GOWDY, DEAD AT 86, LIVES AS WYOMING COWBOY
From 1953-65, Mel Allen, Bud Blattner, Jack Buck, Dizzy Dean, Joe Garagiola, Merle Harmon, Lindsey Nelson, and Bob Wolff, among others, aired network baseball. In 1966, Curt Gowdy tried to replace them all. Unlike Allen, he roused no response to personality. Unlike Scully, he was a small-town boy. Curt’s bent was basic. "A Voice," he said, "is no better than his script."
Gowdy became a TV generation’s sports paradigm: 16 All-Star Games, 13 World Series, 24 NCAA Final Fours, seven Olympics, eight Super Bowls, 14 Rose Bowls, Pan-American Games, and "The American Sportsman." From 1966-75, he called baseball’s entire network schedule. Said Nelson: "It wasn’t an Event unless Curt did it."
In 1970, Gowdy won sportscasting’s first George Foster Peabody award for radio/TV excellence. It led to Cooperstown and seven other Halls of Fame. "Putting a town into a piece about [him]," a writer said, "is like trying to establish residence for a migratory duck."
Curt died February 20 at 86 — a Rocky Mountaineer whose style was home-style and who conjured respectability, good manners, and pluck. Let us retrieve a life worth reliving.
Growing up, even radio seemed far away to the young fisherman, hunter, and son of a Union Pacific Railroad superintendent. "Dad would say, ‘Curtis, there’s a big world out there. Someday I’d like to see a big-league game.’"
His mother liked the three R’s. On Curt’s must-do list: typing, elocution, and one book a week. An early swain was basketball ’till coach Jack Powell said, "You’re off the team."
"What I’d do?" the senior yelped. As it happened, mom had seen the principal, discussed Curt’s low English grade, and ordered him not to play.
"How can you do this!?" said Gowdy, livid. "Basketball’s my life. We’ll be a great team this year" — and were, winning 31 straight games. Mom answered: "Get your English up!" He did.
In 1938, the All-Stater entered the University of Wyoming. Six letters later he graduated, joined the Air Force, and left with a ruptured spine. Back surgery failed: For ten months Gowdy fretted in a hospital. Finally, doctors sent him home. "More rest, no sports, and with luck you won’t be a cripple."
In Cheyenne, he eyeballed ghosts: Pals had joined the service. "It was as low as I’ve ever been" — until a phone call lit a high.
Moment To Decide
Bill Grove managed Cheyenne’s sole radio station, KFBC. "There’s nobody else. I need you to call football," he told Gowdy. Tiny Pine Bluff and St. Mary’s played a six-man game, before 15 fans and 14 players relatives, without yard lines, sidelines, goal posts, or player numbers. Curt "stood on a soap box, guessed where the ball was, and made up names." For two years he aired basketball, football, Western Union baseball, and what passed in this time and place for "big events. We made a big to do over Santa Claus’ arrival for the Christmas season." In March 1945, chance found a place where he did not know a soul.
Driving through Wyoming, the owner of 50,000-watt KOMA Oklahoma City heard Curt do basketball. Soon, as sports director, Gowdy called Oklahoma A&M, Bud Wilkinson’s football Sooners, and Triple-A Oklahoma City Indians — "the biggest break of my career." To Curt, the minors were a workshop: "all the demands of the sports broadcast business — ads, production, play-by-play — in one."
By 1948, business meant General Mills, backing 13 bigs teams, and account executive Frank Slocum, looking for "talent to sell its products" — Wheaties, above all. Frank needed a No. 2 Yanks announcer. Hearing Gowdy, "he asked for a brochure with tapes." The Cheyenne emigree met Allen. "I would have settled for nothing. Fortunately, I didn’t have to." Curt married in 1949. His best man made him better. "I was intimidated by Mel. His timing, reading an ad, weaving it in the play helped me learn."
Class was public: Gowdy’s, and the Yankees’, flubs. No regular topped .287. Three Red Sox topped Yogi Berra’s team-high 91 RBI. Boston had ex-stripes skipper Joe McCarthy. The query would endure: How could the Towne team lose?
Athens, Sparta, and No. 9
The ’49ers trailed by one game with two left: Boston, at The Stadium. The Yanks won the opener, 5-4. Next day they held a 1-0 late-inning lead when McCarthy yanked Ellis Kinder. Four runs offset three in the Red Sox ninth. On the train back to Boston, Ellis slugged Marse Joe in the jaw.
