Hi, everybody, and welcome to another installment of memories from long ago (or so it seems): Volume 12 … recalling “The Best, The Worst … And Everything In Between” … from 28 years of radio-TV columnizing, Part III:
First, a word of caution. When it comes to personal lists, there is no such thing as objectivity. What follows is purely subjective, no right or wrong, simply one old guy’s opinion. If you can deal with that, let’s get started … with Best Sportscaster All-Time … Walter Lanier Barber, better known as “Red.”
OK, so this isn’t easy, giving the nod to a man who was voice of the hated Brooklyn Dodgers, a fan of the New York baseball Giants living in New York said. But Barber was smooth, in an elegant sort of way, his Southern accent an anomaly in the youse guys world of Flatbush, USA. He was a great storyteller, a must especially when your team is having a bad day. More important, Barber didn’t like to hear himself talk which would make him class valedictorian today — as it did then. A routine fly was a routine fly. No kidding! He also added to more picturesque speech with such Barberisms as: “The bases are FOB ... full of Brooklyns” … and … “sitting in the catbird seat [announce booth].”
Born in Mississippi and raised in Florida, Barber spent 15 seasons (1939-53) in Brooklyn where he mentored a couple of greats-to-be, Ernie Harwell and Vin Scully. A contract dispute led to Barber crossing the East River to give the New York Yankees’ booth much-needed class. In the Bronx, he learned — the hard way — that honesty isn’t always the best policy, but then his momma always told him to tell the truth. Barber couldn’t help himself when, in 1966, he looked at more than 64,000 (of 65,000) empty seats for a home game and said, “This is the smallest crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium.” Little did Barber know management already had told local flagship TV station WPIX to somehow avoid showing the awful attendance (413 paid). In other words, keep your cameras pointed on the field and away from the stands.
The ’66 Yankees finished last, and Barber was fired. He left the booth to write books, help with some documentaries and, from 1981 until his death at age 84, did a weekly show on PBS radio in Tallahassee, Fla. Of course, I blew it, failing to take advantage of an invitation to interview “The Old Redhead” just prior to his passing in 1992. You want vintage Barber? Check his call (on Google) of Roger Maris’ record-breaking 61st home run in 1961. “There it is … sixty-one … He got his pitch,” Barber said, slowly, softly, letting the crowd noise and pictures do most of the telling.
Rating second and third best is a tossup between Ray Scott and Mike Emrick, whose deliveries couldn’t have been more different. Scott, best football (NFL) play-by-player by a silly millimeter over Keith Jackson (college), was called the “King of Understatement” for a reason. He began his television coverage of pro football in 1953 on the old Dumont Network when the games were played at night, using a white football. Really! Scott later became synonymous with doing Packers games for CBS. Typical description: “Starr … Taylor … behind Kramer … touchdown.” Why use 12 words when five will do?
“Doc” Emrick is the best there is, best there was and best there ever will be, at calling ice hockey, easily the toughest sport to describe — TV as well as radio. Still active with NBCSN’s NHL package set to resume soon, he is as energetic and upbeat as Scott was laidback and reserved. Listen to Emrick, and there is no doubt how much he loves the game. Hockey old-timers probably would give the nod to Dan Kelly, long-time voice of the St. Louis Blues on KMOX — which we could hear in the east on a clear night.
Rounding out the top 10-plus (in no particular order): ABC’s do-it-all Jim McKay (“They’re dead …they’re all dead.”), college basketball analyst Billy Packer, Kelly. Marty Glickman, Scully. Bob Costas, and Jim Nantz/Al Michaels/Dick Enberg. Throw the last three names in a hat, shake well, and it doesn’t matter the order selected. Only Costas was more versatile. Nobody knows — and can articulate — hoops better than Packer, 80, who was fearless and never worried about being politically correct. His critics were legion. They called him arrogant — and worse — and the Wake Forest alumnus couldn’t have cared less. “Often wrong, but never in doubt,” Packer liked to say.
He teamed with Enberg and Al McGuire on NBC (1974-81) for The Best All-Time Three-Man Booth. In 1981, Packer joined Nantz for unmatched NCAA tournament coverage that lasted until 2008 when CBS let him go. It was no coincidence that, over the next six years, the network tried five different analysts to replace him.
All right, say it .. who is Marty Glickman? Every list should have one far out choice. If you grew up in New York in the 40s and early 50s, you knew Glickman who was voice of the football Giants, basketball’s Knicks and hockey’s Rangers. They were my teams growing up, and Glickman, New York twang and all, was my sportscaster. A world-class sprinter, Glickman was a member of the U.S., team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He died in 2001 at 83.
While we’re at it, a word or two — undoubtedly more — about some favorites, past and present, who barely missed being lumped in with The Best: golf funnyman David Feherty, the tennis tandem of Mary Carillo and John McEnroe, Dick Vitale, McGuire and Rebecca Lowe. McEnroe built his reputation as a bad boy during his playing career but, like Packer, became a sharp, no-holds-barred TV analyst. Tell the truth, who this side of funny-pants himself, Bud Collins, knew the game better? Carillo qualified but didn’t stick around long enough to be appreciated by more than tennis insiders.
