Longtime Detroit sports voice Ray Lane used a little white lie to kick off his career

Detroit Free Press

Bill Dow |  Special to Detroit Free Press

As part of his series on former Detroit sports figures, Bill Dow caught up with former longtime Detroit sports broadcaster Ray Lane who celebrated his 91st birthday on Tuesday.

How we remember him

As one of the most versatile and respected Detroit sports broadcasters ever, Lane at various times was the voice of the Tigers, Lions, Red Wings, Pistons and the Cincinnati Reds. He also called games for Michigan State, Michigan and University of Detroit.

The former Detroit television sports anchor and director at WJBK and WKBD, Lane was a color analyst on Lions radio broadcasts from 1963-64 before joining George Kell on Tigers telecasts in 1965-66. He is perhaps best remembered doing play-by-play with Ernie Harwell on the radio from 1967-72.

Twice named the Michigan Sportscaster of the Year (1969 and 1980), he was the Red Wings TV pregame, postgame and between-period host for 16 seasons, beginning in 1985. From the late 90s and into the early 2000s, Lane would fill in on Tigers games, too. The native Detroiter was a baseball and basketball star at Mackenzie High and later graduated from MSU where he played baseball while earning a degree in communications.

After briefly playing baseball in the low minors with the Chicago White Sox organization, he worked at radio and TV stations in Cadillac, Waterloo, Iowa, and Saginaw before starting his Detroit career in 1961 as a house announcer at WJBK-TV.

Inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1997, he is the recipient of the Ty Tyson Award for Excellence in Sports Broadcasting (2003) and the Ernie Harwell Lifetime Contribution Award (2014) from the Detroit Sports Broadcasting Association.

Today

Lane lives in Farmington Hills and was married 50 years to his high school sweetheart, Carolyn, when she died in 2004. The couple have three children: Greg, an attorney in Bloomfield Hills; Deanne, a retired TV news anchor in St. Louis and Jeff, a financial advisor in North Carolina.

Listening to Tigers broadcasts as a kid

“I grew up listening to Ty Tyson and Harry Heilmann. Tyson was a little dry but I especially liked Heilmann for the stories that he would tell. Sometimes I would go down to the movie house on Woodward Avenue called Telenews because for away games, Heilmann would broadcast there sitting behind plexiglass and recreate the game by reading the print outs from the teletype machine. Sometimes he would say, ‘we could really use a big hit here,’ knowing full well having read the ticker that there was going to be a big one. It was a lot of fun. Late at night I would also listen to Paul Dudley from Cleveland and Bob Prince from Pittsburgh, both favorites of mine.”

Becoming a sports broadcaster

“As a freshman at Mackenzie High we had a small radio unit and it was run by our wonderful speech teacher, Glendora Forshaye, who had worked on the Green Hornet and Lone Ranger radio shows. She was very helpful and really encouraged me. When I was in summer leagues games, and even at Michigan State, when I was out in the outfield, I would do my own little play-by-play. My teammates would tease me and they thought I was a little crazy but I loved doing it.

His first work as a Lions color commentator

“I had started at WJBK Channel 2 in 1961, but I really wanted to do game broadcasts. I worked for Van Patrick, our sports director who I greatly admired. Just before the ’63 football season, he asked if I had ever done color. I told him I had but actually I had just done some play-by-play for baseball in Waterloo Iowa. I had no formal audition and he took my word for it. He was very powerful and close to William Clay Ford. He said, ‘you’ll be in San Francisco a week from Sunday, but if you screw up you will be out of there in a hurry.’ Bob Reynolds was the play-by-play man and he asked me, ‘who made the decision to hire you?’ I knew some of the Lion players but I didn’t know a lot about all the different aspects of pro football. But Wayne Walker and John Gordy really helped me by tipping me off on some of the plays before the games. Reynolds would ask me off the mic how did I know all of that when I made an observation. I lied and said, ‘just from going to all the practices.’”

