Bob Wolff – 85 Going On 15
This year the 85-nearing-15-year-old marks his 61st straight year on television. "When I started [with the Washington Senators], I was baseball’s youngest Voice," Bob laughs. "Now I’m TV’s longest-running sportscaster." The operative word is running: marathon, as life.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "There are no second acts in America." Wolff disagrees. In 1995, he won the Baseball Hall of Fame’s annual Ford C. Frick Broadcast Award. This season, it lauds his suzerainty in the broadcast series, ”Voices of The Game."
Some announcers peak too soon. Bob peaks each year. Let us tell a tale worth retelling – and live a life worth reliving. Youth is never wasted on the young.
Grace Under Pressure
On April 12, 1945, Harry Truman ended a dry day presiding over the Senate by inviting Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn for a drink. At 5:12 P.M., the White House switchboard ordered the vice president across town. Arriving, he found FDR dead of a cerebral hemorrhage. Was there anything Truman could do for her? he asked Eleanor Roosevelt. "Is there anything we can do for you?" she said. "For you are the one in trouble now."
Yearly his team vetoed the first division. To distract, Bob interviewed scouts, players, and concessionaires: "fans in the stands." In 1957, the Nats won the first game of a double-header. Wolff then told his guest, "Let’s playa game. Don’t say your name until we’re finished talking."
Bob began by reviewing the opener. ‘Well, of course," said the fan, "being a
Washington fan, I thought it was great."
Wolff & Co. spoke for seven minutes. Climax: "Are you originally from Washington, sir?" Bob said.
"No, I’m a Californian."
‘What sort of work do you do, sir?"
"I work for the government," said the guest, 44.
"Oh, for the government?"
”Yes, yes, I work for the government?"
"What sort of work do you do, sir?" Bob probed.
"Well, 1′m the vice-president," said Richard Milhous Nixon.
Wolff kept the Senators from cloning the Atlantis of the American League.
Give Him A Break
"Everything good in my life has been through a great break," said the native New Yorker. In 1938, at Duke on a baseball scholarship, Bob broke an ankle sliding into second base. The freshman began hosting radio’s variety ”Your Duke Parade." Pleased, he grew confused. "I’ve never see an arm or leg outlast a voice," coach Jack Coombs said. "If you want the big leagues, start talking." Hurt, Phi Beta Kappa ’42 was helped. "Another break – best advice I ever got.".
A naval commission led to Harvard Business School; Sea bees in Camp Perry, Virginia, and Solomon Islands. "Its [supply officer] procedures were a mess, alien to what I’d learned at Harvard." Aghast, Wolff wrote a manual revising the system. Shortly the Navy Department asked him to create Supply Corps books and films. "I could have been in the South Pacific. Instead, I’m transferred to Washington."
In 1946, WINX Radio named Bob sports director. Next year, 26, he became the DuMont Network’s WTTG-TV pancaked, perspiring Voice. ‘Those lights! So hot, so huge! You’d lose 20 pounds in an hour." Few saw him sweat: TV paled vs. radio’s. The only other commercial station was WABD New York.
"How’d I get the job?" said Wolff. No one wanted it. Papers shunted daily coverage. "Stores put sets in the window to spur sales. People had little faith in TVs future."
His soon lacked sleep in a 24/7 life.
Nonpareil Work Ethic
By 1949, Bob called cited boxing, Maryland and Washington Capitols hoops, college and pro football, and Nats radio/TV. "I’d do the first and last three innings on TV, and other three on radio. With [colleague Arch] McDonald, it was reversed." Ironically, the senior feared the junior partner. "Arch was bigger locally," said reporter Morris Siegel, "but Bob outworked him." Industry bred envy. Who could keep up?
Each day Wolff did taped/live pre/post-game radio/TV. "Four programs, a nightly TV and radio show, syndicated baseball column, and the game!" Eight times the Nats placed next-to-last or last. One 1954 game drew 460. A year earlier Mickey Mantle hit the first "tape measure" blast, off Griffith Stadium’s 60-foot-high left-field National Bohemian scoreboard, into Perry L. Cool’s yard at 434 Oakdale Street: 391 feet to the wall; another 69, outer wall; and 105, across Fifth Street (565 total).
National Bo painted an "X" where the ball struck the board. "Not liking it," said Wolff, "[President] Clark Griffith painted it over." Victim Chuck Stobbs later flung baseball’s longest wild pitch, bouncing to a concession stand. In 1956, Mick almost hit the first ball out of Yankee Stadium – "still rising when it hit the copper frieze. I called all these record plays" – ’1.. Washington.
