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Ernie Baur, unsung hero of D.C. sports, retires

Among the dozens of iconic Ernie Baur stories, I still think this one is my favorite. As the MVP of Super Bowl XVII, John Riggins was required to stay in Southern California longer than his teammates. He flew back to Washington on Tuesday, arriving at something like 11 or 12. When he awoke on Wednesday morning, he called Redskins Park to try to find out about the victory parade. No one answered, which seemed strange, so he turned on the TV.

"I see Maureen Bunyan standing on the corner, saying, 'The team bus is now approaching!' " Riggins recalled this week. In an instant, he realized that his watch was still on West coast time, and that he was in the process of missing the entire event.

"This was what I dreamed of as a kid, the ticker tape parade," Riggins told me. "I didn't know what to do. So I figured what the hell, I'll call Ernie."

Baur - a veteran producer and director at WJLA, WUSA, WTTG, Home Team Sports, and now executive producer at Comcast SportsNet - is retiring this week. Thursday night's Redskins-Cardinals preseason game will be his final broadcast as a full-timer, although he'll continue to do some freelance stuff for the network. And for the 43 years he's been in the industry, Baur has been solving problems like that one.

"He's one of those guys you could go to and ask something - and I used to do it all the time - and it was never a problem for him to get it done, and he did it with ease," Steve Buckhantz said. "He's got more experience in his little finger than most guys have in their career."

"All I can say is that guy is the calming voice in my career," added Chick Hernandez, who worked with Baur both at Channel 5 and CSN. "He can make a three-ring circus feel like a poetry reading."

So in Riggins's case, Baur quickly negotiated a deal: his station would help ferry Riggins to the parade route, as long as they could have a reporter there to document the story. Soon, a limo and Virginia police escort were at Riggins's house, taking him to the District line, where the D.C. police took over.

"By the time I got there, the guys were sweeping the horse manure off the street," Riggins said with a laugh. "I gave it a shot, and Ernie was the one who made it into a story."

Riggins was just one of the dozens of big-time newsmakers Baur worked with in his career, which started at the age of 20 after Baur attended Bethesda-Chevy Chase High and Montgomery College. (For the definitive take from someone who knows him well, read this piece by Len Shapiro, and for Baur's version of many of these stories, read this.) Among other things, he was a copy boy for Sam Donaldson, directed WJLA's "AM Washington" with Ed Walker, covered breaking news (including the 1977 Hanafi takeover) with Gordon Peterson, directed people like Glenn Brenner, Sonny Jurgensen and Sam Huff, worked on the field for six national Super Bowl broadcasts, co-produced the Warner Wolf Show (which morphed into Redskins Sidelines), and, famously, gave birth to Wolf's signature "Let's go to the videotape" call when he initially missed Wolf's cue to roll an NBA highlight.

"Being part of that has gotten me a lot of pub," Bauer told me. "I was in New York last week directing the Jets game, and the crew were all New Yorkers. They were in awe when I told them - 'Wait till I tell my dad!' that kind of stuff."

And in one of Baur's most lasting contributions to the industry, he helped hatch "Redskins Playbook" at Channel 5. Part of the station's deal with the Redskins mandated a 30-minute weekly show, and Joe Gibbs - with whom Baur worked at 9 - declined his offer to bring his coach's show to 5..

"So now we had to come up with something," Baur recalled. He thought about the roundtable news shows they had done at Channel 9 featuring people like Pat Buchanan, Martin Agronsky and Tom Braden, "so I said, well, why can't we do this with sports writers? Why does it just have to be with news writers?"

The resulting show, hosted by Bernie Smilovitz, featured a sportswriter named Tony Kornheiser and plenty of his fellow scribes, sitting in a studio and debating sports. "As far as I know, we were the first show with that kind of format," Baur said.

Baur, I should note, didn't just help people who went on to be stars. He also helped badly dressed idiot kids who were utter disasters on television, once attempting to keep me from drowning myself in a bowl of hummus after my trainwreck of a debut on CSN's Washington Post Live. The point is, good luck finding someone who doesn't like Ernie Baur.

"So many times, people who manage go to anger right away when it doesn't go the way they want," Riggins said. "Other people, they find the humor, and Ernie's one of them, who can take a situation that's faltering, and change everybody's outlook. That's why I dare say there are very few people who would ever have a bad word to say about him."

"He's one of those guys -- and I think we all know at least one of those guys -- who you've never heard anybody say anything bad about," Bucknahtz agreed. "That's on a personal level. On a professional level, he's the best director I've ever worked with."

"Just phenomenal," Hernandez said. "He could have directed at any level, and for him to stay and be a local guy was truly a blessing for us, for anybody who watched local sports here in this market."

By Dan Steinberg  |  September 2, 2010; 4:14 PM ET
Categories:  Media , Redskins  
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I think he also did Redskins Sidelines, which was the definitive Redskins show before all others.

Posted by: LouLewis | September 2, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Ernie - I hope you read this at some point. You're a great guy, a consummate professional, role model to all who meet you and one of the nicest people I ever worked with in my 32 years in broadcasting. Thanks for your friendship. I'm very, very proud to say, "Yeah, I worked with that guy for a few years." Wish I could be at the party.
Ron Gardner

Posted by: tournews1 | September 3, 2010 8:42 PM | Report abuse

I worked with Ernie at Ch,9 for quite afew yrs.& what a pleasure & a gentleman. He never got upset no matter what happened (as alot of others did). I was switching the 11pm news one nite & made a mistake & Ernie said to forget about it, but that nite after getting home I was condemiing myself for doing this to one of the nicest guy in TV.I did get over it. Anyway, Ernie, enjoy your retirement to the utmost. It sure was a pleasure. Thanks Jim Conner(FC).

Posted by: jmctlc | September 4, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

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