As the old saying goes: Greatness begets greatness.
Late in the summer of 1997, Doug Sorrell read a newspaper article about Muhammad Ali sponsoring a tribute to amateur boxing in his hometown of Louisville. Along with a boxing tournament televised by ESPN, there would be a gala fundraiser at the Kentucky International Convention Center.
“The article included the name and phone number of a guy from Connecticut who was running the event,” the Miamisburg auctioneer recalled with a growing smile. “I called him up and convinced him I was the greatest charity auctioneer in the world.”
To promote that point, Sorrell offered a couple of suggestions: “I said, ‘You need to come up with a chance at three minutes in the ring with Ali and have someone videotape it. Afterward, Ali will sign the gloves he just used and give them to the person.’
“Well, the old boy liked that idea. He said, ‘That sounds like fun.’ ”
Sorrell’s salesmanship got him the gig and the night of the fundraiser he shared the stage with Ali and his wife, Lonnie.
Billed as “A Night with The Greatest,” the event was $1,000 a plate and it was sold out, Sorrell said: “I remember Edwin C. Moses was in the crowd and so was Fuzzy Zoeller and Michael Wright, the attorney from Dayton.”
As he began to address the crowd, Sorrell said he looked over at Ali:
“I remember telling him there were three defining moments in my lifetime. One was when little John John Kennedy saluted his father’s casket as it rolled by back in ’63. Another was when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon.
“The third one was when Ali lit the Olympic torch at the top of the stadium in Atlanta.
“When I said that, the crowd rose to its feet in applause. And that’s when I turned to look at Ali and he looked back and mouthed the words ‘You are the greatest.’
“That was fabulous!”
Ali — who died nine days ago and was buried Friday back in his hometown — wasn’t just being kind. In the ring or on the dais, when he drew a bead he usually was on the mark.
And when it comes to charity events, there is no one better at getting people to pony up than the 66-year-old Sorrell. He is the most successful charity auctioneer in Dayton and one of the best in the nation.
Every year he presides over several of the top charity events in this area and two years ago he set the all-time, single-evening mark in Dayton when he raised $1.1 million at the biennial Gala of Hope fundraiser put on by Bob Mills, the Beavercreek developer and philanthropist, and his wife Barbara.
Sorrell is always the auctioneer for that event — the next one is July 16 at Mills’ Beavercreek home — and year after year he shows he can sell anything, be it a $60,000 package to the Final Four or a vasectomy (the details of which I’ll give you later).
Over the years, throughout the region, Sorrell has often found himself linked to sports, be it athletes, teams or events.
For years he led the sports auctions that funded Wright State athletics and he still does that for Xavier University, as well as several high schools in southwest Ohio.
Back in the early 1990s, he ran two fundraisers in Valley Forge, Pa., that benefited the U.S. Olympic equestrian team that was competing in the Barcelona Games. He’s also shared the stage with Kirk Herbstreit and the ESPN Game Day crew and done a pair of Dayton events with former heavyweight boxing champs Floyd Patterson and Buster Douglas.
For the past three years he’s handled the auction that funds the foundation run by Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. He’s also partnered with the likes of Ohio State coaches Woody Hayes and later John Cooper, as well as Bengals’ Hall of Fame lineman Anthony Munoz and local NFL products A.J. Hawk and Mike Nugent.
Some years back he worked a room full of 600 clamoring women who were bidding for dates with area celebrities, including then-single Reds’ Hall of Famer Barry Larkin and OSU and NFL great Jim Lachey.
Yet, of all the athletes, none has struck more of a chord than Ali:
“That night of the gala, ESPN was televising the boxing show on the next floor down and as soon as the dinner was done, they had state troopers ready to take Ali and his wife through the crowd to a table next to the ring,” Sorrell said.
“But Ali refused to leave until everyone who wanted to talk to him, take a picture or get an autograph had a chance to do so. He was the last man to leave the room. That told me a lot about Ali.
“Then again, I always admired him. Back when I was growing up, there was Ali and Joe Namath and the Beatles. And all three weren’t liked by most of our parents.
“Ali was brash and cocky, but I saw he always backed it up. Same with Namath. He came out of Alabama, bought that fur coat and said he was going to beat the Colts … and then he did.
“And the Beatles, my dad hated them. But I couldn’t wait to get out to the end of the driveway and start combing my hair down like them.”
A born showman
“I guess I’m a little bit of a frustrated entertainer,” Sorrell admitted with a laugh. “In their heart, I think every auctioneer is a little bit of a showman.”
And he has been on stage all his life.
Down in the basement of his Miamisburg home the other evening, he pulled out some childhood photos of himself in a cowboy outfit and a sailor suit and always he was wearing his dancing shoes.
“They tied tap shoes on me at 3 ½ and pushed me out on the stage,” he grinned. “I took dance until I was a junior in high school and had to fight every guy in school because of it.”
