- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Joe Buck was visiting his father, Jack, in the hospital recently when a doctor stopped to say hello. This would have been Jack Buck's 49th season broadcasting St. Louis Cardinals baseball games, except that he is gravely ill. During the last year, he has had surgery for lung cancer and a brain tumor, and he is also fighting a kidney ailment.
But the doctor wanted to talk about something else.
"He said my dad gave him a bag of potato chips in 1958 at a banquet in Collinsville, Ill.," Joe Buck said, "and he never forgot that. There are hundreds of thousands of stories like that, all because of the power of being the Cardinals' radio announcer.
"That was his bread and butter, his main job. He gave his free time for every cause. Dad gave up a lot of family time, but that's not something I'm willing to do. This is a unique man, as identifiable in this city as anyone."
Jack Buck is a legend, a giant, a member of the baseball Hall of Fame broadcasters' wing and a tough act to follow. Still, his kid hasn't done too badly. As the lead play-by-play man on Fox Sports' major league baseball and NFL telecasts, Joe Buck has reached the top. He is smooth, glib and knowledgeable, and he is only 33.
Yet in some ways, Joe Buck will never measure up to his dad. And he knows it. "I'm in a different group than he was," Buck said, meaning a group of contemporary sportscasters who speak in clear, rounded tones, know every nuance of the game and are as dedicated as their predecessors, yet will never occupy the same place in the hearts, minds and ears of their listeners.
Today, on both a local and national level, there is less intimacy between sportscaster and audience, and a diminishing identification with a particular team or sport. There are plenty of voices transported via cable, bouncing off satellites and transmission towers more than ever, in fact but fewer Voices. An era is ending.
"You can make a case that Joe Buck, in terms of pure broadcasting skill, is every bit as good as his dad," said Bob Costas, the marquee sports name at NBC. "That he has a good sense of humor and he's very versatile and has a very good voice and he's the most talented guy I've seen come along in a long time.
"But even if in some objective way he's as good as his dad, he can't possibly have the same effect on the audience. Because the world has changed."
Once upon a lifetime, the Voices of the Game (the title of Curt Smith's definitive book on baseball broadcasters) grabbed their listeners' imaginations and never let go. These men might have insisted that the game was bigger than themselves, but the fact is, they were the game. Some remain and a select few younger sportscasters still have that power, but the numbers are shrinking. More than 30 years ago, Simon and Garfunkel asked, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" Now here's another question: Where have you gone Red Barber and Mel Allen, Marty Glickman and Bob Prince, Lindsey Nelson and Jim McKay, Harry Caray and Ray Scott and, yes, where have you gone Howard Cosell?
Left and gone away, with others following. Jack Buck needs a miracle. When Joe Buck became the No. 1 NFL voice for Fox, he replaced Pat Summerall, ousted at the age of 71 after 41 years in broadcasting. At 84, Ernie Harwell is in his 42nd and final season of calling Detroit Tigers games. Harwell was so popular with Tigers fans that when Detroit management foolishly fired him in 1991 (he went to Anaheim), public outrage helped bring him back.
They and a few others (Marty Brennaman in Cincinnati, Bob Murphy in New York, to name two) are among the last of their breed, the men behind the mike whose importance to their audience often exceeded that of the players whose actions they described. They always delivered, never once popping out with the bases loaded nor failing to run out a ground ball nor leaving town as a free agent. As former Tigers star turned broadcaster Al Kaline once said, "Ernie Harwell is probably the most beloved person who has ever been with the Detroit Tigers."
Familiarity is a big part of it. Broadcasters who stay with teams or networks for more than the duration of a contract, and especially those who bridge generations, become like trusted old friends, warm and reassuring. The Olympics without Jim McKay is something different altogether. Even Cosell's presence on "Monday Night Football" was necessary, until he became a parody of himself.
It has become a cliche those romantic descriptions of soft summer nights on the porch accompanied by a frosty beverage and the vivid renditions of a Harwell (or Barber or Buck or Caray) but only because it's true. Still, there is more to it tone, inflection, phrasing, knowing when to speak and when to shut up. Ultimately, it is about words.
"The great bequest called the English language is neither learned nor utilized," Curt Smith said. "Students today don't speak nor write as facilely as several decades ago. There are exceptions, obviously, but few in terms of broadcasting. And that matters in baseball, because baseball is the greatest talking game.
"Today's broadcasters by and large are proficient, professional, grammatically correct and factually accurate. But they're not interesting."
Blame television, i.e., the waning importance of radio. The great ones "were grounded in radio," said Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully. "That was a particularly rich field for voices."
No voice remains as rich as Scully's, who is generally regarded as the best. He began his career at Washington's WTOP radio in 1949 before moving to New York the next year and learning his craft at the side of another redheaded master, Barber, calling Brooklyn Dodgers games. "Today, television is a director's medium," Scully said. "The voice is not superfluous, but it's not as free and loose as it was in radio."
Scully's genius was being able to adapt, to translate his radio skills to TV.
"Broadcasters from my generation grew up with the radio," said Jon Miller, who calls San Francisco Giants games as well as ESPN's Sunday night baseball, and is regarded by many as the heir apparent to Scully. "Broadcasting a game on radio, there's a little bit of an art to it. It's a skill, but it's also an art, in terms of really bringing people into the game. I don't think too many broadcasters take you into the game enough.
