Not many non ex ballplayers start their broadcast careers right in the big leagues. Bill Brown did and spent 30 fulltime seasons with the Houston Astros after seven years working Cincinnati Reds TV .
Among the microphone men in major league parks today, most folks paid their minor league dues, some for a shorter time and others longer. They include Marty Brennaman, Ken Korach, John Rooney, Tom McCarthy, Dave Van Horne, Terry Smith, Andy Freed, Rick Rizzs, Joe Davis, Dave Femming and Matt Hicks. Brown’s circumstances didn’t permit it.
If we examined the entire roster of MLB announcers, we would see lots more who did the bus grind in either or both the top and lower minors. Those who didn’t will likely admit that the learning curve was littered with unevenness or rust.
Ballplayers are exceptions. Their early work might be choppy, yet they bring a depth of knowledge that generally surpasses the professionally trained broadcaster. The best to transition from the field to the play-by-play booth include Don Drysdale, Ernie Johnson Sr., Rick Monday, Mike Shannon, Buddy Blattner, Phil Rizzuto, Geogre Kell, Bob Uecker, Mike Krukow, Herb Score and Duane Kuiper. If we looked under the hood, we would likely identify more.
During his young adulthood, years when others were in the minors honing their play-by-play skills, Bill Brown was in Vietnam. A communications major at Missouri, he did play-by-play for the school station. But after college and a short stay in San Antonio where he cut his teeth on commercial television, Uncle Sam called. Bill was off to Vietnam where 58,000 Americans were killed. Lucky for Bill though and we talk about it in our Q&A, he was assigned there to do radio and TV for the troops. (Mel Allen and Lindsey Nelson did similar communications work in World War II.)
After he was back on American soil, Brown wound up in Cincinnati where he did studio work for WLWT-TV before delving into play-by-play.
Unlike other announcers, Brown recognized when it’s time to turn off the mic. There are not many who do. ‘My wife will tell me when I’m not as sharp,’ is a refrain which is no more than an excuse to stay on – just when the memory begins to lapse, word retention weakens and information retrieval isn’t quite at the tip of the tongue.
The legendary Cawood Ledford, who called the Kentucky Wildcat games for eons got out when he felt it was time. He didn’t want to hear that fans were talking about him, saying Cawood is losing it. He picked himself up on his own accord and took retirement. Brown did the same. He left (albeit he does some promotional work for the club and occasional on-air fill-in).
In all, Brown spent 37 fulltime seasons on television .Ten of those seasons he did radio too. He retired from fulltime play-by-play in 2016.
Serving in Vietnam, as you did, is a challenging transition to adulthood. Back in 1971 in Saigon, before the magic of instantaneous worldwide communication, you gave the troops in Vietnam a touch of home, providing scores and sports news on military radio and television. The Vietnam experience for you transcended sportscasting. What was it like?
We used to joke in the Army about troops being assigned to jobs not even close to what they were trained to do, but for some reason this time, it worked in my favor and I was really grateful to be able to do what I always wanted to do – broadcast sports. We had all the creature comforts any Specialist 4 could ever hope for in Vietnam – housing in a hotel, bus transportation to work and security. It didn’t seem like being in Vietnam at all. We read the sports stories on the AP and UPI wires, rewrote them into our scripts and went on the air. We worked 12-hour shifts every day.
Your first baseball play-by-play gig was in Cincinnati. You were a TV anchor but had never done major or even minor league ball. How did you get your reps and your experience, to enable you to start right in the big leagues with the Reds?
I knew play-by-play was coming. So I went to every game when the team was in town and found an empty broadcast booth; used game notes and score sheets to create a simulated broadcast to work on the craft. I kept thinking about all the great experiences minor league broadcasters were getting every night and how I was competing with them for jobs in the future. Practicing at the big ballpark was the best I could do.
After seven seasons with the Reds (1972-82), your career took another direction. You eventually headed out west and were away from day-to-day baseball until you ran into Dick Wagner, then general manager in Houston. Wagner, of course, worked in Cincinnati beforehand while you were there. He hired you to broadcast Astros games in 1987 where you spent 30 years in the booth. You arrived in Houston after the team’s original voice, Gene Elston, left. He was the first voice of the Astros and was embedded in the community. Any challenges being accepted in Houston?
I thought people would be hopping mad that Gene was no longer in the booth and would not accept a guy they had never heard of as his replacement. In my mind I created a problem that probably wasn’t so much of an issue; but for the first few years it was not a comfortable feeling.
Wagner helped build the Big Red Machine and later strengthened the Astros. He also had worked in small market radio. How did he treat you?
