Don Newbery was always the little guy.
He wasn’t particularly tall, or fast. He knew he’d never play in the majors.
But he knew one important thing: The little guy can win — if he doesn’t act little.
Newbery was so damn aggressive that Paul “Bear” Bryant, his college coach, made him a 150-pound linebacker. He was so damn aggressive that he coached not one, but two underdog college teams to their first-ever conference championships. And he was so damn aggressive that when he asked for interviews with the century’s most famous athletes, they never told him no.
Muhammad Ali. Joe Louis. George Foreman. Joe DiMaggio. Wilt Chamberlain. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Jim Palmer. Johnny Unitas. Billie Jean King. All these and more. He captured conversations with them in dugouts, on benches, in locker rooms.
He did it on his own, without the benefit of a CBS or NBC logo glued to a microphone. Decades passed, and people died, and Newbery’s aggression cooled. His interviews were forgotten. Until now.
Don Newbery isn’t Howard Cosell.
He’s an unassuming man with a small, neat mustache and a faded Jersey accent. He puts smiley-face stickers on his correspondence. His favorite expletive is “Wow!”
But when he picked up a microphone, he found his voice — the voice that soared over roaring stadiums, the voice that took on the fever of the crowd.
Yes it is! It’s Sonny Jurgensen! And you can hear the reaction of nineteen-thousand and thirty seven Washington fans! He is their man!
In the 1960s the daily radio sports news consisted of a guy reading scores off the ticker, condensing games into minute-long, stats-heavy summaries. Listeners rarely got a chance to hear in-depth interviews with athletes and coaches. There were no all-sports radio stations. ESPN hadn’t been invented.
Newbery, then a high-school basketball coach in Silver Spring, Md., never planned to be a sportscaster. He just thought he could do a better job than the ticker readers. In 1969, when he was 39, Newbery approached WHMC-AM, a tiny, 75-watt radio station run out of a mountaintop cabin near Gaithersburg, Md. The owner gave him a shot at doing the sports news — then stopped him short.
“You’re just flat-out reading,” the man told him. “You’re not telling a story.”
Newbery tried again. The station agreed to give him five minutes every morning and five minutes each night. They paid him about $10 a week.
That was all he needed. Newbery bought a small tape recorder and began covering the Baltimore Bullets basketball team and the Washington Senators baseball team. “They saw me almost every day,” he says — at practices, in the locker room, on the sidelines. You can hear the chords of the ballpark organ and the crack of the bat in the background of his interviews.
Newbery’s oldest daughter, Donna Llewellyn, recalls sitting with her father in the smoke-hazed press box at RFK Stadium, nibbling on a crab cake and helping him keep score. “It was very much a man’s world,” she says.
Newbery often prefaced his questions with long, leisurely lead-ins. Yet athletes gave him three, five, even 10 minutes — an eternity, in this age of breathless sound bites. He wanted to give listeners more than bare stats and winners’ gloating. He wanted to give them thoughtful conversations, such as this 1969 exchange with Baltimore Oriole Frank Robinson:
Newbery: Frank, I know you have aspirations to be a major league manager. … Would you curtail your playing career to be a manager, or would you like to possibly be a playing manager, or a dugout manager?
Robinson: … I wouldn’t want to be a playing manager, because it’s tough enough one or the other, you know? … Especially your first year. That’s a tough year anyway. … You’re trying to get your feet on the ground. You’re trying to watch all phases of the game, and keep the whole thing right under your thumb. It’s tough enough without having to try to do this out on the field.
Robinson went on to become a player and manager for the Cleveland Indians in 1975, making him the first black manager in major league baseball.
WASH-FM, a major Washington station, soon took notice of the fresh sports coverage pouring out of the mountains. The station manager asked Newbery to fill in for his regular sports guy.
The Senators departed in 1971, leaving Washington with only one pro team: the Redskins. Determined to keep covering sports, Newbery began driving up to Baltimore at night to cover the Bullets and the Orioles — leaving his wife Dede and their two daughters at home. It became too much. So he quit his coaching job and became a full-time independent sportscaster. WTOP-AM called in Newbery as a substitute for Warner Wolf in the morning and afternoon. WDON-AM, a country-music station in Wheaton, Md., gave him a two-hour program every Saturday.
