While you have busied yourself with life’s important things – the Cardinals’ precocious pitching staff, the beyond the moon Dodgers, and above all, the miracle of the 2013 Boston Red Sox – I have spent this year in the catacombs writing a biography of my former boss, George Herbert Walker Bush, for whom I wrote speeches when he was America’s 1989-93 President.
I hope that you will like the parts of the book that pertain to baseball, Bush’s favorite sport, which he played, coached, and loves – and the friendship between Ted Williams and the future President who batted eighth at Yale – “second cleanup,” Bush mused tongue in cheek. His baseball career ended because he couldn’t hit the curve.
Aptly, Bush, like me, has been a Red Sox fan since he trooped to Fenway Park as a child. Williams, who hit the curve, fastball, and any other pitch ever invented, didn’t just play for the Sox from 1939-1942 and 1946-60. He was the Olde Towne Team – still is, in death. Below is a story about the special friendship between these two special men.
More will appear in coming months as the biography of Bush 41 nears release next year – and as we celebrate his ninetieth birthday in 2014. Reading, please imagine how Bush enjoyed this year’s astounding Red Sox rise from worst-to-first – and how The Kid must have, too, giving God batting tips in the Big Ballpark in the Sky:
Return to February 1988. Vice President Bush trails Bob Dole in the New Hampshire Primary, to be held less than a week away. Having already lost Iowa, Bush will likely lose his dream to become President if he loses here, too. Even his mega-popular wife, Barbara, hadn’t turned the tide. When Bush arrived, he was atypically scolding an aide.
As Rick Robinson wrote in All Right Magazine, “a figure larger than New England itself” approached him, saying, “Any problems, Mr. Vice President?” “Not now,” said Bush, staring in shock at Theodore Samuel Williams. “Everything’s going to be fine now.” Robinson titled his profile: How Ted Williams Changed the World.
Raised in Connecticut, Bush had early gravitated toward Ted’s Red Sox. “The first game Dad took me to was the Polo Grounds,” he said of the Giants’ pre-1958 home across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium, “but my favorite park was Boston’s Fenway. It’s nice to know some things don’t change,” including his awe for someone who could hit, “something I never mastered at Yale” – classic good-field-no-hit, averaging .222.
After moving to Texas, Barbara carpooled players to Little League, giving umpires her mind. Eldest son George W. became Texas Rangers general managing partner before entering politics. Most of his father’s speeches leaving the Presidency in 1993 were paid to help build his Library. Gratis was a speech I had a thrill writing — 1994’s keynote opening of the Ted Williams Museum: “a dear friend,” Bush said, “and the greatest hitter who ever lived.”
Articulate, profane, more handsome than Errol Flynn, Williams became a hero to my father, Woody Hayes, John Updike, and Bobby Knight. By 1988, I knew of no one so revered by men, say, over fifty. Bush felt him a hero, too, and would tell you why. “The first reason was character. Ted couldn’t stand what he termed ‘politicians’ – phonies. Teammates adored him. Rivals asked for batting tips” – wise, given Williams’ six titles, .344 career average, and twice winning the Most Valuable Player award and Triple Crown – “and Ted never turned them down.” Finally, Sox owner Tom Yawkey had enough. “Ted, I know you’re generous, but why are you helping the enemy?”
Real enemies, said Bush, spiked Korea and World War II. The Kid a.k.a. Splendid Splinter, Thumper, and Teddy Ballgame, among other monikers, flew 36 combat missions, never complaining about “losing five and a half seasons from the prime of his career,” Bush jibed. Add them, said longtime Sox announcer Curt Gowdy, “and there’d be no room in the record books for anyone but Ted.”
Bush thought Williams an extraordinary batter, hunter, and fisherman – “also a conservationist before the phrase ‘environment’ existed,” said Bush. Ted raised millions of dollars for charity,” especially the Jimmy Fund: New England’s charity against childhood cancer. “He was a Point of Light before my administration coined the term.”
The introduction of bit politicians had begun at the February 1988 New Hampshire rally, Rick Robinson wrote, when Williams, unannounced and unexpected, strode on stage, getting and needing no introduction. The crowd gasped, stared in disbelief, then stood and roared. The noise volleyed, rose, and crashed against the trees. Ted, still The Kid at 70, introduced “a good friend of mine who’s running for President.”
Applause greeted Bush, though not as deafening as No. 9’s. For two entire days the two of them were inseparable, drawing mammoth crowds: “Whither thou goest,” said Ruth 1:16 in the Bible, “I will go” – in this case, a Laconia dog sled, a Manchester fishing show, the sidewalks of Currier and Ives towns: Williams mobbed; Bush joking that he, the candidate, was hired help.
Years later, I asked White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, a Red Sox fan who in 1988 was Governor of New Hampshire, what had pivoted the primary. Instantly, he said: “The Kid.” On January 20, 1989, Bush was inaugurated as President. He and Sununu both deemed Ted “the greatest hitter who ever lived” – and the man they credited with pivoting the 1988 New Hampshire Primary.
Without No. 9, Bush might have needed a miracle equal to the 2013 Red Sox to become forty-first President of the United States. Sox fans are glad that Bush reserved it for them.
“Kennedy was, whether for good or bad, an enormously large figure,” Theodore H. White wrote of America’s first Catholic president. “Historically, he was a gate-keeper. He unlatched the gate and through the door marched Catholics, blacks, and Jews, and ethnics, women, youth, academics, newspersons, and an entirely new breed of politician.”
Joe Garagiola, 87, an exceedingly large baseball figure, recently retired after 58 years behind the mike, including the last 18 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He unlatched a 1950s and ‘60s gate for urban, ethnic, and, with Dizzy Dean, an entirely new breed of announcer – the ex-jock-turned funnyman. It is a gate that will never close.
Humor obscured how Joe G. asked for little, worked like a dog, and helped found the Baseball Assistance Team. “I went though life as a [1946-54] player to be named later,” Garagiola said in a typical witticism. Ordinary on the field, he has been extraordinary off.
Yet to many Joe will always be boyhood pal Yogi Berra’s ambassador without portfolio. “I’ll ask him, ‘What time is it? Yogi’ll say, ‘Now?’”
“I get lost going to Yogi’s home, and call. ‘Where are you?’ he says. I tell him. He says, ‘You’re not far away. You come this way. Don’t go that way.’”
A woman mused, “Yogi, you look cool in that outfit.” Berra smiled. “Thanks,” he said. “You don’t look so hot yourself.”
What a card – or was Yogi Charlie McCarthy, mouthing a baseball Bergen’s lines? “It’s his humor,” said Garagiola, growing wintry. “He thinks funny, and speaks what he thinks.”
Joe’s mother — “a dear, loving simple woman” – could not speak English. Dad worked in a brickyard. Born on Lincoln’s birthday 1926, their son learned a salute-to-the-flag, catch-in-the-throat, tear-in-the-eye Americanism.
Growing up, he and Berra shared a glove, played in a World Progress Administration league, and worked in a Cardinals training camp. In 1942, Joe graduated from South Side Catholic High School, signed for $500 with St. Louis, and bounced to Class-A Springfield, Triple-A Columbus, and the Army in Manila.
One day he heard the wireless etch a young, fast, and strong Cardinals catcher. “I turned to my closest Army buddy and said, ‘If that guy’s that good, I ‘m in trouble.’” The radio predicted Garagiola would fill Walker Cooper’s shoes. As Joe said, it didn’t say with what.
Meet Me in St. Louis
In 1946, joining his home team, Garagiola was assigned washing sanitary hose. “We used to always put on Stan Musial’s socks ‘TGIF’ – Toes Go In First. Anything to help The Man.” The Man helped by leading the league in seven categories.
