In Their Words is a weekly feature appearing Sundays in The Blade's sports section. Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg talked with Orris Tabner, a Toledo sports broadcasting icon.
The Taberner brothers pretty much dominated the sports airways in Toledo from the late 1940s through the mid-'60s. Doug, Joe, Jack and Orris all were involved in broadcasting, and Orris parlayed early days on radio into a three-decade-plus career as the sports director at WTOL-TV, channel 11.
One quick note about the name - after Doug and Orris broke into the TV business they legally changed the spelling of their last name to match the way nearly everyone mispronounced it, Tabner. Joe and Jack kept the original spelling.
Orris, 76, has spent his entire life in Toledo with the exception of a couple years while in the U.S. Army as a public information officer. He still knows every word of the Robinson Junior High fight song, played football and competed in track and field at Libbey High and played college football for a couple years at both Central Michigan and the University of Toledo.
Older brother Doug was already sales manager and sports director at WTOD-AM when he arranged for Orris to be hired at the station's FM affiliate, WTRT, in the early 1950s.
"It was the first FM station in town," Orris said. "In fact, the call letters stood for 'Tomorrow's Radio Today.' I'd sit there, spin music, handle station breaks, and I was making a whopping $1 an hour."
When Doug moved to WTOL-AM (now WCWA), Orris became the program director and sports voice at WTOD. He followed Doug to WTOL in 1957, and a year later the owners founded a commercial television station with the same call letters.
Doug and Orris worked for both mediums. Gordon Ward was the TV station's news anchor, and he'd handle the first 15 minutes of the 6 p.m. newscast before Doug hosted "The Trophy Room" sports show that was produced by Orris. The two brothers anchored the 11 p.m. TV sports report on alternate nights. But Doug's job at the station included sales, and he started work at 8 a.m.
"After about a year, he told me he'd had enough of those hours and said, 'You do it.'•" Orris recalled.
And he did, from 1959 until his retirement in 1996.
"I never counted them up but I've often wondered just how many shows I did," Orris said.
Joe Taberner was best known as brother Doug's partner for 16 years on Ohio State University football broadcasts and as a talk radio pioneer while part of a three-man team that included Doug and Frank Gilhooley on the Buckeye Four-Star Sports Final show that aired for many years at 5 p.m. weeknights on WTOL-AM. Jack Taberner handled play-by-play of UT's televised basketball games and also hosted a popular local bowling show.
Doug died in 1964 and Jack passed away in the mid-1980s. Joe, 79, is a retired beer distributor and lives in the Toledo area.
Orris, a widower, lives in the south end near Heather Downs Country Club, where he was a member for 40 years. He has a son and daughter, two stepchildren and 11 grandchildren.
"MY BROTHER Joe was an all-state guard at Libbey, so I played that position too. By my senior year, I was moved to tackle at something like 165 pounds. The rest of our line was Dick Szymanski, who went to Notre Dame; Glen Mugler, who went to Miami of Florida; George Jacoby, who was a captain at Ohio State; and Ron Geyer, who started at Michigan. We won most of the time, but not because of me.
"I went to Central Michigan for a year and realized I was starving to death, so I transferred to UT and came home to mama's cooking. I played on UT's freshman team as a sophomore and then I came back out the next preseason. By then I was married, had a job at WTOD and I didn't know if I had time to play football, too. I made the decision to call it quits in the shower one day. I wiped soap out of my eyes and looked one way, and there was George Machoukas, who was a giant of a man. I looked the other way, and there was Mel Triplett, whose biceps were bigger than my legs. I figured those guys could hurt me. Nobody really cared that I quit. I wasn't very good.
"I WAS JUST getting started in radio, and the station sent me to Florida for spring training. Mickey Mantle was the last guy in line during batting practice before an exhibition game. So I asked him if he had a minute for a quick radio interview. He said, 'Get lost.' So I went back to the hotel and I was feeling pretty bad because the station had paid to send me down and I hadn't produced a report.
"I went out to the hotel pool, and there was Stan Musial sitting there watching his wife and kids swimming. I asked him if he had time for a short interview. He said, 'Where's your equipment?' I told him it was up in my room and I'd run and get it. Instead, he followed me up to the room, sat on a bed and gave me a great 10 minutes. So I was always a big Stan Musial fan. Mickey Mantle? Not so much.
"THE BUCKEYE Four-Star Sports Final was, for my money, the best radio sports show of that era and the best I've ever heard, period, especially the nights Doug was on. Joe and Frank Gilhooley were tremendous, too. I'd sub every now and then when somebody couldn't make it. There were Blade sports writers, like Eddie Jones, on the show for awhile, too. It was one of the first sports shows with a talk format and it was fun to listen to. They'd take the news of the day, pick one or two hot topics and just kick it around with everybody giving their opinions. It was a great show and just about every radio in town was tuned to WTOL at 5 o'clock on Monday through Friday. It probably ran for eight or nine years until Doug died in '64."
"MY BROTHERS were all talented and all knew sports. Joe had the best voice, by far. It's still a great big, booming voice. He might not have been as polished as Doug and I were, but I've told him that if I had his voice I'd have been on one of the networks.
"MY FAVORITE events and athletes? Well, I liked golf, so I have to say Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino. Jack talked to you like a friend. We'd just sit and shoot the breeze. With everybody else, it was just an interview. I had the pleasure of riding around MIS the day the track opened with A.J. Foyt. Denny McLain, the Tigers pitcher, was always accessible and a great interview. He could never remember my name. He always called me Toledo.
"I CREDIT whatever success I had to a lot of continuity at Channel 11 and to longevity and, for some reason, to just being very comfortable with television. There were times I'd be doing interviews on radio and be absolutely petrified. But I was never that way on TV. Doug was the opposite. He was pretty casual on radio, but the first night we did TV he sweated so much his shirt was soaked through.
"Certainly there were guys who knew more about sports than I did, but I think that comfort level allowed me to connect with the viewers and I had a great, long run. I've been off the air for 12 years or so now and I still have people come up and say 'Hi' and tell me how much they miss me. That's very humbling."
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