Today, sporting goods fans, the memory man goes back to the good (?) old days of radio, before televsion became so dominant, and recalls the way it was here, there and just about everywhere. This is Volume 34: “Of Squirrels and Rain Delays”
Geez, do today’s radio play-by-play blabbers have it tough, or what? The poor dears, distracted by the pandemic, aren’t permitted to call ‘em as they see ‘em on site. No, from the comfort of their homes, or discomfort of their booths in otherwise deserted home fields, they are banned to watching games complete with replays … in case they have to correct mistakes coming from their own mouths. Say it isn’t so!
They think they’re roughing it? Get serious. You want roughing it? Thanks to reader Van Noble, we were reminded of a long ago, lost art practiced here in the 50s and 60s by … “GOAT ... Frank ‘bye-bye baby’ Soden,” Noble writes. “For away games … of my beloved Virginians … wasn’t there a period of time when Frank would be in Richmond and broadcast, literally, play-by-play action based only on a printed wire communication he would receive from the [ball park] where the game was being played?”
Right on, Van! You’re batting 1.000. In the golden days of radio, re-creating a road game was not unusual, even at the major-league level, and nobody did it better than Soden, the late broadcasting legend. While the station did it to save money, we became privy to excellence, a virtuoso performance not appreciated then because he made it sound so easy.
There he was, sitting in WRNL’s studio, describing the Vees and — later — Braves playing games in Toledo, Ohio, or Rochester, N.Y., or wherever, as though he was there. Tuning in you heard crowd noise, canned (of course), to make the listening experience as real as possible. Noble: “I want to say he even had two pieces of wood he used to manually simulate the crack of the bat.”
No, if memory serves, ball meeting bat was likewise taped. Sorry, Van. You’re now one for two — and .500 still ain’t bad. Actually, the sound effect you describe was used by other re-creators, Les Keiter, for example. Left behind when the baseball Giants abandoned the city for San Francisco in 1958, Keiter — believe it or not — continued to call the team’s games on New York station WINS via telegraph messaging. He used a bat and a big, heavy piece of wood. I also read about Nat Allbright, who reportedly re-created more than 1,500 games of the old Brooklyn Dodgers. He was said to have used “a click of his tongue” for the sound of bat-meeting-ball.
Should you happen by the station while Soden was on the air ... the constant beat of Western Union teletype in the background said it all. The on-site operator would send a shorthand description of what was taking place. Example: “Tresh … 6-3.” Vees’ Mike Tresh grounds out, shortstop (6) to first base (3).
Soden would take it from there, his imagination up and running: Tresh was retired on a routine play, or the shortstop made a great stop and throw, the first baseman digging the ball out of the dirt a split second before Tresh touched the bag. Maybe Soden would describe an ensuing disagreement over the umpire’s call. Or, a squirrel suddenly appearing at home plate. Or it was raining, which was an old trick to account for the Western Union transmission line going dead for several minutes (that to Soden must have seemed like hours). Funny how often games had rain delays when the team from Richmond was in town, wasn’t it?
In a “I Remember” piece on radiosurvivor.com, Keiter is described as “perhaps the only person ever quite up to pulling this off … He was endlessly enthusiastic about everything.” Obviously, the author never met Soden, or heard him do so much with so little. Like Keiter, he was special.
As long as Soden didn’t have too many squirrels showing up, unannounced, or numerous disputes with the men in blue, the away games remained life-like and, in some cases, more interesting than had he been on hand. At Parker Field, he had to call it straight, with only minimal embellishment.
A friendly, fun guy who loved baseball and wanted people tuned in to feel the same, Soden wasn’t above creating drama from the road to add juice to an otherwise boring matchup. Given that there were long spells when the Vees and R-Braves weren’t very good, a little juicing was welcome and went a long way.
Full disclosure: Yours truly helped Soden — or added to the confusion, which was more likely — during the 1969 season, my first of seven covering the Richmond Braves. Because of a May 14 fire that gutted the middle of MacArthur Stadium, the Syracuse Chiefs had to play scheduled home games in Oneonta and Auburn, N.Y., until early June.
Neither metropolis had Western Union facilities, so, when the R-Braves appeared, game accounts were relayed by telephone to Soden. Don’t remember much about the trip, other than one park had a big tree inside the center field fence — and he never had to adlib during a phony weather stoppage.
