Baseball Men - The Broadcaster

Our new interview series, "Baseball Men", continues with an in-depth chat with Bob Wolff, Hall of Fame Broadcaster for the World Series and All-Star Game.

The word ‘sportsman' doesn't have an illustration in any of the official dictionaries, but if they do decide to add one someday, the ideal portrait would depict Bob Wolff.

 

What other word can apply to a guy who has called every virtually every major sporting event there is to call? Starting off as a Duke University undergrad in the late 1930's, Wolff enjoyed a remarkable play-by-play career that's seen him broadcast thousands of college and pro games for basketball, football, and hockey (he may be the only one to work the mic for the NBA Finals, NFL championship, and Stanley Cup alike) as well as scores of contests in boxing, soccer, and tennis. If a sportsmanship is all about a longstanding involvement in virtually every kind of athletic happening, Wolff long ago established himself as the prototype.

 

For that long-standing involvement throughout the sports world, however, Bob Wolff's greatest impact undoubtedly has come in his favorite game, the game of baseball.

 

Wolff began a 14-year career as the Washington Senators' radio and TV play-by-play man in 1947; eventually gaining such stature that he was entrusted with additional assignments for newspaper syndication, nightly television, and pregame / postgame shows. He provided the baseball soundtrack for a generation of capital-area fans, and in that, at least, Senators fans were fortunate - in those years they had one of the most talented guys in the business working for one of the most inept franchises in the game (the club had a single winning season throughout Wolff's tenure in DC).

 

With that kind of resume, it's no wonder Bob Wolff was among the select few invited to the National Pastime's new start in the national capital in 2005. As an honor once stated, ‘For many years, Bob Wolff was baseball in Washington'.

 

During his 1950's and 1960's heyday, Wolff's reputation took him beyond his local market and over to national baseball audiences. He soon found himself working broadcasts like the 1956 All Star Game and the ‘56 World Series that featured Don Larsen's perfect game, then high-profile assignments including the 1958 and 1961 World Series. When the original Senators moved to Minnesota in 1960, Wolff was chosen as a feature voice for NBC's 'Game of the Week' as well.

 

The travel-weary Wolff retired from daily play-by-play broadcasting after the 1965 season in favor of announcer / commentator work with Madison Square Garden, an association which continues to this day. Even so, few of the baseball fans who were lucky enough to take in Wolff's crisp, articulate ball games have ever forgotten them. The ultimate testament to his grasp of the game came in 1995, when he joined contemporaries like Vin Scully and Mel Allen in receiving the Hall of Fame's Ford Frick Award.

 

You might think someone named Wolff might have an instinct for fierce behavior, but the opposite is the case. On August 27, I spoke to a gracious, good-natured gentleman about an accidental start on the airwaves, the medium and the message, and the call on one of the most remarkable ball games ever played.

 

 

What did sports mean to you when you were growing up?

 

Well, I always loved to play games and, more important, I guess, I was good at them. I used to play on the sandlots all the time, that's all I did - baseball, football, basketball. Even at eight, nine, ten years old, I'd stick around and I was always asked to play, despite my age.

 

Was there any particular reason why you tended to gravitate toward baseball?

 

When I was in high school, there was this coach, Pop LaRue, who sort of took a liking to me. He kept hitting me fly balls, day after day, on the high school team. Just because he wanted to. His personal work with me was very important - I became a very good outfielder, made the list of the top 20 prospects in the New York area, hit .583 in my senior year [of 1938].

 

At that time Duke and Holy Cross had the best college baseball programs, as far as I could determine, in terms of getting players to the Major Leagues. I found out that one of the Duke coaches, Jack Coombs, was a former pitcher for the Athletics. He had a summer tryout camp for the A's in Philadelphia. It was a pretty good system - you could get a college education and maybe go to the Majors. So I went to Duke hoping for a future in baseball.

 

I understand that your playing career for the Blue Devils was soon sidetracked.

 

One day, in a rundown play, my spikes got caught in the dirt and I broke my ankle. That took care of one playing season, but there was this one local radio station in Durham, WDNC, broadcasting all the Duke baseball, football, and basketball games, and they wanted to use me for some on-air work.

 

I was pretty well known on campus by then, so [in 1939] they'd ask me to join them in the booth to sit there and talk about my teammates. I'd be on the air, talking about the guys, while my ankle was in a cast. Later in that same season, the regular broadcaster left for another job and they said, ‘we'll make you part the team. You can go pro - we'll pay you for your stuff'. I said, ‘that's great'. Pretty soon, I wasn't just doing sports broadcasts but other shows as well. I'd be doing variety shows, a weekly sports show. I became a well-known personality down there, on the air waves.

