Subtle as brick, soft as cannon, Benny's still ready to broadcast

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 24, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

"The headline," says Benny Levine, already making big plans, "should say: 'The Legend Is Back.' You got that? 'The Legend is Back.' "

Oy, is he back.

Levine, known as Benny the Fan in his radio days in Baltimore, is back after a station break of only 30 years, and already he's talking in capital letters. A shrinking violet, he never was. Not then, not now.

Back then, he was the post-game radio "Bricks and Bats" voice of Orioles baseball, outspoken, outrageous, irrepressible, a voice on a blitzkrieg -- across your sensibilities, the man you listened to late into the night and thought: a) Tell it like it is, Benny; or b) Who does this idiot think he is?

Late last week, he's sitting at Miller's Delicatessen on Reisterstown Road in Northwest Baltimore, speaking in a voice you could hearmaybe on lower Broadway. In Manhattan.

"Duuuu," he's crying, spotting the once-and-perhaps-future mayor of Baltimore and hoisting his Pillsbury Doughboy body to its feet.

"Du Burns. What's happening?"

The two of them go back through the years. Burns, who announced a week ago he'll run for mayor again, has dropped into Miller's for lunch.

"I'm just gonna get a sandwich," he says.

"You got money?" Benny asks.

"Yeah," says Burns, "my wife let me have some today."

Heads are turning all across the restaurant. Eyes are looking in one direction. Du Burns is shaking his hand, and Benny the Fan is in his element.

"I'm back, what can I tell you?" he says.

Back, he declares, from radio talk shows in New York, in Los Angeles, from a syndicated hookup to 140 cities, and always, he says, "always No. 1 in the ratings."

He's 61 now, and he wants to get back into Baltimore radio. It's hard to believe the voice coming over the air from the 1959 through 1961 baseball seasons was barely 30 years old. The guy had opinions on everything, which he dropped with all the subtlety of trash can lids on pavements.

"Loud?" he says. "You should have heard my first show. I didn't LTC even need a microphone, I was so crazy. You could hear me across the country."

His entrance into local radio, and then his exit three years later, were unexpected bolts. Benny had a place on Greenmount Avenue, called Stanley's Dress Shop, which was teetering near extinction. He went to WBAL radio. They thought he wanted to place an ad. He was looking for his own show.

"I did a tape," he says. "The worst thing you ever heard. And there was a Kiwanis Club luncheon, and they asked me to be a speaker. I'm up there, and I have no idea what I'm gonna do, and so I start in on everybody. I roasted the whole room."

Ernie Harwell was there, and Joe Croghan and Hugh Trader, big names in local sports back then.

Word got around that this guy Benny the Fan was a wild man with words and he wanted to do radio.

So they gave him a radio program.

Every night, the Paul Richards-led Orioles would play baseball, and every night, Benny the Fan would tell them what they did wrong. Win or lose, didn't matter. He always had words for Richards: The guy couldn't manage, he didn't know strategy, he didn't understand psychology.

Finally, Richards said he wanted to meet Benny on the air: a battle of mouths across one microphone. Only thing was, Richards wanted $50, not a small sum 30 years ago. Benny calls one of his sponsors, says if they'll supply $25, he'll supply $25. Sponsor says yes. Benny gets an idea. He calls every one of his sponsors, asking each if they'll supply $25.

"Before it's over," he says now, still relishing the mathematics three decades later, "everybody's kicking in $25 and I make money on the deal, and so does Richards. And the sponsors never knew."

What they did know, though, was that Benny gave them an opinion. He was the voice of the ordinary sports fan who had no voice back then.

Today, he's the same guy, a kind of vending machine of opinions.

Baseball today? "I've never seen an owner in baseball with a brain in his head. And if I go on the air today, I'd be knocking the owners and knocking the ballplayers and the agents who are gonna bankrupt baseball with their greed."

Radio? "Never mind a post-game show. I'd love to go on against the ballgame. That's right, the Orioles on one station, and me talking about them on another. And just watch where the people tune in."

What would he talk about? "Every sport, although hockey, I'll hang up on you. I'm gonna explain the blue line? No way."

From three decades ago, he remembers a telephone call. In the summer of 1960, the Orioles were unexpectedly bidding for their first pennant, but home attendance was skimpy.

Four Orioles executives, he remembers, tell him, 'We want you to do something for us. Get on the air and knock the hell out of Baltimore for not being supportive.'

"I said, 'Sure.' So I go on the air saying Baltimore's lousy for not supporting the team. They go on to draw a million-two -- pretty good for back then -- and I get everybody hollering at me for knocking the town."

But that's just Benny the Fan. You don't like him tonight, tune in tomorrow.

It's kept him working the last 30 years, when lots of people around here wondered where he'd gone. Now he's back, hoping there's still a place for him somewhere in Baltimore behind a microphone.

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