McGuire was one of a kind, never to be duplicated. He was quirky, unpredictable who acted airheaded (if it was an act) and loveable at the same time. The former college (St. John’s) and pro (New York Knicks) guard seldom met a person he couldn’t talk to or, at the very least, share a laugh. McGuire never seemed organized yet always brought clarity to a telecast. In 1991, Virginia went to South Bend to play Notre Dame, and there was McGuire, 15 minutes before airtime, asking beat reporters for some off-beat tidbits he could spring on his viewing audience.
To know Vitale, ESPN’s college basketball (fill in your own blank), is to like — and appreciate — him. He is to hoops what Nantz is to The Masters. They love it so much it can seem unreal, puton, OK, borderline phony. But, in fact, it’s true. Genuine. I promise you, Vitale (like Nantz) is the real deal.
Unless you’re big into The World’s Most Favorite Sport … futbol, you fool ... you probably don’t know Lowe. Your loss! She anchors NBCSN’s coverage of the English Premier League, and does it so well it’s doubtful anyone could do it better. Lowe knows soccer and easily holds her own with a trio of strong, opinionated studio analysts Robbie Earle, Robbie Mustoe and Kyle Martino, a former U.Va.,All-American. Actually, Lowe, a 39-year-old native of London, has done a bunch of soccer for ESPN (2009-13) before joining NBC where she’s also been co-host of the network’s daytime Olympics coverage. Who knew?
Any discussion of local and state sportscasting must begin with a transplanted Yankee from New Joisey who came here in 1948 and remained until his death at 91 in 2010. Everybody knew Frank Soden, right? If you didn’t, your loss. He was everywhere on the dial, doing anything and everything to do with sports. Virginians then R-Braves baseball, Virginia then Virginia Tech followed by University of Richmond football and UR basketball, He’s in six halls of fame including the Virginia Sports HoF, inducted in 1998. Along the way was instrumental in the development of future major-league announcers Frank Messer (Yankees, 1968-85) and Dave Van Horne (Expos, 32 years; Marlins, 2001-present). The latter was voted into the media wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011.
Soden invariably was described as humble. He has nice to everyone. He didn’t believe in saying negative things about athletes on the air. He also understood his weaknesses. He once told me: “I know I don’t have a great voice … and I’ll never be confused with the great sportscasters … but no one ever has or ever will have as much fun as I have. I’ve been truly blessed.”
At the risk of leaving someone out and thereby hurting precious feelings … here are some other notes from the old memory bank regarding area yappers:
Art Lochner provided one of the first laugh-out-loud funnies. Sports director for Channel 8, then with headquarters in Petersburg, the always-upbeat Lochner was on the air when suddenly a thrown snowball just missed his head, splattering against the wall behind him. He never blinked. Kept on reading.
Jerry was wrong again when he appeared as one of Al Coleman’s first guests on his new half-hour radio show at WRNL — and told “Big Al” afterwards he wasn’t going to make it for very long.
That was how long ago? Coleman’s become an institution in this town. If you like institutions …
We’ve certainly had more than our share of really good play by play people. Bob Black, who also was mentored by Soden, has come a long, long way from his shaky debut as co-voice of the R-Braves. In fact, it says here the voice of UR football and basketball has become one of the best and should be in the state sports hall of fame. Hockey’s Bill Hamilton (Robins) and John Emmett (Renegades, Riverdogs, etc.), now voice of Virginia State athletics, provided interesting moments and loads of laughs. Local sports directors have come and gone but Channel 6’s Lane Casadonte has remained — with good reason. You don’t have to be that old to recall when Greg Burton was second banana, giving WTVR the best 1-2 punch in the 61 years I’ve lived here.
Marty Brennaman passed through Virginia into legend status with the Cincinnati Reds. Bob Rathbun was another major-league type who did baseball in Tidewater and (briefly) Richmond before replacing Harwell in Detroit. It was not a pleasant experience. Harwell left kicking and screaming and was hardly kind to Rathbun and partner Rick Rizzs, turning Tigers’ fans against them with every opportunity. The new guys lasted thee years (1992-94) before Harwell got his way and returned. I wrote a piece about Rathbun’s experience and immediately became a target of callin and talk radio in the Detroit area, Talk about an ambush!
And a shoutout to Bill Roth, former Virginia Tech sportscaster (27 years) now employed by the school as teacher to young sportscaster wannabes. He left Tech for a brief, eye-opening stint at UCLA (2015-2016). The undergraduates are lucky to have have him. The rest of us would rather have the state sports hall of famer back behind a microphone:
“From the blue waters of the Chesapeake Bay, to the hills of Tennesee, the Virginia Tech Hokies are on the air.”
Saving The Worst All-Time until last … again no particular order, in most cases for reasons best left unsaid: Jim Rome, Keith Olbermann, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Jon Gruden and Howard Cosell.
And that’s just for starters …