Grand Prize Writing: Remembering Wally Berger
by Dave Siemienski
It was the glorious days of the late ‘70s when I decided to further my career in Recreation & Parks in El Segundo. I had spent 10 thrill-packed years in Inglewood recreation, but I felt I had done all I could for the youth of that town. I needed a new challenge. Although it was only six miles from the city I grew up in, it was continents away culturally from Inglewood.
My very first day on the job superintendent Bob Wynn took me around to the different city departments to introduce me. After a morning of those meetings, Bob suggested we lunch at the Imperial Bowl. The proprietor there was Jack Siadek, who would later become the Mayor of El Segundo. My fateful lunch would change this small town for years to come. It was Jack who first mentioned this City was setup for Community Cable —with its own station. My ears straightened up, and my mind raced ahead without listening to anything else that was being said in our conversation.
When cable companies laid their wires throughout a city in those days, they were required to provide that city its own cable channel. The now-defunct Theta Cable did just that. Even though nobody knew the potential nor expressed much interest in its development, the cable companies needed incentives to hook up their customer base. Jack told us the camera equipment was kept in the basement of the Police Department, but was seldom if ever used.
Each city was also given money from the cable company for yearly for operating expenses, but the cash was generally just put in the city treasury. Community cable programming at that time was unheard of, and what was being aired was amateurish and/or painfully boring — my queue to enter stage-left! Opportunity beckoned.
With Bob’s approval, I hired an audio/visual specialist and proceeded to plan what content we could muster. El Segundo had a wonderful Christmas Parade, so that jumped to the front of programming. Then came my brain-child for harnessing the sports interest of this little South Bay town.
John Stevenson had been the legendary coach of the El Segundo High School baseball team for some years. He had coached players who went on to play Major League Baseball (Ken Brett, George Brett, and Scott McGregor to just name a few). Each year in the spring, he would invite alumni to play a game, and most of the town would turn out to watch the spectacle. Wouldn’t it be nice if this event could be televised, along with interviews, I thought?
With the support of John and the high school, our director Jack Ruis, Bob, and my buddy in Recreation, Pete Whalon, we made the first televised sporting event on El Segundo’s Community Cable channel 22 a huge hit. People began to see the potential of local Cable TV.
My next task was to convince the City Council that the $28,000 that Theta Cable paid them every year should actually go where it was intended — into production costs for own station and programming. This was like trying to explain to a lion he would need to share some of his wildebeest meat with the hyenas.
Undaunted, I edited (machine-to-machine) with the help of my audio/visual employee, a short video for City Council, showing the awesome potential of our Cable TV channel. With my gentle persuasion and some lucky convergent circumstances, Council was convinced. We would funnel the money into programming community cable.
Subsequently, with our department’s support and Jack Siadek’s leadership, a studio was built within the confines of ESHS, and production began on “real” programming for community interests. Eventually, Pete and myself created a sports-talk show that lasted 10 years on the station. “Football Focus” was bolstered by the fateful arrival of the “Oakland” Raiders at a practice facility in the center of El Segundo in the early ‘80s. This gave instant credibility to our show, and gave me access to some great sports stars.
Our show’s content and style eventually won two Paragon Cable awards as the “Best Talk Show” in the South Bay and forever justified my ties to the founding of Community Cable in El Segundo.
As our studio grew in reputation, we were able to expand beyond the local sports and the Raiders facility to other sports. In 1987 I came across an article about baseball legend, Wally Berger, that had been published in The Beach Reporter a few years before. He was in the first Major League Baseball All Star game in 1933 and was pictured with Babe Ruth. He was Babe Ruth’s teammate in 1935, which was the Babe’s last season.
I called Wally to see if he still lived locally and to ask for an interview.
A few days later, my small crew (actually, only Dennis Bradley on audio and camera) showed up at Wally’s home in Manhattan Beach. I had done my homework on his amazing career with the Boston Braves and other MLB teams. Wally was 82 at the time, but had incredible recall of specific events and feats of his baseball career.
The stories just poured out as we video taped this very nice man in his backyard. It was nearly a religious experience for me.
At one point of the interview, I asked Wally if he had any memorabilia from his playing days? He then turned to his wife and said, “Martha, would you please bring me those bats.” Moments later, I was holding Wally’s old 36-inch, 38 ounce bat — and The Babe’s bat from 1935. I was in Baseball Heaven. You can look up the interview on YouTube (Wally Berger interview, “Funai DVD video DaveS 3). My skillful producer was Jeff Trujillo.
Wally had held the MLB rookie HR record since 1930, and this was the summer of ’87 when Mark McGuire was in the process of breaking Wally’s record. He was not bitter, and wished Mark well in his quest to break his own record. Of course steroids and HGH were unknown in the 1930s, so it’s your call whose record truly stands today. Unfortunately, Wally passed away a year after the interview.
Along with this special interview, I was privileged, through my El Segundo Community Cable credentials, to interview Hall-Of-Famers like Walter Payton, Jerry West, Howie Long, Jim Brown, and George Brett. Also among notables were legendary sports writer, Jim Murray, Stu Nahan, Lyle Alzado, Ken Brett, Scott McGregor, The Raiderettes, Matt Millen, ABC’s President John Severino, Kurt Rambis, Marcus Allen, and many others. It was a great ride.
I have enjoyed several other careers outside of Rec & Parks, even producing two movies. These particular memories of our Cable TV run stand out as cherished times because of the camaraderie with Pete, Dennis, Jeff and our high school crews. It was a thrill to bring wonderful programming to South Bay residents through the magic of community cable TV. This is all true, because as they say, Cameras don’t lie. It was all caught on tape. B