After high school, he channeled his showmanship into the International College of Broadcasting in Dayton with hopes of one day being a disc jockey on a rock station.
One problem, he said: “I sounded too much like Buck Owens.”
Now, all these years later, he’s still a showman. A lifelong horseman, he rides in parades across the country dressed as Rooster Cogburn, the fearless, one-eyed U.S. Marshall played by the likes of John Wayne, Warren Oates and finally Jeff Bridges in the movie adaptions of the novel “True Grit.”
Yet, the place Sorrell’s stage presence has really shown itself is when he’s worked as an auctioneer, a pursuit that you could say is in his genes.
His grandfather, Art Sorrell, ran an auction business — the Dixie Auction Company — out of a big barn in the heart of Miamisburg back in the 1930s and ’40s. Then Bill Sorrell, Doug’s father, worked as an auctioneer on the side while running a feed and flour mill and later a Western wear shop.
Doug followed suit in 1979 and went to an Illinois auction school that specialized in selling livestock.
“I wanted to be a horse auctioneer,” he said.
And he ended up one of the nation’s best, working especially for the Pony of the Americas club, which features an Arabian, Appaloosa and Shetland cross and has one of the largest and most active horse breed registries in the U.S.
Sorrell has run their auctions all across the nation and is now in the POA Hall of Fame.
As a regular auctioneer, he began at the bottom with small church groups, PTAs and kids clubs in the area.
“Back then they didn’t want to pay anybody and I wasn’t any good, so we were a match set,” he laughed.
Still, there were successes that resonate to this day.
“I’ll never forget this,” he said quietly. “A Cub Scout troop met in the basement of Trinity Church in Miamisburg. They wanted to raise $225 to buy a tent and to do it they had the fathers and sons — and some grandfathers, too — create cakes without the help of any women. It was my job to sell them and we made $350. The kids got so excited, it was like they had won the Powerball.
“I’ve never forgotten how good it felt to help them.”
All these years later, he gets some of the same feeling with Mills.
“He’s a great guy, who’s as philanthropic as anybody in Dayton. All his efforts are cancer related,” said Sorrell, who has also battled kidney and prostate cancer himself. “Bob lost his first wife, Marcy, to cancer and he’s dealt with it a couple of times himself and his granddaughter, Ally, has, too.
“When Marcy was losing her battle, she told him, ‘You have to quit giving your money to politicians and start doing something really good with it.’
“And he has. Over the past few years his Gala of Hope has raised over $3 million.”
Sorrell said he takes a different approach at charity events than at horse auctions.
“Every decision we make in life we do with either our head or our heart,” he said.
“The charity events are all about heart, but if you come to one of my horse auctions you better use your head ‘cause I’ll sell you a horse that can’t outrun a fat man in velvet boots and I won’t think a thing about it.”
And that vasectomy?
Touring the home Sorrell shares with wife Diana, you get a real western feel whether you’re in his so-called “man cave’’ with the gigantic longhorn steer head mounted on the wall or in the museum-like basement with the old saddle his grandma used now on display.
There are also montages of photos — from his night with Ali to the parades he’s ridden in nationwide to the therapeutic riding institute he lends his personal horse to — but he seemed most moved by one particular photo.
It was of him with a little girl taken at an American Heart event in Sinclair’s Great Hall last spring.
The pair is on stage — Doug in one of his trademark multi-color vests and the little girl holding up a sign that reads: “My name is Natalie. I was born with TAPVR. I am Why!”
The TAPVR stands for Total Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Return, a birth defect in which the pulmonary veins are not properly connected to the heart.
“I told my wife, ‘When you have my visitation, just sit that picture out,’ ” he said. “When people say, ‘What did that old boy do?’ You can say, ‘This is what he did.’ “
While that certainly is true, in Doug Sorrell’s case one picture doesn’t tell the whole story.
While he’s made his name for what he does with the heart, there are other areas that have benefited, too.
And that brings us to the vasectomy.
“I did a Junior League event and one of the items up for auction was a vasectomy,” he grinned. “I sold it to Bob Nutter and when I did, I was baffled.
“He stood up and said, ‘It’s not for me. I bought it for my dentist. Every time I go to the dentist to get my teeth cleaned, it costs me more money. The guy just had his fourth or fifth child and I’m gonna put a stop to it with this!’
“Well, the whole room laughed.
“Now fast forward to last year and I’m doing an American Cancer event in a hangar at the South Dayton airport. I sold some $10,000 VIP packages for two people to go to the American Music Awards in Los Angeles and afterward one guy comes up and says, ‘I just bought one of the packages.’
“I thanked him and he smiled. He said, ‘Remember when you sold a vasectomy a long time ago?’
“I said I sure did and he said, ‘Well, I’m that dentist and I actually got that vasectomy! That’s the reason I’ve got $10,000 now to buy this package.’ ”
And that tells you the rest of what you need to know about Doug Sorrel, a guy who twice made money on the same vasectomy.
Ali was right.
He is “The Greatest.”