October 21, 2014

The Gunner Returns: A New CD Honors the Pirates’ Iconic Voice

December 20, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

In 1985, a decade after his short-sighted and hard-headed bosses flung him to the curb, legendary broadcaster Bob Prince made a poignant return to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ booth.    For younger fans who were hearing the 68-year-old Prince for the first time, it was hard to figure what all the fuss was about.   Cancer surgery and radiation treatments had left him frail and languid.   His voice was weak, he slurred his words, and he barely could keep up with the action.  A month later he was dead.

In his prime, though, Prince was arguably the most exciting announcer in the game.  The latest CD in the Baseball Voices series revives the Prince that older Buc fans remember fondly, and the one many younger fans wish they had known.  This paean to “The Gunner,” produced by Chicago Cubs’ announcer Pat Hughes, tells the story of an outrageous and controversial figure, equally capable of making fans curse his name, laugh uproariously, or shout in jubilation.

Hughes is our guide through Prince’s life, adding valuable context about the broadcaster’s upbringing, personality, and place in Pirate history.   But the star of the CD is Prince’s craggy baritone voice, which was lightly drizzled with a sweet Middle America twang and then, it seems, thoroughly scoured with a wire brush.

Like a lot of broadcasters, Prince was a master storyteller.  Hughes has included hilarious clips of Prince explaining the origin of his nickname – a sordid tale of whiskey, women, and weaponry – and describing the time in St. Louis when, on a dare, he stripped down to his skivvies and launched himself from a third floor window into a hotel pool.   On a more serious note, Prince contributes a touching vignette that sheds light on his close and unlikely friendship with Roberto Clemente.

The bulk of the 58-minute CD, though, features Prince working at his craft.  Perhaps the most instructive track is an edited nine-minute segment from a September 22, 1975 game against the Philadelphia Phillies, which offers a taste of what it must have been like to listen to Prince on daily basis.  The Pirates won the game to clinch their fifth National League East title in six years, but, like most games throughout the course of a season, this one was not particularly dramatic.  The final score was 11-3.  Not only that, but the Bucs had an insurmountable lead in the standings; even if they hadn’t clinched on this night, they would have clinched the next day, or the next.

There is an art to keeping an audience engaged during a lopsided clunker like this one.  Prince perfected that art.  Whenever the action on the field dragged, listeners usually could count on him to liven up the proceedings with an entertaining digression or a spontaneous flight of lunacy.

On this evening, the Pirates’ color man, Nellie King, was ill so Prince was going solo.  He begins by reviewing “their lineup” and “our lineup.”   Then throughout the broadcast, he keeps the atmosphere loose with his colorful, homespun lexicon, encouraging fans to waive their “babushkas” after one clutch hit, and sighing with relief when a Mike Schmidt drive curves foul “by a gnat’s eyelash.”

Before long, things veer wildly off course.  With the game well in hand, Prince, with no warning and for no apparent reason, leaves the booth in the middle of an inning.  “So, uhhh, you do a little thinkin’.  I’ll be right back.”   He returns moments later and explains cryptically, “The doctor just gave me an inoculation.”  In the seventh inning, during a pitching change, Prince admits, “I’m running out of things to talk about,” before asking, “Do you mind if I call time and go to the little boys’ room?  You can listen to the organ music.  I’m here by myself and I’m holding in everything!”  And with that, he abandons his post once again.

Prince often resembled a carnival barker, clad in eye-lacerating sports coats, bellowing goofy catchphrases, conjuring up hexes on opposing pitchers, and rambling about nonsense.  But when matters got serious, he played it straight and delivered a tight, stirring account of what was unfolding on the field.  The CD includes several clips from the historic 1959 game in which Harvey Haddix retired 36 consecutive Milwaukee Braves before losing in the 13th inning.  Here, Prince is brilliant.  He paints a riveting word picture, using his voice like a musical instrument to convey both the tension of the game and his own emotions without succumbing to overwrought verbosity or contrived screaming.

Prince clashed constantly with the higher-ups at Westinghouse Broadcasting, which owned the Pirates’ flagship radio station, KDKA.  Following the 1975 season, Westinghouse stunned the city of Pittsburgh, replacing the beloved Prince and King with Milo Hamilton and Lanny Frattare.    The new duo was exactly what the executives were looking for – professional, accurate, extremely well-prepared.  They also were as dramatic as a tuna sandwich.   A devastated Prince filled out the rest of his career with a hodgepodge of assignments, including stints with the Houston Astros and the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.

In scanning the roster of the Baseball Voices collection, it is striking how all these legends had such divergent styles – the urbane and literate Red Barber; Harry Caray’s Joe Fan shtick; Harry Kalas, who could make a sacrifice bunt sound like the Book of Revelation; and Prince with his delightful weirdness.   For broadcasting aficionados, the series is a treasure.  For Pirate fans, the Prince CD is a chance to get swept away in a time when a skinny loudmouth in a plaid jacket helped make rooting for the Pirates feel like fun rather than a penance.

James Forr’s book, Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography (co-authored with David Proctor) is a finalist for the 2010 Casey Award.  He also was the 2005 winner of the McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award.

Comments

2 Responses to “The Gunner Returns: A New CD Honors the Pirates’ Iconic Voice”
  1. many a night 3 radis Reds, Pirates,Tigers all listening to the greatest game in the world—-sometimes 4 my friend would bring his portable we listened to the Indians

  2. Ken Voytek says:

    Nice article and well done. I grew up listening to him and many others (having lived midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh) and met him once in Sharon, PA. He was certainly a very entertaining and delight to listen to.

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