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Don Paul: Of lightning, baseball and bad forecasts

I worked at WJBK in Detroit from 1979 until I left for Buffalo in 1984. Detroit was the No. 7 TV market and much bigger than Buffalo. But in Detroit, I was the No. 2 weather guy (weekend weather and science reporting three days a week), and here I became a weeknight “chief” (pause for effect) meteorologist.

From 1980 through 1983, I worked behind a Detroit legend, Sonny Elliott. Sonny was in Detroit TV from the moment it began after World War II until WJBK let him go in 1983, spending most of his career from the mid '40s until 1980 at WWJ, later changed to WDIV-TV. Sonny was one of America’s first weathercasters and was known throughout the industry. He was an articulate clown prince who also knew something about weather. His amazing life deserves a separate article which will come in the near future.

Sonny knew this ambitious young meteorologist named Don Paul, who was beginning to think he was a hotshot because he made it from No. 154 market Bangor to Detroit’s then-CBS affiliate in fewer than three years, was disappointed. I’d been passed over for Sonny for the No. 1 gig. (The news director was planning on moving me up when the GM secretly hired Sonny after WDIV had cut him loose. His act, WDIV thought, was getting old.)

Despite my disappointment, we did become friends, known as “dad and son” when we worked together, in fact. There is a video of the two of us doing a fake map discussion for Sonny’s Friars Club-style charity roast. This is still a family newspaper, so it can’t be posted here.

Sonny gave me a great birthday gift that first year. He had a season’s ticket right behind the Tigers dugout at Tiger Stadium. For the night of my birthday, he gave me that ticket to see the great Ron Guidry, “Louisiana Lightning,” go to the mound for my beloved Yankees.

The previous season, Guidry had gone 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA, and was having another good year, so I was stoked. I knew the weather could be an issue that night, so I stopped by the station to check things out before a WJBK photographer and I were to leave for the ballpark. Around the dinner hour, the National Weather Service issued a Tornado Watch for most of southern lower Michigan, including Detroit. All I could do was hope for the best, and the two of us left for Tiger Stadium.

We got to eat in the clubhouse, which was a huge thrill for me. Sitting a couple of tables away was one of my baseball heroes, Phil Rizzuto! When I was a little kid, he was still playing shortstop before being dropped by the Yanks and made an announcer with Red Barber and Mel Allen. He had since gone on to work with Bill White, a fine former first baseman. White worked 18 years with Phil before going on to become President of the National League. White was sitting at another table.

When the kids in my neighborhood played a pickup game, we all pretended to be a big leaguer. The big kids took the biggest names, of course. “I’m Mantle!” “I’m Mays!” “I’m Snider.” When it came to my turn, I’d always pick “I’m Rizzuto!” Truth is, I would have picked Mantle, but it was always already taken by this big kid, Tony.

As a broadcaster, Rizzuto was stream-of-consciousness all the way. Whatever crossed his mind would pass his lips. He nearly always addressed Bill White as “Hey, White!” He’d warn fellow Jerseyan White to stay off the lower level of the George Washington Bridge going home because it was a mess. Nobody could make rain delays more entertaining . For an ex-World War II Navy Seabee, his language was awfully tame. He called nasty players “huckleberries.” His most famous catchphrase was “Holy Cow!”

The Yankees presented him with a cow on Phil Rizzuto Day in the '90s, and the cow promptly stepped on his shoe and knocked 5 foot 6 inch Rizzuto over. Here’s a classic Rizzuto sample from a great baseball moment.

Before I went into TV, I lived in Fort Lee, N.J., across the Hudson from Yankee Stadium. I had read a funny column about Rizzuto’s lightning phobia, which stemmed from a strike in Yankee Stadium, which he felt a little through his spikes. One evening I was listening to a game on the radio when there was a loud crack of thunder. I heard some noise from the broadcast booth, like a chair being knocked over, and Bill White shouted out, the humor in his voice, “Hey, Phil! Where ya goin’?” When lightning showed up, Rizzuto made a beeline for shelter.

Now you have the context for the rest of this story. In the clubhouse, I was trying to work up the nerve to go over and meet Phil. I finally thought the natural way to do this was to go over and mention the risk of a rain delay. I timidly walked up, shook his hand, and told him: “Mr. Rizzuto, I’m not sure they’re going to get this game in. I’m a meteorologist. There’s a tornado watch up and…" Before I could finish, his eyes opened up wide and he shouted to the other table, “Hey White! We might have a tornado here!” I could hear the fear in his voice. I’d forgotten about his phobia. And I quickly realized I had ruined Phil Rizzuto’s evening, but good. Holy cow.

Later I sat in my primo game seat, and the Yanks quickly scored five runs early in the game. Guidry was untouchable. At the top of the fifth inning, with the Yanks still in front 5-0, Tigers third base coach Alex Grammas stepped out of the dugout and stretched across its top.

His eyes met mine. He was friends with Sonny. When he saw me, I could tell he didn’t know my name but he recognized my face. He squinted at me and said, “It better rain this inning, or I’ll break your (expletive) teeth!” Just a hint of a smile followed.

There was no tornado. No lightning. No rain. And no runs from the dead Tiger bats. Apart from the Yankees, a good time was had by one.

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