Sports personality Charley Eckman dies

July 04, 1995|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Charley Eckman has called his last cab.

The former sportscaster, referee, National Basketball Association coach and raconteur whose trademark "call a cab" and tell-it-like-it-is views endeared him to Baltimore sports fans for 40 years, died yesterday of cancer at his Glen Burnie home. He was 73.

Mr. Eckman was known for his rubbery-faced, cigar-waving, iconoclastic antics delivered in a raspy-voiced style that sometimes was short on correct grammatical usage. He was credited with using an expression so often that it quickly became a cliche.

He coined his "call a cab" line to dismiss subjects he thought should be dismissed. If he found them really unworthy, he would bellow, "No, make that two cabs."

After his cancer surgery some years ago, he declared: "I had the cancer removed. I had to call two cabs for that cancer."

Richard Sher, a WJZ-TV broadcaster and former sports director of WCBM, worked with Mr. Eckman in 1967. "His voice was shrill and gravelly and without question identifiable -- and if you ever had any doubt, you knew who it was when you heard, 'You can't beat them cherries' or 'Ain't no way, Jose,' " Mr. Sher said.

"He was successful because of the strength of his personality," said Fred Neil, public information officer for the division of rehabilitation services at the state Department of Education, who as news director at WCBM hired Mr. Eckman in 1965.

"We were auditioning him for a talk and ripped off some wire copy for him to read, and he was sensational," said Mr. Neil, who has been working on a biography of the colorful sportscaster. The book, "It's A Very Simple Game, Charley Eckman Whistle Blower and More," is to be published next year.

"He was an entertainer who never forgot what he was there to do," Mr. Neil said.

Harry Shriver, radio executive and former president and general manager of WFBR who hired him from WCBM in 1970, recalled, "I went after Charley because he was special.

"He was one of those certified Baltimore characters like Mr. Diz, Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin and Harley Brinsfield -- and we no longer have them to brighten our city. He was a character and was so well-known that he could stop traffic and draw a crowd on Charles Street."

Mr. Shriver likened Mr. Eckman's on-air style to "that of a basketball referee -- which was what he used to be -- and he talked on the radio like he was calling fouls at the Arena."

Before retiring from WFBR in 1987, he was known for eschewing radio scripts and depending on his own knowledge. Often ad-libbing, he sometimes forgot the name of his sponsors. He had to promise one bank president that in the future he would refer to the bank's money as money rather than "scratch."

"He used to do ads for Joe Louie's Chinese restaurant in Anne Arundel County and instantly immortalized its shrimp toast, a house specialty, which he pronounced as 'shrimpie toast,' " said Mr. Shriver, laughing.

Known as a man who liked to enjoy a beer or two with genial companions, Mr. Eckman brought this feeling, all ad-libbed, to radio beer commercials.

"How about it, coach? You thirsty? Well, you sure know what to do about it, dont'cha? Get on over there to your favOHrite waterin' hole for a nice, big, frosty glass of everyone's favOHrite beer. National Bo. Mmmm-mmmm!," he intoned on the radio in the early 1970s.

His brash style and sometimes insensitive comments brought some censure through the years, such as the time he remarked that the Japanese winner of the Boston Marathon "must have thought he was bein' chased by an atom bomb," or his description of rock 'n' roll as "that goddam boom-boom stuff."

In semiretirement, he could occasionally be heard on WCBM or as a guest on a Home Team Sports talk show. He also was a panelist on WJZ-TV's "Square Off" and announced games for the Baltimore Blast.

Known as "The Coach," Charles Markwood Eckman was born in a Stricker Street rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore, the only son of a meat cutter who was gassed during World War I. His father died when he was a youngster and he was forced to go to work to help support his widowed mother.

As a youth, he worked as a bat boy for the Albany Senators of the International League when they visited old Oriole Park.

"My first paying job was when I was 12 years old and I got hired on a Bugle Coat & Apron Co. delivery and pickup truck," he said in a 1987 Evening Sun interview. "I had 19,000 pimples on my face, made $7 a week and was so happy it couldn't be put into words."

By the time he was 16 he was refereeing amateur basketball games five and six nights a week for 50 cents a game at places such as Cross Street Hall and Fourteen Holy Martyrs Roman Catholic Church while attending City College, where he graduated in 1939.

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