Enos Slaughter had an N.L-high 130 runs. Howie Pollett, Harry Brecheen, and Murry Dickson went 51-31. St. Louis was still made a 7-to-20 World Series underdog v. Boston. Games One-Two split. The Red Sox then won Fenway Park’s first Series match in 28 years. To New England, Game Four seemed as long: Redbirds, 12-3. Joe, Slaughter, and Whitey Kurowski each had four of a record-tying 20 hits.
“Here I am,” he said, “living a kid’s ream, and [Ted] Williams picks that day to beat the shift [three infielders right of second base].” Papers blared: “Williams Bunts!” Cards, in seven. Garagiola gloried in his .316 average. The hereafter was stickier: 1947, .247; ’48, minors; ’50, shoulder separation. Hurt, Joe began listening to Harry Caray, “how he called the game, and I got thinking about radio.”
Dealt to Pittsburgh, he rubbernecked the 42-112 ‘52ers. “It was the most courageous team in baseball,” said Garagiola. “We had 154 games scheduled, and showed up for every one. We lost eight of our first nine games and then we had a slump.”
Next year marked the ninth season of Branch Rickey’s five-year plan. One day the Pirates’ G.M. summoned Joe. “He looks at me with his big, bushy eyebrows. ‘By Judas Priest,’ he says, ‘we’re turning the corner. And you, my boy, figure in my plans.’” That week Garagiola was traded to the Cubs.
In 1954, the Giants claimed him off waivers. “I’d bit in the bullpen and say, ‘Why the hell doesn’t he throw the curveball?” Joe said, retiring. “All I had to do to become an announcer was to take out the hell.”
Hired by KMOX Radio St. Louis, the Funny Man began making a virtue of necessity. “You can’t imagine the thrill,” Joe said of his .257 career average, “to walk into a clubhouse and wonder if your uniform is still there.” Their block became terra firma. “A door to door peddler told my mom I was the first boy from the neighborhood with a name ending in a, e, i, o, or u that gets his name in the papers and he no kill anybody.”
Baseball wasn’t “like going to church.” Dead air: “I’m Italian. I like to talk.” Strategy: “An idiot could pick up” the signs. St. Louis forgave his sharp voice. Caray taught using the diaphragm. “I had a lot of help, and needed it. Off my first play-by-play, I wouldn’t have hired myself.”
For Anheuser-Busch, Joe emceed, spoke to B’nai B’rith, the Holy Name, and Masonic Lodge, and bloomed as a ribster. He and Stan Musial became godfather for the other’s child. In 1959, he broadcast with the Cardinals. Back home, Yogi’s pal taped, reviewed, and learned, becoming a Bob Hope of the resin bag. His gate, unlatched, would soon open wide.
In 1960, Herbert Hoover and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru were introduced at the World Series. “You amaze me, Yog. You’ve become such a world figure that you draw more applause than either a prime minister or former president,” Garagiola laughed. “You can you explain it?” Berra said: “Certainly. I’m a better hitter.”
That season, Joe released the runaway bestseller Baseball Is a Funny Game. “One day I’m a dumb jock and suddenly I can write.” NBC made him 1961 Saturday and Sunday Major League Baseball color man. Next year Bob Wolff began play-by-play. “You work your side of the street [interviewing players],” said Garagiola, “and I’ll work mine.” On CBS, Dean, incinerating the language, competed each weekend with Wolff and Joe G.
Wolff liked Joe’s pizzazz. “He’d say, ‘The guy stapled him to the bag.’” A runner’s “smilin’ like he swallowed a banana peel.” The game preceded due diligence. “Afterward, we’d replay each pitch. ‘I said this, you said that, and I should have said this.’” Soon Garagiola played The Jack Paar Show with Kaye Ballard and June Valli. Even better is that today every baseball network and big-league team has at least one, some many, ex-athletes-turned-analysts: “Joe’s ultimate gift,” says Wolff.
In 1962, Garagiola left the Cardinals full-time for NBC. Radio bound the 1963 World Series, Monitor, and Joe Garagiola Sports Show. TV blared The Tonight Show, Match Game, What’s My Line?, and I’ve Got A Secret. A writer said, “His words hit home runs.” Leisure, on the other hand, fanned.
The Peacock Spreads
Small world. The 1964 World Series matched the Redbirds and the Yankees, Berra managing. Garagiola called it with, among others, Caray. The Cards cut their seventh world title. The Yankees’ loss cost Yogi his job. As jaw-dropping was the firing of broadcaster Mel Allen, replaced by Joe, auguring “a more human Yankees image,” wrote the Daily News’s Kay Gardella. Sadly, the Bombers chose this time by fall apart, finishing last by 1966.
Understandably, Garagiola avoided whenever possible anything germane to score.
“Once in a while you’d get lucky: the Yankees like they were,” he said. An example was May 14, 1967. “Stu Miller ready,” said Garagiola at Yankee Stadium. “Here’s the payoff pitch by Miller to Mantle. Swung on! There she goes! There she goes! …. Mickey Mantle has hit the [career] five hundred home run!”
In 1968, Joe joined NBC The Today Show regulars Barbara Walters, Hugh Downs, and Frank McGee. Some foresaw a flop. Instead, he “indulged in diamond talk with Frank Robinson,” Ben Gross wrote, “boxing with Muhammad Ali, poetry with Marianne Moore, and politics with Hubert H. Humphrey.” President Johnson introduced him to a diplomat. “Turn on your TV set tomorrow morning and you’ll see this fellow. I watch him every day.”
Define New York: “The only four-letter word they object to is ROTC.” Was Joe sentimental? “Give me the Queen of Spades and I’ll bawl.” A slider was “a curveball after taxes.” A plane trip spawned “rope burns from my Rosary.” Garagiola rose at 4:30 A.M., caught the 5:26 commuter train, and knew his niche. “I’m not Joe Show Six, just a sweatshirt guy running stop speed to stay even. Those guys on the bubble gum cards, they’re mine.”
By 1973, Joe’s card listed Joe Garagiola’s Memory Game, Sale of the Century, and Monday’s pre-game Baseball World of Joe Garagiola. Wife Audrie asked: “How many cards or suite do you need?” Leaving Today, he called, with Gowdy, the 1974 All-Star Game. Next day Joe grabbed NBC executive Carl Lindemann. “I can’t work with him,” he said. “Curt kept cutting me off. I couldn’t say a word.”
In 1975, he hosted NBC’s Next Year Is Here and First World Series of Bubble Gum Blowing. A new gate soon opened. “Mr. Garagiola,” read an NBC press release, “will do our [entire 1976] play-by-play [Tony Kubek, keeping color].” Political animals aren’t limited to politics.
“Often Even Great”
NBC hoped that Joe’s charm and unorthodox dwelling on the personal would halt Game’s decade-long hemorrhage. Instead, ratings bobbed from 6.7 (1977) via 7.5 (1978) to 6.3 (1981-82). “Saturday had a constituency,” said executive producer Scotty Connal, “but it didn’t swell.” Opposing Game, local-team TV split the audience. By contrast, regulars awaited Joe’s bits like a Star Trek groupie.
The 1952 Bucs meant a belly laugh: “Once we had a rainout and we staged a victory party.” Diction was a yuck. One year Yogi, Dizzy Dean, and Garagiola joined the Missouri Hall of Fame. “What do you want? Good grammar or good taste?” Game mixed aplomb and nonchalance. “I’m an expert on two things – trades and slumps.” How far did Yogi go in high school? “Nine blocks.” If Howard Cosell lunched “with everyone he says he does he’d weigh 720 pounds.”
ABC’s 1976 power grab was no laughing matter, buying half of all big-league coverage. “Still, Game, half of post-season – we got lots left,” Joe said. Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson fought in 1977. Next year New York again made the Series. Game Two: L.A., 4-3, ninth, two on. Reggie kept fouling off Bob Welch. Finally: “He gets him!” Joe cried. “What a battle!”
Garagiola never caught a no-hitter. In 1981, he called Nolan Ryan’s fifth. Pressure building! This may be it [game-ending grounder]!” A year Vin Scully got play-by-play, Joe retaking color. “People couldn’t wait for us to be the odd couple, always sniping at each other,” Vin later mused. Once again Joe adjusted. Wolff, for one, was not surprised. “If I couldn’t see who was warming up, he’d write me a note. ‘Smith to the left, Jones to the right.’ That way I could say it: Joe wanted me to look good.”
By late 1983, The New York Times wrote: “That the duo of Scully and Garagiola is very good, and often even great, is no longer in dispute.” Talking less, Joe was saying more. “He understood the cash,” a friend said of NBC’s 1984-49 407 percent bigs hike. Scully was the star”; Garagiola, Pegasus, the Peacocks’ junior light. In 1984, he predicted a Series pitchout. “How did you know that?” Vin gawked. The fist sign, he said, hadn’t changed since 1944. “He’d say the batter wiggled,” said Harry Coyle, “so we’d put the replay on him, and the camera proved him right.”
The 1980s tied flag-waving, supply-side economics, and Ronald Reagan’s remembered and/or reinvented past. NBC’s fused: 1984, Jack Morris’s’ no-no; 1985, Ozzie Smith’s L.C.S. parabola; 1986, Buckner Series; late 1988, baseball’s excising Game. Joe resigned that fall – “I was trying to renegotiate, and they left me twisting” – returning to 1990-91’s Today. Cooperstown followed. “The Hall of Fame!” he said. “My God, Rickey wouldn’t believe it!” Miming Yogi, Garagiola thanked those who made the day necessary. “I couldn’t hit my way in here. I talked my way in instead.”
In 1993, the Smithsonian Institution hailed Joe’s baseball world. “Tonight’s honor might not be Mt. Rushmore,” wrote Jack Paar of his folically-challenged friend, “but there’s still a place on Mt. Baldie.” Joe was Gerald Ford’s emcee in the 1976 Presidential campaign. Recalling another president, Jack termed him the only Voice to have slept in the Lincoln Bedroom before it became the Hollywood Hotel.
Garagiola moved to Phoenix, called the Angels and Diamondbacks, and hailed Arizona’s first general manager: “My Rickey! Dad said of son Joe. Pop helped open a gate for former players: the Baseball Assistance Team.
By 2002, the average big-league salary, $29,000 in 1968, neared $2.4 million. “These guys,” he snapped. “Where’s concern for the players before?” A pitcher couldn’t afford to bury his 11-year-old son. An ex-Dodger pondered a raffle for an amputated leg. “Nobody cares about no pension then. Without them, guys today wouldn’t be living like they are.”
BAT paid bills, bought insurance, above all, gentled shame. Unlatching hope: a conservative, turned do-gooder; the hustler, aiding those whom life forgot. Bob Dole once told Richard Nixon that he was too complicated to be understood. “Aha! Nixon enthused. “Now you’re getting somewhere.”
Complexity was also true of Joe Garagiola. His final stint was 18 years of airing the Diamondbacks. His final gate was knowledge, unlatching it for every viewer.
Raised on J Street on the west side of Pensacola, the Toronto Blue Jays’ first Voice formed a 1950s stickball league, used broom handles for bats, and played and called baseball. Pre-air conditioned Florida opened doors and windows. ”Like it or not,” said Tom Cheek, then a teenager, “the whole neighborhood heard me.”
His family bought its first TV the year that a neighbor got a tape recorder. The conflux let him describe, say, Auburn-Alabama. Tom’s heroes were Curt Gowdy, Mel Allen, and Dizzy Dean. No one asked what he wanted to do. Cheek wanted to broadcast baseball.
On October 23, 1993, he called a drive that everyone in the game heard. “Here’s the pitch. A swing – and a belt! Left field! Way back! Blue Jays win it! [v. Philadelphia] The Blue Jays are World Series champions as Joe Carter hits a three-run home run in the ninth inning and the Blue Jays have repeated as World Series champs! Touch ‘em all, Joe! You’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life!” Tom never called a bigger prize.
This summer Cheek will enter a shrine that every baseball man aspires to: the Baseball Hall of Fame, becoming the 37th recipient of the Ford C. Frick award for broadcast excellence. Dead of cancer in 2005, Tom, then 66, will be recognized by a new generation, as he was outlasting eight Canadian prime ministers and six U.S. presidents – his life a long and winding road.
It really began in 1957, when the U.S. Air Force sent Cheek, 18, to San Antonio, Cheyenne, rural New York, and Africa. More than 10,000 died in an earthquake on Morocco’s resort of Agadar. To stop rats and flies, the military dropped corrosive lime and bulldozed rubble. Tom knew people buried alive. Discharged, a shaken motormouth missed his neighborhood. The bigs never looked so good.
In Burlington, Vermont, Cheek aired college football and “a few Expo games [1974-76].” Once, he visited Toronto, then renovating Exhibition Stadium. “I’m standing on Lakeshore Boulevard, and I tell [wife] Shirley,‘I’ve put in time. I’m going to be part of a team there some day.’”
In 1891, Toronto’s first team had left organized baseball. Six years later the Eastern League moved to nearby Hanlon’s Point. The city’s minors died in 1967. In 1977, the A.K. finally granted an expansion club. A baseball bonanza, eh? — except that Exhibition had a football core.
Foul lines, bases, dirt squares, and plastic grass garbed the Canadian Football Leaie Argonauts’ home. “Almost none of the seats,” said skipper Roy Hartsfield, “even faced the plate.” A contest chose the Blue Jays’ name. Tom, 37, won CKFH Radio’s audition. Like Toronto, he resolved to make up for lost time.
Cheeky From the Start
Opening Day 1977: Jays 9, Chicago 5, before 44,649. Dinging twice, Doug Ault is seldom heard from again. The wind chill hits 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Snow off the lake covers the entire field. The hockey Maple Leafs’ Zamboni repeatedly clears the turf. Any Canadian could share: CBS TV linked Halifax and Keitchikan.
Bust soon linked each year. Cheek had a saying: “Win a little, die a lot.” Hartsfield’s went: “If they heat us today, we’ll strap ‘em on again tomorrow.” Tom did, beating hoarseness, laryngitis, and even pneumonia. “At four in the morning I wondered if I’d see the light of day.” Would the Jays? – last through 1981.
One night a young man dropped a foul. The next pitch was popped there, too. Lunging, his girlfriend caught the ball. “Can you believe it?” Cheek boomed. “He boots it and she catches it.” Cooed sidekick Early Wynn: “She probably knows all about his hands.”
Each year Wynn drove a motorcoach from Florida. Looking out the window in Coon Hollow, Tennessee, he saw his front wheel rolling beside the road.
“Your life must have flashed before your eyes,” Cheek said. “What was going through your mind?”
“Tom, I recalled the lines of that sonr,” popular in the 1970s. “’You picked a fine time to leave me, loose wheel.’”
“Touch ‘Em All, Joe”
The something loose was a screw in pitcher Mark Lemongello. Once he threw an ashtray at team president Peter Bavasi. Hartsfield told him to walk a batter intentionally. The righty threw a pitch 15 feet to the right of catcher Rick Cerone. A loyalist blessed any wheels staying on. Tom’s included ABC TV’s 1980 and 1984 Winter Olympics.