In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago tells Manolin, "Have faith in the Yankees, my son." Gowdy did: They won the 1949-50 Series. He also feared that Allen would never stop calling them. In 1951, Jim Britt left the Sox. The Cowboy got an offer. "Part of me knew this was my chance to be Number One." Another part loved New York. Mel said he would piggy-back Curt to Fenway Park. "Six states, Fenway, great fans. Today I can’t believe I was torn."
The Sox opened in the Bronx, Gowdy botching Boston-area names like Worcester and Swampscott. Telegrams blared "Yankee-lover, go back to New York." Next day owner Tom Yawkey welcomed him: Listening, Curt felt reborn.
"What kind of play-by-play do you want?" Gowdy said.
"No line drives made into pop-ups or excuses for errors," said Yawkey. "Just give ‘em the game."
In time, Yawkey became a father. Reinjuring his back, Curt missed all of 1957. "I don’t care how long this kid misses, he’s got a job here," Tom told a neurosurgeon. He was said to run a country club. "Bull!" Curt flared. "They were family."
The clan lost the flag, playoff, or Series the last or next-to-last game of 1946, 1948-49, 1967, 1972, 1975, 1978, 1986, and 2003. Losing bred doubt. It did not dim The Kid: loyal, profane, and drop-dead handsome — the ultimate inner-directed man. Ted Williams tied a .344 average, 521 dingers, six batting titles, 1946 and 1949 MVP, and 1942 and 1947 Triple Crown. "All despite five years in the military," said Gowdy. "Otherwise Ted’d have every record."
Curt called him the most competent man he knew. "Best hitter, best fisherman, best hunter."
Once Ted roared, "There! Watch two ducks coming up at 3 o’clock." Gowdy: "Where?" They appeared two minutes later.
John Glenn was Williams’ Korea flight commander. "What kind of pilot was he?" Curt asked. Glenn: "Best I ever saw."
Gallup says we liked the 1950s. Not Boston: Only the ’55ers vied post-Labor Day. The Kid eased blight. Too, Curt’s "ever so soothing and sensible voice, with its guileless hint of Wyoming twang," wrote John Updike, over WHDH Radio’s 50-station and seven-outlet TV network. "No great teams," said the Cowboy, "but what personalities!" It is no lie to say they were all the Red Sox had.
Exiting Like a Deity
Could catcher Sammy White top Yogi Berra? ("Already has," joked a Nashua druggist. "Seven inches taller.") Was this the Biblical year to redeem post-1918? ("Sure," said Berkshirers, "the same year Vermont goes Democratic.") Name a better outfield than Williams, Jim Piersall, and Jackie Jensen. ("Can’t," said the Plymouth housewife, "but where’s the pitching?") Rosanna Dananna: "If it’s not one thing, it’s another."
Jensen was 1958 MVP. Piersall trussed depression, shock, and resilience, if not recovery. On September 28, 1960, the Sox retired No. 9. "He had an intense pride that every time up he wanted to produce a hit," said Curt, emceeing. "Not only for himself but for the fans at Fenway whom he secretly loved, who stood behind him amid ups and downs … The greatest hitter of all time, Ted Williams."
Moved, Ted said, "I want a copy. That’s one of the nicest tributes to me ever."
"I don’t have a copy," Curt said.
"Oh, ****," Ted said, then walked, skied to center field, and flied to right. In the eighth, Jack Fisher, 21, faced the twice-his-age Kid. "Everybody quiet now here at Fenway Park after they gave him a standing ovation of two minutes knowing that this is probably his last time at bat," said Gowdy. "Here’s the pitch. Williams swings — and there’s a long drive to deep right! That ball is going and it is gone! A home run for Ted Williams in his last time at bat in the major leagues!"
Leaving like a deity, Ted declined to tip his cap. "It just would not have been me." Updike drew an angelic gloss: "God does not answer letters."
The Path to NBC
Curt would have settled for a card. "The longer I stayed, the more they were funny without trying." One spring Sarasota, Florida’s mayor primed for the first pitch. At that moment the press steward asked Gowdy about a drink. "He was too far away to answer, so he wrote down a suggestion — a milkshake — and handed it to me." Gowdy misread the steward: "Here is the Mayor, Mike Shane."
In 1958, two pals telecast the Classic. Mel "talk[s] too much," a critic said. Curt was "restrained" — literally. "I wore a steel back brace with a pain-killer prescription in my pocket. Maids thought I was nuts, sleeping on the floor." He did the NBA, college football, first 1959 All-Star Game — and 1964 Series. "There’s a high drive to deep right! And forget about it! It is gone! The ball game’s over! [2-1, Yanks] Mantle has just broken a World Series record. He now has 16 World Series home runs. He and Babe Ruth were tied with 15 apiece."