"We grew up with the radio. The best thing I ever did was get a tape of the 1936 World Series [with Red Barber]. They described everything. If you did that today, it would drive people nuts. But what I realized was, there are a million things you could describe. There's no such thing as nothing going on during a baseball game. The key is not having ad libs and statistics. The real key is describing the essence of the game, so you can draw people into it."
Miller, who as a youngster listened to and idolized Giants broadcasters Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons ("Russ and Lon were part of the scenery in San Francisco," Miller wrote in his book, "Confessions of a Baseball Purist"), has not enjoyed the type of one-team continuity as his predecessors. He has been with the Giants since 1997. Before that he called Baltimore Orioles games, and the failure of O's owner Peter Angelos to keep Miller is viewed as yet another boneheaded decision by the franchise.
"At various times I had chances to go elsewhere, but I thought I'd rather stay [in Baltimore]," he said. "I studied the history of the game, and I've always believed longevity in one market has its own reward, to be identified with a team and have generations of fans identifying you with that team and that sport. That was always one of my goals."
Also working against the broadcaster-fan relationship is the sheer number of announcers and games carried by various outlets. The Yankees once were Allen and Barber and Phil Rizzuto, TV and radio. Now, with their own cable network, plus radio and over-the-air TV, they are Michael Kay and John Sterling and Charley Steiner and Paul O'Neill and Bobby Murcer and Suzyn Waldman and on and on. The Yankees seemingly have more announcers than players.
It used to be that only NBC broadcast nationally televised baseball, the "Game of the Week," to locales devoid of baseball the other six days. Or, if you lived in a National League city, you could see the "other" league on Saturday. Now several games can air on a given day, sent everywhere, by Fox, ESPN and such superstations as Turner and WGN, in addition to clubs' local broadcasts.
"There's so much out there," Costas said.
It used to be that only ABC broadcast college football. One game, Saturday afternoon, Keith Jackson. Now other networks are into it, along with national and regional cable, upwards of a dozen games per week and not just Saturdays. Once there was just the NFL and CBS (Ray Scott was the Voice). Then the AFL came along on NBC (Curt Gowdy and Paul Christman), then ABC started "Monday Night Football" (Frank and Howard and Dandy Don) and then ESPN and Fox, yet another major network, joined in (CBS lost pro football, then got it back. NBC currently is out of the mix). You hear so many voices, it's hard to tell them apart.
As Ray Scott before them, Pat Summerall and John Madden stood out. They worked 21 years together on CBS and Fox through last season. With Summerall gone from Fox, Madden left to join ABC and "Monday Night Football" to provide commentary with Al Michaels, now the definitive NFL play-by-play man. But "MNF" remains a major exception, a singular event unchallenged by any other sports telecast.
Another unique telecast was baseball's "Game of the Week," first on CBS and then NBC. What people remember most are Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola teaming up behind the NBC microphone, and then Garagiola and Scully working together. That pair formed "maybe the best network team of all time," said Smith, who has researched the subject probably more than anyone. "Scully was wondrous. You didn't have to know baseball from bocci ball to know that guy was literate." Costas and Kubek, who did the backup game of the week and numerous postseason games, were also considered excellent.
Meanwhile, ABC started doing postseason baseball in the 1970s and later tried "Monday Night Baseball," which flopped. Michaels got good reviews, but ABC's other voices, Jackson and Cosell, were miscast; they didn't much care for baseball and it showed. The "Game of the Week" ended when NBC lost baseball after the 1989 season, replaced by CBS (which did baseball every other week) and then the ill-fated Baseball Network. Scully doesn't miss the travel, but he still marvels at what the "Game of the Week" used to mean.
"To this day I am surprised, I really am, by the way people remember you," he said. "People come up and say, 'How are you, Vin?' I ask if they're from Southern California. They say, 'No, I'm from Nebraska.' That's when I realized the impact of the 'Game of the Week,' and the All-Star Game and World Series."
Garagiola, who lives in Arizona and still works an occasional Diamondbacks game, loves it when folks recall pet expressions like "room service fastball" or a pitcher "starting to leak oil."
"People remember things like that," he said. "We had our own way of doing it. Vin used to say, and he was right, that statistics are like lamp posts to a drunk. Something to lean on. Vin loved to tell stories. I loved to tell stories. We were just two guys talking. We weren't talking down to anybody and we weren't talking up.
"When I was doing a game, I knew I had the baseball fan in my hip pocket. I wanted the guy watching to say, 'Hey, you hear what Joe just said?' Vin and I would walk into a ballpark and see different things. He'd talk about the cerulean blue sky or the pewter gray clouds. I'd say the wind is blowing out and the pitcher's gonna hate it."
Which brings us back to Joe Buck, by all accounts a craftsman, a student of the game, one who respects the profession and the language. Buck and Tim McCarver team up on Fox's "Game of the Week," which is slickly produced, informative, a first-rate telecast. And simply not the same as the original.
"I couldn't wait for when the 'Game of the Week' came to St. Louis and Vin Scully would talk about my Cardinals," Buck said. "Now, it couldn't be more unlike that. It's totally different. We do a decent job, but we are just one of the many games on television. It's not as special as it used to be."



Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide