Sunday, March 19, 2017

From Baseball to Wrestling: Frances Crockett Talks About Tony Schiavone's Journey within Jim Crockett Promotions

Frances Crockett and Tony Schiavone reflect on Tony's transition from calling AA baseball on the radio to the national face and voice of pro-wrestling for the company. 
by Dick Bourne
Mid-Atlantic Gateway

We recently concluded our 7-part interview feature "Sundays with Schiavone" where Tony shared some of his favorite memories as a fan of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling in the 1970s before he got into the wrestling business in 1983.

Tony Schiavone
In part two of that interview, Tony talked about how he first came to work with Frances Crockett and the Crockett family on the baseball side of the business. He was working as the radio broadcaster for the (then) Class A Greensboro Hornets in 1981, where he had won South Atlantic League Broadcaster of the Year. He got a tip about the Class AA opening in Charlotte.

"I found out from a friend of mine named Bob Jamieson, who was the play-by-play guy of the Double A Nashville team…I found out that the Charlotte job was opening up, so I went down and interviewed for it," Tony told David Chappell in the Gateway interview.

I recently had the chance to ask Frances Crockett about her memories of hiring Tony all these many years ago. Frances was the General Manager of the Charlotte O's team and was a trailblazer of sorts, awarded The Sporting News Class AA Baseball Executive of the Year in 1980. She was the first woman to achieve such recognition. She had a proven track record of making good business decisions for her team. And she was getting ready to make another one. 

"Tony’s personality is and was the type of on air personality I was looking for," Frances told me. "I asked him to come down and see me at my ballpark, if I remember correctly."

The O's radio job seemed like the perfect fit for both Tony and Frances. "Not only was he a sports fan and baseball fan, he was a wrestling fan. I knew he was the perfect fit."

"I interviewed with Frances Crockett," Tony told us, "and she hired me that day."

Frances Crockett
General Manager of the Charlotte O's
Frances told me it was important to create an atmosphere for the fans of the minor league baseball team where the fans felt a part of their community at the Park. "Our players were young, 18 and 19 years old," she said. "Since Tony would be on the road with them, our radio announcer had to be a people person." Tony was the right fit to relate not only to the young players but to younger fans.

Much as Tony would later wear lots of different hats when working for the wrestling side of the family business, Frances loaded Tony up with lots of responsibilities besides calling the games for radio.

"Yes, he had to sell the commercials and help coordinate appearances," Frances said. He also occasionally worked on the grounds crew with the legendary wrestler, now Crockett Park grounds crew chief, Klondike Bill.

Calling baseball on the radio was a dream come true for Tony, and had been since he graduated from James Madison University a few years earlier. But his first love was wrestling.

"My baseball career, in my mind, was off and running," he told David Chappell in our interview. "I was two years out of college, my first year was in Single A and now I moved up to Double A. And as I got the job I would continue to talk to Frances about letting me do wrestling."

But nothing developed from that his first year. "I remember one time going to a TV taping [at WPCQ-36 studios in Charlotte]", he said, "and I remember talking to David [Crockett], and he was very nice to me. I told him what I’d like to do. He said he appreciated that, but there wasn’t anything available." Tony continued to make himself seen and he got lucky one night at a house show at the old Charlotte Coliseum. He was there to watch the matches when he realized something different was going on.

"I remember the matches were getting ready to start and nothing was happening," he said. "David [Crockett] came out and was looking up in the stands, and I knew instantly he was looking for me. And I went down and he said, ‘C.J. Underwood, is not here. Can you do the ring announcing for us?’ So I did the ring announcing that night in the Charlotte Coliseum."

Once that door had opened, Tony was ready to jump through it. He got the call to come assist legendary WBTV personality "Big" Bill Ward with the local promotional segments for the wrestling TV shows, a job he would later take over entirely. And the requests for Tony's services continued.

"Frances Crockett brought me into her office and she said, ‘Well, I knew this would happen. Now they want you to come and do some more interviews.’ She said, ‘You’re going to be pulled between me and them.’ Them being her brothers."

Tony's first big TV assignment for Mid-Atlantic Wrestling (other than the localized interviews) was to interview Ric Flair at his home as part of the build-up to Starrcade '83. "This was the announcement," Tony said, "his reaction to being part of the “Flare for the Gold,” having the World Title match with Harley Race."

It was a huge assignment with the top wrestler in the business.

He continued doing baseball on into the following season. "He was with baseball until wrestling took him full time,'" Frances told me.

That full time opportunity came when they needed a new full time co-host for the World Wide Wrestling TV program. "It needed to be a fresh face with personality but would not overshadow the wrestlers.  I thought Tony was perfect and pitched him to my brother Jimmy."

And the rest is history. Tony co-hosted "World Wide Wrestling" with David Crockett for most of 1984 and then was selected to take on host duties for "World Championship Wrestling" in April of 1985 when Jim Crockett Promotions took over that program from the WWF on Superstation WTBS. 

Tony is currently the radio voice of the Gwinnett Braves, the AAA franchise for the Atlanta Braves. Some thirty years after his move full-time to the wrestling side of the family business, Tony and Frances still enjoy seeing each other on occasion, most recently at a special night recognizing the history of the Crockett family and Charlotte baseball at BB&T Ballpark in September of 2016.

Jim Crockett, Jr., Frances Crockett, Tony Schiavone,
and Jackie Crockett at BB&T Park
"Tony working for the Braves has allowed me to see him occasionally," Frances told me. "At the Crockett night I had insisted the [Charlotte] Knights be playing the Braves because he was and is part of the Crockett family history of wrestling and baseball." All of that came together and Tony had an opportunity to reconnect with not only Frances, but all the Crocketts, including Jim Sr., David, and Jackie.

Tony's career in wrestling continued to grow after the Crockett family sold the wrestling business to Ted Turner in 1988. He became the voice of WCW during the infamous "Monday Night Wars" era, and called many of the company's most historic moments and matches on WCW Monday Nitro and on their many pay-per-view events.

One can only imagine how all of that would have looked and sounded different had Tony Schiavone not made his way to the queen city of Charlotte calling baseball games on the radio. It was a special journey that all of us as fans were fortunate enough to share with him.

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The Charlotte Knights have announced their 2nd Annual Crockett Foundation Night at BB&T Ballpark in downtown Charlotte on Sunday, September 3rd. Making a special appearance will be WWE Hall of Famers and Mid-Atlantic Wrestling legends Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson of the Rock & Roll Express. Members of the Crockett family are also expected to be in attendance. For more information visit the Charlotte Knights and Crockett Foundation websites.

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 Don't miss Tony's podcast every Monday with co-host Conrad Thompson. It's "What Happened When" (WHW Monday) and it drops every Monday on the MLW Radio Network and everywhere you get your podcasts.

Follow Tony Schiavone at @tonyschiavone24
Follow Conrad Thompson at @heyheyitsconrad
Follow the MLW Radio Network at @MWL
Follow Tony's podcast at @WHWMonday