I was at a public gathering one evening and I needed to find out the score of a game. So I used a phone.
Only, I didn’t bring up the Internet and go to ESPN.com or the like; I placed a call. And it wasn’t my phone.
No, not to my bookie. I never made enough dough to have a bookie.
I called SportsPhone.
We’re talking circa the mid-to-late 1980s.
Anyone reading this under the age of 40 may not know of what I speak. It may as well be written in hieroglyphics to those folks.
Wherever there was a public phone (remember those?), there was SportsPhone. We’re talking the days before everyone had a “mobile device.”
SportsPhone was a lovely invention. Not lovely enough to not be made extinct by the advances of technology, but in that regard SportsPhone is hardly alone.
Oh, how I miss those days.
There was excitement, there was drama. I’m not talking about the games themselves; I mean in terms of just waiting for the score.
SportsPhone worked like this: you dialed into a number (1-976-1313) and on the other end you were greeted by the (fresh) recording of a fast-paced, breathless voice of someone like Dave LewAllen or Rich Kincaide, who would blast through the scores of all the major sports matches of the night. Some brief mentions of top stories were thrown in as well.
The recordings were updated every 10 or 15 minutes, so you were getting almost all partial scores unless you called past 11 o’clock at night, in which case everything was pretty much final—unless the Tigers, Pistons or Red Wings were playing on the Left Coast.
Sounds archaic, doesn’t it?
Well, of course it was! But that’s all we had in 1985.
The Tigers didn’t air 162 games a year back then, even with the birth of the pay-to-watch Pro-Am Sports System (PASS) on cable.
The Pistons had plenty of games not televised, as did the Red Wings.
So with no Internet to run to, what else was a shaggy young man to do if he wanted to know how is team was faring?
Dial 1-976-1313, that’s what.
Now, using public pay phones meant you needed one of two things: lots of loose change, or a calling card.
I can see the 30-year-olds’ heads spinning at the mention of a calling card.
It was actually very simple. Before AT&T there was something called Ameritech. And before Ameritech there was something called Michigan Bell. And Ameritech and Michigan Bell had calling cards.
The calling card was a sort of credit card for phone calls. The calls were billed to your home phone bill. You dialed the number you wanted from a pay phone and then, when prompted, you’d punch in your calling card number in lieu of depositing coins.
I knew my calling card number by heart. In fact I was probably the fastest calling card puncher in the midwest.
You had to be fast, if you wanted to get the score in rapid fashion, so you could rejoin your party without appearing to be too rude.
I called SportsPhone from all sorts of places and events: wedding receptions (including when I was the Best Man), social gatherings, business meetings and even dates.
One of the first things I would do whenever I entered an establishment was ascertain where the pay phone was. I’d mark the spot mentally, because you never knew when you might have to make a quick dash to call Dave LewAllen to see how the Red Wings were doing in Chicago.
This was when establishments had pay phones.
The voices on SportsPhone all sounded so rushed and urgent and I liked that. It added to the drama. Every time, LewAllen et al sounded as if they were giving their reports amid gunfire from a war zone. They couldn’t mince words or waste any time.
At the end of every call, they’d tell you when the next update was forthcoming. Mostly it was 10 or 15 minutes, although on some especially frantic nights, SportsPhone would update in seven or eight minute increments.
I think I got hooked on SportsPhone during the first Tommy Hearns-Sugar Ray Leonard fight, in September 1981.
I was a college freshman and if the fight was on closed circuit TV, I had no idea where it was being shown. And even if I did, I certainly didn’t have the cash for admission.
So I called SportsPhone that night. A lot.
Even from my dorm room, I could get a feel for the excitement and drama of that fight as it happened, because I was dialing SportsPhone every couple of rounds or so.
My heart sank when, on one call, I got the word that Hearns had been knocked through the ropes in the late rounds. Another phone call confirmed it: Sugar Ray had won by technical knockout.
Times had changed by 1989, when I did have the dough to pay to see Hearns-Leonard II on closed circuit TV. I wished I hadn’t; Hearns was jobbed in the decision, which was a draw.
I saw Hearns last December and I told him that he got rooked, which probably made me the millionth person to tell him that.
He laughed and told me that even Sugar Ray admits that Tommy won that fight.
But despite witnessing the second fight on television as it occurred, somehow it still doesn’t measure up to that September night in 1981, when as a freshman at EMU I “followed” the bout from my dorm room through several frantic phone calls.
For some who lived through the 1980s, the most famous phone number is 867-5309.
Gimme 1-976-1313. Now THAT’s a phone number!