In 1962, ABC gave Gowdy the AFL. 1964: NBC bought it, and him. Next year the Jets signed Joe Namath. "Suddenly," said Curt, "the league didn’t mean Upper Slobovia." To many, baseball meant Dizzy Dean’s CBS 1955-64 "Game of the Week" thoroughbred. A year later NBC bought ABC’s 1965 variant of a mule. "We had the Series and All-Star Game. [1966-68's] ‘Game’ meant exclusivity," said sports head Carl Lindemann. "[Superior] Chet Simmons and I liked him with the Sox and football" — also, getting two network sports for the price of one.
As analyst, Curt craved his pal. "[Lead sponsor] Chrysler said no when [Sears spokesman] Ted was pictured putting stuff in a Ford truck." Falstaff hyped Dean — "I said, ‘I can’t do [his theme song] "Wabash Cannonball." Our styles clash’" — then, another client, Pee Wee Reese. "They figured he was fine with me, and they’d still have their boy." NBC said OK. Would a generation to whom "Game" bespoke Diz?
To Lindemann, the answer was a gimme. What if Curt’s voice was not a fever-swamp? He was fair, did homework, and had a Chip Hilton delivery. That would be enough — until Nielsen’s 1966-68 "Game" and Series rating fell 10 and 19 percent, respectively. Only the All-Star Game nixed the view that baseball was too bland for a hip and inchoate age. Almost half (48 percent) in a 1964 Harris Poll named it their favorite sport. Nineteen percent did a decade later. Why?
Exclusivity, to begin. "Think of the last decade," said Nelson. "Mel, Buck, Diz — and one guy replaces ‘em?" Viewers tired. TSN got so many letters — "atrocity … a pallbearer … baseball is not dead, no thanks to Gowdy" — it routed them to NBC. Curt frowned on hype and buzz. The late ’60s and early ’70s smiled. "As spectacle, baseball suffers on [TV]," wrote Harry Caray. "The fan at the park [talk, drink, take Junior to the john] rarely notices the time span between pitches. [Not] the same fan at home." Not responsible, Curt was held accountable, becoming, as he did, more visible than even Diz.
Before 1966, local-teamers called the Series. "NBC’s contract changed that," said director Harry Coyle. "We intended to showcase our boy." Curt aired half of each set-to. In L.A. and Baltimore, Vin Scully and Chuck Thompson, respectively, did the rest.
Scully was incensed. "What about the road? My fans won’t be able to hear me."
Game One evoked *** for that. Vin did the first 4 1/2 innings. Gowdy then inherited a clunker made duller by Scully’s refusal to say another word. Four years later, emceeing a dinner, "They’d ‘a killed each other," said Lindemann, "if we hadn’t kept them apart." At Boston, Curt would have killed for a pennant. 1967: He called its Series. 1968: Detroit, in seven. A year later: Linguists still grope to explain how, and why.
"Until ’69 ‘Game”d ignored the Mets," said Curt, airing New York weekly that September. Next he beamed their L.C.S. and series. The Chinese discovered the 365 1/4 day solar year in 2300 B.C. The Mets discovered Canaan October 16, 1969. "There’s a fly ball hit out to left!" Curt said. "Waiting is Jones! The Mets are the world champions! Jerry Koosman is being mobbed! Look at this scene!"
Suddenly the Mets seemed more Amazin’ than even Cheyenne’s hills, ravines, and ponds.
Later, Curt rued ubiquity. Then, a brigade at Utah Beach could not have convinced him to recede. 1970 Series: Brooks Robinson augurs A&E’s Biography. "Look at that grab! He’s playing in another world!" 1971 Mid-Summer Classic: "That one is going — way up! It is — off the roof! That hit the transformer up there! A tremendous smash! [by Reggie Jackson, in Detroit]"
1974: "Von Joshua is up … Here, it could be — he [Gene Tenace] caught it … The Oakland A’s are the first team since the New York Yankees to win three world championships in a row!"
About this time Jerry Lister termed "a week in Gowdy’s life like a chapter in Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in ’80 Days." He read 22 papers, traveled 350,000 miles a year, and spent them memorizing. Each January 1 he did the "Grandaddy"; fall, NFL; winter, 1964-84 "Sportsman." Like Williams, the Cowboy thought outside inviolate. On March 27, 1972 — "my greatest day" — Wyoming opened the Curt Gowdy State Park. Other days weren’t bad:
November 29, 1968: NBC showed a movie instead of the Jets-Raiders’ final minute. Only the West Coast saw Oakland, scoring twice, win. "I’m leaving when our assistant starts yelling, ‘Gowdy! Here are earphones to the truck.’ It says, ‘Uh, uh, phone calls are blowing lines up.’ I have to recreate the last-second scores" for the next-day "Today Show." The Heidi Game burnished football’s rise.
