Walnut Creek man pens memoirs of sportscasting days in early ’70s
By Lou Fancher
Most people as they age accept that untold or secret stories will disappear when their lives end. Longtime Walnut Creek resident Pete Torrey didn’t.
That is, while realization dawned as clear as a blue sky when Torrey entered his 70s in 2018 — that his children might never hear the full story of his early adult life as a sports broadcaster and importantly, a would-have-been-sensational, blockbuster story he’d refrained from telling for 50 years would be lost — he refused to accept passing silently into the night. Instead, he wrote a book that blends memoir and fiction.
“Safe Passage Guaranteed” (bayareane.ws/safepassagetorrey) tells the story of Torrey’s broadcasting career, with special focus on his years at WANE-TV in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Included are chapters devoted to his experiences as a Bay Area journalist before moving to the Midwest that are blended with meeting and marrying his wife, Jean Torrey (whom he renames “Rochelle” in the book, along with himself as “Nick Cunningham”), and their escapades together as a young married couple.
Torrey takes a reader through real-life accounts of interviews he held with sports icons such as Hank Aaron, John Madden, Mark Spitz and others, before reaching what arguably could be called the book’s thematic basis: the story of two teenagers, one Black and one White, who in largely segregated Fort Wayne planned a series of secret interracial summer basketball games.
In real life, upon learning of the games, Torrey promised the young athletes he would not report the story, honoring a request made because they were convinced that the games would never happen if the population of early-1970s Indiana learned they were planned. Torrey never covered the potentially big, career-making story. Fifty years later, Torrey said that — after receiving first-person confirmation from a man who participated that the games had been played but without knowing their exact outcome — he decided to write the story and complete it with a fictional, hoped-for ending.
“I wrote it based on how I figured these games would shake out,” Torrey said. “We had a team from Fort Wayne that eventually won the state championship, but what I used for my version was not exact. I wanted to tell it in a way that unifies, that reminds us of how different we are and yet shows how we have more in common than we are different.
“You know, 90% of us are immigrants, and we all want good lives for ourselves and our families. These boys were on teams that just wanted to be state champs. If we can realize we come from the same place with similar goals, even when we disagree, we can find common ground, and that was driving me the whole time I wrote.”
The other motivation driving Torrey to huddle over a manuscript in his home office was the COVID-19 pandemic. After leaving broadcasting more than 40 years ago and returning to the Bay Area to become a residential real estate broker, Torrey during the pandemic was forced for the first time in decades to stay home week after week.
“I started writing this because of COVID. In 2018 at a Thanksgiving gathering, my wife’s first cousin, who is a published writer, had said she’d write the first page to get me started. Being cooped up with COVID was an excuse to — every afternoon — draw up outlines of my career and write, letting it flow. I broke it up by year, had my wife to help me clarify things. I finished in June of 2021.”
Additional factors causing him to commit to writing a memoir were age and wanting to leave a legacy.
“As you get down the road — I’m now 75 years old — you want to leave something that captures your essence. This book is dedicated to the people I love. These experiences led me to where I am. Before my dad passed away, he made a recording about his life up to when his kids were born. He’s gone now, but we’ve got his story. He passed away in 2011. He played football in Pasadena with Jackie Robinson; if I ever write another book, I’ll write about him.”
Torrey says the chapters about true stories were the easiest to write.
“It was like I was in a time machine. I could go back and see these things happening in my head. Did I interview Hank Aaron right after he broke Babe Ruth’s record? Yes. Did I interview Mark Spitz immediately after the terrible slaughter of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972? Yes. He was rescued by the State Department, and he told me a story that actually got lost in the processor of WANE-TV.”
Back then, broadcast photographers accompanying Torrey shot film, them returned to the station, “let it cook” on an ancient processor, then pulled it out
“The television station was cheap and had old equipment, and we’d get good film stuff that was washed out, unusable. I ended up with white shadows, sound that went in and out. We had to make the decision to scrub it.”
That night, when he came onto the TV set for the evening newscast and was prompted with, “Tell me what Mark Spitz said.” Torrey said he did his best and managed to paraphrase it. Torrey’s encounter with Madden also unfolded unexpectedly.
“It was the summer of 1970, and the sportscaster in Sacramento was unable to make the interview,” he said. “I was asked to pinch-hit at the Oakland Raiders training camp. I jumped at it, met the photographer in Santa Rosa and did 26 interviews.
“When we were about to leave, Madden comes up to me and says he has a quarterback, Ken Stabler, who feels left out. It was my first real gig as a professional broadcaster, and the coach wanted me to do him a favor. He said my name; I nearly melted. Even though my photographer signaled he was running out of film, I said yeah and we did it with no film. It gave me such a thrill.”
Asked for thoughts about sports broadcasting today, Torrey said that “It’s a difficult industry. We’re better because of technology, but we rely too often on the golly-gee ex-jock, not on good journalists. We might need a former NFL pro to explain why they should be blitzing, but these guys do sports newscasts too, and they aren’t journalists.”
As for advice about writing a memoir, Torrey says, “Prepare to be alone and for it to take a long time. Tell a story from your heart. I wanted to tell a story of people coming together, and that’s what I did.”