Denny Matthews – Worthy Hall of Famer
The writer Ellen Glasgow said, "I had been born with an infinite sense of the past and a lingering sense of time and place." Mel Allen meant the Yankees’. Lindsey Nelson denoted the ’60s Mets’. For 39 years, Denny Matthews has anchored Middle America’s flagship team.
In 1969, the American League expanded to Kansas City and Seattle. In 1975, partner Matthews succeeded Bud Blattner: still the Royals liegman behind the mike. By 1980, Denny keyed the A.L.’s largest radio network — 120 stations, in 11 states. Illinois Wesleyan ’66 is now the longest-but-Vin Scully Voice of any big-league team.
Recently, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum broadcast committee voted Matthews the 2007 Ford C. Frick Award. In July, Denny will be inducted, joining 30 others from Mel Allen via Harry Caray to last year’s Gene Elston, born in next-door Iowa. They also serve who only speak and wait.
"What Couldn’t He Do?"
"As a kid, I’d listen to Jack Brickhouse," Mathews said of 1950s downstate Illinois. In high school, the Giants gave a tryout. Later Matthews manned Wesleyan’s middle infield. In football, Denny’s receiving yardage topped Otis Taylor’s. "He was the Natural," added Rader. "What couldn’t he do?"
September 1968. Having never called an inning, Matthews asked the Cardinals if he can tape a game. "A lot of people [over 300] are going to apply for the K.C. job," a friend cautioned. "It’s not enough that they like your tape. They gotta remember you."
Schlitz Beer vended the Royals’ KMBZ Radio/KBMC TV network. Denny found a dealer, got several dinner menus, and stole a Schlitz-logo serving tray. An ad filled the outside flap. "The inside was blank, for the place to put its menu." Matthews printed his resume, put a menu on the tray, and enclosed a tape. "Here," he wrote Schlitz, "is my final pitch for the Royals’ job."
Some deem baseball a universal language. Soon Denny found that its universe surpassed English. Daily he hosted a pregame show. By August 1969, each player except utility infielder Juan Rios had appeared. Magically, Juan gets three hits. Denny names him next-day Star of the Day. Shortstop Jackie Hernandez offers to interpret. The interview begins.
"Jackie," Matthews said, "ask Juan about last night." In Spanish, Rios seems a chatterer. Denny thinks that "There must be some terrific stuff." Rios than hands Hernandez the mike.
"Juan said he feels great," says Jackie. Producer Ed Shepherd drops his recorder. Matthews drips with sweat. "This guy has just told his life story and that’s it — five seconds in translation."
Rolling 7 –Team, and Voice
July 2, 1970. English again works undertime. Guy’s Foods is a local sponsor. The third inning starts. Denny’s mind begins racing. "For those of you planning a Fourth of July picnic, take those good Guy’s potato chips." Pleased, he smiles. "And, fans, while you’re in the store, be sure to grab Guy’s nuts."
Bud’s face whitens. Matthews prays for a seven-second delay. Surprisingly, Guy’s head Guy Caldwell howls. By 1973, all hailed the sole 1962-91 new big-league-only site. Royals Stadium’s 12-story scoreboard in a fountain, waterfall, and pool complex lit a dead-end age of ballpark handiwork, spurring defense, alley pop, and speed.
In 1976, Denny rolled 7: first K.C. title/first year as Voice. Through 1978 the Yankees stood in the League Championship Series door. Then, in 1980, George Brett hit .390. The Royals took a 2-0 game playoff lead. At the Bronx Zoo, No. 5 hit in Game Three’s seventh: Stripes, 2-1. "Gossage ready. Swing and a high fly ball!" sidekick Fred White said. "Deep right field! There she goes!" Royals Stadium’s scoreboard used more than 16,000 bulbs. Brett’s three-run titian still hangs in lights.
"Making the Series," said Denny, "threw off all that frustration." Renewing it: Philadelphia, in six. "For us, this was climbing another step." Ahead: the final rung.