Few Senators failed more grandly than 1956-59 infielder Herbie Plews. One day hits and errors ricocheted off his chest, legs, arm, and head. "If we took Herb out it might cost his confidence," said Bob. "If he stayed in it might cost the game." He stayed. "If there’d been a crowd, it would have roared."
The next batter bounced to Plews, who bobbled, snatched the ball, and nipped his man. Washington still trailed in the ninth inning. Herbie lashed a two-out triple. Nats win. Players sob. "Herbie Plews! Tell me there weren’t giants in the land."
Storytelling As Art
"I wasn’t like Allen. He had a team. All I had were stories." Once D.C. began the ninth seven runs behind. On a whim Bob midwived fantasy. "Our camera has a magic ray. If we focus on a fielder, the ray will so mesmerize him that the ball will go through, by, or over him. This demands a concentrated thought process. If even one of you isn’t thinking ‘hit,’ our rays can malfunction."
The camera eyed the rival shortstop. The first Senator singled. The next shot fixed the third baseman: The ball safely went there. One by one Nats reached – "each after the camera predicted where the baseball’d go" – bringing Washington within a run. Bases full; two out; Mickey Vernon lined toward right. Leaping, the first baseman snagged the game.
Dazed, Bob hailed his audience. ‘They’d almost wrought a miracle until perhaps one had to leave the TV," ending the spell. He went to break, trying to cast one. "Remember," Wolff later said, "when the sponsor writes your name, what he wants to hear, It’s not who won or lost the game, But how you sold the beer."
By 1953, Bob was baseball’s sole ambidextrous beer-pourer: "amphibious," to Yogi Berra. In Florida, he poured smartly. Opening Day overflowed the glass. Mystery left a post-game huddle. ”’-his is hot beer!" said aide Joe DiMona. "In spring training beer was refrigerated." Cigars were another sponsor. "Don’t do it like Mel," said DiMona. "He puts it in the front of his mouth. Put the cigar on the side."
Bob put it in the ashtray. "Stop!" the producer said.
"Cigarettes, put in the ashtray. Cigars, put in your mouth." The Nats hoped merely to keep from putting out to sea.
Wolff felt a gentle protectiveness for their owner and padrone. Daily Griffith watched TV’s The Lone Ranger. "He grew up in the West, was a small-town kid. The show brought back memories." Clark died in 1955. Son Calvin became president. Having made the bigs, Wolff despaired of making them big.
Then another break occurred.
From One Series to Another
In 1956, Gillette was baseball’s sole network sponsor. "I’d say, ‘How about [Mutual] network work?’ They’d say, ‘If your name gets big enough, we’ll put you on.’ I’d say, ‘Put me on tonight, and my name will be big enough tomorrow.”’ In 1956, D.C. hosted the AllStar Game. "I wore Gillette out. Plus, I knew the park," airing the only game where Musial, Mays, Mantle, and Williams homered.
That March Bob asked Ted on his pre-game show. "’Don’t bother me,’ Williams said, then recoiled when we met." Grudgingly he agreed if hitting .340 by late summer. On August 7, Ted blew a fly, was jeered, spit at Fenway, entered the dugout, came out and spit again. Yawkey fined him $5,000. ”The incident made headlines everywhere," said Wolff. Radio/TV raged.
Next stop: Washington. Bob cornered Williams, batting .357. "Ted, I understand if you don’t want to keep our agreement. But if you do, I have to ask about the spitting." No. 9 appeared, hating it. "He grimaced, expressed remorse, and said he was there because of our ‘friendship.’" Having already interviewed Mantle – ”with Ted, sport’s most famous athlete" – Wolff took their tapes to New York.
Syndicated series were rarer then than later. Bob sold Colgate Palmolive a pilot. "From that came programs I did for the Yankees, Red Sox, and A’s – a different one per club." By September, finally a name aired eight shows daily.
Gillette gave up, giving him the 53rd World Series.
On October 8, 1956, before 64,519, the Yanks and Brooks played Game Five at The Stadium. New York led, 2-0. Dale Mitchell hit in Brooklyn’s ninth. "I’ll guarantee that nobody – but nobody – has left this ball park," cried Wolff on Mutual. "And if somebody did manage to leave early – man he’s missing the greatest! Two strikes and a ball! … Mitchell waiting, stands deep, feet close together. Larsen is ready, gets the sign. Two strikes, ball one. Here comes the pitch. Strike three! A no-hitter! A perfect game for Don Larsen!"
One break begets another. "[Next day] Robinson waits. Here comes the pitch and there goes a line drive to left field! Slaughter’s after it, he leaps! It’s over his head against the wall! Here comes Gilliam scoring! Brooklyn wins [its 1st Series game]! Jackie Robinson is being pummeled!" Others: 1958 and 1961 Series, Rose, Gator, and Sugar Bowl, Colts, Browns, and Redskins, and 1958′s Greatest Game Ever Played – "The Colts win! [NFL overtime title game, 23-17] Ameche scores!" Unlike the Nats, play-by-play sufficed.
