Robert `Jake' Embry Sr., 93, radio executive

October 30, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Robert Campbell "Jake" Embry Sr., a retired radio broadcasting executive and civic activist who is credited with helping transform Baltimore into a major-league sports city, died of a blood clot yesterday at his Towson home. He was 93.

Mr. Embry, who never was able to quite shed his Southern demeanor despite having lived in Baltimore since 1935, was born in Belzoni, Miss., the son of a lumber company bookkeeper. The family later moved to Yazoo City, where he graduated from high school and picked up the nickname that would stay with him for the remainder of his life.

"My friends were always giving me some kind of nickname. This particular one I got when we had a baseball game on a vacant lot, and I was late getting to it," Mr. Embry related in an unpublished memoir. "About five miles from Belzoni was a post office stop called Jake Town. Somehow or other they said, `Here comes old Jake from Jake Town,' and kept saying it."

After earning his bachelor's degree in 1929 from Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., Mr. Embry worked as a teacher and later as superintendent of a small grade school.

With the Mississippi Delta in the grips of the Depression, Mr. Embry went north to New York to study at Columbia University and find a better job. While studying at Columbia, he worked part time as a dishwasher and for John Mench, a cousin who was advertising director for the Hearst Corp. newspapers.

After leaving the university and completing a Hearst executive training program in 1935, he was told to select the field in which he wished to work. At the urging of a cousin, he chose radio and took a job at Hearst-owned WBAL in Baltimore.

"I didn't know anything about radio, but WBAL had the most power of any of them, so I said `Baltimore, that's the one I want,'" Mr. Embry wrote in the memoir.

He was assigned to selling radio spots to South Charles Street merchants. A year later, he had sold $18,000 worth of advertising, and eventually landed such premier accounts as Esskay, Montgomery Ward, Meadow Gold Ice Cream, Hochschild Kohn and Mano Swartz.

"Guess I was hungrier," Mr. Embry said of his success. "I worked hard, made twice as many calls as anyone else. I'd wear them down."

"Jake was an amazing man. He was there when Baltimore broadcasting was beginning," said Brent Gunts, a pioneering Baltimore broadcaster who later headed WBAL. "He was a delightful guy who was very outgoing and made friends easily. It certainly influenced his selling career where his clients were taken with him. When he told you something, it was a fact."

Mr. Embry left WBAL in 1942 and joined WITH-AM as sales manager. Under his guidance, station advertising revenues soared. He was successful in taking the International League Orioles' broadcasts away from WCBM, and bringing the legendary Bill Dyer to Baltimore to announce the games.

Mr. Embry and Tom Tinsley, owner of WITH, purchased the American League Bullets basketball team for $7,500 in 1944.

Realizing that the American League was too small, he managed to get the team into the Basketball Association of America in 1947, and it grew into the National Basketball Association. The Bullets then became the city's first major-league team, playing at the old Coliseum on Monroe Street. Hampered by their inability to find a suitable building for increased seating and profits, WITH sold the team to other local interests in 1949.

In 1947, he had also become a part-owner with 16 others of the Colts, then in the All-American Conference. He later served as president of the football team.

After its failure, Mr. Embry became part of the effort with Zanvyl Krieger, whose family owned Gunther Brewery, to bring the National Football League Dallas Texans to Baltimore in 1953 -- and renamed the team the Colts.

Mr. Embry's later sporting interests included the Baltimore Clippers ice hockey team. He co-owned the team with Mr. Krieger and served as its president. The team inaugurated the Baltimore Civic Center -- now the Baltimore Arena -- when it opened in 1962.

The partners disbanded the team in 1975, after the city allowed the newcomer World Hockey Association Baltimore Blades to use the arena.

"I think Jake, coming from the outside, with his vision, wasn't influenced by Baltimore's civic inferiority complex, which had it seeing itself as a minor-league town," wrote Bill Tanton, former Evening Sun sports editor. "Jake Embry clearly played a role in the transformation of Baltimore from a minor- to major-league town."

"He was always a great salesman and cut quite a figure here," Mr. Tanton said yesterday. "And as an owner, he was always very active."

After leaving WITH in 1962, Mr. Embry became executive vice president of the Leon Golnick Advertising Agency. From 1967 until retiring in 1982, he was general manager of WMAR-FM.

"You could always rely on him to participate in the betterment of the city. He was always there to lend support," said former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III. "As mayor, I could always count on him for good, solid advice."

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