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The big bombshell

October 29, 2010 - John Mehno
It was 35 years ago this week that Bob Prince was fired from the Pirates broadcasting job.

Until Mario Lemieux's 2000 comeback, it was the biggest shocker I'd covered. The news trickled out. Pirates GM Joe L. Brown told Nellie King that he wouldn't be returning for the 1976 season. Rather than let KDKA announce the news, Nellie called columnist Al Abrams and gave him the story. Al, who was then semi-retired, fumbled the story, burying the news in the middle of an otherwise non-descript column. He didn't even alert the P-G to follow up.

The bomb was dropped a day or two later when KDKA announced Prince's contract would not be renewed. In essence, he was fired after 28 seasons. He didn't go quietly. A competing radio station had a couple of former KDKA employees who delighted in hammering their former station. A parade through downtown Pittsburgh was organized. Talk show lines burned. People sent letters of protest and signed petitons. But Prince and King were done.

There was no secret reason. Prince had clashed with KDKA executives for a long time. The Pirates always smoothed over the problems. But as Prince grew more distracted and his work slipped, the Pirates werem't inclined to save him. So when KDKA advanced the idea of dumping Prince, the Pirates didn't disagree.

In broadcasting, about 98 percent of all decisions are based on money. This was the rare exception. It was personal. The two KDKA executives, Ed Wallis and A.B. "Bill" Hartman, were out to get Prince. They wanted to crush him, and they did. Prince did OK temporarily. ABC hired him to launch Monday Night Baseball, and he became the No. 1 announcer with the Houston Astros. But by mid-season, ABC had demoted him to the No. 2 team and the Astros let him go after that one season.

Prince wound up doing things like struggling through hockey play-by-play ("We got they got it") and he called Carnegie-Mellon football games for a station in McKeesport. Ten years after he was fired, the desperate Pirates and KDKA agreed to bring him back for a part-time role on the radio broadcasts. But he was gravely ill and only did a few innings before he died at age 69. His Hall of Fame recognition came the year after he died. He never knew he was going to be honored.

Nellie King and Joe L. Brown died this summer. Wallis and Hartman are long gone. None of the principles from the story are around to recount what happened this week in 1975. Maybe it didn't have to end the way it did. Prince later admitted he was wrong. But 35 years ago, he didn't see it that way. It was a head-on collision of strong wills, and the fallout was significant.

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