In Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson wrote “how at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.” To baseball, the Hall of Fame means love, memory, and legends on a giant scale. Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus has never been to America’s most famed small town. “Thankfully,” he mused, “that’s about to change.”
On July 27, Niehaus will receive the Hall’s 2008 Ford C. Frick Award for broadcast excellence. First, on May 24, he will buoy its Voices of The Game series from the shrine’s Bullpen Theater. “After all these years,” said Dave, “I’m making up for lost time,” about to discover how Cooperstown can be twice the fun.
Niehaus grew up in a small-town 1950s Indiana of farms and fields and boys playing basketball, often visiting the Palace Pool Rome in Princeton, current pop. 8,175. Each inning a man, dipping chalk into water, posted a tickertape score on the chalkboard. Dried, it illumined, say, Cardinals-Cubs. “I can still see the brilliant white against the dark.”
At night, Dave sipped lemonade, caught fireflies, and heard Harry Caray on the porch. In 1957, he graduated from Indiana University, joined the military, and did Armed Forces Radio. “I’d call games from Yankee Stadium,” then Dodger Stadium and the Angels’ Big A. Taking an apartment in North Hollywood, Neihaus befriended unknown actor Jim Nabors: surprise, surprise, surprise.
In 1977, Dave fashioned the Mariners’ Northwest Opening — their first and still only Voice. “It’s been a wild wholly Pier Six brawl,” Niehaus said one night, “and the bullies so far have been the Kansas City Royals.” Number One on this Dave’s list: shunning muted tints for bold pastels.
From Anaheim to Seattle
“Say Dave, you think Seattle,” Caray once said. Many recall his rowing before the expansion M’s set sail. In 1969 and 1973, Niehaus and Don Drysdale, respectively, joined the Angels. Each worshipped a deity. “Scully started the West Coast tradition of don’t cheerlead or make excuses,” said Dave. How good were they? “Opposing Vin, we lived to tell the tale.”
“I’m going to have dinner tonight at Singer’s house,” Drysdale once said, apocryphally. Niehaus asked, “Bill Singer, the pitcher?” Big D smiled: “No, Dave. The singer is Frank Sinatra.”
In 1977, the bigs reclaimed Seattle. “[Owner] Danny Kaye knew me on the Angels [also, Rams football and UCLA hoops],” Niehaus said, “and offered me the job.” He balked. Kaye persisted. Dave finally embraced Puget Sound. “I sit on my deck watching boats on the lake, listening to birds. It comes to us from God.” Godawfulness sprang from what Niehaus dubbed The Tomb.
“A large mausoleum that gives… the impression of being a poorly lit, damp basement with a beat-up old pool table in the middle,” Newsday called the Kingdome,opening April 6, 1977. “People ask my favorite memory,” Dave said. “It’s that night — against the Angels.” Later the roof leaked. Balls struck speakers, hit support wires, and entangled streamers.
The ceiling was built to dim the echo of dinky crowds. Designers knew their team. “It was so
quiet,” said outfielder Jay Buhner, “you could hear fans knocking you.” Most slowly warmed to Niehaus. “People had wanted a local guy.” He never blamed Seattle. “People knocked us as a baseball town. I’d say, ‘You fans don’t owe us anything, we owe you a team.’”
Dave’s trademark “My, oh, my!” rose at Anaheim. His early tater call was duller: “It’s gone!” In 1978, hearing Seals and Crofts, he affixed “Fly Away” to each M’s dinger. S&C also sang “Summer Breeze.” Lenny Randle’s turned personal. A batter bunted toward third base. “Lenny knew the Kingdome’s flat on the base paths.” He got down on all fours trying to blow the ball foul.
“We might be stuck in traffic or mowing the lawn,” the Post-Intelligencer said, “but where we really are is the Kingdome because Niehaus takes us there.” Refusing to fly away was the Mariners’ ill wind.
Seattle flunked.500 its first 14 years. “Oh, for a place like Fenway,” Dave dreamt amid the mourning. “I genuflect when I walk through the gates. You see where Ted Williams played.” No one confused The Kid with any Mariner. “Yet [despite] virtually nothing to recommend them,” said a writer, the M’s percentage of radios in use was baseball’s best. Their announcer was stud.