 

Anyway, the next season, in practice, I was hit a hard grounder that took a couple of high hops. I reached up to ward it away, just so I wouldn't get conked in the head, but the ball ended up breaking my finger right in half. That took care of that season, too.

 

(laughs) At that point, I went to Coach Coombs and said, ‘what do you think?' He said to me, ‘Bob, you're making your name as a broadcaster and I think your voice is going to last longer than your arms and legs. Stay with it - you'll get to the Majors'. He was very kind - he said they still had a uniform for me - but I did make it to the Majors in a different way.

 

What was it like for you in starting off in college radio at Duke?

 

Sometimes, I'd do a basketball game every night, on that CBS station, working until midnight and then studying until three in the morning.

 

When I got to a game, heck, there was only so much time to prepare. Sometimes I couldn't think of anything to say, or my guest hadn't arrived. I taught myself how to ad lib for as long as needed until I came to the point.

 

Here's an example:  ‘Folks, there's one thing I'd like to talk to you about during this broadcast. It's a vital part of winning and losing. It's something that people may overlook because there are so many aspects to the encounter. But, here's something that, in the long run, it can make all the difference between winning and losing. It won't get the headlines, I guess, but it can be the most important factor of them all. And that is . . . .'

 

Then I'd talk about free throws or whatever it happened to be.

 

You really have the prototypical, rich broadcaster's voice. Did that encourage you to get started in the field?

 

I'd hear people tell me, ‘Oh, you have a beautiful voice, just beautiful'. It's very flattering, but I never believed that. When a person would say that to me, I felt like saying, ‘Did you enjoy what I said?' (laughs)

 

When I listened to those early broadcasters on the air, they all had great voices, but I always thought the way they succeeded was through content. The key, I felt, was having something to say and saying it well. I worked on my content and style and technique. I figured, once I'm on the air, well, people will automatically assume I at least sound OK.

 

If you have something to say, people will listen, and that demands work and research. I wanted to be well-prepared and accurate. That goal intensified my late-night studying, and I was rewarded with a Phi Beta Kappa key after my junior year. That lesson in all-out preparation, I took with me into all my broadcast work. A little inspiration helped, but my confidence was always based on good old-fashioned perspiration.

 

After Duke and World War II service in the Pacific, your early broadcast career began in 1947, when you began doing play-by-play alongside the late Arch McDonald. What do you remember about Mr. McDonald?

 

Arch had a style from the South - he was very laid back. He was good friends with Arthur Godfrey. He had a low, good-sounding radio voice, and he was very casual. He'd say ‘ball one' then get up, stretch a bit, go over to the water cooler and take a swig of water, come back, and then say ‘strike one'. The pauses were part of what he did. It was fun, sort of like an old-time disc jockey doing the games. Arch was very casual and very popular.

 

I came in with a sort of New York style, with the idea that the way to deliver on the national scene was to work at a higher tempo. I had a much quicker style. What I learned from Arch was that casual worked, too.

 

Mr. McDonald was later honored by the Hall of Fame, as was your next partner, the late Chuck Thompson. How do you remember him?

 

Oh, he was superb. A wonderful person, a great sense of humor.

 

Off the top of your head, do any other broadcast partners stand out from those years?

 

I worked with a former ball player named Joe Garagiola and, boy, he was sensational. He brought a new element to baseball - he became the first top-notch humorist doing ball games.  That was a great feat. Now everybody's trying to do humor. He was so funny, and he worked at it - he studied professional comedians, in order to get his timing down.

 

Would you say there's a common trait among the more effective broadcasters?

 

Everyone I've worked with, they've had one thing in common - I've liked them as human beings. In baseball, you have to have an appeal as a human being. Of course, you can't be the best of friends every day of the year, but with all those ball games in a season, you better be liked. Otherwise, you can't succeed.

 

Yeah, we were competitors in some way, but for me, I was just thrilled to be working with guys I admired so much. I've always had that feeling, ‘Doggone, I'm in the same company as those guys'.

 

I wouldn't be surprised if they felt the same way about Bob Wolff.

 

Sometimes I wanted to write to these guys, or pick up a phone, and say ‘Heard you last night, and you were terrific'. It wasn't hero worship. It was talent worship.

 

Looking back, do you have any regrets for mistakes you might have made in calling big games?

 

I went through those World Series without any stumble, one mistake, one ‘ummm', one ‘you know'. The whole thing was done to the very best of my ability without any hesitation or pauses. I relied on intense preparation and complete concentration.

 

It was the same as when I was back in college and I absolutely had to get an ‘A' on an exam. Whenever I'd do a big game and it was all through, my muscles were aching by total effort.

 

It's a remarkable line of work, in that, even professional singers and actors can get nervous before a live audience, let alone daily, coast-to-coast audiences. Did you ever get anxious, especially when you had an event like the World Series or All Star Game?

 

Let me tell you this story.

