My dear friend Shelly Saltman died Saturday at the age of 87 in Los Angeles, publicist Michael Saltzman announced. I first met him in early 1982 and for the past 37 years, he was a friend, a mentor and the source for some of the greatest behind the scenes stories ever told.
Over the years and without me asking he made the time to introduce me to so many top name major sports personalities and executives.
Those introductions helped me establish a career that exceeded my wildest expectations. I am far from the only person that Shelly went out of his way to help but he was that kind of person who wanted to see others reach their dreams.
For the past decade, we spoke almost on weekly basis talking about everything from politics to sports and from business to family matters. I helped him with a couple of his final books and launched a podcast with where he could share his stories on so many different and fun topics.
If he couldn’t get me he would call our mutual friend Evan Weiner. Between Evan and me we kept track of Shelly and we both loved him and were blessed to have him in our lives.
Those calls always started with “Jimmy my boy what is going on there in Washington? I need to know.” We would talk about the state of politics for a while and then he would be off to the gym, or lunch or more recently doctors appoints.
But this not a story about me it is about a man who most people never heard of but his many contributions to the sports and entertainment industries should put him in the “Hall of Fame of television and promotions.”
Without Shelly, it would have taken the world a little longer know about Muhammad Ali. He served as the man behind closed circuit television broadcasts of so many of Ali’s fights including all three of the epic battles with Joe Frazier that included the first one in 1971 at Madison Square Garden that had an estimated worldwide audience of a stunning 300 million people.
He told me that before he met Ali that he had misgivings about the man. Shelly served in Korea and of course, Ali sat out Viet Nam. But once the two men met Shelly told me “I have nothing but respect for the man and he is one of the greatest men I ever had the pleasure of knowing.”
His boxing promotion did not stop with Ali. He did the same for Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns before cable pay-per-view took over. But make no mistake about it, Saltman paved the way for the big dollar, fights that could be seen in all corners of the globe.
Shelly was the man behind the famous “Battle of the Sexes,” he was a good friend of Billie Jean King and helped put together the tennis match with Bobby Riggs in front of over 30,000 people at the Astrodome in Huston. That single event drew a stunning 50 million viewers in primetime on ABC.
“Billie Jean was such an inspiration to me and so many others. I think that today’s generation of women athletes needs to follow her example.” Shelly once told me.
He would join forces again with ABC in 1974 as the promoter of daredevil Evel Knievel’s attempt to jump his motorcycle nearly 1,600 feet across the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. The event would draw worldwide attention on closed circuit television and another blockbuster rating win for ABC.
After the event and Shelly’s book on what happened Knievel would come to Shelly’s office in Los Angeles and beat him up with a baseball bat. He sued Knievel and won but never collected a dine from him.
Always a champion of women’s rights in 1984 while serving as a member of the Los Angles Olympic Committee he talked the IOC into making the women’s marathon part of the games.
Among some, of his other accomplishments – too numerous to mention here are a few highlights.
He served in 1972 for one year as the President of Basketball Operations for the Los Angeles Lakers. He came in to help team owner Jack Kent Cooke make “The Showtime Lakers,” a hot ticket for the stars in Hollywood all who wanted to sit courtside at The Fabulous Form.
Saltman on Jack Kent Cooke:”He was the toughest but most interesting man I ever worked for in sports.”
He would later help get the money together to buy the Phoenix Suns, something that his long time business partner Andy Williams was happy to be a part of getting behind.
The PGA sought his help to establish celebrity golf tournaments The Andy Williams San Diego Open over the years was able to raise millions of dollars for area charities.
He was also the first president of Fox Sports and helped advise them on broadcast rights over the years. He was also involved with the NFL, USFL, NBA, NHL and too many other major sports leagues than I have the space to mention.
A few more tidbits from my vault on Shelly- he grew up in Boston with Leonard Nimoy. Max Nimoy, Leonard’s father was Shelly’s barber. He was a proud graduate of the University of Massachusetts and a loyal Red Sox fan.
I once asked him if any of his children were Red Sox fans and he said no. I asked him why? He quickly replied as only Shelly could with a funny response “Clearly bad parenting on my part.”
As for entertainment he worked as I said with Andy Williams creating his variety show. He managed The Osmond Brothers, served as a promotion man for Jackie Gleason, and so many other stars too numerous to mention.
If I had 100,000 words I could never do Shelly justice. He was a man who cared about his family and his friends. Truth be told Shelly would hate this column because it was all about him, something he never wanted.
But it was an honor to be his friend and it is important to keep his legacy alive and to tell the stories to another generation. So, sports fans please take a moment today and raise a beverage of your choice in honor of Shelly, he was quite a guy!