Touring the Bases With Bob Wolff
Bob Wolff is one of the most famous television and radio announcers of the second half of the Twentieth Century. He has been inducted to both the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown and the Basketball Hall of Fame as well. His call of Don Larsen’s World Series Perfect Game in 1956 for Mutual Radio and that of the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Colts and Giants, are just two of the many landmark sporting events that he has broadcast over the years.
Bob was kind enough to speak to Seamheads about the start of his career in Washington, DC as the first television announcer for the Washington Nationals in 1947, where he continued until 1961 before joining Joe Garagiola at NBC for the Game of the Week in the 1960’s. He is the guest for this Friday’s “Outta the Parkway” show on the Seamheads Podcast Network. Call in to hear the interview live at 347-945-7172 or use the link after the fact to listen to an archived version of the show.
Q. You got your start in Broadcasting at Duke University before coming to Washington, could you tell us what that was like?
Bob Wolff. There were many lucky breaks, but I tried to make them come true. I went to Duke University to become a baseball player, but I broke my ankle down there–my spikes got caught in the dirt–and while I was sidelined the local CBS station asked me to sit in and they would ask me questions about my team mates. They liked my work and asked me to join their crew. I talked to the Duke baseball coach and told him that I wanted to get to the majors some day and he said, ‘this may be the opportunity.” So I decided to try that. I did basketball games as well and I would get back home from doing the games around midnight; I would study until three in the morning and then get up and go to class around 7:30. But I loved it and that was my start.
World War II brought me to Washington. I was commissioned into the Navy and went out with the Seabees and was stationed in the Solomon Islands as a supply officer. I found that the rules they had taught me were more applicable to a ship than to a station on that island so I wrote my own rules. I put it all in book form with pictures and sent it back to the Navy in Washington. I was very lucky that they decided to publish my book and asked me to fly back to Washington to work in training and that is how I got to Washington.
I decided at the end of the war to go back into broadcasting and I took by application with all the clippings from what I had done with Duke for CBS around to the local news affiliates and I took a job with the Washington Post. Then I heard there was a new television station–WTTG–where they were doing the Washington Senators baseball games. From there I have been getting lucky breaks all along the way.
Q. That was in 1947 and it was the very beginnings of television. You were a pioneer in what was a new medium at the time. Arch McDonald was the radio announcer. Can you tell us what it was like? What your relationship was with McDonald?
Bob Wolff. Arch was very well entrenched when I arrived and I did some radio with him when I first arrived. Like you say, television was brand new and while I did some radio side-by-side with Arch McDonald at the beginning, that did not last very long. I was the only television announcer. Not only did I do the play-by-play, but I did a 15-minute pregame show with interviews and the post-game 15 minute show. And I had my own nightly show on TV so I was busy as a solo man during those years and never again did I work with Arch McDonald. Eventually we got the same sponsor: Chesterfield King Cigarettes, and I would do the first three innings on TV and the last three innings and then in the middle I would go over and do three innings on radio while Arch did the TV. So our paths kept crossing, but we never really worked together. I guess it would have been more fun had we because he was an excellent announcer and he is in the Hall of Fame with me.
Q. Did you work with Clark Griffith, the Old Fox, and the owner of the Senators back then?
Bob Wolff. I loved Clark Griffith. Washington was run by Clark Griffith and the Griffith family, a large family, and every day he was there early in the morning running the ball club. At noon everything would stop and he brought in the many children–he had adopted many children–and they sat around this large table, like a conference table, and they had lunch. They after that he went over and had his pinochle game and he played that for two or three hours. The game might include announcers, sign painters, the people who did the score board, insurance men, anyone who wanted to keep their contracts going. Every once in a while someone would show up who wanted to become part of the group, to burrow in. But after the pinochle game, Mr. Griffith would go up to his office and would turn on the radio or TV for the Lone Ranger. Because he came from the Old West, he wanted to re-live all those memories through that show. And then after that he went out to the ball game. There he was uncanny. He was the best scout the Senators had. He would watch the other teams, he brought in players to look at and he guided the fortunes of the team without any real money at stake. It was a team that ran on a shoe string and they did a remarkable job considering that.
Q. You described Griffith in an earlier discussion as “not penurious but poor.” Griffith did not have the money to support a top notch organization in the post-war era. Is that what you meant by that?
Bob Wolff. They had enough money for one or two stars in those days. Ball players at the time were making six, seven or eight thousand dollars a year. They had to have other jobs after the baseball season. Even the big home run hitters were making something like $20,000 a year. They fielded excellent teams, but they could not afford nine really excellent players. The other guys were good, but not enough great ones to win a pennant.
The attraction to me was one, I was a major league broadcaster and not only did I watch the Washington Nationals, but we got to see Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris, all these great stars, people like Luke Appling, Satchel Paige, they were great stars and the amazing thing about Washington is that it is ideal for a broadcaster who tries to be impartial like me because there is as much crowd roar if not more for Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago–all of those other teams–because of Washington’s transient population. There was as much crowd noise for them as for the Nationals most of the time.
So I played up the “artistry” of the game. “Look at that Ted Williams, what a ballplayer, he’s worth coming out to see folks.” It’s like a broadway show. You don’t have to root for who wins or loses, you see ideal artistry in sports. So it never quite concerned me that the Senators never quite won the big ones.
Q. The situation has not changed much and the transient nature of a major part of the DC workforce continues to support other teams when they visit DC. It’s gotten to be quite an issue with the Phillies.
Bob Wolff. Well that’s never going to change because of the transient nature of government workers who come from other cities to work in Washington. But this year the Nationals have some good ball players and they will be in the pennant chase all the way. It will be interesting to see whether the crowd roar changes. They have some money behind them to get up there into the winner’s circle.
