Silenced sports voices

Two figures in Wisconsin sports media history died last week.

The first is reported by the Wisconsin State Journal:

Don Lindstrom, a former prep and University of Wisconsin sportswriter and columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, passed away at 92 years old on July 13 in Madison. A cause of death was not disclosed.

The Nebraska native’s newspaper career covered 43 years as a sports editor of the Holdrege (Neb.) Daily Citizen, a sports writer for the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune and finally at the State Journal for 29 years. He retired in 1988.

Lindstrom was honored with selections to the Wisconsin Sports Hall of Fame in cross country in 1995, basketball in 2001 and football in 2002. He received an additional award from the Wisconsin Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. He also was a member of the Baseball Writers of America, earned Wisconsin Sportswriter of the Year nominations and was the ninth president of the Madison Sports Hall of Fame.

Lindstrom also served in the U.S. Navy Amphibious Corps Pacific Theater during World War II. He and his wife, Barbara, would have been married 64 years on Aug. 31.

I read Don well before I knew him, along with late State Journal sportswriter Tom Butler. So when I started covering games and then saw them in the flesh, it was a sign that it one of them was there, the game I was covering was a big deal that night. One wonders if, given media companies’ shedding of employees, if someone will think that after seeing one of today’s sports reporters covering an event.

That included the March 12, 1982 boys basketbail sectional semifinal game between two of the three conference tri-champions, Madison La Follette and Madison West, about which you have read, including …

The scene was wild enough for Don Lindstrom, a Wisconsin State Journal sportswriter who had previously covered approximately 11 million basketball games, to comment thereupon:

“I thought we had lost it,” yelled La Follette Coach Pete Olson amid postgame bedlam. “We worked so hard but I never thought we could do it. These kids are amazing.”

The other is reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Long before the arrival of cable television, decades before people live-streamed baseball games on tablets or checked their cell phones for ScribbleLive updates, this is how you followed your favorite team, when you weren’t actually sitting in the stadium:

You turned on the boxy radio in the kitchen or held a transistor radio to your ear and moved the tiny plastic dial in microscopic increments until the static faded and the station came in, occasionally loud and clear.

In Milwaukee, this rich era of radio produced the likes of Earl Gillespie and Blaine Walsh, Merle Harmon and Tom Collins – familiar, honeyed voices drifting through the air on hot summer nights.

Collins (left) and Merle Harmon, who I once met, probably announcing a Brewers loss.

“You weren’t involved with baseball unless you listened to the radio,” said Eddie Doucette, a member of the Brewers’ broadcast team in 1973-’74.

Yet another link to that bygone era is no more with the passing of Collins, who died Thursday in Wisconsin Rapids of congestive heart failure. He was 95.

Gillespie and Walsh, who called Braves games in the 1950s and ‘60s, and Harmon, who bridged the Braves and Brewers, preceded Collins in death – Walsh in 1985, Gillespie in 2003, Harmon in 2009.

“When you stop and think about all the good guys that have come out of that market, it was really some quality, quality talent,” said Doucette, who gained greater fame as the radio voice of the Milwaukee Bucks. “It was a sad day for me when Merle died. And now Tom. It’s almost the end of an era.”

Like many play-by-play men of his generation, Collins had no formal training in radio. After serving as a Marine Corps gunner during World War II, he returned to his hometown of Neenah and worked as a millwright in the paper mills.

He got his start in radio doing a Sunday morning polka/country music show on WNAM and later did play-by-play for local high school sports teams. In 1959, he took a job with WEMP-AM in Milwaukee, which held the rights to Braves games.

“He came to WEMP as a newsman,” said Collins’ son, Patrick. “He worked his way up to his own morning show before he got into sports. He did the Braves’ pregame show for three or four years before he started doing play-by-play.”

The Braves left Milwaukee after the 1965 season and when the Brewers arrived in 1970, Collins was part of the broadcast team that included Harmon and a young Bob Uecker, who started in 1971 and is still going strong.

“Working with Tom and Merle was a big deal for me,” Uecker said. “I had already done the ‘Tonight Show’ stuff but I was more nervous about doing play-by-play on radio than the appearance stuff I did. I came here with nothing. I never did any games. Everything was a learning experience with Tom and Merle.

“They were great guys. Funny guys, too. I always did one inning of play-by-play, the fifth inning, and one day Tom and Merle introduced me and got up and left. I was begging them to come back and in the sixth inning the engineer said, ‘You better get going, Bob. There’s one out.’ ”

Collins also did the play-by-play for Marquette University basketball games for 15 years, many of them with Uecker. Collins and coach Al McGuire became close friends and went out on top together – the last game Collins called was the 1977 NCAA championship game.

In recent years, Collins suffered from Alzheimer’s, but still worked crossword puzzles in pen. Even after he forgot his grandchildren’s names, he could name the starting lineups for Braves teams.

“He was an unbelievable storyteller,” said grandson Matt Collins. “He had a very vivid memory. If you closed your eyes you felt like you were standing over his shoulder, watching what he was describing.”