“I’ve had offers to leave, but why be miserable in New York or Chicago?” said Dave. “I want to be here when we turn around.” The U-turn began in 1989 with Ken Griffey, Jr., 19, son of the Reds outfielder. Two years later the Mariners finally made .500, drew a record 2,147,905, and vaunted Junior’s franchise-high .327. Griffey smacked 40 homers before the August 1994 strike. A year later, the M’s asked the state legislature to build a park. Pols snorted a belly laugh. “We had no leverage,” said Niehaus, who found that in its 19th year a team’s luck could change.
Gutting a 13-game Halos lead, Seattle won an A.L. West playoff. Briefly, the Northwest forgot the NFL Seahawks. The Division Series began in New York, the M’s losing twice. Dave threw out the first ball at the Kingdome’s post-season inaugural: Randy Johnson,7-4. Next day Edgar Martinez slammed: 11-8. In two weeks Seattle had become a baseball town. The final showed why.
Eighth inning: M’s tie. Ninth: Manager Lou Piniella inserts Randy. “He’d pitched two days earlier. But he was the best we had.” Eleventh: Yanks retake a 5-4 edge. Payback followed. “Swung on and lined down the left-field line for a base hit! Here comes Joey, and Junior to third base … and they’re going to wave him in! The throw to the plate will be late! The Mariners are going to play for the American League championship! I don’t believe it! It just continues! My, oh, my!”
That winter the legislature OKd $320 million. “Once in a while, I’ll think of what saved baseball here,” Dave still says. “1995.”
No longer was Dave a Monet, etching a paint-by-number team. In 1996, he brooked two angioplasties, abandoned vodka, steak, and Marlboro cigarettes, and drew shortstop Alex Rodriguez’s first full season akin to Cronin, Wagner, and Banks. Griffey became the A.L.’s ninth unanimous MVP. The ’97ers drew 3,192,237, many from Idaho, Oregon, Utah, and Montana. “For the first time,” said Niehaus, “we became a regional team.”
Johnson and Junior left for Houston and Cincinnati, respectively. A-Rod got an A+ deal: $252 million from Texas, then New York. “Damndest thing,” said Dave. “They leave, we win” — a 2001 record-tying 116 games. MVP Ichiro Suzuki hit .350. The Kingdome imploded. Its replacement, Safeco Field, strutted arched windows, bleacher, and look from its upper deck of Elliott Bay, Mount Rainier, Olympic Mountains, and ferries, ships, and sunsets from Albert Bierstadt.
Outside, the Burlington Northern freight whistle invoked rural Indiana. “These trains going by are the park’s signature,” said Dave. “To me, it s a romantic sound.” Another knit the stands. Johnson was “humming along.” A strike “had some hair on it, baby.” Enjoy “a nice little pitchers’ duel.” Blurted ESPN’s Jon Miller: “It’s all here, it’s gorgeous, it’s got Niehaus, it’s open air!” Dave could be forgiven for feeling he had been paroled.
In 2000, he became the first member of the M’s Hall of Fame. “I really feel as if I know each … of you,” Niehaus told the crowd. “My, oh, my!” graced a banner, forged a chant, and was drawn by grounds help in the dirt. Sans fielder “loping,” runner “lumbering,” or ball “Belted! Deep to right field! Upper deck time! Yes!” would there have been a team for Safeco to even house?
In 2000, the Seattle Times named the two-time Washington Sportscaster of the Year “one of the top 10 most influential [local] people of the century.” A 2004 Sports Illustrated survey asked Washingtonians their favorite team. The Mariners got 56 percent; Seahawks, 10. Next: favorite announcer. Thirty-six percent named Dave. John Madden’s 8 was runner-up.
Some ask which all-time Voice most loves baseball. Niehaus makes the cut. “Finally,” he says, “what a joy to call good players in a great park!” The 1930s bred the Hudson Valley school of painting. Dave’s school swabs the Sound. Soon, it will enrich Cooperstown.