Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019


Murray's Restaurant

 

Van Clemens


Play-by-Play Voices Last Forever

 

I attended a breakfast club gathering a couple of weeks ago to hear guest speaker Jim Nantz. The voice of CBS sports, in town for the Minneapolis Final Four, charmed his audience at the Minneapolis Club, just like he has done for decades providing play-by-play of America’s more important basketball, football and golf events.

Jim Nantz

And I am reminded how favorite broadcasters become part of our lives. At least the great ones do, and we revel in their calls of games that even become lasting moments and sounds in American culture (Russ Hodges: “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”)

I wasn’t old enough in 1951 to hear Hodges as he described Bobby Thomson’s home run that beat the Dodgers in their famous playoff game, but there are many words and phrases I have witnessed and heard from well-known sports broadcasters. Here are a couple that are memorable for me:

“And we’ll see you tomorrow night,” said Jack Buck after Kirby Puckett’s heroics lifted the Twins to a Game Six 1991 World Series win over the Braves.

“Hide the women and children,” said Keith Jackson when a herd of college football players were stampeding and throwing their girth around on a fall Saturday afternoon.

The first play-by-play voice earning my affection was Chick Hearn. Minneapolis businessman Bob Short moved the Lakers from Minnesota to Los Angeles after the 1959-60 season, and Hearn became the broadcast voice of the NBA team. When the Lakers were in the playoffs in the early 1960s Short arranged to have games televised back to Minneapolis, and that was my introduction to the exciting voice and words of Hearn.

(Elgin) Baylor yo-yoing the ball at the top of the key,” Hearn might have said. “He fakes the defender into the popcorn machine and shoots from 23 feet.”

To an impressionable youth who loved the Lakers of Baylor and Jerry West, these weren’t clichés. Instead, Hearn’s words were inspiring descriptions of heroes and a great team lost when the Lakers moved west. I even wrote a long letter to Hearn gushing over his Lakers broadcasts, but never received a reply back. Maybe my correspondence ended up in the popcorn machine.

Hearn was part of a “Mount Rushmore” group of play-by-play guys who blessed the airwaves of southern California in the last century. Hearn with the Lakers, Ralph Lawler with the Clippers, Dick Enberg with the Angels and Vin Scully with the Dodgers.

What a hall of fame foursome!

Scully is a personal favorite and perhaps America’s all-time favorite play-by-play man. He had a 67-year run doing Dodgers games, dating back to the franchise playing in Brooklyn before moving to L.A. He also worked the national scene for awhile doing golf and NFL games. It was the velvety voiced Scully who called the Joe Montana to Dwight Clark touchdown that gave the 49ers a famous NFC playoff win in 1982.

I can’t let a roll call of national names go by without writing about Bob Costas. Great voice, smart, prepared and honest. With some guys you know there’s going to be a lot of bull, but not with Costas. He entertains but doesn’t forget he is a journalist. Besides that, he has carried a Mickey Mantle baseball card in his wallet for years. That alone scores points with me.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that Kevin Harlan is the best play-by-play guy to ever work in this town for any of the pro teams or the Golden Gophers. He was the original radio voice of the Timberwolves and now has been on the national scene for years calling NBA and NFL games. From the beginning I liked his voice, intelligence, passion and cockiness (without being obnoxious).

Turns out Harlan and broadcast partner Tom Hanneman were practical jokers off the air, per Bill Robertson. “If you went on a (Timberwolves) road trip, your luggage could be missing for awhile,” said Robertson who was the team’s media relations man back in the 1990s.

My preference for Harlan drew comments from a couple of friends after I published my opinion. Somebody asked about Ray Scott, and another person brought up Ray Christensen. Let’s take them one at a time, while getting sidetracked by Halsey Hall.

Anyone who brings up Scottie has my immediate respect. I have never cared for guys full of themselves who can talk from sunrise until dusk. Scott was “Mr. Brevity” and he understood that doing play-by-play on TV wasn’t the same as on radio where more words are needed to describe what’s happening.

