Guarding the team: WLEC celebrates 75 years of broadcasting Cleveland baseball

For the past 75 years, WLEC AM-1450 has consistently delivered Cleveland baseball to area fans.

The station begins its Diamond Anniversary season with programming about the team from its spring training home in Goodyear, Ariz., and then be right there when the Guardians kick off the regular season on March 30 in Seattle.

“To me, it means the heritage is here,” says Steve Shoffner, news director at the station and Erie County commissioner. “I know radio was new back then, so we had an immediate audience of people who were finding out what this new thing—radio—was. The team was winning and baseball is truly a radio medium.

“The fact is we haven’t had to deal with any interruptions, or decided not to cover them. I know the professional sports world and it’s a business, but this one seems more low-key. (The Guardians) understand it’s a six-to-eight month commitment, and I think it just shows how this community responds and deals with that, and that they know to get to WLEC to listen to the games.”

The journey started in 1946 when Bill Veeck bought the Cleveland Indians and began an innovative four-year ownership run that included exploding scoreboards, a World Series championship in 1948 and the idea of a radio network.

Veeck moved his team from old League Park to cavernous Municipal Stadium following the 1946 season and knew he needed to build a fan base to fill the more than 80,000 seats. When he started to cast his net for radio partners, Veeck saw the Sandusky community as an asset and reached out to the new AM station in the community. WLEC AM-1450 just signed on the air in December 1947, and jumped at the opportunity to add baseball as programming.

“From what I understand and heard from Jay Wagner, who was the original general manager of the station at the time, he got a call from the Indians organization at the time,” Shoffner said. “Bill Veeck, who was the owner of the team, was very keen on getting the message out, and I think the Indians decided to do a kind of honor-system network. Back then, there were no satellites, so the Cleveland station would broadcast it and someone would receive down the line, patch it into their transmitter and then send it down the chain.”

Steve Shoffner interviews former Indians pitcher Charles Nagy.Since then, area fans have lived through the highs and lows of Cleveland professional baseball, but always knew where to find the games.

“When people come to this area, they might not know the station call letters, but they do know to dial up 1450 to hear the games,” said Troy Baumgartner, promotions and production director and host of the Shores & Islands Morning Show. “That’s what we hear all the time and, to me, that resonates on what kind of community station WLEC is.”

That first year on air with the Indians ended by winning the 1948 World Series Championship. Now, 75 years later, the Guardians are an up-and-coming team with its eyes on claiming the prize that has eluded it since that 1948 squad.

“I hope the timing is perfect,” Shoffner said. “I hope this ultimately gets us what we’ve been looking for for so long and have been so close to reaching.”

WLEC was introduced as one of 15 stations around the state that would broadcast the games in a November 1947 article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Radio WJW was the flagship station, with Jack Graney and Jimmy Dudley as the on-air personalities calling the game.

The partnership has proven to be very fruitful for both sides.

“Few things in life go together more perfectly than baseball and radio,” says Bob DiBiasio, Cleveland Guardians Senior Vice President of Public Affairs. “Radio was instrumental in the growth of our national pastime, and WLEC played a key role in that growth. Imagine coming on the air 75 years ago and for the first time bringing the sounds of a championship ball club to those who could not attend a game at Cleveland Stadium.

“Hearing Jack Graney and Jimmy Dudley calling the action of a team full of stars like Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Larry Doby, Joe Gordon and Lou Boudreau, it had to be magical. WLEC has been with us every step of the way since, and we are thankful for that.”

The community has shown its appreciation as well. During the 1990s, the team hosted a press caravan tour, featuring coaches and players, across the state and Sandusky was always a sellout.

“Curtis Danburg (vice president of communications and community impact for the Guardians) told us they felt like the Beatles because they would literally have to take the guys to the backside of the old IAB Club and everyone would be cheering and yelling and that sort of stuff,” Baumgartner says. “They had to quickly escort them into the building because everyone was going crazy.”

Even during the 2020 season, a time when a worldwide pandemic interrupted the game itself, the Cleveland team made sure its affiliates were able to provide baseball to its listeners.

“We were actually able to stream the games,” Baumgartner says. “The Guardians were told by Major League Baseball that only flagship stations could stream games, but they made the decision as an organization that every affiliate, for that one year, could stream the games. I think that just speaks volumes that that organization tries to give its affiliates the most it can.

“There’s been a lot of criticism of the Dolan family (which owns the Guardians franchise) for not spending money, but from talking to broadcasters to front office personnel, one thing they’ve created is a family atmosphere that has trickled down.”

While WLEC doesn’t lay claim to being the first station in the broadcast network, it does consider itself as the one that has been the longest continuous broadcast station in the network.

“To me, timing is everything,” Shoffner says. “I think about 75 years and to me, that’s the legacy of radio, but also the entire history of this radio station is tied to the Indians franchise, and now the Guardians. The partnership literally started within months of the station coming on air.”

The celebration will begin on April 7 for the Guardians’ home opener against the Seattle Mariners when WLEC will give away an autographed baseball to one lucky listener. There is also going to be a special WLEC Day at Progressive Field on Sunday, Aug, 6, where a fan will be able to throw out the first pitch of the game. Listeners can sign up for these contests by texting “guardians” to 71441.

In addition, there is still limited availability for businesses to join the festivities with a chance to win the opportunity to sit in the broadcast booth for an inning with Tom Hamilton and Jim Rosenhaus. Businesses interested in advertising should call WLEC at (419) 625-1010.

“I think it’s interesting that there’s been one constant since 1948 that you know where to find the games (on the dial),” Baumgartner says. “That’s where we’ve hung our hats. You can go out and try to find the games wherever, but you know you can always come bak to 1450-AM, or now 93.5-FM. if you want to.”

“I get a kick out of the legacy,” Shoffner adds, “This is home and if you’re a baseball fan who lives anywhere near Sandusky, you know where to find the games.”