Q. Where did your love of entertaining the crowd come from, what background did you have that helped you come up with ideas for keeping the crowd in the game?
Bob Wolff. When I gave the score, when I said the score was 10-to-2, I never had to say which team was losing because the fans knew. Even if the Senators were ahead in the late innings I never said, “Well let’s see if the Senators can hang on,” because they lost most of those tight games. I thought the role of the sportscaster was to “augment” to enhance the experience so I did all I could to avoid the dry statistics. I always included as many human interest stories as I could, I injected as much humor as I could. I wanted people to look and listen because they were having the time of their lives, without worrying about who won or lost the ball game. If they won, Great! but I always believed it was part of the entertainment business.
Q. You create a great yardstick with which to judge broadcasters and I am certain that if people think about their favorites they will find that they use humor and entertainment as you are saying. You told me that you came up with one idea for entertainment called the Singing Senators, can you tell us about that?
Bob Wolff. At Duke University I sang with the college band. I wasn’t going to win any awards, but I kept on key and was enthusiastic. With the Senators I would always bring my ukelele and I would get the guys singing along and I said to them one time, “You guys are pretty good.” They could harmonize and so I organized different groups because the players changed every year, but one group was really good so I had them booked on the NBC Today Show, Dave Garroway was the host, and we spent forty-five minutes at the Monument Grounds doing one broadcast for the East Coast and one for the West Coast. And the Singing Senators were born. People competed to be in the group as much as they did to be on the ball team. It was great fun and part of the way I kept things a little different.
Q. Roy Sievers was one of the Singing Senators. Do you have any recollections of his career in Washington? Did you form bonds with players like Sievers who were there for longer periods of time?
BobWolff. I never gave up my lust for playing ball myself. Even when I was in my seventies, I was still pitching against the Mets and the Yankees before games. I was thrilled when my kids became ball players. One of my sons played for Princeton, the other for Harvard and he was drafted by the big leagues as was one of my grandsons. I pitched batting practice for the Senators and that was where I came up with some of my locker room stories that I used.
Then I would talk about the techniques of hitting and fielding which were more entertaining than dull statistics like the guy has had one hit in his last ten at bats. So I stayed very close to the players and they were personal friends. I ate with them, road the train with them on road trips.
You mention Roy Sievers. He was a great personal interest story. He injured his shoulder when he played with the St. Louis Browns, tore all the shoulder muscles, and had to worry about whether he would ever be able to throw a ball again. He could swing the bat but he could not throw. When he came over to the Senators they said, “don’t worry about throwing the ball in, just get it to the shortstop and he will throw it. Just swing the bat.” He became one of the great all time home run hitters by swinging the bat.
They always looked for that one home run hitter, which was a tough thing to do in old Griffith Stadium, the left field fence was over 400 feet away and a big wall to go over. In right field there was a mammoth fence to go over. Mickey Vernon who twice won the batting title did it by hammering balls off the right field fence. They had guys that could hit, they just didn’t have enough of them.
Q. Do your remember anything else about old Griffith Stadium?
Bob Wolff. From a broadcasting standpoint, I was up so close to the batter. They built an overhang right behind home plate that was no more than forty feet up and maybe 60 feet behind home plate. I was so close that not only could I see every curve of the ball, but I could hear every conversation with the batter and it was a thrilling way to watch a ball game.
I remember one day Clint Courtney, an always unshaven catcher, who enjoyed being hit by pitches. He had welts and bruises and discolorations all over his legs. Many times he would get hit by a pitch and the umpire would say, “Come back, you put your leg out on purpose.” He was an old fashioned player. One day he got thrown out of a ball player without even saying anything. He was making marks in the dirt each time the umpire made a bad call. When he got to five he crossed through the four marks demonstratively with his middle finger and the umpire said, “that’s it , you’re gone.” Courtney said “I didn’t say anything.” I thought it was an unusual way of getting kicked out of a ball game.
Q. You moved with the Senators to Minnesota. Do you remember the discussions surrounding the move. It was an emotional moment for the city, losing a team that had played in DC for 60 years. What do you remember of the reasoning leading up to the move?
Bob Wolff. For years the Griffiths had managed to keep the team afloat. But one thing happened that changed everything. Television was broadcasting games across the country. The game is the same, but there are millions more fans watching games around the country. And the sponsors wanted to grab that and so suddenly there was big money to be made. The Griffiths had an offer from the people in Minneapolis who had a brand new stadium and wanted to fill it. They had sponsors lined up and they had riches lined up that Griffith had never seen before. So when the decision had to be made, they went with the money. It was a simple decision.
Money has changed everything. If I went on the road trip with a bunch of ball players and asked them if they wanted to join my singing group, they would look at me like I was deranged. Ballplayers don’t share rooms any more, they have individual suites. They are the millionaires of the world now, the elite.
A lot of that feeling of intimacy that you had in the days before big salaries is no longer there. ANd the game has changed as well. Defense used to be a central part of the game. Players like Nellie Fox who averaged something like one home run a year and is in the Hall of Fame, but now, you don’t have a chance to make the Hall of Fame unless you can hit the home runs as well. The players are bigger, stronger, and have more power. Given the choice of a great scrappy ball player, one who can run, hit and do the small things like hit and run, given him OR someone who might hit thirty home runs and play second base, they are going to take the one who hits the home runs. Why? Because he will bring more people to the ball park.
The same thing with the pitchers. The wiley guys like the Whitey Fords who did it with finesse, they say forget it. They put the radar gun on guys like that and say forget it. So the structure of the game has changed. It is now a power game. Television has done that.
Special thanks to Philip Hochberg, former Senators public announcer, who as a young man got his start with Bob Wolff and who provided the contact.