Harry Beitzel, dead at 90, a famous footy name for many reasons

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HE WAS A long-serving umpire but that was only the start of Harry Beitzel’s diverse contribution to football. RON REED remembers HARRY BEITZEL, who has died at 90:

HARRY BEITZEL is not among the 14 names listed under “umpires” in the AFL Hall of Fame but he is – or was – probably more famous than any who are. He was overlooked for that distinction despite officiating in 153 games between 1948 and 1960, including the grand final in 1955, and serving briefly as the director of umpiring in 1980-81 – but that didn’t stop him. Not much ever did. The Big H, as he was universally known, was finally inducted in 2006, but in the media category, which was entirely appropriate. He was a trailblazer on radio and TV, active in print and promoted the game in other entrepreneurial ways. Not many people have contributed so much to the game in so many diverse ways, which is why his death in Sydney at the weekend, aged 90, is a major event even if there is a generation of footy fans now who would need to be told who he was.

Harry Beitzel talks on stage as he is inducted in the AFL Hall of Fame Pic: Kristian Dowling/Getty Images

For the record, his forte was radio in the days when that medium was even bigger than it is now, firstly with 3KZ for 11 years and then with 3AW, where he was chief caller between 1972 and 1988, followed by three more years at 3AK. He was an ABC television panellist between 1961 and 1971 and editor of a magazine called Footy Week between 1965-71. He also wrote columns for the Herald Sun, Truth and The Australian. Beyond the media, he was an ideas man who was responsible for first forays into international football, organising a team known as The Galahs to tour Ireland and the US in 1967, playing Gaelic football matches. He arranged further tours in 1968 and 1978, featuring stars such as Ron Barassi, Bob Skilton and John Nicholls. Beitzel funded these trips himself without involvement from the VFL, as it was then.

The high point of his career was his tenure on AW, where he called with another household name, Bill Jacobs, who was also an influential cricket administrator. His team included Port Melbourne identity Tommy Lahiff, an octogenarian go-fer who was welcome in the rooms of every team, from where he would usually start his report with a high-pitched: “Can you hear me, Harry?” Old Tommy became as much of a cult figure as Harry himself. Beitzel also pioneered the use of extensive stats with a bloke named Ray Young, who started a business supplying them to various media outlets long before the modern-day Champion Data ever got off the ground.

The low point was when he pleaded guilty to obtaining financial advantage by deception while working for a lottery company in 1994 and was jailed for 18 months, of which he served eight months at a minimum-security prison farm. He maintained his innocence for the rest of his life, saying – according to the Herald Sun —that any deception on his part was unintentional and that he pleaded guilty only because a former business associate had fled overseas, leaving him with no defence. Nonetheless, he was never again as prominent in public life and moved to Sydney, where he was less well-known.

Not everybody stuck fat, as they say, and he wore his fair share of flak. But among footy people, he retained respect and popularity, largely because he had always been such a positive presence, always trying to be helpful and encouraging – that was my experience of him, anyway. Rex Hunt, who later filled his shoes as AW’s No 1 caller, agreed, telling the Herald Sun: “Unlike some in the industry, Harry Beitzel was only too happy to encourage youngsters starting off. He gave me my first chance as an around-the-grounds caller in 1979 and then, much to the annoyance of his co-caller Bill Jacobs, allowed me to call a couple of games. He would always encourage you to be yourself, saying, ‘If you fail, son, then at least you will have done so being your own person.’” Similarly, TV heavyweight Stephen Quartermain tweeted: “A gentleman who was always generous with his time and advice. And a fantastic AFL commentator.”

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Author: Ron Reed

RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.

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