 

Every week, I had a local show with high school athletes who had won awards. Every week, the kids came to a half-hour briefing, a warm up session before we did the show. The first thing I would say is, ‘Hello, Joe. How are you doing? Are you nervous?'

 

‘Well, not really.'

 

I'd say, ‘that's a shame. Can you be a little nervous for me?'

 

‘Why?', he would say.

 

I would say, ‘Because, if you're nervous, you'll do a better show. Can you get just a bit nervous?'

 

‘OK. I am a little nervous.'

 

‘Good, good. You've got to be a little bit nervous. Otherwise you're not human, and it's so difficult to communicate to people when they're not human.'

 

I mean, everybody is nervous before they do something of importance. One day, I wasn't nervous before doing a big coast-to-coast show . . . I got nervous because I didn't get nervous! (laughs) It's a part of it. It's what they're paying you for and, besides, it wears off when the games begin. You're too busy broadcasting for any other thoughts.

 

How did you see your role as a broadcaster? Where you there as a journalist, to give an expert description of the action, or more as an entertainer finding ways to keep the audience tuned in?

 

Oh, I always felt I was a ‘journalist–dash-entertainer'. I enjoyed both roles. When I was in college, I led a dance band. I sang just well enough so that people would applaud. I would do a lot of humor bits, I would M.C. and I do quiz shows. I've found that natural humor adds a little extra touch to broadcasts and always made it a part of what I do. I believe in fun and games!

 

If I have one gift as a communicator, it's as a storyteller. I was always good at thinking up situations and stories. Every sport I ever did, every broadcast, was an opportunity to bring up the elements of a coherent story. Everybody has stories. My job was to dig them up.

 

How did you go about that?

 

Just natural curiosity. I asked questions. I delighted in unearthing unusual notes. I'd come to the ball park every day with little notes, beliefs, opinions, theories, and so forth. Some were humorous and some were serious. I still do that, in my current work for Cablevision News 12 and Madison Square Garden.

 

Just saying ‘ball one' and ‘strike one' doesn't take much creativity, but adding a clever line, an intriguing thought, a new strategy, an informed opinion, a good call on a big play - that's exciting.

 

One thing you avoided, however, was pat phrases. What was the thinking behind that choice?

 

I'm not a big believer in that. I'm not pointing a finger at anybody - each broadcaster has his own style, and if someone likes to do it that way, it's fine.

 

When I was doing the radio, I'd say (mimicking a game broadcast):  ‘There's a long fly ball out to left field . . . the left fielder, Jones, is back . . . he's near the fence . . . he leaps! . . . he just can't get it! . . . it's three rows back for a home run!' If you say ‘going, going, gone!' instead, you're taking away the description of what really took place. The next time that it's ‘going, going, gone!', it could be 40 rows back. It's not the same thing.

 

The people who do use phrases say that it works because it's a trademark, it's part of the broadcast, people look forward to it, it's an alert that something big is happening. To that, I say ‘fine'. I believe in the other method, but that doesn't mean I'm right. That's the big thing in broadcasting. It's not a matter of who's right and who's wrong. It's a matter of personal style. Both styles work.

 

One of the remarkable aspects of your career was the fact that you've moved so easily between television and radio. Did you prefer one to the other?

 

Well, I guess I'm one of the few old-time radio guys who enjoy television more.

 

Really?

 

I think it's even more creative. In radio, you can just say:  (mimicking a game broadcast) ‘There's a long drive to left, caught by Smith'. Of course you can work in strategies and your own stories, but you might be so consumed by the pitches and the scene that there isn't that much time. In television, on the other hand, you're putting headlines on stories, you're thinking of some clever or different way to add to the scene. That takes a bit more.

 

I always viewed television as if I were sitting next to a friend at a ball game and commenting with him. I would never say to him, ‘Here's Smith in the windup . . . here's the pitch . . . it's ball one'. If I did that in the stands, my friend would say, ‘Hey, why are you talking? I can see that for myself'.

 

You've got to think of television broadcasting in the same way as you'd think of talking to a friend. I'd say, ‘Well, Jim, let me tell you. I think there's a good chance Smith is going to move him back with a fast ball and then drop in a curve. Let's see what happens'.

 

And there's another thing. In radio, there's a constant rhythm:  ‘talk (short pause) talk (short pause) talk (short pause) talk (short pause)'. You have to keep it up because so you're consumed with all these little things - ‘the infield's back . . . the outfielders are pulled ‘round toward left . . . there's a little bit of a breeze blowing out toward centerfield . . . 1-1's the score . . . top of the second . . .'  In television, you can forget all that filler and get to more important stuff.

 

In your role as a role as broadcaster, did you think of yourself as a kind of objective reporter, or more of a home-town booster?

 

Well, if you're a broadcaster and you're with the players all the time, you can't like them all, so if you go on the air and talk about how wonderful they all are, you're not exactly telling the truth all the time. On the other hand, of course, you're being paid to talk about how they're playing the game.

 

I always felt that I could serve what I believe in and the team by being honest, completely honest. I did this with a little trick.

 

If the visiting team or the home team made a great play, you couldn't tell the difference in my words. I might say ‘And Mantle does it again, another home run!', or I might say ‘Killebrew wins the game! The Senators win! The Senators win!'. Maybe I'd raise my voice level a little bit for the home team, but the words were exactly the same. I'd get excited about the pure artistry of the game, the great plays.

 

I rooted for the broadcast, not the team. I wanted to do the best broadcast I could.

 

In your first World Series, in 1956, you were a witness to one of the most remarkable ball games in history - Don Larsen's perfect game. What was it like doing the call?

 

I knew that, a few years before, Red Barber had called a no-hitter in progress - Bill Bevens [who took a no-hitter into the ninth inning during the 1947 World Series]. Before Cookie Lavagetto got up, Barber said:  (mimicking a game broadcast) ‘We're just one out away from a no hitter . . . here's the pitch . . . there's a ball going out to right field, it's off the fence! . . . here's one run scoring, the tying run! . . . here's another run scoring, the winning run!'

 

Later, people asked [of Barber]-  ‘Why did he mention the no-hitter?' Well, Red was an honest announcer who was doing what he thought was right. Vin Scully, another great, thought the same thing, but defying the superstition about a possible no-hitter was not a popular move.

 

I decided, if I ever got a chance to do something that big, I'd do it in a different way - be just as honest, but use every synonym in the book. There's no reason to say ‘no-hitter' when you can say ‘eighteen up, eighteen down', or ‘no Dodger has gotten on base'. Plus, if you overuse the phrase ‘no-hitter' then there's no dramatic punch for the ending. This worked for me when I broadcast the Don Larsen perfect game in the Series, but I can understand why Red and Vin and others believed in their system, too.

 

I used the same philosophy when I was doing the Knicks and those other sports, by the way. I would never say ‘Calvin Murphy is approaching the foul line . . . he's made his last 46 free throws in a row, if he makes this one he'll set a new record . . . here's the shot . . . oh, he missed it'.

 

Instead, I'd put a note in, maybe a minute or two before, and say ‘people are really watching Murphy because, if he goes to the line, he might set a new NBA record'. Then, when he'd try it a little later, I'd say, ‘And the crowd is hushed because they know how important this is to Murphy . . . .let's watch . . . oh, he missed it'.

 

You see? Keep the audience informed. There's no reason to risk antagonizing anyone just before the hoped-for big moment. Usually, nowadays, when this sort of thing happens, the play-by-play guy will say ‘Oh, one more to go'. The player will miss and the color guy will add to the problem by saying ‘You jinxed him!' Some people will actually believe it.

 

Do you have any favorites among the younger generation of baseball broadcasters?

 

Each guy brings his own particular style to a show. And there's no one that's greater than the other - they're all great. The elite guys, they're all fantastic broadcasters. I stand in awe of all of them, because they are fantastic.

 

They each stand out in different ways. One guy is the best at rapid-fire, one guy is the best at conversation, one guy is the best at humor, one guy is the best at drama, one guy is the best at strategy. They all have different elements. There is no such thing as ‘the best'.

 

The men or women at the very, very top have a little something extra. Most of the time, it's content. They speak with authority and judgment. It's the key to survival in the job.

 

As I understand, you eventually decided to leave baseball broadcasting behind because the travel kept you away from your family.

 

True. I mean, at one point, I was averaging 250 play-by-play broadcasts per year in every part of the country. (laughs) I just lived in airplanes.

 

As our children grew older, I didn't want to miss out on the daily excitement with them. I wanted to be at their games. That's why, eventually, I decided to get away from daily travel and take a year-round job with Madison Square Garden Network and, later, a position with Cablenews 12 as well.

 

My wife and I have three married children and nine grandkids and we're proud of all of them. I think of all the things in our lives, my wife and I are proudest of our family. That beats any individual achievements we've had.

 

In the end, you did end up as a Hall of Fame broadcaster rather than a ball player.

 

We have a saying in our family - ‘everything happens for the best'. I mean, the thing that doesn't work, or it doesn't happen or you don't win - it always happens for the best.

 

I'm so lucky in what's taken place in my life. When you look back on it, it was good that I had all those injuries back in school . . . that put me in the broadcast booth. Maybe it was alright that I served in the War as a naval officer . . . after all, I met a Navy nurse right before I went overseas. I married her. And then I landed in Washington, right when they needed the first TV announcers.

 

It was nothing I planned, it just happened that way. And everything did happen for the best.

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