By James Fahey ’15
The most prominent feature in the den of Sheldon Saltman ’53 (political science) was a wall-length map documenting every place he has visited over the course of his sixty-year career in sports and journalism. As the first president of Fox Sports, co-commissioner of boxing at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and a veteran of the United States Armed Forces, Saltman traveled extensively across Asia, Europe, and, of course, the United States.
“Whenever I went to a new place, [my wife] would put a tack in that location and have the children learn about the place…whether it was Moscow, Sofia, Donetsk, or Panama City,” says Saltman.
According to Saltman, in many ways the lifelong journey that caused him to crisscross across the globe producing, directing, and disseminating sports entertainment via radio and television started at UMass. “UMass truly started me on my path,” Saltman says. “It allowed me to experiment with things I enjoyed.”
Saltman was busy in his years at the University—he was one of the first announcers on WMUA and the sports editor and cartoonist for the Collegian. Saltman credits UMass, and particularly former Professor of Political Science Vernon Ferwerda, with teaching him to think out-of-the box. The university and major helped him develop the people and communication skills that have served him throughout his life, he says.
UMass was the only school Saltman considered after high school. “Tuition was reasonable, and even though I had to work, at least I could make ends meet,” he says. Saltman was a first-generation American and the first in his family to attend college. After graduation he was drafted into the Army and stationed in Japan. He became the sports director of Armed Forces Radio Far East, and it was his voice that soldiers would hear when they tuned in to listen to sports broadcasts on their radio channel. Saltman also served as an early morning disc jockey in Korea; he was essentially the “Robin Williams character from 'Good Morning Vietnam,' but without the talent,” he jokes.
After his service, Saltman’s production career began to takeoff. He worked for the Gillette Calvacade of Sports, and then became an executive producer for WBZ-TV in Boston and WJW-TV in Cleveland. It was there where he began to make his name as a producer, working to meld the new medium of television with sports and entertainment. Always on the cutting-edge of television, Saltman actually held a press conference in a submarine underneath Boston Harbor, and broadcast the world’s first “live-birth” from a hospital in Cleveland.
As Saltman's career developed, he produced some of the most famous sports broadcasts in television history, including the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier boxing championships and Evel Knievel’s Snake River Canyon rocket-cycle jump. He also was co-creator of the “Challenge of the Sexes” TV show, and briefly managed boxing champion Thomas Hearns and hockey player Wayne Gretzky.
According to Saltman, the highlight of his career was an event that saw almost no media coverage by design. As a result of the Cold War, President Carter had banned 1500 U.S Athletes from traveling to Moscow for the 1980 games. In order to honor their accomplishments and all they had sacrificed for a dream that would no longer come true, Saltman designed a complete week in coordination with the United States in Olympic Committee that featured actual competitions pitting East, West, North and South against one another. The culmination of the week was a so-called “Night of the Stars” at the Kennedy center exclusively for the athletes. Indeed, according to Saltman, many of his ideas never came to fruition, saying that he planned “a half dozen events that never occurred for each one that actually saw the light of day.”
Perseverance, it seems, is one of the qualities that made him successful. However, his personal advice to graduates is simple and straightforward: be determined; work hard; be flexible; compromise; and learn how to shake hands well.
Now retired, Saltman has spent much of his later years working on various philanthropic organizations, largely concerned with the fight against cancer. He helped found the University Kidney Research Foundation as a reaction to his late wife’s chemotherapy and fight against cancer. He is also working on a book, Excerpts of a Full Life, to be released later this year.
James Fahey '15 is majoring in political science and Spanish.