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.
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.
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.