Working with George Kell and Ernie Harwell

“George treated me OK but he was pretty much his own man and I think he felt a little different about me because I hadn’t played pro ball. When I went to work with Ernie, he called me right away and said, ‘welcome aboard partner.’ He said, ‘I have a lot of baseball materials at my home and you are welcome to use them anytime for reference.’ Before the games, he would go out of his way to introduce me to opposing players. Working in the booth at Tiger Stadium was paradise because you were so close that you felt like you could reach out and touch the field. You could easily tell all the pitches. The first year we didn’t have a screen and we were always dodging foul balls. We didn’t have a bathroom but we had a small sink and sometimes a bucket that we sometimes had to use. Otherwise you had to really hurry to go to the restroom between innings.”

Doing Tigers play-by-play

“It was the most favorite thing I ever did during my career. I worked the middle and extra innings and I always hoped it would go extra innings. You had to be prepared to tell the listeners what was relevant because you were their eyes. Ernie would say, ‘take a breath every once in a while, and let the audience breathe a little bit and digest what you’ve said.’

“I should probably keep my mouth shut, but today with so many announcers constantly talking all the time I just want to say, ‘give it a break.’ When I first started doing the radio games, Van Patrick gave me some good advice. He said, ‘don’t be so anxious to call that home run ball. If it’s a high fly ball, play with it a little bit, put them on the edge of their seats.’

“Knowing the sound of the bat you could often tell it was well hit but you have to watch the ball and the outfielder’s reaction. One time in Minnesota when I was working with Kell, I said ‘this could be!’ The problem was the wind was blowing in and Horton easily caught it. I said on the air, ‘boy I thought that was out of here,” but George kindly covered up for me and said, ‘well so did I, Ray.’”

Broadcasting the 1968 world championship season

“In most years it could be boring because you knew you weren’t going to win it and that it was over by August, but that year was so exciting to do the games because there was a different hero every day with so many come from behind victories. You couldn’t wait to get to the ballpark. I had gotten to know the players quite well as we were fairly close in age but you couldn’t get too close because if you are going to be critical sometimes, they didn’t like it. But that’s the way it goes. I remember a couple of Tiger wives getting after me because I was a little critical of their husbands’ performance, even if I just said, ‘he didn’t have it tonight.’ I’ll never forget the locker room celebration after winning the pennant, getting sprayed with champagne and being thrown into the hot tub like all the others.”

On stepping down from Tigers broadcasts after 1972

“Van Patrick had taken ill and I was asked to become the sports director at Channel 2. I had three kids at home and I could make more money in that position rather than being the second guy in the broadcast booth. I would have loved to have stayed on doing play-by-play but there were also days when I questioned myself about being away from home so much. The station said that after one year, I could go back and do televised games with George Kell. But the next year, WDIV outbid WJBK for the rights so it never happened. I lucked out however years later when I got to do Cincinnati Reds telecasts for six seasons. PASS Sports later approached me to do the Tigers games on cable but they couldn’t match what I was making with the Reds.”

Working Red Wings games for 16 years

“It was great being a part of the team with Mickey Redmond and Dave Strader and I enjoyed interviewing the players. Hockey was my second-favorite sport. When the Wings won that first Cup in ’97 after 42 years, I remember getting to the ice right away to do the interviews and then going into the locker room which was absolute pandemonium. I didn’t realize that CBC had exclusive rights for the first interviews, so I mistakenly had scooped them. It wasn’t easy doing interviews with champagne in your eyes because they are burning like hell and you have to keep them open. It was crazy and cramped in there because the players had let other non-media people come in to celebrate. I remember Chris Osgood and Darren McCarty had trouble lighting their cigars so I cut them and lit them. From them on, the players called me ‘Razor.’ I had a lot of fun working those Red Wing games.”

Reflecting on his career in Detroit and his life today

“I am very proud that I was able to work my way up and establish a career in my hometown with such great sports fans. I turned down job offers from other cities because I enjoyed Detroit so much even though it may have held me back a little bit from taking some chances. Right now, at 91, I feel very good and I hope the good Lord let’s me stay this way for a little while. I’m happy, and so are my children, that I got my first COVID vaccine last week. I have been blessed so far with good health.”

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