Chris Berman’s long ESPN career has seen him doing plenty of different things, from SportsCenter to NFL Primetime to NFL Countdown to his current contributor role. But his various nicknames for players have particularly attracted a lot of attention, especially from athletes themselves; Peter King’s 2017 collection of thoughts on Berman and the NFL from past and current players saw many of them focus on the nicknames. And an athlete was critical to those nicknames continuing.
In the latest edition of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Jimmy Traina, Berman discusses what it’s like to not be hosting Countdown anymore, the legacy of NFL Primetime, and much more. But the segment on the nicknames is particularly interesting. It’s been reported before how ESPN briefly told him not to use nicknames in 1985 before fan pressure intervened, in articles like this 1987 Oklahoman one on Berman’s nicknames, but Berman goes into the story in some depth here, and there’s an especially notable role from then-Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett (now the Royals’ vice-president of baseball operations) that hasn’t been discussed much recently. Here’s the full podcast: the conversation about the nicknames starts around 40:30.
Traina asks Berman “Do you get tired of talking about the nicknames?” and Berman responds “No, because people love them, and they were unique at the time. Not original, Babe Ruth, I can’t take credit for them.” Traina then asks about the 1985 incident with an executive producer on SportsCenter telling Berman he couldn’t use nicknames, and Berman chuckles and says “He fought the law and the law won.”
Berman then says “I’m not sure why he was guided that way, because the nicknames were kind of, you didn’t really need to have to know the position, or the player, or the team to get them. They were based on life, or rock n’ roll, or food, they were a play on words. When you had Bert “Be Home By Eleven” (Blyleven), someone might be watching the show who’s not a riveted baseball fan, who might not know that Blyleven’s a pitcher, or is with the Pirates, or what have you. But “Be Home By Eleven,” every parent’s said it, every kid’s heard it, right? You didn’t need an explanation baseball-wise. You didn’t need to know he had a great curveball.”
Berman goes on to say “It was late in the season in ’85 and [he said] ‘No, you can’t do those any more.’ First of all, it’s like September 10, so if you’re smart, you wouldn’t eliminate them until like November, and then no one would notice. And each reason he gave didn’t make sense, but again, I’m just a young kid, I’m only 30. But people loved them, the players loved them. None of them were derogatory, they may not all have been genius, but then again, what is? But ‘You can’t do it,’ and the only thing I said to him was ‘I don’t think you understand what the people feel about this. We are a people-serving business.'”
Berman then says he doesn’t remember specifically why the producer wanted nicknames gone, saying “I don’t know, maybe I was getting too much notoriety, I don’t know. I didn’t do it for that reason, though. I did it because I was on at three in the morning doing a Seattle-Kansas City highlight with no pictures and it was 5-2 and I had two minutes. Well, you’ve got to do something, right? It’s entertainment. But he did it. And in ’85, you’ve got to remember, ESPN wasn’t everywhere. ESPN was not what you think now, or even what it was in 1995.”
He then dives into the George Brett story, saying “I remember, I was very good friends with players my age, and one of the biggest fans of the nicknames was George Brett, Hall of Famer, great guy, great player. And they were going to the postseason. And I called him to wish him luck with a week to go or whatever it was, ‘Good luck, I’ll be rooting for you, I don’t know if I’ll get to the World Series or whatever it was, I don’t cover that, oh, by the way, I can’t do the nicknames any more.’ And he exploded over the phone. I said ‘Well, don’t worry about it,’ you know, whatever.”
“And I was not there at Game 1 (of the American League Championship Series), Kansas City played Toronto, and I guess all the news media gathered around him at the workout the day before, because he’s George Brett, right? And George Grande went up to him, one of the great people in our early anchors, one of our baseball guys, the baseball guy along with Lou Palmer then, and he said ‘George, can I get you?’ And [Brett] said ‘Wait a minute, hold on.’ And he unloads, not at George Grande personally, but ‘What is your management doing?! I’m not going to watch ESPN any more, they’ve told my guy he can’t do nicknames!'”
“And among those in the circle was [USA Today sports media columnist] Rudy Martzke, who hadn’t been aware because it was not announced, right? Not ‘He’s not doing them anymore,’ because that would be stupid. But that got written up about eight places the next day, and I’m told that, in the 80s now, that the mail that came when people heard about it, was unprecedented at that time. I’m not saying that meant my stuff was great or this, but the people cared that much that they showered ESPN with letters in 1985. And next season, they were back and he [presumably the producer] was gone.”
Berman then goes on to say that he didn’t push for the producer’s firing and “That wasn’t my call” and “Obviously, there was more to it than that.” But he then talks about the importance he ascribes to the nicknames, and how they were a critical part of his broadcasting approach. “That’s who we are! Obviously, Bob Ley doesn’t do sports the way I do, he does it the way he is, and I hold him in the utmost respect. He is who he is and I am who am. We’re on every night, at least we were then, and if you’re not doing it the way who you are, you’re an actress, you’re an actor, right?”
“Now, it doesn’t mean that everyone likes it, but that’s fine. Not everybody likes a hamburger or chocolate ice cream or things we think that everyone should like. But at least be who you are in real life, don’t be someone else to go on the air. That’s really always kind of the way I approached it, and the nicknames were just sort of a microcosm of my enthusiasm and something to have fun with, and most of the players loved them, and the viewers seemed to love them. And it was something that when you’re on every night doing SportsCenter, and half the games didn’t have pictures, and games weren’t on that night, the Royals weren’t on on a Wednesday night on TV in 1982 or 1985, so embellish a little. That’s what I did.”
So, viewers after 1985 have George Brett to thank for Chris Berman’s continued usage of nicknames. And that’s a pretty interesting story, and one that shows both athlete consumption of and engagement with ESPN (even back before it was really big), and that viewer pressure has sometimes caused ESPN to change course. Even over things like nicknames.