The Little League parents would make 12-year-old Richie Vitale cry. Vitale not only was blind in his left eye, it wandered. On the mound, it looked as if he was gazing closer to first than home.
“The kid does not know where he is throwing the ball!” a handful of parents in Garfield, N.J., in the 1950s screamed out at Richie. “Look at his eye!”
He was an All-Star pitcher, but he would race home after games and stare in the mirror.
The details of the incident that would so greatly affect his life are hazy. It occurred when he was 3 or 4. He stuck a pencil in his eye, he thinks.
It was the ’50s and his parents searched for a remedy, but there was none. The residue left Richie not only looking, but feeling different.
Tears ran down his cheeks. His mom, Mae, would enter his bedroom to try to find the words to ease the pain.
“Richie,” Mae would say. “Don’t let them get the best of you.”
On Monday night, the Sports Emmys awarded Dick Vitale, nearly 80, the Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual event held at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall.
In a pre-Emmy party, hosted by his agent, Sandy Montag, a who’s who of sportscasting attended the celebration that overlooked Columbus Circle.
Big-name broadcasters, like Mike Tirico and Scott Van Pelt, were there, and the lead executives from nearly every network schmoozed.
Montag, who started as Vitale’s stat man, toasted him. ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro read a letter he had written to Vitale. In it, Pitaro said Vitale inspires him to constantly be better.
Vitale, for his part, does not plan to go anywhere.
“I want to walk on the court at 100 years old, the first broadcaster ever to sit there and say, ‘You’re awesome, baby,’” Vitale told The Post the other day.
He reiterated his plan in his acceptance speech, even joking he will use CBS or Fox as leverage to get there.
Dickie V might have left coaching in his 30s, but he is one of the great recruiters of all time. He is relentless with relationships, from the presidents of ESPN to fighting for children with cancer to reporters, family and friends. Vitale is irrepressible in finding a bond. His best recruitment job may have been his wife.
In 1970 at the Blue Swan Inn in Rochelle, N.J., Lorraine McGrath walked in. Vitale asked her to dance. She said no. His high school coaching buddies, whom included Mike Fratello, were all laughing and high-fiving.
They put down some money she wouldn’t change her mind. She turned him down again.
He told her he didn’t even need her name. He just wanted to dance. He even explained there was action on her answer.
“I’ll give you the money,” he said.
On Wednesday, Dick and Lorraine will celebrate their 48th anniversary. They have five grandchildren.
Vitale has been on TV longer than the age group advertisers crave (18-34) has been alive. Four decades.
It was happenstance that after ESPN began in 1979, a big-time executive named Scotty Connal recognized Vitale’s energy and offered him a job after Vitale was fired by the Pistons.
“What is ESPN?” Vitale said. “It sounds like a disease.”
It turned into the most important sports media company in the world.
In the early days of ESPN in Bristol, when Vitale would finish at the college hoops studio, he would go out to the receptionist and see if there were any calls.
In the mid ’80s, one anonymous, old-school troll insisted the receptionist give him the number for the president of ESPN because, as the upset receptionist relayed to Vitale, “He can’t stand looking at your eye.”
Vitale hated the eye. He couldn’t look right at people when he spoke to them. Lorraine thinks it must have made dating difficult as a teenager. But now he was a grown man.
And this one agitator was setting a match off on his emotions. “Look at his eye!”
The vanity of TV was putting his eye under a magnifying glass.
“It was like a knife went through him,” Lorraine said.
At the time, Vitale told Lorraine, “I’m done with TV.”
He called Steve Anderson, the executive in charge of college hoops, and informed him he was resigning. The bullying was overwhelming him.
“I get choked up just talking about it,” Vitale said. “My mother would come in and say, ‘I’m going to tell you, Richie, don’t let them get the best of you, like that.’ I thought back to that when the thing happened at ESPN.
“Steve said, ‘You can’t let this guy get the best of you.’”
He didn’t and, eventually, Vitale risked blindness in both eyes by undergoing surgery to address the left one. The cosmetic procedure didn’t reverse the blindness, but it allowed his left eye to appear straight. In addition to the Emmy Award, Vitale is in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
To Lorraine, her husband’s wandering eye shaped him.
“It’s 95 percent,” Lorraine said. “It is very much of who he is.”
What Vitale lacked in vision he made up for with heart and a strong personality. It is like he lives parts of his late friend Jimmy Valvano’s memorable speech.
“But think about it,” Valvano said at the first ESPYs in 1993. “If you laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heckuva day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”
Valvano’s cancer inspired ESPN to create the V Foundation, the best thing the network has ever done. Fourteen years ago, Dick and Lorraine realized how severely underfunded pediatric cancer was when a 6-year-old girl named Payton Wright, who lived nearby in Tampa, passed away.
Two weeks ago, the 14th annual Dickie V Gala brought the total raised to nearly $30 million. Vitale’s recruiting skills are being put to better use than signing McDonald’s All-Americans.
At Monday night’s ceremony, Vitale was introduced by former ESPN president George Bodenheimer.
“You can’t overstate what he meant to ESPN and really the growth of college basketball on television,” Bodenheimer said during an interview beforehand.
Vitale, for his part, accepted his award. He had his ESPN family with him as well as his wife, his daughters and their husbands. He was thankful.
But he would give anything for his parents to see where he is now.
His dad, John, and his mom, Mae, were factory workers. They were not educated — fifth-grade level, at best, Dick says — but Vitale said they owned Ph.D.s in love. He said he learned more around the dinner table than he ever did in school. Their attitude resonates in Vitale’s heart.
“They used to tell me all the time,” Vitale recalled the other day. “It was never Dick, Richie. ‘Richie, never believe in ‘can’t.’ Richie, be good to people and people are going to be good to you. I think I’m in 14 Hall of Fames. Why? Because people have been so good to me.”
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