Sportscaster Gib Shanley dies at 76
Posted by Bob Dolgan Special to The Plain Dealer April 06, 2008 21:28PM
Gib Shanley, the radio voice of the Browns for a generation of fans and the face of sports at Channel 5 for 20 years, has died. He was 76.
The colorful sportscaster called the last world championship won by any Cleveland team, the Browns' 27-0 victory over Baltimore in the 1964 NFL title game. But he also called his share of heartbreaking defeats, notably the playoff loss to Oakland in January 1981 when Brian Sipe was intercepted in the end zone late in the game.
He also called the first 15 games of the Browns' "Three Rivers jinx" losses in Pittsburgh. The Browns did not win a game in Pittsburgh from the opening of Three Rivers Stadium in 1970 until 1986.
Shanley was merely a successful Cleveland sportscaster until Nov. 8, 1979. That night be burned a flag of Iran on television and became a folk hero.
The incident took place while Iran was holding a group of Americans hostage in Tehran.
Near the end of his broadcast on WEWS Channel 5, Shanley said, "I know this isn't sports, but I'm going to do it anyway."
He held out a 10-by-20-inch flag of Iran and set it on fire, then threw it on the floor. He said that if his gesture offended any watching Iranians, they should leave the country.
The next day the Cleveland Press reported that the TV station received 500 phone calls, almost all of them supporting Shanley's action.
In a front page story, Shanley said, "It was a spur of the moment thing, but I'd do it again. Somebody has to protest what's happening."
Two hundred people marched through Public Square that day, protesting Iranian policies. One person held up a sign, "GIB'S GOT GUTS."
Shanley was interviewed by newsmen around the nation. The NBC and CBS networks asked for a tape of the burning. Time Magazine carried an item on his performance.
Channel 5 executives were not happy, however. The day after the burning, News Director Garry Ritchie told him his action was unprofessional. Shanley agreed. Under the scrutiny and direction of the station, he composed a commentary to be read on the air. "It was not the brightest thing I ever did," he told the audience. But he did not apologize and never did.
Years later, he said the incident was blown out of proportion. "But I suppose I would do it again."
Funeral arrangements will be handled by Ripepi and Sons, 18149 Bagley Road in Middleburg Heights.
Longtime Air Man
He is one of Cleveland's best-remembered sportscasters. He handled the sports anchor job at Channel 5 for 20 years. He could be imperious, slightly cranky and humorous. He and weatherman Don Webster traded pies in the face. He wore outrageously-hued sports coats of orange and pink plaid and reddish orange with white stripes. He often gave stinging 15-second commentaries at the end of his reports.
Shanley was the radio voice of the Browns for 24 years, delivering detailed descriptions with his smooth, authoritative voice. He was strong on fundamentals, always telling the down and the position of the ball. In a typical call he would say, "Collins flanked out 12 yards to the right, Warfield out five yards on the left, Brewer tight right, running backs are Kelly and Green. Ryan back to pass, Collins has it. Touchdown."
In 1967, he said, "Every day I think how lucky I am. I'm doing something I love and the only thing I ever wanted to do, and to think I get paid for it. I wouldn't change jobs for 10,000 times more money."
Yet, he walked away from his job at the peak of his fame, in February 1985, when he was 53. He went to Los Angeles to find work, saying he was sick and tired of the snow and all the negativeness in Cleveland.
"Gib's exit is a civic loss," The Plain Dealer editorialized. "He ranks among the best football announcers in the U.S. Raking leaves on Sundays while listening to the game will never be the same."
The move did not work out. He was just another aging, unknown sportscaster in L.A. After three years he returned to Cleveland and resumed his career. As one sportswriter said, "Even during his absence he was the best-known sportscaster in Cleveland."
Shanley's journey to sportscasting prominence began in Bellaire, Ohio, where he was born on Aug. 6, 1931. An only child, he grew up in nearby Shadyside, a tiny town he described as having one theater and two drugstores. He got his first name from his mother, whose maiden name was Gibson.
He was on the freshman football team in high school and played the drums in the school band. He earned a letter as a first baseman in baseball. His vision was 20-200, but glasses corrected that to 20-20.
After high school, he attended a radio school in Washington, D.C., then worked as a sportscaster in Bellaire, Cambridge, Zanesville, Pontiac, Mich., and Toledo. He once rode a rowboat for 12 hours, giving a stroke-by-stroke radio report of a man swimming from Sandusky to Canada. He was a disc jockey for a time. He spent 11 years working in small towns, honing his style.
The crew-cut Shanley was calling University of Toledo football and basketball games in 1961 and was just about to leave broadcasting and take a public relations job when the Browns' play-by-play job opened with the departure of Bill McColgan to Washington.