January 12, 1969. "I guarantee a [Super Bowl III] victory," said Namath. The Colts were a 19-point lock. Jets, 16-7. Christmas 1971: Miami’s second-overtime field goal beat K.C., 27-24. Curt renamed sudden death "sudden victory." December 23, 1972: Oakland, 7-6, with 22 seconds left. "I’d better congratulate the boys," says Steelers owner Art Rooney, leaving for the locker room.
Pittsburgh wins, 13-7, on a deflected pass. Pick ‘em: "The Immaculate Reception" or The Kid’s Last Swing as Curt’s abiding call.
The Game’s The Thing
Each week Gowdy and Reese’s successor, Tony Kubek, attended a pre-"Game" meeting in New York. On cue, the producer, director, and cameramen haggled. The star then raised a hand. "Yes, Gowdy," they sighed.
"What about the ball game?"
"**** with the ball game. We have to have the opening and the close."
"Yes," said Curt, "but, fellas’, we’re here because of the game." Do your homework. Tell the score.
In 1972, hoping, Broadcasting wrote, that "Monday will take off like football," NBC began a 10-game prime-time schedule. Next year it beamed 15 straight. For a man who lived on numbers, the Cowboy’s stalled: Saturday down; Monday barely up. Even crown jewels — L.C.S., All-Star Game, Series — seemed on auto pilot. Another NBCer saw his chance.
Joe Garagiola did the pre-"Game" show. Baseball’s angel was his boss. "He did Chrysler ads," said Carl, "and now wanted play-by-play." Meanwhile, baseball wanted cash. "Ratings couldn’t get more from one network," said bigs media director John Lazarus, "so we approached another." Upshot: 1976-79 format of NBC, Saturday; ABC, Monday; and shared post-season/All-Star Game.
NBC added Garagiola to last-year Monday coverage. "Looking back," said Lindemann, "this was the first shot in a campaign to get Curt off baseball altogether." He soon took one between the eyes.
By 1975, Curt had aired seven of sport’s all-time 10 most-watched events. The year became a kind of "The Last Picture Show," though he did not see it clearly. "Joe’s great at throwing elbows," said Coyle. "For all his success [three homes and seven radio stations], Curt was a small-town kid."
Poignantly, The Towne Team won the pennant. In the Series, Cincinnati led Game Six, 6-3. Two eighth-inning Sox reached base. "The pitch," said Gowdy on NBC Radio. "[Pinch-hitter Bernie] Carbo hits a high drive! Deep center! Home run! … Bernie Carbo has hit his second pinch-hit home run of the Series! … It came with two out. And the Red Sox have tied it, 6 to 6!"
Next inning Fred Lynn arced a bases-full pop. Third-base coach Don Zimmer screamed, "No, no!" Runner Denny Doyle misheard "Go, go!" Curt: "It is caught by Foster. Here’s the tag. Here’s the throw! He’s out! A double play! Foster throws him out!" Cincy’s Joe Morgan batted in the 11th. "There’s a long shot! Back goes Evans — back, back! And what a grab! Evans made a grab and saved a home run on that one!"
At 12:34 A.M., Carlton Fisk arced his memorable, implausible, epochal blast. Ned Martin called it fair. Added Gowdy: "They’re jamming out on the field! His teammates are waiting for him! And the Red Sox send the World Series into Game Seven with a dramatic 7 to 6 victory. What a game! This is one of the greatest World Series games of all time!" NBC clearly felt there was nothing else to say.
Memory, said Alexander Chase, is the thing we forget with. A decade later Lindemann wanted to forget being odd man out. "Chrysler kept pushing. I was the only guy behind the Cowboy." That November Gowdy filmed "Sportsman" in Maine. Carl flew to tell him — "Curt was shocked" — that he was through.
In 1978, Gowdy became a "roving [Series] reporter" — to Coyle, "humiliating, such a minor role." He did a final Rose and Super Bowl. One hoops Saturday the spotter misidentified each starter: Curt, barely 60, soon put out to TV pasture, got the blame. CBS-TV offered a three-year pact, dropping him in 1981.
"It was an ugly, abrupt end," said Carl. "Neither Curt nor I know why." I first met Gowdy on 1960 Sox-stripes wireless. Allen guided me until Albany: Eastward Cowboy-ho. In the 1980s, he spoke again on CBS Radio: the game, still the important thing; the voice, still as sturdy as a post.
"You look at McNamee, Husing, Allen," said Lindemann. "With networks dividing sports, nobody ever did what Gowdy did." By his death Curt knew that nobody ever will.