There are people in sports and entertainment whose names are never known in the general public. But such figures are the driving force of these industries. For more than seven decades, Sheldon “Shelly” Arthur Saltman, 82, has been the man behind some of the biggest sporting and entertainment events ever seen on television.
Recently, the JT had an opportunity to speak with him about his 60-plus-year career.
JT: Your first job was at the top of the sports broadcasting world. Tell us about being an announcer for the “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports.”
Saltman: When I first started as a broadcaster in the 1950s, the sports world was very different than it is today. Back then the big four sports were baseball, boxing, horse racing and college football. Gillette had the rights to the World Series, the “Friday Night Fights,” horse racing’s Triple Crown and all the major college bowl games. That meant we were there when Don Larson pitched a perfect game [for the Yankees] in the 1956 World Series [against the Dodgers]. We covered all of the big fights by Hall of Fame heavyweight champions Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano and Floyd Patterson. And we were in Baltimore every year for the Preakness. In short, if it was a big-time sporting event on TV, we were there.
But then you left sports for a while.
Yes, I had a wife, and we wanted a family so I needed to get off the road. I left the “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports” and took a job as the vice president of promotions for MCA in New York City. At that time MCA was the biggest talent agency in the world; our clients included Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, Bing Crosby, Paul Newman and many others. While my main focus was on entertainment, I was able to stay in sports by helping our clients to promote their major golf tournaments like the Bob Hope Desert Classic, the Bing Crosby Tournament at Pebble Beach and Jackie Gleason’s Inverrary Classic.
While at MCA, didn’t you and Andy Williams become friends?
Yes, I am honored to say that I was a longtime friend and business partner with Andy. He talked me into moving out to Los Angeles so we could start our promotions and production company. He loved both music and sports. Together we were able to establish the Andy Williams San Diego Golf Open, which raised millions of dollars for the Dr. Jonas Salk Institute in San Diego, along with a number of other local charities. Also, Andy and I, along with our friends Bobbie Gentry, Ed Ames and Henry Mancini and a group of prominent Phoenix businessmen, were owners of the expansion NBA Phoenix Suns starting in the 1968-69 season.
You actually left the Suns for a year to become president of the Los Angeles Lakers and the National Hockey League’s L.A. Kings in the 971-72 season.
I worked for Jack Kent Cooke as the president of the Lakers and the Kings. Mr. Cooke was both brilliant and a real tough man to work for because he demanded the best; he would settle for nothing less. He came up with the concept of having stars from the entertainment world come to the games and be seen sitting courtside on national TV. So I used my movie studio contacts to help get people like Doris Day, Dean Martin, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon to become courtside regulars. My job was a bit easier because the team was very, very good. That season we were led by future Hall of Fame stars Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. It was because of the team’s great talent that they would go on to win their first NBA championship that year. I would be remiss if I did not mention my dear friend Dr. Ernie Vandeweghe; he was the heart of the Lakers. He served as the team doctor but was a special adviser to every owner the Lakers ever had. I loved working with him, and I am lucky to be able to call him a friend to this day.
You had a special relationship with Muhammad Ali.
After I left the Lakers and the Kings, I was involved with the closed-circuit broadcasting of major sporting events. That included doing the event promotion for a number of fights both here and around the world with Muhammad Ali. As someone who served his country in Korea, the fact that Ali would choose not to serve in the military put me off at first. That changed quickly once I got to know the man and understood what was important to him. I can honestly say that of all of the athletes I have been around in my career there is no doubt that Ali was the most interesting. He was a natural promoter, but more importantly, he was very generous with his time. When he asked you how you were doing he really meant it. I traveled the world with him and saw off-camera how he signed thousands of autographs, took pictures with the fans and made sure that everyone had fun. He was a one-of-a-kind person, and he remains one of my all-time favorite people.
Was there anyone else who had the natural self-promotional abilities of Ali?
I will say that Maryland’s own Sugar Ray Leonard was a true natural. Like Ali he had that “it” factor, a natural talent for promotion. Ray had the ability to really connect with people, and he was a born salesman. He was very bright, well-spoken and had that million-dollar smile, so he could sell any product he put his name on. That made him a true commercial success, which was something Ali never seemed interested in pursuing. Physically, he was great; he won the gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and during the 1980s his series of championship fights with Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns became boxing classics.
What event are you most proud of producing?
The first Los Angeles women’s marathon in 1980. It was run the same distance as the men’s race. We shot film of the event, and then I traveled along with a delegation to meet with the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland. We had one goal and that was to get the women’s marathon included in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. We made our case, and the IOC voted that there would be a women’s marathon in 1984. It has been part of the summer games ever since. I have a daughter and granddaughters; I have always felt that they deserve to play on an equal playing field with men, both in sports and business.
What is the secret of being a success for all these years?
Any accomplishments that I have achieved have come from hard work along with the loving support of my family. Like all men and women who have realized some degree of success, it all starts at home. For me, it was growing up during the depression in an Orthodox Jewish home in Cambridge, Mass. I was taught to work hard, to always think big and never feel as though you can’t accomplish whatever goal you strive to achieve. I believe that the lessons I learned in Hebrew school still serve me well, both in my business and my personal life: Always treat people with respect; always give back something to your community; never forget where you came from; and never forget who you are. And when you think about success, remember it is quite hollow if you can’t share it with the people you love.