He applied for the position but had lost his tapes of the Toledo football games. So he sent the Browns his Toledo basketball tapes instead. "I didn't really expect to get the job," Shanley said. "There were 150 to 200 applicants."
But WGAR Radio, the Browns flagship station at the time, liked what it heard. He received a letter that said, "As you know, the Browns are a football team. Can you send us your football tapes?"
He recreated a football game in a Toledo studio, sent it in and got the job. The great Paul Brown was the team's coach and general manager at the time. He told Shanley the main thing he had to do was be accurate. "Tell the facts and don't make excuses if we lose," Brown said.
Shanley incurred the wrath of Art Modell, who had bought the Browns in 1961, while describing an exhibition game in 1963. The Browns had been helpless in the first half and when they trotted off the field at halftime, Shanley said, "That's the first time the Browns have crossed midfield all day."
The witty comment angered Modell. "The next day he told me in no uncertain terms that he didn't want to hear any more of my lousy humor," Shanley said in 1967. Modell also warned Jim Graner, Shanley's broadcast partner, who had laughed at the joke.
Shanley was sometimes accused of being a mouthpiece for Modell, who, like all sports moguls, approved the hiring of sportscasters who worked his team's games.
Shanley was sensitive to the charge. "Other than that (the crossing-midfield comment) we've never been told what to say," he said. "Naturally, I can't be too sharply critical. But I'm a Browns fan. You can probably tell by the sound of my voice if we're winning or losing. I get depressed when we lose. I don't see anything wrong with being partial on a regional broadcast."
He was superstitiously helpful to the Browns. He wore the same green suit to the games when they won eight straight in 1968. He shook hands with quarterback Bill Nelsen before each game during the streak. As a member of the Browns family, he was allowed to take dropkicks on the practice field, while Graner ran Z-out pass patterns.
Polite to Art
As Shanley became more prosperous and independent, he would criticize the Browns on his top-rated TV show when they deserved it. But he never made fun of them. And he never said anything critical about Modell. He referred to him as "Mr. Modell" in interviews.
In contrast, after Ted Stepien, a Modell critic, bought the Cavaliers, Shanley wore a black armband and told viewers he was mourning the demise of the basketball team. He was not averse to making fun of the Indians either.
In 1976, Shanley and Modell were part of a group that bought WJW radio for $3 million.
Aside from his TV and Browns duties, Shanley hosted the "Quarterback Club" on Channel 5, a review of the previous Sunday's Browns game. He had two daily radio shows and did play-by-play on Ohio State football. He made commercials, saying, "Take it from the Gibber," and hosted the Ohio lottery show.
First to $100,000
He was named Ohio Sportscaster of the Year several times. In 1980 he was said to be the first Cleveland sportscaster to earn $100,000 a year.
By then Shanley had been divorced twice and had four grown children. After nightly broadcasts, he would visit a Broadview Heights discotheque in which he was a partner. "He's always with attractive women," said Indians second baseman Duane Kuiper, a close friend.
"I'm having more fun now than when I was 21," Shanley was quoted as saying. A minor ulcer condition limited his imbibing. He drank a lot of water and orange juice.
In 1981, he had plastic surgery to remove bags from under his eyes. He married Joanne Klonowski, who had worked in marketing with both the Indians and Cavaliers, the same year. It was his third marriage, her first.
In late 1984, he dropped the bombshell that he would be leaving Channel 5 to find work in L.A. Klonowski opposed the move, feeling they should stay in Cleveland. Ironically, her career flourished in L.A., where she handled marketing and public relations as the vice-president of a title insurance company.
"She's doing very well," Shanley said in 1987. "I get to cook and work in the yard. I just fixed the sprinkling system today."
He returned to Cleveland as sports anchor of WUAB Channel 43's new 10 p.m. news show in January 1988. His salary was said to be $70,000. As the most identifiable personality on the station, he was allowed to do 10 to 16 minutes of sports in the one-hour programs, far above the quotas allowed sports on other stations.
"I'm happy to be working here," Shanley said. "I'm happy to be working anywhere.This job is wonderful. I'll get home an hour earlier than I used to. I'm planning to be a lot more humble and pleasant."
Shanley gave a lot of airtime to young sportscasters Jeff Phelps and Ron Jantz. "I don't like to sit on camera too long and bore people," he said. "It's more efficient to divide it up."
Klonowski stayed in L.A. On Feb. 17, 1988, they announced they were amicably ending their seven-year marriage.
As the years went on, Shanley seemed increasingly bored with the TV job. He said sportscasting had changed since his heyday. "There's more entertainment now and not enough substance," he said.
Shanley left the station in December 1996, when his contract was not renewed, ending a remarkable 33-year Cleveland career.