“Starr…Dowler…touchdown!” That was the efficient style Scott used to describe a Green Bay Packers touchdown pass from quarterback Bart Starr to wide receiver Boyd Dowler long ago.

Scott was part of the Twins broadcast crew in the 1960s and worked with perhaps the most loveable radio-TV character in the history of this state, Halsey Hall. He was a color commentator on Twins games and although he didn’t do play-by-play it’s impossible to leave him out of this column. He was just too entertaining to not write about today.

Halsey was a Minneapolis newspaper man for decades and it’s said his desk drawer might have contained a month’s old sandwich. He hated air travel because he thought it was risky. The standing joke was he would approach the airline counter and say, “Give me two chances to Chicago.”

Halsey’s passions included baseball, adult beverages and onions. He liked to carry a flask in his coat pocket, fearing that during his travels he might encounter a place where alcohol was prohibited. Recollection is he enjoyed onions so much he chomped on a whole one like most of us would attack an apple.

Halsey was a peerless storyteller including baseball tales. He was so entertaining in the 1960s and 1970s I used to welcome rain delays during Twins games. To fill air time until play resumed, Halsey told stories and they were marvelous.

Part of the joy in listening to Halsey was his infectious laugh. He often roared with laughter early on and throughout the telling of his tales. His own amusement and chuckling could get the tears rolling down your cheeks as you joined in.

Scott, Hall & Carneal

I have heard or read more than a few Halsey stories over the years but a new one was offered recently by Robertson, who grew up in St. Paul and has spent much of his adult life in Minnesota. Halsey and another iconic Twins broadcast voice, Herb Carneal, were on the air years ago when they noticed Minneapolis Tribune writer Tom Briere had a problem. Somehow the Twins beat writer had caught his necktie in his typewriter.

As Briere kept punching keys trying to solve his dilemma, Carneal watched with amusement and Halsey roared with laughter. “Halsey was hysterical for about a minute and a half,” said Robertson who has listened to the segment on a Twins commemorative cassette.

Not that Halsey couldn’t stir up his own incident. One time Halsey was smoking a cigar in the press box and flicking his ashes. The ashes ignited paper on the floor, setting off a small fire. Halsey’s sport coat, hanging on a chair, caught fire. Twins catcher Jerry Zimmerman later quipped, “Halsey Hall is quite a guy. He can turn an ordinary sport coat into a blazer in nothing flat.’”

Ray Christensen? There will never be anyone like him to generations of Gophers fans. He did U play-by-play football for 50 years, and basketball almost as long. A private and proud man, he liked working the basketball games without a broadcast partner. Perhaps the reason was he thought basketball games moved too fast to interject another voice into the reporting.

Ray had an authoritative voice that greeted listeners with, “This is Ray Christensen.” The opening words to his broadcasts commanded attention and were almost imposing but certainly not threatening. You thought maybe the Lord himself helped him perfect his familiar welcome to listeners.

Ray was sometimes partial toward the Gophers when seeing the action on the field or the court with a maroon and gold bias (just the way most fans like their local broadcasters). But he didn’t over dramatize things and become whiny. He was too intelligent and classy to ever let his work spiral into embarrassment. Yet you could hear the passion in his voice, and his affection for the Gophers.

Ray was a kind man and I never recall him saying a bad word about anyone on or off the air. He remembered the names of so many people including those he didn’t see very often. Always treating others, including his broadcast audience, with respect.