He carefully checked out people before hiring them. He had been a radio station owner in Nebraska who paid a lot of attention to broadcasting and broadcasters. He counseled me to ask short interview questions like Jack Buck. Dick was always looking for bargains in the broadcast booth rather than hiring expensive big names. I was fortunate to be an easy mark for a low salary when it came to realizing my dream.
Do you have any sense of what it was like for Gene Elston when Milo Hamilton arrived in 1985? Milo had somewhat of an overpowering personality. Gene was more restrained. The two were together a couple seasons. Did Gene feel threatened?
I would be guessing, but from what I heard they kept each other at arm’s length. Gene actually made out the announcers’ schedules, so he had control of when he worked on radio and when he was on TV. He and Milo were not on the air in the same booth. Geno might do radio one day and Milo would be on TV that day, so they did not have to interact that much. Apparently, they didn’t.
Of the Astros’ announcers, you’ve had the longest tenure to date, 30 seasons! Milo was there 27 years, and Elston, 25. You’re talented, of course. Yet, what’s the secret to survival as a big-league announcer?
Understanding that you are an employee is very important. Some broadcasters become tremendously popular with fans and they allow themselves to think they’re more important than anyone in the front office. That can be the kiss of death.
You grew up in Missouri a fan of Jack Buck. You told me you would often think to yourself, “Am I trying to sound too much like him?” What made Buck special and why did you look up to him more than Harry Caray who was the Cards’ lead announcer? Buck was his number #2 for many years.
I went to a game in St. Louis with my transistor radio. Harry Caray was doing play-by-play. He said, “There’s a hot smash to Ken Boyer at third…” as he often did. What my eyes saw was a routine two-hop ground ball not hit very hard. Harry lost all credibility with me on that play. Harry built drama as well as any broadcaster, but accuracy sometimes suffered. Jack was more intent to be a reporter and was more accurate. The broadcast was not about Jack. It was about what happened on the field. I loved his lack of ego.
It’s no secret that Milo Hamilton can be a difficult boothmate. He had uneasy relationships with other announcers, notably Harry Caray. What made him difficult and did you have problems working with him?
I did not experience problems with Milo. He did not see me as a threat to his job. He was a Ford Frick Award winner in 1992, and after winning the highest award for a baseball broadcaster he had no worries. He was keyed very high and had a healthy ego. It’s my opinion that the egos in the booth can be every bit as large as they are on the field. In the final result, few of the listeners/viewers know or care about that. The broadcaster’s resume should be his body of work on the air. That’s not to excuse anybody from not being a good citizen, of course.
You left the Astros on you own accord and by your own initiative. You wanted to retire and transition to new opportunities at an age when you still had work years ahead of you. Why?
In my opinion, my performance on the air was slipping. Management was terrific and held my letter of resignation for two days, asking if I wanted to reconsider before it acted on it. But I had thought it through and was certain it was the right move. It was always my opinion that many broadcasters stayed on the job too long. Fans are forgiving and they do usually give an old broadcaster a “pass” when he makes an obvious mistake. I really couldn’t live with it and was not willing to keep going further down that road. When I was 30, I used to look at all the announcers in their 70s and wonder why they hadn’t had enough. When I got there,68, I realized how blessed I was to have many years on the job and thought the team would be better served with someone more proficient and more passionate. I could feel that some of my passion had exited, and that meant it was time for me to exit. Fortunately, the team asked me to stay on as a part time employee. If not, I planned to play some golf, do some volunteer work and travel with my wife. We have three grandchildren, and we love spending time with them.
You’ll hear some of the older guys say, “I’ll know when it’s time” or “My wife will tell me when I’m beginning to lose my sharpness.” Are these announcers just looking for excuses? Word retention, word retrieval and eyesight all generally weaken over time.
Yes, frequently they do not know when it’s time. People are talking about them, and it’s not complimentary. I experienced decline in all those areas you mention. Also, I mentioned in a little press conference at the retirement announcement that I felt as if I was on a high-speed train going through a tunnel, with images of many games and memories flashing past too quickly to enjoy them. For me, it was time to try to slow down the passing of time with more time to savor it.
At one point, I asked you about Vin Scully. You unhesitatingly chuckled and said, “Vin’s on another planet.” You won’t get an argument from anyone in their right mind. Yet, why so?
He’s not the ONLY broadcaster who would reference an opera or Broadway show or literary work on a baseball broadcast, but with anybody else it would be forced to create attention to his genius. He avoided clichés as well as anybody. He told countless stories about the players from his unquenchable preparation and made baseball broadcasts learning experiences.