ABC commentator was one in a million 18 July 2020
My close friend and current boss, John McGrath MLA, and I often reminisce about George Grljusich. We repeat stories we’ve told many times before and find them hilarious. It may be a case of ‘you just had to be there’ but here goes.
John was trotting writer for The West Australian when George was the ABC trots caller and course commentator at Gloucester Park and Richmond Raceway. I was privileged as a a cadet journalist to be given the task of typing the results (Saturday nights) or phoning them to a copytaker, when trots moved to Friday nights.
It was here where I first met George, admired his sarcasm; coveted his incredible vocabulary and turn of phrase. George would call the race, wrap it up with dividends for on-course patrons and statewide listeners, then wander the short distance into the press area, usually expressing a torrid view of what he had just watched.
A gambler notorious for his bad luck, this was usually a beautifully phrased diatribe against a reinsman.
George had a law degree from University of WA, earned alongside current governor Malcolm McCusker and former chief justice David Malcolm, his friends who George rated inferior legal minds to his own.
In 1960 he joined the ABC, curtailing a 12-game league career with South Fremantle to broadcast sports. George called cricket and football alongside the greats but held a special place for Ron Halcombe, sports supervisor of the ABC from 1947. Halcombe was a distinctive commentator.
George learned from great broadcasters but his style was his own and may never be repeated.
In a tribute after his death by Frances Bell on Today Tonight, George was quoted as saying: “I am a man of strong opinions. I express them and people don’t like that.” He certainly was.
Amused by his magnificent rants, I knew my place and sat stony silent in the press box, perched high above the Beau Rivage room at Gloucester Park. One night, he said something that I couldn’t ignore.
“….and my second wife came out of the house…” Incredulous that any one could marry more than once, I looked up from my work area and proffered with innocence: “Have you been married twice George?”
The look of askance at being interrupted by a pup was followed, after a second’s hesitation, by: “Frankie, I’ll have you know I am in The Guinness Book of Records as the man who has bought the most sets….SETS, you understand, of gardening implements.”
Another night, John, George and journalist Ken Casellas (a great friend of George’s and trotting tragic) were chatting in the car park after the trots. Former WA Trotting Association president Howard Porter, then in his dotage and incapacitated with a neck brace, approached the group.
The Breeders Owners Trainers Reinsmen’s Association (BOTRA) was the representative body of the sport’s participants. The trots were nicknamed ‘Red Hots’ throughout Australia because of the sport’s reputation for horses not being allowed to run on their merits. In its heyday, Mr Porter’s own stable was regarded as ‘astute’ by trotting historians. I intemperate this as a euphemism for ‘hard to follow.’
The elderly man approached the group, saying “Good evening, George, how do you think the night went?”
George fluttered his eyebrows as he did when saying something a bit off the wall. “Well, Mr Porter, we were just discussing it and we believe that several members of BOTRA weren’t endeavouring.”
Mr Porter was trying to restrain his laugh within the confines of his neck brace but was clearly failing.
Because of George’s bad luck, when you wanted a bet, it was imperative that he didn’t follow what you backed. In one eight-week period, two horses, Sibon (Trevor Warwick) and Kiaora Ku (Charlie Rifici) opposed each other four times. The results were alternate, that is, Sibon won the first and third of these, Kiaora Ku the second and fourth. When Sibon didn’t win, he ran second.
The press box was on the winner each time (it helped that fellow journalist Gino de Mori was a close friend of Warwick) and George went the wrong way every time. On the fourth night, the punters held their breath as George, who had to get someone to place his bets so that he didn’t leave the broadcast area, was tossing up which way to go. The rest sat quietly not offering an opinion to point him one way or the other when George gave the runner, photographer Rodney White – who became the best form judge of the lot of them – his $100 and asked him to back Sibon.
As George walked in to call the race, the players – feeling a bit guilty because we loved him – breathed a sigh of relief. We were on Kiaora Ku. It won.
After the race, I went into the broadcast box, where part of my job was to look across George’s shoulder and write the betting fluctuations which had been phoned from the betting ring to George’s assistant. The commentary went something like this, with the bits in bold/brackets said, without pause, after George turned off the microphone and the rest for public consumption with the mike on.
