Pastimes and Passages

There are two recognizable mileposts that all sports fans pass along their journeys with the games, from youth to old age.

The first comes when all the players on the field in the game you’re watching are finally younger than you are. Having now reached my 48th birthday today (Sunday, October 9, 2016), I passed that particular milepost several years ago. It’s a moment when you realize just how far away, and far behind you, your dreams of athletic success really are.

And then there’s the second milepost: that point where many of the people you associate with the games–in particular, broadcasters–leave the scene for good, either through retirement or death. That second milepost recurs for most sports fans, as name after name disappears from the sports landscape, and it happened again–for myself and many others–just a week ago, when Dick Enberg and Vin Scully retired from broadcasting.

The DFR: FandomThe retirements of Enberg and Scully are just the latest in a long series, dating back several years now, where the voices that defined the games for me have either left the booth, or been silenced permanently by leaving this world.

In the earliest days of my youth, in Philadelphia, the first of those defining voices was Harry Kalas on Phillies broadcasts. It was, perhaps, the sound of Kalas’s deep-voiced call of the Phils’ rise from doormats to division champs that made baseball my greatest sports love. Kalas left us in 2009, long after I had moved to California but not long enough for me to not mourn for his passing when I heard the news that he was gone.

Other Philadelphia voices had their impact on me, too. Gene Hart shaped my sports fan heart calling Flyers games when they won back-to-back Stanley Cups in the ’70s–occasions that still serve as some of my earliest memories. I also remember a relatively obscure Philadelphia TV announcer named John Facenda–another heavy-voiced local who became very well-known to sports fans as the voice of NFL Films (and, to many, “The Voice of God”) until his death in 1984. Small wonder that Kalas would take over after Facenda’s death as the studio’s primary voice; it takes a legend to replace a legend.

“As the years pass, we become friends with people we’ve never met. That’s why it’s a painful thing when they leave us, even when it’s just retirement that takes them away; and the hurt is that much more profound when death takes these friends away for good.”

It took me a few years to latch on to any voices after I left Philadelphia and moved to the Bay Area, but once I found my guys they stayed with me for a long time. The sale of the Oakland A’s to the Haas family in 1981 brought the team new broadcasters: Bay Area legends Bill King and Lon Simmons. As much as I admired Kalas (and his long-time partner, Richie Ashburn), the team of King and Simmons on A’s radio probably did the most to define what listening to a baseball game means to me.

Even to this day, when I’m listening to a game on the radio (I often listen to the radio call while watching the TV broadcast with the sound muted), my mind will drift back to the nights long ago when I would lay in bed with the A’s game on, hearing King and Simmons call the action. Or I hark back to the summer after my high school graduation, when I worked in a pizza place and the back room radio was tuned in to the broadcasts each night, and the sounds of A’s baseball was the soundtrack to my time washing dishes and making pizzas. Hearing echoes of those past games in today’s broadcasts are about as close to a time machine as anything I can imagine.

King probably remains more famous for his calls of Oakland Raiders games, and Scully too was an NFL broadcaster for a time. During his last go-round with the Dodgers, many references were made to Scully’s call of the 1982 NFC Championship Game–the game featuring Joe Montana’s throw to Dwight Clark for “The Catch,” a play that beat the Cowboys and launched the 49ers’ 1980s dynasty. What few remember was that Scully called that game because CBS’s usual number one team of Pat Summerall and John Madden were not available for the game. (The then-still neophyte Madden was preparing for the Super Bowl broadcast.)

Summerall was another of those broadcasters who defined sports in my younger days. His measured Texas drawl signified “big football game” throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Summerall’s influence as an NFL announcer was so great that when FOX got into the NFL broadcasting business in the mid-90s, hiring Summerall, along with Madden, gave the network instant legitimacy (which was not always deserved given the quality of the rest of the broadcasts). Having Pat call many of those 49ers games made the experience great for San Francisco fans, almost as much as the contributions of Montana, Rice, Craig, and Lott.

And there have been so many other voices over the years, broadcasters who made the games special for me: Hank Greenwald on San Francisco Giants games; Skip Carey, Ernie Johnson, and Pete van Wieren on Braves games on TBS (a fixture for baseball fans throughout the ’80s and ’90s ‘Superstation’ days); Bud Collins on tennis broadcasts for NBC; and the great Jim McKay, who made ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and Olympics coverage so memorable for so long.

Other sports fans can probably come up with their own lists of vital voices. There are still folks who remember and miss Jack Buck in St. Louis; Skip’s father Harry in Chicago; Ernie Harwell fans in Detroit; Ralph Kiner fans in New York (on Mets broadcasts; fans of his playing days would be found in Pittsburgh). There are Yankees fans who still miss Phil Rizzuto–or perhaps even Mel Allen–on their team’s broadcasts. And maybe there are a few souls out there who remember when Lindsey Nelson was the voice of college football in general, and Notre Dame and the Cotton Bowl in particular.

All of the announcers mentioned above, except Greenwald, Madden, Scully, and Enbeg are dead now. Their voices will rest forever, except in recordings called upon now and again to conjure up the past. And now Enberg and Scully have left the booth for good, joining Greenwald and Madden in retirement.

Enberg, in his career, was everywhere. He was for me the voice of big football games on NBC in my youth; Enberg was always the guy at the mike for the Rose Bowl back when it really was the “Granddaddy of the All.” (I would be remiss if I did not mention Keith Jackson, now in retirement himself, who later added regular Rose Bowl assignments to his distinguished career.) Later, Enberg did splendid work on NBA games, and did brilliant work covering tennis, first for NBC and then on the US Open telecasts for CBS. It was always a joy to hear Enberg on Padres broadcasts these last few years. Dick Enberg was a wonderful broadcaster, and he will be truly missed.

And Scully–what can you say about Vin Scully? Scully too was a complete announcer, working football and golf in addition to his baseball efforts. But it was those games behind the mike for baseball telecasts that made Scully an indispensable voice of the game. I still remember his call on the NBC game of the week in April of 1984, when the Tigers’ Jack Morris no-hit the White Sox (a game that propelled Detroit to a dominating season and a World Series victory). As an A’s fan, I also remember (somewhat less fondly) his call of Kirk Gibson’s home run in the 1988 World Series. More than anything else, I–and everyone else, I imagine–will remember the sound of Scully’s voice, that wise, soothing presence that made so many Dodgers and other MLB games a joy to experience.

For those of us who did not play the games, were not involved personally in the games, the broadcasters serve as our link, our personal connection, to the games we love so much. As the years pass, we become friends with people we’ve never met. That’s why it’s a painful thing when they leave us, even when it’s just retirement that takes them away; and the hurt is that much more profound when death takes these friends away for good–as it inevitably does for all.

Sports serve as pastimes in a very literal sense: they help us pass the time, and mark the passage of time in our lives. On some occasions, though, sports perform that office a little too well–as when they not only mark the passage of the years of our lives, but remind us that there are inescapable limitations to those lives. When those like Enberg and Scully leave, we say goodbye to voices that meant so much to us–but we also say goodbye to a huge part of our selves at the same time.


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