In 1985, Toronto lost a 3-1 game L.C.S. lead. The ‘87ers blew a last-week division: win a little, die a lot. Exhibition Stadium closed May 28, 1989. As usual, the seventh-inning stretch tooted a homey number. “Okay-okay, Blue Jays-Blue Jays. Let’s play – let’s play BALL!” Cheek would call it two miles and a roof away.
The first stadium with a retractable roof convened that June. Eight Boeing 747s could fit in SkyDome, later renamed Rogers Centre. The first homestand, it began to rain. The roof jammed without closing. Another night, millions of gnats forced umpire Don Denkinger to put the top down. The bugs were not a monkey wrench: Ontario loved its new-age digs.
Toronto won the East. In 1991, it hit a bigs-first four million attendance. Joe Carter batted in the ninth inning, October 2. “A fly ball will win it!” Tom said. “The winning run ninety feet away. The pitch – a swing – and a base hit! And the Blue Jays are the champs of the American League East!” Some edge: Like 1989, they lost each L.C.S. north-of-the-border game.
By contrast, Dave Winfield, 40, became the oldest 100-RBI man in 1992. On October 14, beating Oakland, 9-2, Toronto took its first flag. The Series bound an ump-blown triple play, first non-U.S. team, and Winfield’s Game Six 11th-inning up. “A base hit down the line!” said partner Jerry Howarth. “White scores! … Alomar scores on Dave Winfield’s two-base hit!” Blue Jays, 4-3: Win a little, win it all.
“Everywhere people were thanking you,” said Cheek, more thankful in 1993. Again Toronto made the Classic. Game Four welded Nutcase and roller derby: record score (Jays 15, Phillies 14), runs (29), and time (4:14). In Game Six, hits splattered around the Dome. The Jays trailed, 6-5, two on, one out, in the ninth.
Mitch Williams threw would-be strike three. Seconds later Cheek was baying, “Touch ‘em all, Joe!” Carter leapt around the bases. Tom celebrated by becoming a Canadian citizen, remaining so till his death.
A Jays’ Wing – and Tom’s Prayer
“It won’t last,” said Leafs had Cliff Fletcher, correctly. Hockey’s hub hugging baseball was a gas while it did. North America’s largest McDonald’s moored the on-site 348-room SkyDome Hotel. One couple kept blinds open, making love. “Forget my play-by-play.” Said Cheek. “The crowd liked theirs.” Security applied the kibosh, like the bigs’ 1994 work stoppage.
“We didn’t have baseball roots, so it hurt more than, say, Boston,” said Boston’s Cambridge School of Broadcasting alumnus. The 1993 Blue Jays had drawn a still-A.L.-high 4,057,947. Now tickets lingered for a game. Even the optimist worried, despite winning 2001’s Jack Graney Award and becoming Canada’s baseball Dr. Spread the Game. In Toronto, Cheek said, “The only thing better than a winning baseball team is a losing hockey team.” Anyone who loved baseball wanted to see others love it, too.
In 2004 life, unlike love, changed. On June 3, Cheek’s father died. Tom missed two games, ending his record 4,306-consecutive-game streak. Nine days later, like a Hardy plot, Cheek fils braved brain tumor surgery. He did several games at home, hoping for recovery. The Jays named him to their Level of Excellence – only the third non-player. Voice cracking, Cheek hailed people he had never met. “Thank you [for cards and calls] and God bless you.” As a child, Tom deemed baseball “my main course.” Many now preceded theirs with a prayer.
That offseason cancer returned, Cheek brooking further treatment. On Opening Day 2005, Tom aired an inning on the wireless at Tampa Bay, near their home in Florida. He died October 9, the first of eight straight years he was a top 10 finalist for the Frick Award. Cheek often said, “Give me music with a message. Sinatra, Diamond, a little Waylon [Jennings] and Willie [Nelson].” Perhaps the message of his life is that childhood dreams can happen if you work and persevere enough.
New York City has always been a rabid baseball town: Mel Allen, Red Barber, and Lindsey Nelson; Willie, Mickey, and the Duke; Murderers Row, the Boys of Summer, the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff, the Miracle Mets. Thus, jaws dropped and eyebrows raised when, among other follies, the following this month occurred:
Yawning acres of seats at Yankee Stadium marred the final of the Division Series v. Baltimore and last two games of the ALCS. According to The Wall Street Journal, the average playoff attendance was the Yankees’ lowest postseason since 1932.The Bombers’ regular-season attendance was their lowest since 2003 – down, as the Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington adds, more than 2,700 per game since 2010.
How could this happen in baseball’s once-capital? The shorthand answer is the 2009 Bombers leaving one Yankee Stadium for another. A moral says that you can’t buy tradition. The Yankees tried insipidly to transfer tradition, not grasping what they had. The Big Apple’s major baseball park has become a big lemon instead.
Since 1923, the original House That Ruth Built had meant a drop-dead look of monuments and sloping shadows and steep-ridged seats. Until 1974-1975’s generic makeover, The Big Ballpark in the Bronx’s numbers wrote a feel-good shrine: left field, 301 feet: left-center, 457; center, 461; right-center, 407; right field, 296. Acreage and triple tiers built the stage. Winning – 27 pennants there through 1964 – filled it. If The Stadium wasn’t broke, why fix it? Pricey ticket, concession, and luxury suite greed.
Film’s Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko says, “Greed is good.” It can also be blind. The 57,000-seat Stadium’s last four years drew4 million, including 2007’s record 4.2 million and 2008’s selling out after June. A year later the new 52,325-seat The House That Greed Built opened to bile reserved for Sarah Palin – except that at least she grasped the middle class.
The Yankees $51.55 average ticket price trails only the Red Sox $53.38. Prices for the new venue include $525 to $2,625 home plate and dugout to dugout boxes, making the Sox seem like Tobacco Road. (Fenway Park’s intimacy continues to help it daily sell out.) Associated Press once counted only 37 of 146 premium seats filled: averaging, says the Journal, $305.11. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig “broke down all the prices of all the seats, and they are affordable.” That is true, if you’re Warren Buffett.
To a viewer, TV’s center-field shot shows first-row boxes behind the plate emptier than a politician. A top-that insult was Major League Soccer’s head twitting the Yankees’ gate: Charles Atlas, decked by the 98-pound weakling. The Old Stadium had first- and third-base camera wells: “a must for a new park,” said the New York Post’s Phil Mushnick. The New junked them for vacant stands. Like Fenway, The Old Stadium’s exquisite low home-plate camera shot was unobscured by an angled backstop. The New’s vertical wire screen blocks half the infield, like peering through prison bars at Sing Sing. Yogi Berra said he observed a lot by watching. We rarely watch what we cannot see.
Old Stadium decks perched one atop another, din ricocheting off the tiers: literally, the ballpark shook. New right field’s upper tier seems as remote as Jersey City, the design helping sound leave between the grandstand and bleachers – says Tigers outfielder Quinton Berry, “like playing at a library.” The New York Times quoted a patron: “You guys call yourselves Yankee fans? Make some noise!” Adds ESPN’s Buster Olney: “What a difference in atmosphere from even a few years ago.”
Renovation could have restored The Stadium to, say, 1964. “No ballpark could hold a Louisville Slugger to that place,” Scott Pitoniak wrote in Memories of Yankee Stadium. Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione recalls how “Anything could happen. A 300-foot homer, a 450-foot out. They could have made the Stadium like it was for Mick.” Instead, baseball’s flagship team paved paradise for those in the counting house. Lemon in, lemon out.
Benjamin Disraeli said: “It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.” In desperation, the Yankees this month even moved denizens from the upper to lower deck to preclude empty-seat playoff TV ridicule. (It didn’t work.) You couldn’t try that, say, at post-season Cincinnati, Detroit, Washington, St. Louis, or San Francisco, since every seat was filled.
