‘Hammerin’ Hank’ Goldberg dies at 82: Sports media legend helped bring gambling to the masses

‘Hammerin’ Hank’ Goldberg dies at 82: Sports media legend helped bring gambling to the masses
‘Hammerin’ Hank’ Goldberg dies at 82: Sports media legend helped bring gambling to the masses

Hank Goldberg, the South Florida sports radio and television legend whose brash style earned him the nickname “Hammerin’ Hank” and helped launch him to national prominence as a reporter and prognosticator, most recently with CBS Sports HQ and SportsLine, as well as for years on ESPN, died Monday, his 82nd birthday, at his home in Las Vegas.

His sister, Liz, confirmed the death of Goldberg, who kept working until three weeks ago despite his health having declined rapidly in the last couple years. He died after a seven-year battle with kidney disease.

For three decades (1978 through 2007), Goldberg hosted or co-hosted a popular talk radio call-in show in South Florida, first at 610 WIOD and then at 560 WQAM. With an in-your-face, brutally honest style, he berated, confronted and yelled at his callers. And that was when he was in a good mood. In 1981, Sonny Hirsch, who was Goldberg’s co-host at the time, said, “He’s the bad guy, definitely the bad guy. He yells at people. I don’t. I’m very nice.”

In the late 1980s, Goldberg hosted the nightly three-hour show “Goldberg at Night” for WIOD. He took calls from know-it-alls and listened to their opinions. Occasionally, he even agreed with them. Most of the time he did not. 

What followed helped shape two generations of South Florida sports fans. In his resonant and instantly recognizable baritone voice and with a keen grasp of sports and current events, Goldberg ripped into those callers and explained why their opinions were, in fact, crap.

“How can you ask me that?” he often yelled at them. “Get lost!” Feelings be damned.

Joe Zagacki, who was hired to be Goldberg’s intern in 1978 and eventually became his boss at both WIOD and WQAM, served as Goldberg’s producer at the time and oversaw thousands of calls.

“Not only did he hang up on them, but he would pound his fist or throw a pen at the wall or something,” Zagacki recalled two years ago. “At one point I said, ‘You just hammered him again! You are Hammerin’ Hank Goldberg!'” With that, the nickname was born.

Over the years, stories in the Miami Herald and Sun Sentinel described Goldberg as, among other things, antagonistic, bombastic, boorish, brash, cranky, cross, disgusting, egotistical, irascible and provocative. And if newspapers could have printed expletives, more colorful words likely would’ve been used. 

In January 2020, when asked about the accuracy of those adjectives, Goldberg quarreled with only one. “Disgusting? I don’t think I was ever disgusting.”

Hammerin’ Hank (né Henry Edward Goldberg) was born on July 4, 1940 in Newark, New Jersey, and raised in the Oranges, the oldest of two children of Hy and Sadie Goldberg. Hy was a top sportswriter and columnist for the Newark Evening News for 40 years who five times was named New Jersey’s sportswriter of the year. Like his son, Hy had a prominent forehead and wide build, but he was the anti-Hammer, a reserved man with an easy-going and calm personality.

Hy traveled to many major sporting events — including the Olympics in Rome, Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich — and often brought Hank and daughter Liz with him. 

“Most of our lives,” she said in 2020, “revolved around the next big sporting event.”

Every year the children skipped school for seven weeks — they’d get their schoolwork sent to them — to join their father in Florida while he covered the Yankees during spring training. One of those years Hank became friendly with the famously guarded Joe DiMaggio, a relationship that continued even as Hank became an adult. He also sat in the radio booth with Mel Allen and listened intently as the voice of the Yankees called the action. Hank sometimes even served as the team’s bat boy for inner-squad games. A love of sports took hold.

Meanwhile, mother Sadie was a real-life Auntie Mame. Not only did she organize parties for the baseball writers’ wives, she was the life of those parties. While Hy and the children attended spring training games, she hung out with the other wives. And when the baseball writers’ association held its dinners, she would stand up and sing with the band, making her husband cringe.

In the summer of 1958, an 18-year-old Hank went with a friend to Monmouth Park, a track for thoroughbred horse racing in Oceanport, New Jersey, where he placed the first bet of his life. Goldberg promptly hit the daily double, which paid $450 (roughly $4,580 in 2022 dollars), brought the winnings home and showed it to his dad, who did not approve of gambling.

“I want a car,” Hank told him.

“Where did you get this?”

“I went to the track.”

“This will be the worst day of your life.”

A twenty-something Goldberg moved to Miami in 1966 and worked in advertising while also helping the Dolphins public relations department with busy work such as setting up the press box, driving people to and from the airport and organizing spotters for the television broadcast. While with the Dolphins, he became friendly with Bob Sheridan, a local radio guy (who would eventually call some of the most famous title bouts in boxing history) and asked Goldberg if he was interested in filling in for Sheridan when he couldn’t host Dolphins receiver Paul Warfield’s radio show. The gig was part-time, but Goldberg found his start in radio in the process. 

Perhaps Goldberg’s luckiest break came in the mid-1970s when famous bettor and Las Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder asked Goldberg to ghost write his nationally syndicated newspaper column, which appeared in more than 150 newspapers three times a week. Goldberg agreed. So every Friday night during the football season, Goldberg, Snyder and Walt Michaels, who was the defensive coordinator for the New York Jets in 1976 before becoming head coach in ’77, would have dinner at the Dewey Wong Chinese restaurant on East 58th Street in Manhattan where Michaels would provide Goldberg and The Greek valuable insight on each of that week’s NFL matchups. 

Armed with this new football knowledge, Goldberg, who worked for Snyder for four years, became the color commentator for the Dolphins radio broadcast and received his own late-night sports radio talk show in 1978, replacing one Larry King, who left both positions to start “Larry King Live.” 

Despite being suspended by WIOD multiple times for his controversial takes (in 1981 he was put in timeout after scolding Miami Hurricanes fans for a lackluster turnout for a game against No. 1 Penn State), Goldberg rose to the top of the sports ratings in South Florida and stayed there for almost three decades, trouncing future local columnists and earning well into six figures in the process. 

At one point in 1992, Goldberg was holding down four jobs at once: Senior vice president at ad agency Beber Silverstein (he worked there from 1977-92), color commentator for the Dolphins, host of “Goldberg at Night” and sportscaster for WTVJ-TV. That year, while his show ruled at No. 1 for WIOD, he was fired for openly defying orders from his program director. Goldberg promptly joined struggling rival WQAM and beat his former employer in the ratings. Hammerin’ Hank was must-hear radio, and fans needed to be a part of it.

“He was the king down here,” said Zagacki, who’s now the voice of University of Miami athletics. “What made Hank the best that ever did it was, like Howard Cosell, he had this great command of the language. He had this wonderful, vast vocabulary. He could talk about anything. He could talk about sports. He could talk about politics. It was broadcasting, and Hank was broad.”

Goldberg went from a local legend to a national personality in 1993 when he joined ESPN Radio and ESPN2 (and later ESPN) in their infancies. For ESPN Radio, he teamed up with Tony Bruno and Keith Olbermann on a radio show three nights a week. Meanwhile, the producers at ESPN2, who were trying to attract a younger audience in the early days of the network, took advantage of the Hammerin’ Hank persona by giving Goldberg a mallet that he hammered down when he did not agree with a colleague’s take. Feelings be damned.

“He was always really comfortable with the camera,” said Mark Gross, who was a producer at ESPN2 at the time and is now senior vice president of production and remote events for ESPN. “He never tried to be somebody that he wasn’t: ‘I’ve got to get my radio voice on now. I’ve got to put my TV face on now.’ It was all the same guy whether it was TV, radio or writing an article. It was always Hank.”

Goldberg also served as ESPN2’s NFL insider and provided scoops from sources he cultivated while working for Snyder and doing his radio show in Miami. One of his key contacts was then-Raiders owner Al Davis, with whom Goldberg would speak with every Friday during football season. “I was breaking more stories than the network guys because Al was telling me everything that was going on in the league,” he said.

Davis was one of hundreds of contacts that Goldberg compiled over the decades in an otherwise nondescript black book. Wrapped in black alligator skin, the book’s pages yellowed over time but tell a story of a man who touched every corner of sports and pop culture. Joe Namath. Chris Webber. Mike Eruzione. Al Michaels. The “E” section alone begins this way: Dale Earnhardt Sr., Kenny Easley and Clint Eastwood.

Goldberg used his contacts in the NFL to inform the picks that he gave on Sunday. Even through his last season in 2021, he had a process: 1) Study stats and track point spread movement; 2) After the injury reports come out, call the teams’ public relations contacts whom he has known for years to get the real scoop and 3) Reach out to current and former coaches to get their insider takes on the matchups.

“I have connections in Dallas, Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh …,” he said. “I don’t make it up.”

Between 1993 and 2019, Goldberg said he had only three losing seasons picking games on national television, though that figure cannot be independently verified. Here’s what can be verified: After joining SportsLine in 2018, he won more than he lost, going 237-220-14 with his picks on the NFL. In the 2019 season, before his health went into decline, he went 62-46-5 with his points spread picks for SportsLine, a winning percentage of 57.0 that turned a $1,116 profit for $100 bettors. He also finished third in the Las Vegas Review-Journal‘s NFL Challenge, which annually pits 10 prominent handicappers. In 2017 Goldberg won the Challenge.

Goldberg also recounted a story in which he said he went on a red-hot 24-5-1 run (again unverified) over a six-week period picking NFL games. “[Sportsbook directors] in Las Vegas told me that people were coming to the sportsbook early and were waiting for me to come on SportsCenter to hear my picks,” he said. “Then they would storm the windows because I was on an incredible run.”

He added, “It got to the point where I was scared because so many people were relying on me.”

The biggest score of his life came with the help of a contact. Four nights before the 2004 Belmont Stakes, Goldberg, who provided horse racing analysis for ESPN at the time, had his annual dinner at Umberto’s pizzeria with trainer and longtime friend Nick Zito. That year, Zito had entered a promising runner named Birdstone in the demanding 1½-mile Belmont, but the colt was coming off a disappointing eighth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby and was a double-digit longshot. He was set to face the undefeated and ultra impressive Smarty Jones, who was looking to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 and had been installed as the heavy 2-5 morning-line favorite.

“Nick said, ‘This horse that I have has been training his eyeballs out in Saratoga, and nobody knows it,'” Goldberg recalled. “He said, ‘The race really sets up for him.’ He said Smarty Jones’ jockey [Stewart Elliott] would screw up on the backside. ‘Our horse will be off-the-pace and will run down Smarty Jones. Trust me.’ So I figured, what the hell?”

Goldberg used Birdstone in his Pick 4, daily double, exacta, trifecta and superfecta wagers. Smarty Jones left the starting gate at 3-10, while Birdstone went off at 36-1, the third-longest shot in the nine-horse field.

The race played out exactly as Zito had predicted, with Elliott moving prematurely on Smarty Jones and Birdstone surging past in the final strides of the race. Goldberg won $24,000.

Goldberg lived a Forrest Gump-like existence, intersecting with some of the most notable figures in sports and pop culture. In addition to joking around with Joltin’ Joe and ghosting for The Greek, Goldberg dated Katie Couric — yes, that Katie Couric — when the two both worked at WTVJ. He played golf with Sandy Koufax, twice in fact, and played poker with Doyle Brunson. He bet on horses with Don Shula at Gulfstream Park outside Miami and went partying with Dan Marino in Tokyo. He hung out with Ann-Margret in her house and hung out with Burt Reynolds in his house and hung out with both Ann-Margret and Burt Reynolds in a suite at the former Las Vegas Hilton.

“His life was sports,” Zagacki said. “His life was going out. His life was gambling, setting the odds, being in the middle of all of the action.”

While attending a party at the Playboy Hotel in Miami, Goldberg met a bunny named Joyce. He said the two lived together for two years, and it was the closest he came to getting married. “I almost married her,” he said. “I probably should have.”

Goldberg felt comfortable talking about his love life – or rather his lack of one. It often served as fodder for his radio show and came up with friends and colleagues.

“We were in San Diego for work,” Zagacki recalled. “He said, ‘I’m going to introduce you to Koufax and Drysdale.’ So we go out to one of these big, gigantic dinners. And Koufax and Drysdale were these two beautiful women. These were two friends of his. I thought we were actually going to meet Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. I asked, ‘Hank, why do you call them Koufax and Drysdale?’ He said, ‘They strike me out every time.'”

In May 2018, the United States Supreme Court struck down on a federal law that had prohibited sports betting in most states, paving the way for legalized sports betting. Goldberg, who no longer worked for ESPN or WQAM, saw an opportunity. He figured the ruling would lead to a demand for people with his expertise. So, two months after the Supreme Court decision, the 78-year-old Goldberg uprooted his life in Miami, a city he called home for 52 years, to move to Las Vegas in search of work.

CBS Sports HQ

His Vegas gamble paid off. He joined SportsLine and CBS Sports HQ to pick NFL, college football and college basketball games and important horse races. He rekindled his relationship with ESPN and provided picks for the “Daily Wager.” He also offered his NFL analysis for VegasInsider and was a regular guest on Las Vegas gambling legend Jim Feist’s podcast. During horse racing’s Triple Crown season, he offered his handicapping analysis for the “Rich Eisen Show,” whose namesake worked closely with Goldberg in the early days of ESPN2. And he often appeared as an expert panelist on NFL and horse racing seminars at his go-to casino, Sunset Station, just five miles from his apartment in Henderson, Nevada.

In an era when those one-third his age dominate every gambling show and podcast, Goldberg thrived as a legendary sports betting media personality, cementing his place alongside other groundbreaking national television prognosticators such as Snyder, Pete Axthelm and Chris Berman.

But while his mind and soul still had work to do, his body didn’t cooperate. Diabetes led to kidney failure. He first learned of his condition in 2015 while living in Florida, immediately started dialysis and got on the waiting list for a transplant in that state. But after moving to Nevada, he discovered that he couldn’t get on the list in that state because of his age. In the meantime, he underwent dialysis treatment three times every week for almost four hours a day.

The diabetes also led to nerve damage in his right foot, a condition called neuropathy. For years, the foot incurred pain whenever he put weight on it, and he needed a cane to walk. In October of 2021, he had his right leg amputated below the knee.

However, his health issues did not keep him from working. From his hospital bed, he correctly picked the top two horses in May’s Preakness Stakes for SportsLine. His last published picks came in June’s Belmont Stakes. 

Goldberg is survived by his sister, Liz, who also lives in the Las Vegas area and cared for her older brother over the last four years.

On a Friday during the NFL playoffs in January 2020, Goldberg went to see his doctor for a routine check-up. The doctor scanned over the results of Goldberg’s latest blood tests, which came back clean.

“Your numbers look good,” the doctor told Goldberg before quickly changing the subject. “So, what teams should I bet this weekend?”

Goldberg smiled when recounting this story.

“It’s nice being a legend,” he said. “Does that sound egotistical to you?”