By Tom Mattingly
For fans who listened to University of Tennessee football broadcasts on WROL/ WATE/WETE, 620 on every AM radio dial, during the 1950s, 1960s, and even into the 1970s, there was some great locally produced Saturday football programming.
Examples include “The 50-Yardline” with Chuck Ketron and “Grandstand Quarterback” with ex-Vol quarterback Freddie Moses. There was also “Pigskin Predictions,” with Russ Bebb, Ed “Tip” Tipton, Ben Byrd, and Ed Harris. It was a delightful time.
George Mooney and former Vol All-American wingback Bob Foxx, along with spotter Julian Andes, brought the excitement of Vol football to your home, car, or place of business on the “Texaco Radio Network.”
Then there was “Hold That Line” which came on immediately following the Tennessee game broadcast, featuring Chuck Ketron, Johnny Pirkle, Jim Eikner, Jim Humphries, and Ken Johnson, and others, some of the great names from the history of Knoxville radio. There were even ads for “Hold That Line” and other WATE programming in Vol football programs in the 1950s and 1960s.
The phone number was (615) 524-4657, and the program was definitely “must-hear.” Fans heading away from Shields-Watkins Field found the show to be a pleasant diversion from post-game Knoxville traffic, which was as bad in those days as it is now.
“When I went to work at WATE Radio in October 1956, ‘Hold That Line’ was an established program,” said Bill Ross, who went on from Knoxville to a career with NBC Radio.
“Bill Ross was the ‘Music in the Night’ man at that time,” said Ketron, “a man with a golden voice.” Just for the record, Ketron’s voice wasn’t bad, either.
“’Hold That Line’ was a defensive cheer,” said Ross. “In our case, it translated to ‘Hold that telephone line while I find your score.”’
The show would be a complete snoozer today, he suggested, since the caller’s voice was never heard.
“We used standard multi-line rotary telephones (ringing constantly),” said Ross, “wire service copy, NBC Radio feeds, a few local stringers, and the standard chalkboard for posting the scores.”
The show’s callers wanted to know not only the SEC scores, but also “the scores of the teams on their parlay sheets.”
When the phone rang, what the caller (and the listening audience) heard was, “Hold that line.” The caller would ask one of the hosts, “What’s the Tennessee score?” Then, on the air, came “Tennessee 22, Mississippi State 6.” With that, it was on to the next call.
Occasionally, he said, there were some light-hearted moments, when the continued recitation of the day’s scores led to some creative ways of passing the time, while still keeping the show interesting.
There was, for example, the “multiple score,” a technique later picked up by would-be comedians: “And in the Virginia -William & Mary game, the score was Virginia 14, William 10, Mary 7.”
There were times callers found the jokes less than amusing.
“We would usually have to correct the score because of an irate alumnus calling,” said Ross. “Even the most obscure school is someone’s alma mater. I had to move to Pennsylvania before I could verify that there really was a Slippery Rock.”
Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania was the topper of them all, its score being in constant demand not only over the Shields-Watkins Field public address system, but on the air as well.
“Some of us turned out some remarkably forgettable doggerel every week, praising the Big Orange and impugning everything about the week’s opponent,” Ross added, mentioning his “audacity” in writing cheers for the Tennessee cheer squad, back in the days cheerleaders actually led cheers.
One memorable yell came in November 1959, when LSU rolled into Knoxville undefeated and No. 1 in the country.
This was it, from Ross’s pen: “LSU, who are you? You won’t be first when the Vols get through!”
“Not only did the cheerleaders record it for radio and make it the watchword for the week, they also had the fans yell it during the game. As it turned out, I was a better prophet than poet.” Tennessee upset LSU 14-13.
Ross also mentioned a long-standing desire to change the tides of history.
“If I were doing ‘Hold That Line’ now, I would use it as a forum to create a groundswell of opinion to demand a recount of the votes for the 1951, 1956, and 1997 Heisman Trophies.”
Ross was so adamant about it that the answer to the next question (“Why’’?) was a no brainer.
“Hank Lauricella, John Majors, and Peyton Manning deserve justice.”