In truth, Soden, who died in 2010 at age 91, enjoyed the quasi-makebelieve of re-creating baseball games. So he wasn’t there. It wasn’t like he was trying to fool his listeners, pretending he was. It helps, of course, if you are very good at it.
This summer, historian Curt Smith told forbes.com he eagerly anticipated results of Major League Baseball’s mandate to all teams that, because of the pandemic, their broadcasters could not accompany them on the road. “This is a great opportunity … to let their descriptive powers blossom,” he was quoted as saying. “They won’t be chained to a cascade of meaningless numbers.” (Sorry, Curt, but that will be the day.)
Smith, 68, is writing a book about the history of baseball that will include a section on re-creating games. Chances are, Soden won’t be mentioned. Too bad.
“I think my listeners enjoyed it,” he said many years later. “I know I enjoyed doing it.”
Sportscasters used to talk sports in regular, not contrived, sports speak. Talk about a novel idea that no longer applies. Now, if your favorite motormouth refrains from such nonsensical if modern calls like running “up hill” or “he can beat you with his legs,” it’s worth a standing ovation.
Another pet peeve: On radio, not giving the score often enough. In fact, Joe Blowhard should be reminded early and often that listeners tune in at any time, and what’s the first thing they want to know?
You’ve got it — the score — and, of course, it helps to note, if not tied, which team is ahead. Don’t laugh. I joined the Dec. 5 Boston College game on the Virginia network just prior to the start of the second quarter and got a thorough statistical rundown of the opening 15 minutes but no score until several minutes after the game resumed. Finally, we were told it was 7-6, but who was leading? Voice of the Cavaliers (since 2008-09) Dave Koehn kept that from new listeners for a few minutes more, too.
OK, so maybe Koehn, who has a great voice for radio play-by-play, wasn’t having his best day. He had to correct himself quite often, it seemed, and he insisted on substituting “laundry” for “penalty flag.” As in, boy, those Cavaliers are getting a lot of laundry today. Clean or dirty? Good grief, Charlie Brown!
Tony Covington, a former Cavaliers defensive back of our acquaintance during the George Welsh era, was notable for crisp analysis — as opposed to rank pom-pom waving and basically repeating what we already had heard. That alone sets UVA apart from most college football booths, the most informative I’ve heard since the late Ray Tate teamed with the incomparable Bob Black on University of Richmond radio.
Now, it would be a great help to the listener if Covington would speak up, adding a few more decibels to his knowledgeable account. Among the former head coaches at BC (2009-2012) was Frank Spaziani, Virginia assistant under Welsh (1982-1991) and Covington’s position coach. Somehow I doubt Covington mentioned it, or if he did, it was under duress.
Spaziani, 73, has been a New Mexico State football assistant since 2016. His son Joe currently is a UVA graduate assistant.
Listening to the UVA network on WRVA (“now on 96.1 FM”) brought back instant memories of former Cavaliers yappers, from Chris Cramer (1957-74) — fired because he criticized the team, and the coach didn’t like it — to Mac McDonald to Warren Swain and back to Mac again. Cramer died in 1984. He was 58.
McDonald, 66, is living in Atlanta and, reportedly, remains radio active — on sports — and associated with Full Sail University’s Dan Patrick School of Sportscasting, where you can get a bachelor of science degree in person (Winter Park, Fla.) or online. Also a fun-loving personality, off air as well as on, McDonald did UVA basketball during the tumultuous Ralph Sampson years and football at the outset of the George Welsh era, including the school’s first bowl (Peach) in 1984.
He left for Wake Forest in 1985 and was replaced by Swain. The musical chairs resumed in 1996 when Swain went to Nebraska, and MacDonald was brought back by athletic director Terry Holland for a second tour that ended suddenly, unexpectedly in 2008. Koehn, who came from the University of Vermont, has been there ever since.
Locating Swain, 74, has been something else again. He’s been on the move all of his broadcasting life, starting in 1972 at Iowa State as voice of the Cyclones. From there (in order) he spent three years at Oregon and three at alma mater Drake followed by 11 at Virginia, six at Nebraska, three more at Drake, then three at Ohio, and 2008-2012 at the University of South Dakota. That’s where the trail ended — until a call led to another call; the phone rings, and it’s Warren, long distance from his retirement “efficiency, $488 a month” in Bradenton, Fla.