Matthews climbed a rung in 1982, calling his first network L.C.S. Yankee Stadium again hosted Kansas City July 24, 1983: Brett, homering for a 5-4 victory; called out for illegal pine tar on his bat; then bolting from the dugout like a lynx on speed.
In 1985, he averaged .333. K.C. trailed the expanded L.C.S., 3 games to 1. "Before that year we’d have been dead," said Denny, "but we used our chance," beating Toronto three straight. "The War Within the State" followed, St. Louis taking a 3-2 game lead. Behind, 1-0, Jorge Orta led off the Royals’ next-game ninth by rolling to first base. Pitcher Todd Worrell beat him to the bag — until Don Denkinger ruled him safe. Steve Balboni popped foul — until Jack Clark lost the ball. A passed ball and walk preceded Dane Iorg’s winning hit.
"It’s a situation," he said,"you dream about as a child." In Game Seven, Bret Saberhagen threw a manly gem. "One out to go in the ninth inning!" Denny said. "Eleven to nothing. The one-oh pitch. Fly ball! Motley going back to the track! No outs to go! The Royals have won the 1985 World Series! And they converge on the mound in celebration!" Two decades later, he would like to celebrate again.
Waiting for Cooperstown
Ageless: Brett, winning batting crowns in 1976, 1980, and 1990 — "only guy ever," said Matthews, "to lead in three decades." Peerless: the 13-time All-Star, getting his 3,000th hit September 30, 1992 v. California. Timeless: the small-market Royals felt financially strapped.
In 1997, Denny touted realignment. "Create four geographic divisions," he told the owners. "We’d be with the Cubs, White Sox, and Cardinals." Instead, the bigs eyed "contraction." In 2001, Denny contracted to 130 games a year. "It recharges the battery. You get away from it for a few days and come back strong," reaching Salinas and Ft. Smith and Yuma and Dodge City.
In 2004, Matthews telecast his first play-by-play since 1986. "I had to remind myself you don’t need to paint the picture." He had outlasted 16 managers, 139 trades, and five Royals named Jones, but not doubt. Wrote columnist Joe Posnanski: "Where’s the love for Denny Matthews?" Partner Ryan Lefebvre mused how he could walk through K.C.’s Plaza Hotel without someone offering a glad-hand or brew.
Denny hated to schmooze or self-promote. "It’s not my job to scream," he said. "I tell what happened and then you can scream." Some Voices think the hymn "How Great Thou Art" means them. To Matthews, story-telling meant team, not self. "You don’t learn about his life," White said: e.g. working out with the Packers, catching passes from Len Dawson, or hitting a receiver in a touch football game.
"Denny, thank you," said Rush Limbaugh, eyes moist. "That was the first touchdown I ever had." Why wasn’t Mathews beloved? Increasingly, he was.
A Most Happy Fella — and End
Ultimately, Denny became the Midwest’s loyal opposition: the Voice of Cardinals Nation Radio Free A.L. He was clear, sharp, and subtle. Umpire Greg Gibson once blew a call. Said Matthews: "You might want to tell [him] to take off his sunglasses."
In 2004, the Royals held Denny Matthews "Talking Bobble Head" Day, named him to their Hall of Fame, and helped fill a special Kansas City to Wellington, Kansas, train. Denny’s granddad had worked for the Chicago and Alton Railroad. Matthews became a "train nut" — and Midwest grade crossing safety spokesman.
"The crews were terrific," he said of the thank-you ride. "The only problem was that they wanted to talk baseball — and I wanted to talk trains!" Denny loved their lure — also the flat, tall-grass and endless Plains’. "That alone would keep me here," he said, waiting for the Royals to again climb baseball’s hill.
This year Denny will climb Cooperstown’s. If his hero, Jack Brickhouse, still conjures the Second City, Matthews more than ever bespeaks K.C.