Describing what legendary broadcaster Joe Tait has meant to me personally is an emotional experience. As a longtime fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers I would trans-channel my Cavs “fix” thru the eyes and voice of this man. Together, we have shared a virtual lifetime of hope, excitement, disappointment, and heartbreak. Tait transported us to courtside with his vivid play by play descriptions, putting us on the edge of our seats regardless of where you may have dialed in from. From Austin Carr to Kyrie Irving, nearly every big moment in the team’s history has been embedded in my memory in rich detail thanks to Joe Tait.
Given the number of mediocre teams that the Cavs have put on the floor over 40-plus seasons, you have to appreciate the amazing job that Tait has done over his career. Unlike today’s broadcasts, Tait did both the play-by-play and color commentary by himself. This man had a knack for inspiring hope of better times to come, thru his eternal optimism. Tait made every possession sound as if it was a pivotal play in the game. Living thru many mundane seasons may be the reason he excelled to his very best during the Miracle of Richfield days, or the Price-Daugherty-Nance years, or when LeBron took the team to 60 wins.
Joe Tait was born in Evanston, Illinois on May 15, 1937 and graduated from Monmouth College in 1959. Radio was not Tait’s lifelong dream, as he always wanted to work for the railroad. Both sides of his family had worked for the railroad, except Tait’s father who worked for the phone company. At Monmouth, Tait worked as the Sports Information Director. One day, he brought in the results of a track meet to the radio station. No one was there to report the results, so the owner asked him to put five minutes together and report it on the air.
Tait had been doing recordings of Monmouth College games the year before he began working in the field. His speech teacher had bought him a tape recorder and some tapes, and Tait played his recordings in the student union. Most of the time, the players were the only ones who actually listened to the tapes as they wanted to hear how he described their game. Needless to say, it was a tough audience. During his four years in school, Tait started as a custodian with the radio station, but eventually learned every job in the station, working his way up to Operations Manager.
After three years in the Army Security Agency, an ad in a broadcasting magazine caught Tait’s eye, advertising for an instructor and a play by play announcer for Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. After three years there, Joe went back into commercial radio becoming a station manager in Terre Haute, Indiana. In 1969, he saw an article saying that the expansion Cavaliers had signed Bill Fitch as head coach. Tait knew Fitch from Monmouth, where he had interviewed him many times. He dropped Fitch a congratulatory note, wishing him luck.
Cavs owner Nick Mileti was looking for an announcer. Mileti was looking for someone who could put an exciting spin on a bad team, in order to bring the fans out to home games. Fitch had always said that Joe could make a 66-0 blowout sound like a 6-6- tie, and suggested him to Mileti. Tait was offered the job the day before the home opener. Mileti at this time was close to bankruptcy and told Joe he couldn’t pay much, but if he stuck with him, someday he’d make it up to him. Eventually, Mileti got back on his feet financially, bought the Cleveland Indians. Joe was mowing his lawn one afternoon, when Mileti called to tell him that he remembered this promise and ask him to also become the voice of the Cleveland Indians.
In 1981 Ted Stepien bought the Cavaliers. Stepien believed that his way was the only right way to do things. After several angry confrontations with executives at WWWE, the station renounced their broadcasting rights to Cavs games. They simply didn’t want to be associated with the hard headed Stepien. The popular rumor was that Stepien had fired Tait, but when WWWE terminated their relationship with the Cavs, they essentially eliminated his job. Tait had no shortage of work though. In addition to the Indians games, Tait did radio for the New Jersey Nets one year and TV for Chicago Bulls the next. He also was broadcasting the CBS Radio College Game-of-the-Week. In 1982, Gordon and George Gund bought the Cavs and brought Tait back before the start of the 1982-83 season.
Tait has seen it all, when it comes to Cleveland sports. Perhaps his most memorable event was the “Beer Night” at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Sagging attendance inspired the team to have a 10 cent beer night promotion. Beer trucks pulled up behind the outfield fences and the brews just kept coming! 25,000 fans attended and greater majority of them were smashed, becoming rowdy and throwing things on the field. About 200 drunks ran onto the field out causing Texas Ranger manager Billy Martin and his team to pick up bats and run out to defend the Ranger’s players in the field.