“The winner is Kiaora Ku, driven by Charlie Rifici, (fuckin’ Charlie, where was he last week when I backed it), second is Sibon, who maintains his 1-2, 1-2 sequence, driven by ‘Tricky’ Trevor Warwick (fuckin’ Tricky, he refused to take off), third was….” Not only was it a lesson in self-controlled broadcasting professionalism, in concert with manic ranting, it was the first time ‘Tricky’ had ever been used to the wider public. Warwick, a great horsemen, has been called Tricky by his friends since that night.
At Richmond Raceway one night, George did his block when the party pies given gratis to journalists weren’t hot. George hurled the pie through an open window and it landed on the track. We all headed to the glass and watched horses doing their preliminaries being steered around the unusual object. After a couple of laps of this an attendant walked onto the surface and removed the pie.
Course detective Charlie Skehan (‘Mr Greensleeves’ in the old-fashioned attempt at security when his name had to be called over the PA) was sent to the media box to investigate. When the embarrassed George owned up, there wasn’t much Charlie could do. George outranked him by a country mile in pacing hierarchy.
George possibly called more sports at the highest level than any other broadcaster in the world. His proudest moment was the 1988 men’s 100 metres final at the Seoul Olympics. Canada’s Ben Johnson* beat USA’s Carl Lewis, the defending champion, and Great Britain’s Linford Christie.
In Bell’s interview George relates, with pauses, each of the nine sentences he said in the less than ten seconds of the race. His faultless 53 words in 9.79secs is sports commentary at the highest level in the biggest event of all, the Olympic 100m final.
He loved calling football where his “strong opinions” about umpires and his bias towards South Fremantle and his love for his 316-game playing brother Tom came out strongly. George was the first commentator to identify individual central umpires after the game’s speed had increased to a point where more than one referee became the norm. He would say things like: “That’s another incorrect holding-the-ball decision and it was umpire no. 11, Ross Capes…”
The West Australian chief football writer Geoff Christian and I sat behind George as he called a final at Subiaco Oval between Perth and South Fremantle. To the caller’s immediate left was the South Fremantle time keeper and to his left, the Perth timekeeper. Both were elderly men, club stalwarts, dressed in club blazers and doing something they loved, probably for no reward except the best seat in the house.
At one point in the match, brother Tom was infringed and didn’t receive a free kick. George hit out on air. The Perth time keeper, in a whisper, said to his offsider: “He must have had a bet on your team?” George didn’t take his eyes from the play, kept broadcasting but reached across the back of the South Fremantle man trying to punch the Perth one. Hitting out on fresh air.
It was massively unprofessional behaviour but he didn’t land any kind of decisive blow and, albeit incorrect, was impressive double skilling.
Another George story was told by former bookmaker Brett Lenton, who was fielding in the eastern States ring at Ascot racecourse when George drew up and leaned on the bookie’s stand. It must have been some time in 1982.
“How are you going George?” Lenton asked. George’s uninterrupted diatribe is told here, third person hearsay, but recalled to the best of my ability.
“I was on air this morning and had Jon Sanders as the guest. The bloke’s a hero.” (Sanders had completed the first double circumnavigation of the world in his yacht, Perie Banou).
“After I interviewed him, we opened the mikes for people to ring in. About the third caller was ‘Snow from Corrigin’ and this bloke says: ‘Hello George, is Jon Sanders gay?‘
“Well, I’ve cut him off. But I’ve got Jon Sanders sitting opposite me at the desk. Do you know how hard it is to look a bloke in the eye after someone on air has just asked you if he’s gay?
“I finally get back to asking some more questions and we have a few more callers and it’s five to 12 when we get another caller and it’s a woman. She’s in tears.
“She says: ‘Hello George. That wasn’t Snow from Corrigin who rang before. It was ‘Blue from Wyalkatchem’ trying to get Snow into trouble when he asked if Jon Sanders was gay.‘
“I cut her off and said: ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with you people out there in the Wheatbelt. What’s happened? Has the sun got to you?’ “
The familiar fluttering of the eyes followed.
Again in Bell’s interview, George, with not long to live, says:
“I’ve only ever believed I’ve got a lease on this world. And leases expire.”
It’s a simple phrase. No cleverly introduced words but original. Just like the man.
*Johnson tested positive the following day and was disqualified. Lewis became the gold medal winner for the second successive Olympic Games. Christie won gold in the event in 1992.
Photos of George and Tom Grljusich by Westpix