Bennett Levine, Baltimore radio host

March 06, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

Bennett Levine, remembered throughout the Baltimore sports world as "Benny the Fan" for his outspoken style and critical radio show on the early Orioles, died yesterday of complications from heart surgery at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington. He was 64.

Unintimidated by brash Orioles manager Paul Richards, Mr. Levine dominated the city's sports airwaves from 1959 to 1961 with his bold demeanor and Brooklyn accent.

"He was one of a kind," said his daughter Joanie Oberfeld of Baltimore. "He was hated by everybody and loved by everybody. And he owed everybody money."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was one city resident who remembered Mr. Levine yesterday. "Baltimore is known for a lot of unique personalities, and Benny was a real character in the nicest sense of the word," said Mr. Schmoke, a friend of Mr. Levine for more than a decade. "He loved sports, and he loved the city, and I'm sure all sports fans are going to miss him."

In 1959, Mr. Levine walked into the offices of WBAL and landed his own show, which remained on the air until 1961. Teamed with sportscaster Charlie Eckman and Orioles announcer Joe Croghan, Mr. Levine went after Mr. Richards, questioning his every move.

"Every night, [Mr. Levine] would go to the ballpark and walk around like a star, like he knew what he was doing," Mr. Eckman said.

Mr. Croghan, now 71, said Mr. Levine once sponsored a trip to New York for a four-game series late in the season when the Orioles and Yankees were tied for first place. "He took several hundred people and marched down Fifth Avenue," Mr. Croghan said. "I was broadcasting the Orioles games then. The club lost all four games. My God, what a mess."

John Steadman, now an Evening Sun sports columnist, said Mr. Levine "epitomized the 'Mr. Know It All' who sat in the bleachers, but didn't know the finer points of the game. But that made him popular."

Mr. Levine's Baltimore career slowed in 1961, when Mr. Richards left the ball club. "Benny was high on the hog," Mr. Eckman said. "But the bubble burst when Richards left town."

Mr. Levine went to Hollywood for one year, then to New York, where he put together a radio show that was syndicated in 140 cities. In 1990, he landed a spot on Baltimore's WITH five afternoons a week and finally, last summer, on WCBM for a few hours every Sunday. He again teamed up with Mr. Croghan and frequently had Mr. Eckman as a guest. But the style of the 1960s didn't match the present day. "In the '60s, his timing was right," Mr. Eckman said. "People were looking for somebody like this. When he came back, it was a dead issue."

Mr. Croghan remembered Mr. Levine more recently criticizing Gov. William Donald Schaefer. "When they were wrangling about naming [Oriole Park at Camden Yards]," Mr. Croghan recalled, "[Mr. Levine said] they ought to call it the Super Stadium because it is superfluous."

In 1991, Mr. Levine told a Sun columnist, "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 going to bankrupt baseball with their greed."

"He was one of the most unforgettable people I've ever met," Mr. Croghan said. "He wasn't supposed to die. He was supposed to be a legend."

Mr. Levine was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. He served in the Air Force from 1947 to 1949.

His children did not recall why Mr. Levine first came to Baltimore. But they said he met his future wife, Jeanne Schoen, on a blind date in the city. The couple married in 1951, and they ran a store called Stanley's Dress Shop on Greenmount Avenue. They were divorced in 1968. Mrs. Levine died six years ago.

Memorial services for Mr. Levine are scheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow at Sol Levinson & Bros. Funeral Home at 6010 Reisterstown Road.

Mr. Levine is survived by his son, David Levine of Glyndon; two daughters, Nancy Shapiro of Timonium and Ms. Oberfeld of Baltimore; and his mother, Edythe Levine of North Miami Beach, Fla.

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