Patrick Collins said the family planned to celebrate his father’s life with a “big, old-fashioned Irish wake” in Neenah in late September or early October.

“I was sad when I found out the other day that he passed away, but 95 years, that’s a pretty good run for anybody,” Uecker said. “It’s always sad, the inevitable, but Tom was a longtime friend and we had a lot of laughs. He was a great guy.”

I cannot find Collins’ obituary, so I don’t know if that was his real name. If it was (and even if it wasn’t), he had the perfect on-air name for a Wisconsin media personality. (For those unaware, the Tom Collins drink is gin (to prevent malaria), lemon juice (to prevent scurvy), simple syrup and club soda.)

I don’t recall hearing Collins, who did radio until 1972, did two more years on TV, and then did the Brewers’ first cable TV broadcasts for the SelecTV subscription service in 1981 (available only in the Milwaukee area) with current Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione. He was more of a broadcaster than a sportscaster in that he was in Milwaukee radio outside the Brewers and, for their last three years of existence, the Milwaukee Braves.)

So why do I recall this announcer, eulogized in the New York Times?

I had never met Bob Wolff, who died Saturday night, but like many people in the New York and Washington sports markets, I knew Bob. To me, he was the television voice of the Knicks during their 1970 and 1973 N.B.A. championship runs. To fans of the Washington Senators, he was the voice of a franchise from 1947 to 1961 (including its first season as the Minnesota Twins) that was invariably awful.

And for just about everyone who listened to him over the course of a remarkably long career, he was that smart, joyful, genial voice who loved what he was doing, who worked hard to appear that he wasn’t working hard, who made you feel that there was a friend behind the microphone. …

Later in 1990, I drove out to his apartment, which overlooked the Tappan Zee Bridge in South Nyack, N.Y. On his dining room table on that autumn afternoon was a single object: a cassette recorder. Inside it was a tape of the radio broadcast of Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, [Don] Larsen versus Sal Maglie of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“Let’s listen,” Wolff said.

He turned it on and we concentrated as if the game were happening for the first time. Bob leaned toward the recorder as if he had not heard the game — as if he had not called it.

But there was the voice of the then 35-year-old Wolff, calling the second half of the game after Bob Neal had finished the first half. Wolff got the better of the deal. It was enthralling to listen to the game for the first time across the table from this very exuberant man who often told me how he equated calling games to singing, how his voice rose and fell with the events of the game, how he hit his high notes with the enthusiasm of a tenor onstage at the Metropolitan Opera.

He did not declare Larsen’s gem perfect until the final out. But when it ended, he excitedly said, “Man, oh man, how about that, a perfect game for Don Larsen!”

Two years later, he was again in the right place at the right time when he called the 1958 N.F.L. championship game won in overtime by the Baltimore Colts, 23-17, over the Giants. “The Colts are the world champions — Ameche scores!

And if you listen, you will hear his voice begin to crescendo before landing on those last two words. It was a lyric to Wolff, not a call — words to sing, not shout.

These are transitional times in sportscasting. Vin Scully (whose birth date, Nov. 29, was the same as Wolff’s) retired from the Dodgers last year after 67 seasons. Verne Lundquist and Chris Berman have drastically scaled back their workload (and Berman’s wife, Kathy, died in a car crash in May). Brent Musburger left the booth to join his family’s sports handicapping business.

But Wolff’s death ended a remarkable era. He began his career on radio while at Duke in 1939 and ended it with a commentary in February on News 12 Long Island. He had not retired, not at 96, when he still had something to say or an event to cover. No sportscaster has had a longer career — Guinness World Records backs up that claim — and few have had one that was more varied.

A long time ago, Wolff followed with fidelity the advice of his college baseball coach when he asked him what he thought of his chances of playing in the major leagues.

“If you want to make it to the majors,” the coach told him, “keep talking.”

So he did. Wolff was a generalist who called football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and he was a deft and friendly interviewer whose subjects included Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams. One of his more intriguing ventures began on road trips with the Senators: It resulted in the formation of a choral group, with Wolff on his ukulele, and players like Jim Lemon, Roy Sievers and Tex Clevenger singing along.

“We’d be on the train singing, and I’d do some harmony groups,” he told The Washington Post in 2005. “Over time, because guys got traded or retired, I had three different groups, and the last one actually went on the ‘Today’ show.”

In 1995, Wolff soloed in a hotel bar in Cooperstown, N.Y., on the night before he received the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting at the Baseball Hall of Fame. He propped his foot on a chair and accompanied himself on “When You’re Smiling,” “Heart of My Heart” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

After the applause died down, he said, “You folks obviously know talent.”

And as his father sat down, Rick Wolff jokingly said, “Now you know what we grew up with.”

So many of us grew up with him as well: a decent, hardworking sportscaster and entertainer with the heart of a journalist and the soul of a happy ham.

Because Wolff’s list of assignments included the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, held in Madison Square Garden and covered by MSG, formerly carried by USA Network. He also announced the 1958 World Series with Collins’ former Braves partner, Earl Gillespie:

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s