Few liken the $1.5 billion New Stadium to PNC Park, A&T Park, Camden Yards, or renovated Fenway Park. At the least, the Yankees should cut ticket prices and build an angled wire backstop below the TV booth so that a viewer – imagine – can see the game. Edward Bennett Williams once compared his Redskins and Orioles, asking “What’s dumber than the dumbest football owner? The smartest baseball owner.” Williams died in 1988. At the park or on television, Yankee Stadium often seems dead today.
To some, progress means bulldozing the past. “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers,” rued actor James Earl Jones, “erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again.” Steamrolled: battlefields, historic shrines, even homes by eminent domain.
“Only baseball has marked the time,” said Jones, forgetting, say, Ebbets Field, Forbes Field, and the Polo Grounds — each pummeled by the wrecking ball: falling to, nor marking, time. A decade ago Boston’s Fenway Park, born in 1912, seemed sure to join them: too few suites and concession stands; too little parking – above all, too small.
If you’ll forgive an unpaid ad, my new book, Mercy! A Celebration of Fenway Park’s Centennial told Through Red Sox Radio and TV (Potomac Books, $27.50),tells how baseball’s oldest park was improbably preserved.
In the process, Boston won its first World Series in 86 years and set an ongoing major-league record 760-plus home game sellout streak. Even more, it remains the best spot to watch baseball on television, “There’s not a bad camera angle,” said the late NBC director Harry Coyle, especially the low home plate shot – a viewer’s picture window. Such jewels are hard to find.
Ironically, Fenway was saved by ex-Orioles owner Larry Lucchino, who built seminal Camden Yards, which began the “new old” ballpark craze – 21 in all — occurring since its 1992 debut. In 2001, Lucchino helped buy the Sox, former Democratic Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis telling him, “Anyone who wants to tear down Fenway Park should be criminally indicted.”
As 1975-79 and 1983-1991 Massachusets Governor, Dukakis had asked aides: “Is this true? Is Fenway beyond saving?”
“‘Baloney,’ they said. ‘Of course it can be rebuilt’” – ultimately, for 35 percent of a new Fenway’s estimated $850 million cost.
To Lucchino, Dukakis said, “I hope you’ll take a very serious look at saving Fenway.” To his surprise, the new Sox president did.
For one thing, Boston’s loony cost of land encouraged Lucchino to stay put. Ownership also heard Red Sox Nation: The Sox sans Fenway would not be the Sox. It forged more restrooms, high-tech boards, and sponsors. Diciest was scrapping the fabled Screen for Green Monster seats atop the 37-foot left-field Wall. Capacity swelled, helping Fenway become baseball’s ATM. “Renovation became a 10-year cycle,” Lucchino said. “Each year we had a new Christmas present to be unwrapped on Opening Day.”
Renovation will let the Sox stay an estimated 30 to 40 years. “That doesn’t mean the franchise’s next stewards will want to stay here,” said Lucchino, “but this will be an alternative.” Three years ago the rival Yankees chose another alternative, deserting the original Big Ballpark in the Bronx for a pedestrian, TV-unfriendly heir. You can’t buy tradition. The Yankees tried vainly to transfer it, not grasping what they had. A visit shows how Fenway is now baseball’s Lourdes, rebuilt pew by pew.
Taxis jam one-way streets. Charter buses deposit pilgrims from outposts of the Nation. Tykes with baseball gloves and Red Sox pants and caps take dad’s hand, enter through archways in a brick façade, and walk into a tunnel toward the field. Says USA Today: “That Fenway is standing at all, let alone bustling at its seams nightly with patrons … is an amazing story of history and business savvy” – tradition, above all.
The Monster, nearby Prudential Building, and Citgo sign remain real as any relative. Here Pedro Martinez hurled and Tony C. broke hearts and Ted Williams ruled. The message board still ties average, photo, and ads to pay the bills. The sound system blares Madonna, not Lawrence Welk, but the Wave still seems wayward. After a game the crowd scatters around and from the Hub. Ushers caress stragglers. Few want to leave.
Alexander Chase said, “Memory is the thing we forget with.” In the Fens, we recall. Shakespeare coined “a little touch of Harry in the night.” In person or especially on TV, every park could use a touch of Fenway Park.
“I am always ready to learn, though I do not always enjoying being taught,” Churchill said. Hoping to learn, a big-league junkie can despair of being taught. “Baseball fans best know their game,” Jack Buck felt. “Because of that, you can’t teach ‘em much that’s new.”
On Sunday, July 22, one of baseball’s grand teachers will be enshrined at Cooperstown: Fox Television analyst Tim McCarver, the 36th man to receive the Ford C. Frick award for broadcast excellence — in effect, the Hall of Fame’s radio/TV wing. Hearing his induction speech, the audience will learn.
“In football, you have to explain 18 pass routes!” announceer Harry Caray boomed. “Baseball’s in the open. Who cares about whether the pitch is a knuckler or curve? Forget statistics. Boring! Tell stories!” Most analysts miss because they misread the game.
By contrast, McCarver can explain the Uncle Charlie — also why Omaha Beach was gorier than Gold. The 1959-80 catcher is said to talk a lot. Smoking a cigar, turning notes in a loose-leaf pad, or citing Lady MacBeth’s “What’s done cannot be undone,” he has a lot to say.
Shakespeare’s quote, says Tim, applies to baseball. “You prepare, you relax, they you let ‘er rip.” Teach, and learn.
A “FINAL LOVE” PREVAILS
McCarver was born ten days after the 1941 World Series. “A great event,” said the son of a police officer, “but the real pressure is the playoffs. Lose it, and you’re forgotten by Thanksgiving.” He could not forget how fastballs and sliders left the left thumb torn and twisted, “On cold days it hurts — a USS Arizona memorial to the craft. Baseball did to me physically, and for me cerebrally.”
Football was Tim’s first love at Memphis’s Christian Brothers High School. Baseball became “my final love” after his 1959 signing. The Cardinals owned the mid-South, including McCarver’s Shelby County, Tennessee. “I’d hear Harry Caray say certain names: Rip Repulski. Jocko Jablonski. Marvelous.” Gradually, he marveled at how “baseball was central to my life.”
In 1963, St. Louis named Tim, 21, catcher. Next year, the Fall Classic began there. In New York, Mickey Mantle won Game Three. A day later the Yankees led, 3-0, till Ken Boyer’s slam. “Ken neared third as brother Clete got in the baseline, making him run behind him as Kenny whacked him on the ass.” Blood was even thicker than a winning Series share.
McCarver’s tenth-inning whippet carved a Game Five victory. “Those three games in New York are as good as baseball gets.” It got better in Game Seven: St. Louis’s first title since 1946. Tim hit a Classic-high .478. Two years later his 13 triples led the league. ‘Sixty-seven soldered 14 homers, 69 RBI, and career-high .295.
Orlando Cepeda — Cha-Cha — named his team “El Birdos.” Once they boarded the bus. “Everybody on? We’re ready,” manager Red Schoendienst said. “No!” shouted Bob Gibson, pitching. “[1967 N.L. MVP] Cepeda isn’t on, and we’re not leaving until he gets here.”
Thrice Gibbie beat Boston to take the Series. In 1968, he lost Game Seven: McCarver made the final out. Otherwise, Bob beat the world.
FROM ONE CRAFT TO ANOTHER
Tim had met Gibson in spring 1960. “Bob was black, I was from the South, segregation ruled, and it was a terribly hot day.” McCarver gave Gibbie a sip of orange drink, later terming him “the luckiest pitcher I knew. He pitches when the other team gets shut out.” In Gibson’s 34 games, 1968 Nationals scored 49 runs.
