Baseball fans in the Washington area had at least one reason to celebrate after the expansion Senators skedaddled off to Texas aboard the Bob Short express in September 1971.
It gave us a chance, for nearly three decades, to hear more of Chuck Thompson doing Orioles games on radio and TV.
Thompson, one of the high-class people in sports media, died yesterday at 83 following a massive stroke at his home Saturday morning. But for anyone who heard his melodious, highly individualistic baritone, the memories will linger.
“Ain’t the beer cold!” (Offered as an exclamation, not a question, when an Oriole did something above and beyond.)
“Go to war, Miss Agnes!”
“All ready to go. … Here’s the next offering. … Grounder to third, Brooks has …”
“This is just a whale of a ballgame!”
But a really good baseball broadcaster needs more than signature catch phrases. He also needs accuracy, an appreciation for and knowledge of the game and the ability to match his descriptions to its unique rhythms.
There are times when you should talk your head off. There are other times when you should shut up and let crowd reaction define the event, as legendary Brooklyn broadcaster Red Barber did when Bobby Thomson’s epic playoff home run denuded the Dodgers of the 1951 National League pennant. To the devastated Flatbush faithful, Barber said simply, “It’s in there for the pennant,” and let the ensuing hysteria tell the story. Surely anything further would have reeked of redundancy.
In addition to such assets, it helps if a baseball broadcaster has a great, instantly recognizable voice. Chuck Thompson did. He could have gone on the air to describe, say, the latest pork futures from South Dakota, and listeners in this region would have said, “Hey, what’s Chuck doing on a farm broadcast?”
One of Chuck’s admirers is Bob Wolff, the longtime Washington sportscaster who followed Thompson’s 1993 induction into the broadcasters’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame by two years and worked with him on Senators games in the late 1950s.
“In the early days of broadcasting, having a great voice was the key to longevity,” Wolff said yesterday from his home in South Nyack, N.Y. “Chuck had that kind of voice, elegant and intriguing. I fit in with 90 percent of announcers in that I didn’t have a great voice, so creativity was the key to my sticking around.
“Mel Allen had a great voice. Vin Scully had a great voice. Guys today like John Madden and Dick Vitale — they don’t have great voices, but they’re great performers. There’s a difference.”
Wolff, still active doing commentaries for Long Island’s NewsChannel 12, also recalls Thompson’s personal characteristics, two of them being extreme modesty and fairness.
“Some guys are wonderful on the air, but they’re not the same off,” Wolff said. “I remember how easy Chuck was to work with after he came over to Washington to do the Senators with me when National Bohemian [for which Thompson worked] got the games. One day the Senators made a big trade. Chuck was supposed to open our broadcast, but he said, ‘I think it’s only fitting that Bob Wolff be the one to tell you about it because he’s been the voice of the Senators for so long. Bob …’ ”
Another example: Thompson was behind the NBC microphone when Bill Mazeroski’s ninth-inning home run won the 1960 World Series for the Pirates, and he made two uncharacteristic mistakes: He said the final score was 10-0 instead of 10-9 and cited Art Ditmar rather than Ralph Terry as the losing pitcher. Offered a chance to do a voice-over when a commemorative record was being prepared, Chuck declined because “that’s what I said — leave it in.”
During Thompson’s many years of play-by-play for the Orioles and Baltimore Colts, some Washington fans considered him a homer. He was but in a pleasant, friendly way. Of course a broadcaster wants his team to win — that’s how you get more listeners. But Chuck never compromised his honesty, never became a shill. When a Baltimore team stunk out the joint, he said so — gently and sorrowfully, of course.
Thompson was followed by Jon Miller as the Orioles’ primary radio broadcaster in 1983. With the exception of the Dodgers’ Barber and Scully, no other team ever had two such marvelous guys back to back. Chuck handled the TV games with Brooks Robinson for a while, then became a fill-in whenever one of the regular radio announcers was unavailable. Until macular degeneration cost him much of his eyesight in 2000, he turned up often on O’s games — and always his sound made the day seem a little brighter, the beer a little colder.
One of his idiosyncrasies was an affection for backward-flowing sentences, such as “a mighty fine shortstop is Cal Ripken.” So let’s pay one final tribute that way.
A mighty fine broadcaster — and man — was Chuck Thompson.