When the head ump felt a thump on the ground next to him, and saw a hunting knife sticking out of the ground, he immediately called the game. Cleveland suffered one of sports most embarrassing moments, losing in a 9-0 forfeit. Tait came under fire for calling the event a riot on the air. Local police heard Tait’s description and sent their riot squad to the stadium to clean up the mess. When Indians owner Miletti saw the video playback, he backed Tait’s assessment.
The Miracle of Ritchfield is also at the top of Tait’s favorite memories. Anyone who was there will tell you it was the loudest fan response they had ever heard. The entire arena vibrated from a full house of screaming fans banging and stomping. “It was the largest and loudest gathering of fans I think I have ever run into. They were tremendous…the noise, the excitement, the electricity”, per Tait’s biography, co-authored by Terry Pluto.
There were also disappointments to deal with. Had Cavs center Jim Chones not have broken his foot in 1976, there is a chance that the Cavs would have won the championship that year. “The Shot” and the emergence of Michael Jordan just as the Cavs team was peaking were disappointments. Then there was the night when the Cavs won with 99 points, but the crowd booed because they wanted the free Chalupa that Taco Bell offered if the home team scored 100. Finally, he recalled the game when “Wrong Way John” Warren made a shot in the other team’s basket. Making matters worse, two of his teammates were calling for the ball with a better shot and a player from the Portland Trail Blazers tried to block it. Everyone was so wrapped up in the game they didn’t even realize what was happening.
Somewhere between games and travel, Tait found time for a personal life. In 1963 Joe had married his first wife who he lived with for 18 years. They had three children, Christina, Karen and Joe and two grand children. In 1983 he married Jean who had four children, and ten additional grand children. Today, they make their home in LaFayette Township in Medina County.
Joe became the Vice President of Broadcasting for the Cavaliers, and on November 26, 2002 he announced his 2500th game. On March 26, 2008, Tait announced his 3000th game for the Cavaliers, against the New Orleans Hornets,. In honor of the achievement, the radio broadcast location at The Q, at section C126, has been forever renamed “The Joe Tait Perch“. On April 8, 2011 in a game against the Chicago Bulls, the Cavaliers honored Tait on with Joe Tait Appreciation Night and raised a banner commemorating Tait’s years as a Cavaliers broadcaster, positioning it next to the great Cavalier players whose uniform numbers had been retired.
The final game that Tait would call was played on April 13, 2011 against the Washington Wizards. The team sent Tait out as a winner by defeating Washington 100-91. As the final minute played out, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” echoed thru the arena as cameras focused on his last call as a Cavalier Broadcaster. It was the end of an era of excellence, which may not be duplicated in our lifetime.
Recognition for his lifetime of accomplishment includes being an 8 time winner of the NSSA Sportscaster of the Year, the Plain Dealer poll for Best Radio announcer. Tait was enshrined in the Cleveland Sports Legend Hall of Fame, the Lorain Sports Hall of Fame, the Cleveland Press Club Hall of Fame in 2003, the Ohio Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1992, the Indian Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2004, and the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. In 2010 the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame awarded Joe with the prestigious Curt Gowdy Media Award granting him enshrinement. Finally, in 2012, the Ohio Athletic Conference Bill Nichols Media Award.
Despite the awards and years of dedicated service, Tait is special for Cleveland because, we grew up with the man. He was our guide on a sports odyssey, that over the course of a lifetime brought the Cavs from birth to becoming a 60 game winner. Tait was a constant in our lives, year after year depicting the struggle of the underdog in a colorful and quite vivid manner. He will be missed by many. To learn more about this icon of Ohio sports history, please read “Joe Tait: It’s Been a Real Ball”, co-authored by another Ohio sports media legend and Plain Dealer columnist Terry Pluto.