Bob worked like an eggtimer, mocking Tim’s plea to slow down. “Go back behind the plate! Only thing you know about pitching is that it’s hard to hit!” The mound became a sanctuary. “What can you teach me?” Gibson bullied pitching coach Barney Schultz. “You were a knuckleballer. I throw fastballs!” Ultimately, McCarver and another pitcher were traded to Philadelphia. They would anchor the same cemetery, he laughed, sixty feet and six inches apart.
“Before a game, Steve’d be in a trance-like state,” Tim said of Carlton. Once he apologized for knocking Lefty’s motion. “That’s okay,” Steve shrugged. “I didn’t pay attention, anyway.” The 1972 Cy Younger led the N.L. in complete games, Ks, innings, ERA, and victories — 27 of Philly’s 59! “Greatest season I ever saw,” said McCarver, peddled that June. In 1975, the sphinx regained his guru. “I spent the next few years catching Steve, pinch-hitting,” and becoming one of seven modern four-decade players.
Spring 1980: the new Phils announcer cuts the cord. “When you retire, you’re an outsider, not player. Broadcast like one,” Tim said. Mike Schmidt got a double after prematurely strutting his home-run trot. Next day McCarver bearded him in the clubhouse. “I hear you ripped me for not hustling,” Mike snapped. Tim asked if he was.
“No,” said Schmidt.
“Did I tell the truth?” said McCarver.
“Yes,” Mike confessed.
By 1983, Tim had hustled to Flushing Meadows.
MCCARVER TAKES THE BIG APPLE
In baseball, like real estate, location matters. McCarver “has received much praise for his work as a broadcaster for the [then-WOR and Sports-Channel] Mets,” The Sporting News soon noted. “This is much better than being lauded in Kansas City or Houston because the networks are in New York, and so are their decision-makers.”
Tim analyzed several 1980 NBC Game[s] of the Week. By 1984, he aired the syndicated Greats of the Game and ABC’s All-Star Game and League Championship Series. A year later McCarver did the Series. John Tudor was “a surgeon. The only difference is that when he takes the heart out of the team, he doesn’t replace it.” Mused Sports Illustrated: “Nobody explicates the game with as much patience and … good humor.”
In Chicago, spotting a rooftop wedding, Tim began a game-long divertissement.
“If the game gets rained out, does the wedding count?” he said.
Said Mets colleague Ralph Kiner: “Only if it goes five innings.”
One inning, Tim praised Stan Musial. Another Missourian, Harry Truman, “threw pitches left- and right-handed.” The Broadway junkie referenced Stephen Sondheim’s The Little Things You Do Together. Tonight, he said, “It was the little things the Mets did together.” How could Tim know so much? Curiosity: “the first, not second, guess.”
Dub baseball a narcotic. “You ask, ‘When do I walk away? Do I?” He couldn’t, vacationing at year’s end. “Otherwise I spend too much time thinking about the game.”
The kicker was the end: McCarver’s got later every year.
ABC VIA FOX TO COOPERSTOWN
Tim called 1986′s N.L. L.C.S. Game Six: “The most tiring thing [Mets vs. Astros] I have been part of as a spectator or player.” 1987: hosted HBO’s Greatest Sports Upsets and an ABC children’s show. 1989: toppled to the TV booth floor on the Earthquake World Series. 1990: joined CBS’s Jack Buck. “The network has exclusivity,” said Broadcasting Magazine. “Much rides on them.” Buck rode out to pasture in 1991. Next fall, Deion Sanders doused McCarver with three buckets of ice water for scoring football “moonlighting.” Nothing changed “the great impression,” wrote USA Today, “that the network doesn’t care [about baseball].”
McCarver did, musing, “You take what they give you.” A viewer took Tim’s insight straight. Many players have “invisible injuries. They’re ducking responsibility.” Bobby Valentine had Mel Rojas face Paul O’Neill. “A mistake,” said McCarver. O’Neill went deep. Behind, 4-3, a Reds runner clung to third on a fly. “This game should be tied, and it’s not.” Tim tied MSG’s The Tim McCarver Show, four books including Oh, Baby, I Love It!, and revived the 1996- Game of the Week. Increasingly, the term analyst brought Fox’s new color man to mind.
In 1999, the Mets axed his $500,000 salary for Tom Seaver: “a decision so small,” wrote Mike Lupica, “it could fit inside a batting glove.” His fit pleased the Yanks. “Tim’s been critical of me,” said George Steinbrenner, “but that makes no difference.” In 2000, New York’s twin tiaras staged the first Subway Series since 1956. Roger Clemens threw a bat barrel at Mike Piazza. Instantly, McCarver recalled Atlanta, 1962. “I was in Triple-A; slammed my bat, and it bounced up into the lap of a 13-year-old.” The father said, kindly and simply, “We understand.”
Tim won his first Emmy as top sports analyst. Stripes coverage then turned to cable. Leaving, he spliced the new (Giants TV) and old (currently, record 29th straight network post-season). Don’t know much about history? Barry Bonds’s bases-full intentional walk evoked Leo Durocher passing Willie McCovey. “Baseball was shocked. But everybody does that with Bonds.” Don’t know much biology? Triples fell due to “guys not running hard out of the box.” How’s this for humanity? Manny Ramirez was “despicable”: less mercurical than psychotic — a most enlightened view.
“The most credible man in baseball broadcasting,” said columnist Tim Kawakami. Not all agreed. A San Francisco Chronicle poll overwhelmingly named him TV’s “most annoying sportscaster.” One e-mailer wrote: “The biggest braying blowhard in baseball blathers on. The baboon is just such a stultifying simpleton, so mindnumbingly awful, so wretchedly moronic, so incredibly incompetent, such a complete and utter abomination in the eyes of man and God.”
Dead-pan, Tim paused: “Guess he’s not a fan.”
McCarver left the Jints exclusively for Fox in December 2002. “I’m not here to please people,” he said. “I’m here to report and have a good time doing it.” Next year, passing Curt Gowdy, he set two World Series TV records: 78th Classic game (topping the Cowboy’s 77) and 13th Series (2012 will mark TIm’s 22nd). On occasion, even an old-guarder sees a gosh, I’ve never seen that play. We hear it from McCarver.
A plaque will hail Cooperstown’s newest broadcast honoree. In part, it should read: “Teach, and learn.”
As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted. Months ago I filed my last column for MLBblog.com, since then being chained to an upcoming book. Next May Potomac Books will publish A Talk in the Park: Nine Decades of Baseball Tales from the Broadcast Booth. I hope that you enjoy.
A sequel to 1996′s The Storytellers, the book will feature about 120 big-league announcers telling their favorite stories: the largest total of Voices in any sport, in any work. Last year Potomac published Pull Up a Chair: The Vin Scully Story, in its fourth hardcover edition, recently released in paperback, and a “talking book” by Blackstone Audio.
While I was away, Joe Hardy became Stephen Strasburg, the 2010 Red Sox filled a big-league Medical Center, and Ray Halladay threw two hitless jewels. More nostalgically, baseballphiles were invited to a magical point of our past: October 13, 1960.
At 3:36 P.M. Eastern Time, Pirate Bill Mazeroski homered in the ninth inning to win World Series Game Seven, 10-9, against the Yankees: given plot and context, arguably the greatest game ever played. Never forgotten, NBC’s telecast was heretofore never again seen, since baseball was not then preserved by videotape.
Only a process called kinescope – to quote the New York Times’ Richard Sandomir, “an early relative of the DVR, filming off a TV monitor” — saved even random coverage. Yet kinescopes were bulky, thus often destroyed. Even later videotape was senselessly erased or discarded. The upshot was a 1950s-70s lost generation of classic ball.
Enter Der Bingle: Bing Crosby, the musical, film, radio, and TV star and longtime part Pirates owner. In October 1960, too nervous to watch the Series, Crosby went to Paris with wife Kathryn, listening there by radio. “He said, ‘I can’t stay in the country,” his widow said. “‘I’ll jinx everybody.’” At the same time, Bing knew he would want to see Game Seven if the Buccos won: thus, had a company “kinescope” the final.
Back in America, Crosby watched the five-reel 16-millimeter film, then put it in his wine cellar-turned-vault, chockablock with the legend’s records, tapes, and films. Undisturbed, the reels lay undiscovered till December 2009, accidentally found by Robert Bader, Vice President for Marketing and Production for Bing Crosby Enterprises. Ali Baba never found such gold.
“I had to be the only person to have seen it in 50 years,” Bader told Sandomir. “It was just pure luck.” Bader approached baseball, which, stunned, viewed the black-and-white film, grasped its cachet, and will show the game this December on the MLB Network, Bob Costas hosting.
“It is a time capsule,” said Major League Baseball Productions senior library and licensing manager Nick Trotta: simple graphic, sans slow-mo, instant replay, or analysis, but rich in look, sound, and feel. Mel Allen and Bob Prince did NBC’s play-by-play. Casey Stengel and Danny Murtaugh skippered. Forbes Field and the original Yankee Stadium were nonpareil sanctora: the Pirates’ hull so intimate you could almost reach out and touch the field.
Crosby’s film shows Forbes Field’s right-field wall, in-play batting cage, and vast stretch of outfield acreage heavy with gap hits. My next column will etch why Game Seven remains a generation’s touchstone with its Good God Almighty, can you believe that, one play-topper after another’s lilt.
In the meantime, I appreciate your patience with my 2010 sabbatical. I’ll try to do better as I begin a new book about Fenway Park’s centennial, to be released in 2012.
Some people get all the breaks. Regions can, too. Since 1958, 1977, and 1997, Vin Scully, Dave Niehaus, and Jon Miller have knit Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco, respectively. In 2010, Dick Enberg will join them with the San Diego Padres: to baseball, coming home.
“I’ve always been passionate about it, even doing other sports,” notes Enberg, saying he will televise more than 100 games next year. His last TV baseball was the 1985 Angels, later football and tennis precluding coverage. “What a great chance to now do the sport I love, in the city where I live, returning to my roots.”
Rod Stewart wrote You Wear It Well. Enberg wears age 75 superbly, as a CBS NFL viewer knows. Four months ago, contacted by a Padres source, I termed the possibility of Dick’s hiring “a 10-strike.” It still is: under full circle, viewers meeting the points of Enberg’s past. To use his signature, “Oh, my!”
Growing up in Michigan, Enberg loved how Detroit’s Ty Tyson “used the language.” Later he worked as a $1-an-hour janitor at Central Michigan University’s radio station, left for hills heavy with farmland shot by Ansel Adams, and got two degrees in health sciences at the University of Indiana.
In 1961, Enberg took his doctorate, left for California State University at Northridge, and began a teaching and coaching job. “Sportscasting was just a way to complement my salary.” Gradually, he became a boxing and Western Hockey League announcer, leaving seminars and blue books, play-by-play “now in my blood.” It is fair to say he never tried to cleanse it.
In 1969, Enberg, 34, added Angels baseball to Rams radio and UCLA TV basketball. His new park lay hard by Disneyland. The San Gabriel Mountains hued the backdrop. Palm trees swayed beyond center field. Arriving, Dick thought it Anaheim’s second magic kingdom.
“Never in contention,” he said, “so you looked for the bizarre.” One batter hit between shortstop Jim Fregosi’s legs. “That error?” mused manager Lefty Phillips. “Water over ithe bridge.” In 1970, Alex Johnson won the Halos’ sole batting title. Phillips fined (five times), benched (29), and suspended him. A judge called Johnson “emotionally incapacitated.” How different, Alex mocked, was the team?”
Then, in 1972, California got a Mets pitcher for Fregosi. Through 1976, Nolan Ryan no-hit four teams, including Detroit. “I’m in the booth where I’d visited as a kid,” Enberg said of 1973, “and Nolan’s on a tear.” Norm Cash thrice went hitless. Next up, he ditched his bat. “He had a leg from a clubhouse chair as a substitute. The home plate ump didn’t notice” till the first pitch was thrown. “Get a bat,” the umpire said. “Why?” Cash huffed. “I’m not gonna hit Ryan anyway.”
By now, Dick had hit the big time with TV’s syndicated Sports Challenge. Each show, ex-jocks turned panelists. “The people on these programs were idols to me as a kid. Now I’m asking them questions.” He produced PBS’s The Way It Was, aired the game show Battle, and joined NBC in 1975. Suddenly, the classroom seemed far away.
Curt Gowdy was the Peacocks’ then-apotheosis: “Name it, he did it,” said an NBC official. Dick ousted him on NCAA hoops, Super Bowl, Wimbledon, and 1980s Granddaddy of Them All, worked Sports World, and made the analyst look good. “Only he could work with us at the same time,” said Al McGuire, “and keep everything sane.” Not even Gowdy kept so many balls in the air.”
In time, ubiquity cost: Dick left the Angels in 1978. In 1982, he did NBC’s Game of the Week and the Brewers-Cardinals World Series, . “I kept recalling the fifties, when Milwaukee was everything. When things move me, it’s clear to viewers.” He was warm, kind, and open, unlike network dominoes.
“No room for me,” he mused upon Vin Scully’s 1983 hiring. “Game had enough guys for two teams a week.” In 1985, Enberg refetched Angels video. Even friends asked why. Like now, “I gave the most honest answer I can — I love the game. I miss it.” Casey Stengel said of baseball, “Not too hard, not too easy.” Dr. Dick struck the balance. Next year his wit and schoolboy awe will stud the Pads.
In 2002, Enberg was flying from Buffalo to Los Angeles — “ironically, after a football game” — when he learned of the Angels’ first pennant. Quietly he began to weep. Fearing trouble, a woman in the adjacent seat caressed her Crucifix and held his hand. Laughing, Dick explained: “I told her why it meant so much — the Angels — after all these years.” One religion, meet another.
In 2010, Enberg will help make the West Coast baseball’s best coast. Frank Lesser once wrote a musical Most Happy Fella. If you’re not happy hearing Scully, Niehaus, Miller, and now Enberg, you need a new sport, or pulse.
In 1939, Lou Gehrig called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Like the Iron Horse, another man of honor now faces a final inning. You will recognize the name, have heard his lyric verse. We are the lucky men and women to have known broadcaster W. Earnest Harwell.
Gehrig died of infantile paralysis. Last month Harwell, 91, announced he has inoperable cancer of the bile duct, shocking, a writer said, “his countless friends, admirers, and listeners.” For half-a-century, Ernie was radio’s beach bud, camp counselor, pillow pal: mythy and sweetly rural, his voice falling lightly on the ear.
Listing much, biography call tell too little: born, 1918; World War II veteran; announcer, 1948-2002, mostly with the Tigers; best-selling author; lyricist, 70 songs; contributor; Collier’s to Reader’s Digest; creator, baseball’s greatest essay, A Game For All America. Like Ernie’s plaque, it now hangs in Cooperstown.
Living one of these lives would be exceptional. Extraordinarily, Harwell has lived them all. Even more, as Red Sox radio prosopopeia Ned Martin once said: “The wonder of Ernie goes far beyond being so talented behind the microphone.” The musical Peter Pan sang “I’ve got to crow.” Having much to crow about, our friend never has.
I met him in the late 1970s, Ernie kindly writing a blurb for my first book, on Dizzy Dean. Later we staged series at the Smithsonian Institution and Baseball Hall of Fame. Out of the blue, he would call about a project, a certain game, another season, doing this, I think, with hundreds of people: each day a “new adventure,” as he now calls being “ready for whatever God’s got.”
At 6, he had been Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell’s paper boy; 8, minor league batboy; 20s, sports editor, Marine magazine Leatherneck. Talking, you wouldn’t know. Ernie sang a duet with Pearl Bailey, spoke at a Billy Graham crusade, invented a bottle can opener, had a race horse named after him, wrote for Sammy Fain and Johnny Mercer, and calmed Motown in 1967 after rioting killed 43. You had to find it from someone else.
Harwell donated the world’s largest private baseball book collection to the Detroit Public Library. He became the first sports Voice to air coast-to-coast TV, be baptized in the Jordan River, and be traded for a player. He called the Tigers “Tiges” and a double play “two for the price of one” and how “a batter just stood there like a house by the side of the road”: language-made-literate, making the complex simple. He was always there.
Ernie understood radio v. television: TV, still life; the wireless, a sonata. He grasped our two major sports: “football, packaged for the screen; baseball, the mind.” He even made the impersonal (foul ball) personal: “It’s snagged,” he said, fictively, “by a guy from Alma, Michigan” — or Grand Rapids or Detroit. As a boy, I told Mom that Harwell had a lot of friends. He did.
In December 1990, ex-football coach-turned-Tigers president Bo Schembechler fired W. Earnest, the Grinch stealing Christmas. Bayed the Detroit Free Press: “A gentleman wronged.” Rightly rehired, he was later named by Sports Illustrated Voice of baseball’s all-time dream team. Always learning, Ernie now has much to teach: How did he do all this with such magnanimity and grace?
Wife Lulu of 69 years became Harwell’s best friend. Their four children, reading, and exercise kept him young. Raised in Washington, Georgia, he distilled a small town’s rhythm and ritual and sitting on a front porch and “hearing Mom and Dad” talk about the people of their place. Finally, Ernie would tell you, he believed in The Kindly Light That Led.
In 1973, Harwell wrote the tune Move Over Babe, Here Comes Henry as Hank Aaron prepared to cross a most Ruthian line. Each Sunday Ernie sang more timeless songs: Rock of Ages and Amazing Grace and Abide With Me. In a sense, his voice was itself melodic — gentle, beckoning — redolent of the South’s lulling, siren past.
Baseball’s man of honor says he has “maybe a year or half-a-year left. Maybe two months. Maybe less.” Oscar Wilde penned The Importance of Being Earnest. Harwell’s life shows the Wonder of Being Ernie. God bless him, and He will.
NBC TV’s Dinah Shore sang circa 1956 “See The USA in your Chevrolet.” An author sees much of the USA in the obligatory book tour: in my case, touting this summer’s new Pull Up a Chair: The Vin Scully Story (Potomac Books, $29.95)
Raised on baseball, I enjoy meeting people who love play-by-play’s hypnotic rhythm. Weaned on television, I also like the chance to rediscover radio. Traveling an Interstate, lost on an artery, or sampling backcountry, I found: a) Baseball is still good company; b) announcers I too seldom hear.
In particular, let me suggest one Voice for your traveling and listening pleasure. Born in Colorado Springs, the Rochester Red Wings’ Josh Whetzel was raised in Helena, grew up in Parsons, Kansas, and in 1994 graduated from the University of Kansas. Straightway Josh became the Sunflower State’s KSCB Liberal news/sports director, airing the local BeeJays.
Cliche invokes “the old college try.” The Jays were a Jayhawk League colleague team. By turn, Whetzel did the Class A Albany, Georgia, Polecats, Kinston, N.C. Carolina League Indians, and 2000-02 Double-A Binghamton Mets. In 1962, Casey Stengel said of the N.L. expansion Mets: “Can’t anyone here play this game?” After even a brief whiff of Whetzel, no one asked if Josh could broadcast it.
Almost To the Majors
“It’s conversational. It’s quirky. It’s what did you do today?” Bob Costas mused of play-by-play. “Tell me about the guy sitting down at the end of the dugout. Is he a character? Does he give guys the hot foot? Does he come from some tiny little town in Arkansas somewhere? How did he get here? It’s a story-teller’s game.”
In 2003, Whetzel took his story to what Hall of Famer Harry Walker once called “the closest you can get to the majors without actually being there”: Triple-A Rochester, New York. That year the Red Wings were ending a 42-year marriage to parent Baltimore. By coincidence, the new Twins affiliate also needed a broadcaster, Whetzel trumping more than 70 other candidates.
Half-a-century earlier, Brooklyn announcer Red Barber had told protege Vin Scully, 22: “Don’t listen to other annnouncers. You will water your own wine.” Now, hearing Red Wings audition tapes, general manager Dan Mason “got tired of listening. Everybody was trying to be Scully!”
The exception was Whetzel, admiring Scully, but determined to be himself, baring realism, knowledge, anecdote, telling detail, and a born-for-the wireless tenor. Eddie Gomez, who played bass with pianist Bill Evans, termed the jazzman’s aim “to make music that balanced passion and intellect.” To Mason, Josh’s music ties “great pipes, a very easy-to-listen-to style,” and love of America’s greatest and oldest talking sport.
This is Josh’s seventh year in what Baseball America once voted “Baseball City USA,” bigs Voices Jack Buck, Lanny Frattare, Glenn Geffner, Hank Greenwald, Josh Lewin, and Pete Van Wieren having been raised or worked in Rochester. Reaching and pleasing his public, Whetzel also broadcasts winter University of Buffalo basketball. Many Voices work 12 months a year. Only one baseball Voice works with one lung. You’d never know listening at the park — or hitting the highway for a book.
Irony: Living in Upstate New York, I had heard Josh occasionally. This summer I heard him regularly, learning and appreciating. Further irony: I was traveling because of a book on Josh’s idol.
“Grace Under Pressure”
In 1955, Lawrence Peter Berra was introduced to Ernest Hemingway. ”What paper you write for, Ernie?” said Yogi. The novelist famously wrote about grace under pressure. Whetzel has shown it since turning 18 years of age.
Entering his senior year in high school, Josh “began to cough a lot. I had a feeling something was wrong,” he said. Something was: cancer, in particular, a football-sized tumor in Whetzel’s right lung, around his esophagus and hooked to the back of his heart. Before long he brooked chemotherapy, radiation, and two surgeries, the second to remove the tumor and right lung.
Cured, Josh’s last chemotherapy treatment was 1990 — his year of high school graduation. Around then several classmates contacted Dream Factory, similar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, vowing “the moment of a lifetime for a critically ill child.” Fulfilling his dream, the Dodgers fan chose a visit to Chavez Ravine, touring it and meeting, among others, skipper Tom Lasorda and, yes, Scully: to Josh, “the best broadcaster, ever.”
Back in Kansas, Whetzel was interviewed on a local radio station “about the trip. Afterward the station manager said I had handled myself pretty well on the air and asked if I wanted a part-time job,” he said. Soon Josh became a disc jockey and board operator for the Kansas City Royals, attended Labette Community College, and graduated from KU. Final irony: “Maybe none of the radio happens if I’d never been sick.”
Loving Rochester’s streams, greenery, and sky drawn by Ansel Adams, Whetzel knows “the goal is still the bigs.” Dinah Shore saw the USA in her Chevrolet. I hope Josh will soon see it where he should: The Show. George Eastman called color photography “a mirror with a memory.” Each day, Whetzel beautifully paints baseball memory’s look, sound, and feel.