differently. They talked. Beuth told him to bring him back five ideas for show segments. Polec brought back 55 the next day. Polec started at $14,700 and became the hottest feature reporter in the market.

• In 1984, the “Channel 7 Prime Timers” softball team played Mayor Jimmy Griffin’s police and firemen at the old War Memorial Stadium (given a face-lift for Robert Redford’s film, “The Natural.”) It was a Variety Club fundraiser for Children’s Hospital.

Kids in wheelchairs sat along first base with their parents. Beuth came to bat in the last half of the last inning with the score tied at 7, and a winning run at second base. “The Boss,” as his employees called him, saw the right fielder creeping in steadily. He clocked the pitch over his head and Channel 7 won the game as Beuth made it to first. Afterward, one of the parents asked Beuth to say “hello” to his son in a wheelchair.

“Do you think I could ever do that?” the 9-year-old asked Beuth. It reminded Beuth of his own earlier challenges. He knew he had hit a home run.

For those who like stories about celebrities, there’s a score and more. Lowell Thomas, Sir Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra, Cher, Jackie Robinson, Red Barber, Nelson Rockefeller, Barbara Walters, Sammy Davis Jr., Burt Reynolds, Red Skelton, Muhammad Ali, and others get a chance to light up its pages.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent book reviewer for The Buffalo News.