Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch writes something you may have a hard time believing:
Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck feared for his broadcasting career five years ago when he suffered a paralyzed left vocal cord. The ailment struck him a few weeks before the start of the 2011 baseball season, and it wasn’t until October of that year that he truly felt his voice was back. At the time, Buck told people that he had developed a virus in the laryngeal nerve of his left vocal cord.
But that was a lie.
This is the story of what really happened, revealed for the first time here and explored in more detail in his upcoming memoir, Lucky Bastard: My Life, My Dad, And The Things I’m Not Allowed To Say On TV. The book will be released on Nov. 15 (you can pre-order using link above) and was written with Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Rosenberg.
As a young man, one of Buck’s overwhelming fears was losing his hair, and the possibility soon consumed him. So at age 24, in Oct. 1993, he flew to New York City to get his first hair replacement treatment. He writes that, after the procedure, “I, Joseph Francis Buck, became a hair-plug addict.”
Buck said that whenever he had a break in his schedule—usually between the end of the NFL season and the start of baseball—he would fly to New York to have a plug procedure.
“Broadcasting is a brutal, often unfair business, where looks are valued more than skill,” writes Buck. “I was worried that if I lost my hair, I would lose my job. O.K., that’s bulls—-. It was vanity. Pure vanity. I just told myself I was doing it for TV.”
A few weeks before the start of the 2011 baseball season, Buck underwent his eighth hair replacement procedure. But something went wrong during the six-hour-plus procedure. When he woke up from the anesthetic, Buck could not speak. He believes his vocal cord was paralyzed because of a cuff the surgery center used to protect him during the procedure. A doctor not part of the operation theorized to Buck that the cuff probably got jostled during the procedure and sat on the nerve responsible for firing his left vocal cord. Buck was also going through personal stress at the time, as his marriage to his high school sweetheart was ending. That stress, Buck theorizes, could have made him more susceptible to nerve damage.
Panicked, Buck sought a voice specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St, Louis, Dr. Bruce H. Haughey, who told him he had a paralyzed vocal cord and there was no guarantee on when his voice would come back.
Given his embarrassment over what had happened, Buck lied to his bosses, to the media, to friends. He told people that he had a virus and that his voice would come back. “I was too scared and embarrassed to tell them the truth,” Buck writes. “But I’m doing it now.”
In an interview on Wednesday with SI.com, Buck further explained why it was important to him to reveal publicly this episode in his life.
“When I started thinking about writing a book, this was the main reason why,” Buck says. “It wasn’t about stories with my Dad. I wanted to detail the time in my life where I had a lot going on and I was stressed, a time when I started to take anti-depressants and was going through a divorce. Then I had this situation with my voice that rocked me to my knees and shook every part of my world. I’m 47 years old now and willing to be vulnerable sharing a story. Whether the book is read by one person or one million doesn’t concern me. Getting this out and being honest, really telling my story, that was was the impetus behind this.”
Stories about Buck from 2011 described him as having a virus that struck the laryngeal nerve in his left vocal cord. “This is a nerve issue,’ Buck told The New York Times in 2011. “It’s not like I have polyps or a strained vocal cord. I’m waiting for one of the longest nerves in the body to recover. Nobody has said this is something that won’t come back, but they told me it could take six, nine or 12 months.” Buck continued to discuss the impact of losing his voice as late as last year (see this profile in Cigar Aficionado) but never the reasons why. Few people knew the truth beyond Buck’s immediate family and some close friends, including his NFL broadcast partner, Troy Aikman. Most people at Fox Sports will learn of this upon reading this piece.
“I was lying,” Buck said of the stories about his vocal cord issues. “I think people bend the truth all the time, unfortunately. It was really for self-preservation and ego for me. As I look back, I gave partial truths. Where I lied was when I said the reason why. People would ask, ‘Why is your vocal cord paralyzed?’ I said it was a virus. I didn’t say it was an elective procedure to add hair to the front of my head. It was embarrassing. There’s an embarrassing element to that. Any surgery done to improve one’s looks is not really something someone wants to talk about. So it’s very cathartic to get this out. There are a lot of people across the country, for as silly as this sounds, who obsess about hair loss. I would tell myself I needed to look younger, I needed to have thicker hair, I don’t want to look older than I am. The truth of it is that it was an ego thing, whether I was on TV or not.”
