Remembering Joe Tait: a Broadcasting Legend and Friend
Legendary Cleveland broadcaster Joe Tait died today, after a long battle with cancer and kidney failure. Tait, 83, was a mainstay of Cleveland sports as the voice of Cavaliers for 39 years.
WKSU's sports commentator, Terry Pluto, has known Tait for a long time and considers him a good friend. He reflects on Tait's career and of their nearly 40-year friendship.
A chance meeting that led to Cleveland
Tait grew up in Illinois and got his start in broadcasting while attending Monmouth College. While he was there, he met Bill Fitch, an assistant football coach and the head basketball coach at Coe College. Fitch was scouting Monmouth one night and heard Tait in the press box, and the two became friends.
After college, Tait ended up working for WBOW in Terre Haute, Ind., as a station manager and morning host.
"He had tried to get a Major League [Baseball] job before. He interviewed for a job in Chicago with the White Sox. He has a whole file to this day of his rejection letters. He kept them all!" Pluto said with a laugh.
"It was 12 years later and Bill Fitch had moved up the coaching ranks, and he was the coach of the brand new Cavaliers. Joe Tait writes him a letter, congratulating him on getting the job in Cleveland," Pluto said.
The Cavs' season was already underway when Fitch and owner Nick Mileti brought Tait in for a tryout. They hired him on the spot, paying him $100 a game for the remaining 74 games of that inaugural 1970 season.
Tait took the job and ran with it for 39 years, with a brief pause in the early 80s under new ownership. Pluto said that no one had seen Tait's rise coming, as the man behind the mic would also call Cleveland Indians and professional hockey games before retiring from calling Cavs radio broadcasts in 2011.
"He figured out once he got to Cleveland and he was accepted here, that it was very dangerous [to go somewhere else]. He said, 'Know where they like you.'"
A great friendship
Pluto said he was a baseball writer at The Plain Dealer when he met Tait in 1980. At the time, Tait was calling Cleveland Indians games for television.
"At that point, it was a tough spot in Joe's life. He had just gotten divorced, and I invited him over to my house for dinner. And we just clicked," Pluto said.
"The friendship really took off in 1985 when I began to [cover] the Cavaliers. We would be on the road, and we would be able to go to breakfast," he said.
Pluto has written dozens of books throughout his long career. When he was just starting out, it was tough to draw a crowd at signings at local book stores.
"Nobody was coming," Pluto recalled.
Pluto said Tait offered to go with him to one of his signings, knowing people would recognize the broadcaster and create a buzz.
Pluto and Tait ended up writing a book together that was published the year Tait retired in 2011.
Pluto said Tait showed kindness towards aspiring broadcasters. College students would send him demo tapes that he would listen to in the car.
"He'd listen to 20-30 minutes of it and write the guy back a critique," Pluto said.
Those memories stuck with Pluto, as well as how Tait treated his fans.
"He showed me how to appreciate the readers, and in this case, the listeners. These people do pay your salaries; they do care."
"Know where they like you"
Tait had opportunities for bigger jobs throughout his career, including calling games for the NFL, and he once filled in at CBS Radio calling college basketball games. But Pluto said Tait found a home in Cleveland and never wanted to leave.
"He figured out once he got to Cleveland and he was accepted here, that it was very dangerous [to go somewhere else]. He said, 'Know where they like you.'" I've always kept that in mind too, because both of us stayed in this market forever because we're accepted," Pluto said.
And Pluto said he's received emails from fans sharing memories of meeting Tait out in the community and of Tait's time on the airwaves, remembering some of his signature calls, including "Wham, with the right hand!"
And Pluto said it's the love of the job, not just a love of sports that drives their passion.
"People think that you must really love sports. No. Joe and I like sports. Joe loves broadcasting, and I love writing and telling the story," Pluto said.