Hank Goldberg, ESPN handicap, tries to beat the odds in health battle

The first time Hank Goldberg hit the track, he hit the daily double for $450 at Monmouth Park in his native New Jersey.

“I was 17 years old,” he said. “I came home and gave my father the money and said, ‘I want to buy a car with this.’ He said, “Where did you get that?” I said, “In Monmouth. I hit the double.”

‘He said, ‘Oh, you’re in trouble now.’ He knew I would never get over my love for the races. He was right. I just fell in love with racing, and of course it paid off. I ended up covering the Triple Crown for ABC.

Also known as “The Hammer” and “Hammerin’ Hank,” Goldberg has made a career out of trying to beat the odds, most notably as a longtime horse racing analyst and NFL reporter and forecaster for ESPN.

Now 81, the Las Vegas resident has long fought his battle with chronic kidney disease for the past several years. Goldberg is too old to qualify for a kidney transplant and has been on dialysis four hours a day, three days a week for the past five years.

On October 29, due to complications from the disease, Goldberg had his right leg amputated below the knee at the University Medical Center.

But the surgery hasn’t robbed Goldberg of his positive outlook on life, sense of humor and passion for storytelling and sports betting. In fact, he appeared on ESPN’s “Daily Wager” show on Thursday to talk about the NFL playoffs.

“I’ve never been depressed,” he said. “I had to do a test for my attitude and memory, and my memory has always been strong. I have many stories to tell.”

In many ways, Goldberg lived a charmed life before his recent trials.

DiMaggio Days

His father, Hy Goldberg, was a longtime sportswriter for the Newark Evening News. Every year, Hank would accompany him to spring training for the New York Yankees in St. Petersburg, Florida.

It was the late 1940s and Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio developed a fondness for “Henry,” as he called Hank. The two played catch and remained friends for the rest of DiMaggio’s life, often golfing together.

“I cherish the days I spent with DiMaggio,” Goldberg said. “They honored him for a year at the Orange Bowl and Joe sat down with me to watch the game.”

Goldberg attended Duke and graduated from New York University. He started working in advertising in Manhattan during the “Mad Men” era and served on the army reservation.

Moving to Miami

He moved to Miami to work in advertising, but soon landed his first job as a sports talk show host at radio station WIOD after a recommendation from legendary talk show host Larry King, who had worked there.

“I was one of the few guys who owed Larry anything when he left town because he owed everyone money,” Goldberg said jokingly.

Goldberg said he earned the nickname “The Hammer” on his radio show because he slammed a hammer on the desk when he disagreed with his co-host.

He was the Miami Dolphins’ color analyst from 1978 to 1992 and also worked as a sports anchor at WTVJ.

He learned the intricacies of sports handicap from oddsmaker and “The NFL Today” contributor Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. Goldberg said he wrote Snyder’s syndicated column as a ghostwriter, which has appeared in more than 100 newspapers. And he also helped gather information for Snyder’s “The Greek’s Grapevine” TV segment.

“I used to call (the late Raiders owner) Al Davis every Sunday morning for information,” Goldberg said.

ESPN2 launch

When ESPN2 launched in 1993, Goldberg began working for the network, eventually appearing on ESPN’s NFL preview show. Davis was one of his main sources.

“When they hired me at ESPN, I called Al to thank him,” he said. And Al was silent for a moment and he said, ‘Well, I made (John) Madden. And I made you.’”

Former ESPN anchor and UNLV quarterback Kenny Mayne joined ESPN2 with Goldberg in 1994 and they remain close friends.

“I got to know him a lot through horse racing, more than anything,” said Mayne, now an ambassador for Caesars Sportsbook. “He’s a character. He reminds me of my late uncle Gordie, who taught me about horse racing. Henk has the same personality. When he comes into a room, he’s kinda big and loud and he tells stories. He’s just fun to be in to be around And I love our Vegas connection.

“I’m trying to make sure he gets through this and gets back up.”

‘Can’t give up’

Goldberg moved from Miami to Las Vegas in 2017. His younger sister, Liz, a longtime TV executive, already lived here and stood by her brother’s side through his trials and tribulations.

“My sister has been great,” he said. “I am blessed with her.”

The feeling is the same, as Liz has marveled at her brother’s resilience.

“He’s like the phoenix,” she said. “He just keeps rising.”

“The Hammer” continues to work for CBS Sports HQ and SportsLine.com. He likes the 49ers (+5½) over the Packers and the Chiefs (-1½) over the Bills this weekend.

“The whole world is in love with Buffalo,” he said. “But I don’t think they’ll make it to Kansas City. This is a step forward for them. The Chiefs will be very hard to beat at home.”

Goldberg’s right leg is healing well and Tuesday he had an angioplasty that improved the blood flow to his left foot. He said his doctor had told him that in a few months he will be able to walk with the help of a prosthesis.

“I’m staying positive because they’ve made so much progress in kidney disease,” he said. “You just can’t give up.”

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com. To follow @tdewey33 on Twitter.

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