Ray passed away in 2017. Jim Nantz would have liked and admired him.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

(2) Readers Comments

  1. avatar
    Bill Weiner
    April 21, 2019 at 4:44 pm

    I really enjoyed the broadcaster column, Dave. Mentioning Chick Hearn especially brought back memories. I was stationed in the Marines in Southern California in 1969-1971 when the Lakers had Wilt.Two things about Wilt drove Chickie nuts. One was the fact that Wilt could not shoot free throws and Wilt tried everything, underhand, one hand overhand, two hand overhand but he just missed a lot of free throws. The other thing was a shot Wilt had that they called the finger tip roll. Wilt would fall away from the basket and just kind-of rolled the ball toward the basket. The good thing was it was almost impossible to block. The bad thing is it went in about 10% of the time.I can still hear Chick: "In to Wilt, finger tip roll, not a prayer."

  2. avatar
    Tom Klas
    April 26, 2019 at 12:25 pm

    Hey, David. I would include Bob Kurtz in my list of favorite broadcasters. He's been a part of the Minnesota scene for the majority of time since the 1980's. I have always enjoyed his play-by-play coverage for the Minnesota Wild. He understands the game well and his delivery allows one to imagine a good visual imagery of what's occurring on the ice. Props, as well, to Tom Reid, who not only has done coverage for the Wild, but for years was the color guy for Gophers hockey. Herb Carneal was one of my all time favorite broadcasters. His was the voice of summer. I think that Herb had the perfect voice for baseball. I also enjoyed listening to Merle Harmon doing Twins broadcasts when he partnered with Herb Carneal and Halsey Hall. Although I'm not certain whether my brother Bob was a fan of him, I thought that Merle and Herb made up one of the best play-by-play tandems in Twins history. Actually, Halsey did do some play-by-play coverage. If you recall, Herb and Merle shared TV and radio duties. If a game were to be televised, they would split the game broadcasts for both TV and radio, generally switching at the fifth inning. During the time that they would switch to the opposite broadcast booth, Halsey would fill in on the radio broadcast for about a half of an inning. Whoever would be doing the radio coverage for the first half of a game would first leave for the TV booth to replace the one who began the TV coverage. Upon the arrival of his replacement, the first TV play-by-play broadcaster would then go to the radio booth. Halsey would fill in on the mic during the transition. A native of Milwaukee, Merle left doing Twins broadcasts when the opportunity to do play-by-play for the Brewers came to him. I have also been a big fan of Al Shaver. Al is also one of my all time favorites. Although he was always tremendously popular with North Stars fans, I don't think we fully realized what a gem he was at the mic until he retired. I really liked Frank Buetel, too. I've never fully understood why he left doing North Stars coverage. Although I was relatively young when Frank stopped doing the play-by-play, I thought that the fact that the North Stars either couldn't or wouldn't keep him on could be a bad omen for the franchise. In other words, if the top people with the North Stars couldn't figure out that they had a quality individual such as Frank in their midst, I feared that they would not be able to recognize others of quality. As it turned out, I was right. After he left, the North Stars eventually fell to dwell among the worst teams in the NHL. They became the embodiment of ineptitude, the antithesis of the Montreal Canadiens, who appeared to me to be the model of what a hockey franchise should be. As you do, I also liked Ray Christensen. He was Golden Gopher sports. I grew up listening to Ray. Yes, it was clear that he was a Gophers fan and didn't always hide his dismay when things would go poorly for the Gophers ("I'm sure that the officials are fine men in their own right, but the Gophers just can't get a break."), he was able to give a very clear picture to the radio audience of what was occurring on the field or court. He was always remarkably well prepared for each game. He not only could give the audience a good deal of information on the Gophers, he could also offer a good deal of information on the opposing team. And, although I miss Ray, I think that Mike Grimm has done a terrific job as his replacement. I hope he sticks around for a long time. The worst broadcaster? I wouldn't say that it was Larry Calton, the One Season Wonder. I would give that award to Tim Moreland. Although I understand he has been the longtime voice of Nebraska football, his attempts at being a baseball broadcaster should be all the evidence that anyone should need that covering baseball is more challenging than one might think. Tim wasn't able to finish a whole season with the Twins, as he was let go well before his contract expired. Joe Angel (mercifully) replaced him and saved us.

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