Newbery kept dreaming up fresh ways to bring sports alive. In 1975 promoter Don King decreed that the Thrilla in Manila between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier — the final bout for the world heavyweight championship — wouldn’t be broadcast on the radio, only televised in arenas and theaters for paying viewers. Newbery decided to record the blow-by-blow anyway. So he went to the Capital Centre with his recorder. He shouted over the screaming hordes until he was hoarse, to let his listeners hear what it was like.
Frazier’s throwing those short choppy, lefts and rights. There’s a left hand to Ali’s jaw. A right to Ali’s jaw. Ali is against the ropes all this time. The referee separates the two. They’re out in the middle of the ring. There’s a left hand by Frazier, a left jab by Frazier and a hard, straight right hand by Ali that connects. But Frazier keeps coming in — two hard left jabs by Ali. Frazier keeps coming in. A left hook by Frazier that connects. That’s the end of round 13. The crowd loves it!
Ali and Frazier slugged it out through one more round until Frazier, bloodied and almost blind, threw in the towel. Ali later said that the fight was the closest he ever came to death.
Newbery, now 81, closes his eyes and nods his head over the silver Radio Shack cassette player. He smiles at the memory of those long-ago punches. All he wanted, he says, was to “catch that moment when it was something special.”
“I wanted to cover everything,” Newbery says. Pro football. Horse racing. Women’s bowling. He collected interviews like baseball cards. He even covered the Title IX hearings in Washington, recording what may be the only audio interview with civil rights lawyer Gwen Gregory, architect of the legislation that mandated equal access to women’s college sports.
“Normally, you cherry pick. You only pick the super-duper celebrity people that you want to interview,” says Charlie Brotman, a longtime sports public-relations man who was the Senators’ stadium announcer from 1956 to 1962. Newbery picked everyone. “He really went after it,” Brotman says.
And he was good. “In all candor,” Brotman says, “there have [been] and there were announcers who were as good and better. He was better than most, because he was full of enthusiasm, and he was aggressive enough to go after the athletes or the personality. He was not bashful.” Yet Newbery didn’t pester them, Brotman says: “Nobody has come up to me and said, ‘What a pain in the ass.’”
Because Newbery had been a coach for years, he found kinship with most pro coaches he interviewed. “They knew that I had some insight. That I knew what I was talking about. That I didn’t come just with written-down questions. Because of that, boy oh boy, their responses to me was like — brotherhood, almost. We connected.”
The exception was legendary University of Maryland basketball coach Charles “Lefty” Driesell. One season, Driesell kept pulling some of his best players out of the game, a decision Newbery thought was ill-considered. Newbery interviewed the players about how they felt, and criticized the coach on his show.
“I know what you said on the air about me,” an irate Driesell said. He refused to speak to Newbery and tried to kick him out of the Terrapins’ locker room. (Driesell, who now lives in Virginia Beach, says he doesn’t remember the exchange with Newbery.)
Newbery wasn’t above a little deception, either. In 1969, at a Washington Touchdown Club luncheon, he told Senators manager Ted Williams that Redskins coach Vince Lombardi had agreed to do a quick interview if Williams would join him. He fed Lombardi the same line. For three minutes he had Washington’s hot-tempered, superstar coaches sitting on either side of him. It was the only interview they ever did together.
Newbery also was determined to land an interview with Williams’ wife, the former Vogue model Dolores Wettach. She never granted interviews, but eventually she agreed to talk.
She invited Newbery to the Williams’ suite at the Shoreham Hotel, near Rock Creek Park, and they went up on the roof.
He asked her what it was like being married to Williams — the greatest hitter in the world, Washington’s hero: “How has it been for you?”
“Heartbreaking,” she answered in a sweet and cultured voice, holding her infant son in her arms.
It’s the toughest relationship going when you live with someone as famous as he is, and who is as volatile as he is, and as expressive, and can, you know, work under these pressures. Also, he’s very, he’s very insecure. And he wants so badly when he’s handling something new to do it, you know, to the best possible. And absolutely nothing can come in his way. I mean, if I even ask a question, it’s termed an argument. And they say you hurt those you love the most, but boy, he can come home and just take everything out on you.
How did Newbery get Dolores Williams? The same way he got everyone: He charmed them. He told them they expressed themselves perfectly. He said he absolutely agreed with them. It wasn’t flattery. He believed it. “And boy,” he says, “I tell you, people would open.”
Just as a mechanic loves lifting the hood to tinker with engines, he says, “I love finding out what’s inside of people, what makes them tick.”
Something terrible ticks deep inside Newbery.