He’s got some health issues, but not so you would notice in person, he says, and certainly not on the line where his voice sounds as clear and resonant as you remember from 25 years ago at Mr. Jefferson’s University. Mr. Positive — seldom is heard a discouraging word — insists his sportscasting career was all good, regardless of what you might have heard.
He left UVA, Swain recalled, because growing up in Pisgah, Iowa, his father took him to the occasional Nebraska game, and that fueled a special attraction to Big Red football that never left. So, when he was asked to interview for the dual position of voice of football and basketball, Swain jumped — no, leaped — at the opportunity. A bigger paycheck also helped him make the move from Hooville where he got little flak and admittedly “had a very good time there.”
Swain tells you the long version of being chosen over two other well-known candidates at Nebraska. The short version is, he was “the mystery guy” in the selection process. Other than his brother Dick, who lived in Lincoln, home of the Huskers, at the time and was sworn to secrecy, nobody knew his name until several days after he accepted the position.
In Charlottesville, Swain was well-liked, a low-key, nuts-and-bolts sportscaster who was big on repeating down and distance, not to mention the score. “You told me something one time I’ve never forgotten,” Swain recalled. “You said, ‘Warren, I got one criticism of you … you need more of an ego.’ And I thought, ‘If that’s the only chink in the armor, I’ll take it.’”
“I thought Warren did the best job,” a friend close to Cavalier athletics said recently when asked to compare Swain, McDonald and Koehn. “He wasn’t about himself.”
Maybe not, but at Nebraska, where football is life, being easy going, not absorbed with your own importance — no matter how good you are overall — doesn’t cut it. In Husker land, they apparently want an unabashed cheerleader, who roots, roots, roots for the home team and does it with excessive enthusiasm. It also helps if you’re one of them because only a native can really understand how important football really is there.
No dummy, Swain quickly learned: “I was under the microscope, [but] it toughened me up. You couldn’t take anything personally.”
Asked what advice he would give a new man in the business, Swain said, “‘Don’t read letters to the editor. Don’t listen to radio call-in shows, and don’t pay any attention to the internet and the chat rooms.’ I never listened to any of that. I knew some people didn’t like me. So be it.”
And he likely dug an even deeper hole for himself in Lincoln when, in a December 1996 interview with then-Daily Press, now Times-Dispatch sports columnist David Teel, he called Huskers fans “nuts.” Talk about truth in broadcasting! “I have no regrets. I knew what I was getting into,” Swain said long distance from Bradenton.
Ask Warren why he quit his dream job — no, he wasn’t fired — and he hesitates. “Umm … well, basically, I’d rather not go into that ... there were some things that happened ….” Swain said, finally resorting to the previously published report they wanted him to call only basketball, dropping football, “and I thought the timing was right to go.”
When it was announced (November 2001) Swain was leaving Lincoln, the Daily Nebraskan told readers: “ … a sportscasting god has finally shined his light on Nebraska … Swain is out, [sports talk show host Jim] Rose is in … Our prayers for someone who deserves this mammoth and much-scrutinized job have been answered.”
Six years later Rose, 44, was gone, too, citing health reasons. In other words, being Voice of the Huskers can be critical to your health. The man who answered their prayers took a major hit from Nebraska’s football congregation as well.
Sounds like a job to avoid, if you want to keep your sanity, doesn’t it? OK, so the trolls on social media can be tough everywhere, some more clever than others. (When the popular McDonald left Virginia 12 years ago, a non-fan wrote: “I’d rather listen to a can opener.”) But Nebraska is much tougher, if less imaginative, than most.
Husker fans were asked to rate Swain’s first football-game performance, and the grades were posted the next day on the first page of papers in Lincoln and Omaha. We’re talking first page as in A-1, not sports. Is that nuts, or what?
By the way, “it was about 50-50, for and against, which was pretty good,” Swain said. “There’s a lot of scrutiny today, and you can’t pay any attention to that, you just can’t. I’ve known sportscasters who were so concerned about what was being said about them that it affected their ability to do their play-by-play job. I vowed I was never going to let that happen to me.”
Throughout the hour-long telephone hookup he kept insisting “I enjoyed my six years [in Nebraska].” Repeat after me … OK, so if given the opportunity, would you do it all over again? (A moment of silence) “I really haven’t thought about that,” Swain said. Of course not.
Until next time ...
Jerry Lindquist can be reached
by email at email@example.com.