Chuck Thompson was a lot of things over his illustrious career as a broadcaster — most notably a sharp, talented, friendly human being who could send those characteristics over the airwaves and into people’s cars, homes and places of work.
Now, in his death, he has supplied the perspective maybe only a Hall of Fame sportscaster could.
In remembering the life of Chuck Thompson, it becomes pretty clear the Baltimore Orioles, no matter how much marketing took place, never could be Washington’s baseball team.
As much as baseball fans in and around Washington enjoyed listening to Thompson’s calls on the radio for the Orioles — first in the 1950s, then from 1962 to 1987 and again in the 1990s on a part-time basis ” he wasn’t talking to Washington fans.
He could never be ours. He belonged to Baltimore.
Thompson came to Baltimore in 1949 and began broadcasting the Orioles of the International League and the Baltimore Colts, first in the All-America Conference and later in the NFL. The exploits of Brooks Robinson or Johnny Unitas were best told in his words. His signature sayings — “Ain’t the beer cold” and “Go to War, Miss Agnes” were as much the language of Baltimore as “Hon.”
His presence will be a part of the exhibit at the new Sports Legends at Camden Yards museum when it opens in May.
“It seemed he was always there for us, chronicling the glory years of legendary teams in what certainly was the golden age of Baltimore sports — an age made even more golden by Chuck’s every-game presence,” said Michael L. Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Museum.
Ironically, Thompson called Senators games from 1957 to 1961, but that was just a line on his resume. Though he said he enjoyed his time in Washington, it was like he was a million miles away from home. He would return to Baltimore, and generations of sports fans in the city hung on his words about their heroes.
Thompson was not just the voice of the Colts and the Orioles. He was the voice of Baltimore. Unfortunately, that left Washington baseball fans as outsiders — enjoying Thompson’s call but never really being part of his target audience.
Washington baseball fans used to have that with another Hall of Fame broadcaster, Bob Wolff, who called Senators games from 1947 to 1960. But a whole generation of baseball fans grew up in and around Washington without a voice for the city when the Senators left after the 1971 season. It wound up being Sonny, Sam and Frank during Redskins games, but football is not baseball. Football is 16 times a year, plus a handful of preseason games.
Baseball is 162 times a year, with the same voice going out over the airwaves to the lawyers working late in their offices, the factory workers on the second shifts, the kids riding home with their parents. Washington has been denied that sort of voice for 34 years.
The arrival of the Nationals does not mean we will have that voice again. Nobody stays in one place long these days, in broadcasting or any other profession. We may never see a Chuck Thompson or Ernie Harwell again. The Nationals radio broadcasters consist of one familiar voice and one stranger — Charlie Slowes, who used to call Washington Bullets games, and Dave Shea, a Boston Bruins announcer. But there are no guarantees either will be here beyond one season, once the team is sold and the new owners take over.
It would be nice if the next generation of Washington baseball fans could have someone like Chuck Thompson to call the great moments and describe the heartbreak — someone they can grow up with. Someone that belongs to Washington.