If there was one man who put Las Vegas-style sports talk on the map, it was Lee Pete.
Starting in the 1970s and continuing into the 1990s, Pete hosted radio shows that featured betting advice, sports stars and other celebrities, reaching millions of listeners in nine Western states, Canada and Mexico.
Pete, considered the godfather of sports-talk radio in Las Vegas, died last week at the age of 85 in his home town of Toledo, Ohio, after a lengthy battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Pete’s popularity in Las Vegas was legendary. His show, which was broadcast from the sports books at the Stardust, then later the Frontier, attracted hundreds of fans. And he had millions of listeners, who caught the show from 10 p.m. to midnight on 50,000-watt KDWN.
Whatever the topic, his show was spiced with fun and good-natured frolic. He enjoyed ribbing guests and co-hosts, which over the years included handicappers Dave Cokin, Jim Feist, Larry Ness, Tony Salinas and Chip Chirimbes, just to name a few.
"Many of us in Las Vegas got our starts with Lee, and he always made us feel comfortable while allowing us to express our opinions," said sports handicapper Andy Iskoe, who also writes for GamingToday. "Lee was a master storyteller and had a way of personalizing things when he was on the air.
"In many respects, Lee was a pioneer of both sports talk and conversational radio."
Iskoe first hooked up with Lee Pete at a football handicapping seminar at the old Marina Hotel in 1985, when Iskoe was still living in Arkansas. They hit it off and Pete invited Andy to call in to the radio show and provide info on Southwest Conference football and other topics.
When Iskoe moved to Las Vegas in 1991, Pete invited him to become a regular guest on his show, as well as to co-host from time to time.
"Lee was a genuinely nice guy to both work and be around," Iskoe On the air, Pete was always entertaining, and probably at his best when interviewing guests. With a vast knowledge of sports, especially baseball, Pete could keep a conversation humming.
By his own admission, Pete suggested one of his most valuable talents was asking the "stupid" question – the answer to which nobody knows, but which everybody assumes is obvious.
"What the hell is a steroid anyway?" Pete once asked a guest. "I wouldn’t know a steroid from rock cocaine. And what does it actually do?"
Pete’s easygoing style, his clever insights and his sincerity made him a hit not just with listeners, but with other sports talk show hosts, who are traditionally puritanical, militaristic jocks or glad-handing PR men.
But his attraction didn’t end with sports-minded male listeners. He was popular with women as well.
"We all just loved Lee Pete," said a former waitress from the old Rainbow Lounge, one of Pete’s hangouts when he lived in Las Vegas. "He was so charming with all that silver hair and pleasing personality."
Indeed, Pete was the toast of the town, a radio host who got 10,000 letters a year, who earned an income well into six figures, and who was once described by the sports talk fraternity as a scaled-down answer to Phil Donahue.
Standing about 6-foot-2 and weighing 220 pounds, it was obvious Pete was an ex-football player. During the late 1940s, he was a standout quarterback at the University of Toledo, where he lettered four times and once finished second nationally in total offense to Charley Connerly, the Mississippi All-American who later became an all-star with the New York Giants.
Pete was also a solid college baseball player, and once led the nation in batting.
After graduation, Pete was drafted by the Detroit Lions and traded to the Green Bay Packers. In his first season, he ripped up his knee in an exhibition game and was out for the season. The following year he broke his shoulder, which put an end to his playing career.
With his playing days behind him, Pete bought a saloon from a friend in Toledo. He soon tripled the business, expanded it and bought another one. Later he opened a successful restaurant in his home town.
In 1955, Pete was asked by a friend to do color commentary on the Ohio State football broadcasts, which he did for 10 years. During this stretch, he had his own talk show, in which he was able to hone many of the skills he eventually brought to Las Vegas.
After Ohio State, Pete put in eight years at the microphone with the University of Toledo.
While in Toledo, Pete received offers to do baseball and hockey broadcasts for the pros, but he turned them all down, including one from NBC sports, based in New York.
"I wasn’t looking to go any place," Pete told GamingToday in an early interview. "I was happy doing what I was doing. I’m really a small town guy."
Pete retired from the restaurant business at the tender age of 44 and came to Las Vegas in 1972. He was out here visiting his daughter for five days and fell in love with the weather, while his wife, Lila, took a liking to the slots.
One of Pete’s earliest shows in Las Vegas was the Stardust Line, which at one point had Jim Brown, the legendary football player, as co-host. He later did the "Laydown Lowdown" from the Frontier.
"I’m really kind of corny," Pete told GamingToday. "It’s not my nature to know it all, and I’ve never had an ego. I suppose I’m good at the small talk. And I’m never embarrassed or nervous. Basically, I’m the same here as I am on the air."
Pete left the air in 2000. He spent his time caring for his wife, Lila, who died in 2002.
With his own health deteriorating, Pete in 2005 was reunited with an old friend, Patti Cartlidge, who convinced him to return to Toledo.
They were married in 2007, and she cared for him until his passing last week.
"Lee will certainly be missed," Iskoe said. "He was a genuinely nice guy and a pleasure to be around and I am proud to have been considered a friend."