Ask about his childhood, and the jocular sportscaster vanishes. He goes upstairs. He comes back down with three pieces of paper, the typewritten letters blurred from much copying. With a ruler, Newbery has underlined names, including his own, in red and black. It’s an adoption decree, dated 1943. It says that Newbery’s biological mother is adopting the son she gave up in infancy.
Edith Hingher was a scrubwoman without a high-school education when she married an Italian man named Gilbert Di Giovanni. In 1929, when Hingher was five months pregnant with her son, police arrested Di Giovanni for bigamy. The marriage was annulled.
Newbery never met his father. Never saw a picture of him. “Scum,” Newbery calls him. There were far worse words reserved for children like Newbery, born out of wedlock.
“They were called bastards.” He says it grimly. He almost spits it. “I was a bastard.” Women like his mother were “crucified,” he says. “And if you came out of that woman, you were horrible. OK? And treated that way.”
His mother couldn’t afford to keep her infant. She gave him the surname Armstrong to hide him from his father’s family, and placed him in foster care in Elizabeth, N.J. He lived with five families before he was 10. None of them wanted him.
In 1943, after Edith was remarried to James Newbery, she petitioned to adopt her son, by then 13 years old. Don Armstrong, now Newbery, was reunited with his mother. But the damage was done. Newbery had become a silent, withdrawn teenager. He had no friends. The way he sees it, he says, “my computer brain was shutting down.”
In a lonely childhood, sports were his saving grace. Wrestling. Running. Backlot baseball. His most shining memory was the first football game he played for Jefferson High School. Newbery was a sophomore on a team of seniors. He didn’t expect to play that day, but after the team scored two touchdowns, the coach sent him to the backfield.
In the huddle, team captain Bob Ward, who went on to become an All-American lineman for the University of Maryland, turned to Newbery. “He just pointed and said — I’ll never forget it — ‘Let the kid take it.’”
The center hiked him the ball, the linemen opened the hole and Newbery ran. He flew down the field. He fell into the end zone.
It was beautiful. It was brotherhood.
After spending high school stuck in “dummy classes,” as he calls them, a sports mentor helped Newbery secure a scholarship to a college prep school. University of Kentucky coach Paul “Bear” Bryant awarded Newbery a full football scholarship in 1949.
Newbery was “so damn aggressive,” he says, that Bryant made him a 150-pound linebacker. After getting pounded for a semester, Newbery opted for baseball. He played as a second baseman for a New York Giants farm team until he was drafted by the Army in 1951. A police officer in the Korean War, he was escorting fuel trucks under fire when he was terribly burned on his left arm and shoulder. The door to professional baseball that had cracked open closed once more.
He returned to college at the University of Maryland on the G.I. Bill, planning to become a basketball coach. While his fraternity brothers went to parties, Newbery was in the athletics’ department’s film room, studying old reels and attending practice.
He met a girl named Dede Smith his junior year of college; they married in 1957 and raised two daughters. After graduation, the University of Baltimore hired him as its athletic director, basketball and baseball coach. They had nothing to lose — both teams had gone through five coaches in five years. In three years, Newbery took both his teams to their first-ever Mason-Dixon Conference championships. He went on to coach at New York University. After his career in coaching, broadcasting and eventually, human resources, in 1987 he and Dede moved to a tidy Colonial in the West End to live near their daughters.
Then in 2002 Newbery stumbled across his old tapes in the attic. He thought he’d saved two. He found 118.
He spent a year just listening to them. When he was finished, he realized what he had: a trove of long-forgotten interviews with more than 100 American athletes, heroes and celebrities.
Newbery set about the task of transferring the tapes to digital files and cataloging them. It took him 10 years to build a library of 67 meticulously labeled CDs. He sells them by special request, but takes pleasure in donating them — to the Newseum in Washington, to national sports halls of fame, to any charity that asks.
His interviews with Williams were used in a 2009 HBO documentary, as well as “The Biography of an American Hero: Ted Williams.” In November Newbery was inducted into the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame, which recognizes people who have made a significant contribution to broadcasting.
“I knew I had something that no one else has ever accomplished,” he says, thumping the table with each word.
Was there wisdom in those hundreds of interviews? Did he discover the secret to being a champion?
Newbery ponders this for a moment. “I didn’t learn a damn thing,” he says. “Honest to God.”
He never went looking for the Big Message. “I went into every single interview like it was the very first interview I ever had. And I didn’t expect anything from anyone,” he says.
He expects nothing now. He just wants his interviews to be heard.
He wants to show the world what the little guy did.