In the book, Buck candidly discusses taking Lexapro to relieve his anxiety from the stresses of his personal and professional life. Eventually, Dr. Hughey referred him to a doctor in Boston named Steven Zeitels, a professor of laryngeal surgery at Harvard Medical School and the director of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Center for Laryngeal Surgery and Voice Rehabilitation. Zeitels had worked with well-known voices including Adele, Bono, Roger Daltrey and Dick Vitale, among many others.
As part of the treatment, Zeitels injected Buck with a long needle and filled his vocal cord with Restylane, a filler-like substance most often used for lip enhancement. Buck returned to Zeitels every three months for additional shots. The doctor told him the more he used his voice, the more the vocal cords would swell from usage and the better he would sound. Buck’s voice got a little better in August and September of 2011, though nowhere near where a network-level announcer should be. Buck said because of the equity he had built up Fox Sports and by having a strong relationship with his bosses, he was allowed back on the air when he should have been replaced by other announcers. By October, his voice was rapidly improving. Buck said by Game 6 of the 2011 World Series between the Cardinals and Rangers, he felt like his old self. He does, however, still think about the strength of his voice prior to working games today.
“I am an extremely lucky and blessed person, but I’m pretty self-aware,” Buck said. “I’m a flawed, hard-working, hard-trying person. I didn’t write this book to change anyone else’s life. I wrote this book to be as open and as honest as I can be. If there is any mission statement, I wrote it to give viewers and people who think they know me a better and clearer picture of who I really am. If you read it, great. If not, that’s great, too. But I am just glad that it’s out there.”
One might have thought that seeing his father …
… might have been a tipoff for the younger Buck about his follicle future.
The bigger point here, other than arguing over Buck’s hair (which requires bringing up non-hirsute baseball announcers Joe Garagiola, Jon Miller and John Smoltz, among others who have less hair now than they once did) is the cutthroat world at the top of broadcasting, particularly in our social media world, where those who don’t like an announcer can let the world know that:
Buck might have learned some of that from watching his father, who was first hired by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954. (Jack Buck worked with Harry Caray, which, according to Buck and others … well, let’s say that Caray was a better announcer than coworker.) Jack Buck was then fired in 1959 because the Cardinals wanted to hire an announcer with more name than Buck had at the time. (That came four years after Caray’s and Buck’s partner, Milo Hamilton, was punted to bring on Garagiola.)
Two years later, the announcer for whom the elder Buck was fired, Bud Blattner, left, and so Buck, having not burned bridges on his way out, was rehired. Buck got the Cardinals’ lead announcer job when the Cardinals fired Caray, allegedly for an extramarital dalliance with (depending on whom you ask, and I’ve heard multiple versions from people who knew the parties involved) the daughter-in-law or girlfriend of the Cardinals’ owner, Gussie Busch.
Jack Buck then went part-time with the Cardinals when he was hired by NBC to host its “Grandstand” show, which turned out to be a poor career move for reasons mostly not Buck’s fault, at least according to his book. Fifteen years later, Buck was named CBS-TV’s number two baseball play-by-play announcer, getting the number one job after CBS fired Brent Musburger. (I saw the headline for that in the Chicago Tribune on April Fool’s Day. It wasn’t a joke. Musburger’s firing announcement was the day of the 1990 NCAA basketball championship game, which he announced.) CBS fired Buck after two seasons, allegedly for poor on-air chemistry with partner Tim McCarver (ironically a former Cardinals catcher).
So if you’re keeping track, that’s three firings for reasons that didn’t have very much to do with Jack Buck. Between that and the fact that Joe Buck’s on-air demeanor is off-putting to some (not myself, as a fellow member of the ironic ’80s), can you blame Joe Buck for being a hair (sorry, couldn’t resist) professionally paranoid?
The irony, perhaps, is that if for some reason Fox fired Joe Buck, another broadcaster, and certainly the Cardinals, would hire him in a second, even if that meant pushing out another announcer to make room.