Bob headed the local Knothole Gang, petitioned hangers, coat hooks, and bottle openers, and sold his scorebook at Griffith Stadium. Jerry Lewis, Bill Dana, and Jonathan Winters headed celebrities in the booth. "They appeared in the middle innings. I was too busy setting the stage earlier and capping it later" – but not for "The Singing Senators."
Ask players now to start a gratis glee club. ”Their answer couldn’t go in a book." Albie Pearson, Jim Lemon, and Roy Sievers, among others, sang melody. Howie Devron played accordion. Wolff stringed ukelele. ”The Senators" played NBC’s ”Today Show" in 1959. A year earlier Harmon Killebrew’s 42 dingers led the league. Power and shyness shaped a Garbo of the game.
One day Wolff coined a plan. "I’ll bring you to a father and son game and insert you as Mr. Smith. After you hit the ball 10 miles, I’ll say on the P.A, ‘That’s Harmon Killebrew.’"
Anonymous sans uniform, he thrice missed or grounded out. ”The catcher tipped the bat. Let?s try again," Bob said. NO.3 barely tapped the next pitch. Wolff: "Harmon Killebrew is the batter but doesn’t want to lose your softball. Just to show his power, he’ll fungo it and we’ll bring it back."
Pop-up. "Let?s get back to the game," he told the crowd. "It’s getting late."
Returning to D.C., Bob consoled his rider. "Don’t worry. You’ll be a Hall of Famer in hardball. Skip the softer stuff."
To NBC, Then the Garden
In 1960, Griffith tried to elude the sheriff by moving the team to Minneapolis-St. Paul. "Even with Killebrew we weren’t drawing," Wolff said. "Calvin wanted me to go with him." He did, but missed the East. Expansion Mets g.m. George Weiss phoned in late 1961. The Daily News pealed: ‘Wolff Coming." Problem: no station/sponsor. Time passed. The renamed Twins pressed Bob to decide. "I went to Weiss, and he couldn’t make a commitment" – another break, unseen.
Like dominoes, Weiss signed WABC Radio, WOR TV, and Lindsey Nelson, airing NBC baseball since 1957. "He got what might have been my Mets job," Wolff said. ”Then NBC comes to me with Lindsey’s job!" becoming with analyst Joe Garagiola "Major league Baseball"’s 1962-64 alternative to CBS’ Dizzy Dean.
‘We were bigger in cities, but Dean was monumental elsewhere," said Bob. Perfect and fractured English clashed each Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Wolff did NBC’s 1962-65 Series pre-game show and 1962 Giants-l.A playoff, Game Two a record four hours and 18 minutes. "Each half-hour the network said, ‘This program will not be seen tonight because of baseball.’ Another 30 minutes later they’d chop another."
In 1965, ABC bought regular-season exclusivity. After several games Bob was approached by Madison Square Garden, a P.A boss since 1954. ”They floated a new cable network, the chance to launch something big." He began by hyping ”the wonderful aroma" of Robert Bums Imperial. The sponsor especially loved Wolff waving a cigar under his nose.
”Terrific,” he said. "One suggestion. Next time you praise the wonderful aroma" pause – ”take the cigar out of the glass tubing first."
Cooperstown as Coda
Bob did as many as 250 MSG events a year, including the Stanley Cup, NBA final, and Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Donning coaching garb, he gave dogs in a locker room a "pup talk." Missing was Wolff’s favorite-since-childhood game. "I love baseball, but travel kills you." His valedictory still lives.
Joining News 12-Long Island, Bob won a Cable ACE Award, got two Emmys, made Madison Square Garden’s Walk of Fame, and became six-time National Sportscasters and ‘Sportswriters Association New York State Sportscaster of the Year.
In 1995, entering Cooperstown, he strummed ”Take Me Out To The Ballgame" on
”The Singing Senators’" ukelele. Six years later my wife and I adopted two young children in Ukraine. We saw a bandura for sale – Ukrainian for the instrument. Buying it, I played baseball’s Marseille.
Next year Wolff gave the Hall of Fame his 1950s TV series. In 2002, retrieving them, he sold MSG "Bob Wolff’s Scrapbook." The program evoked baseball’s hold on the American sensibility. "Darned if it didn’t become a hit," he said.
Four years later the Hall released Bob’s "Legend to Legend," his DVD of Ike-era interviews. "I think they hold up pretty well," he said, "but I keep thinking, ‘Who is that young man on the screen?’" Answer: glossy, silken, forever the gentleman with a mike. Hailing Wolff at Cooperstown, the final break is ours.