Since baseball’s player-management lockout has temporarily chilled its “Hot Stove League,” we begin today a series profiles of top past and present broadcasters by Curt Smith: to USA Today, “the leading voice of authority on baseball broadcasting.” Below, America’s longest-running sportscaster, the late Bob Wolff.
By CURT SMITH
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “24/7” originated in a 1983 Sports Illustrated story. In fact, much earlier it defined the radio/television Voice of the 1947-60 Washington Senators and 1960s NBC TV Major League Baseball. To many, Bob Wolff was an extended member of the family.
The native New Yorker died in 2017, at 96, after broadcasting an all-time Guinness Book of World Records 78 straight years. His longevity bred quality: to wit, the Baseball Hall of Fame Ford C. Frick Award for “broadcast excellence,” basketball’s Curt Gowdy Media Award, and only Voice to call all four major sports’ ultimate event—the World Series, NFL title game, Stanley Cup, and NBA finals.
Throughout, Bob used language as expertly as Jascha Heifetz did a violin, modestly saying, “Everything good in my life has been through a great break.” His first occurred at Duke University, where Wolff, on a baseball scholarship, broke an ankle in 1939 sliding into second base. Shelved, he began hosting radio’s variety Your Duke Parade. Bob loved it—thus, the rub
Should he stick to radio, or pick up a bat when well? Torn, Wolff asked varsity coach and mentor Jack Coombs. “I’ve never seen an arm or leg outlast a voice,” Coombs said. “If you want the big leagues, start talking.” Bob never stopped. “Jack was dead-on,” said Phi Beta Kappa ’42. “Another break—the best advice I ever got.”
A naval commission led to Harvard Business School, the Seabees, then the Solomon Islands. Upset about supply Navy officer procedures, Bob wrote a manual revising the system, then was transferred to Washington to create Supply Corps books and films. At war’s end Wolff turned to radio and television, trying to make up for lost time.
In 1946, Bob, 25, became Washington’s WINX Radio sports director—and next year the DuMont Network’s WTTG Television’s first pancaked, perspiring studio announcer. “’Lights were hot and huge,” he said. “You’d lose 20 pounds in an hour!” The only other commercial station was WABD New York. “How’d I get the job? Easy. No one wanted it.”
Radio was still king in post-war America. Bob used it and soon nascent TV to air boxing, hoops, and football—and above all, the Senators a.k.a. Nationals, sharing airtime with future Frick recipient Arch McDonald. Daily Wolff did Nats live/taped pre- and post-game radio/TV. “Four programs, a nightly TV and radio show, syndicated baseball column, and the game,” Bob said. He then exhaled.
Each year’s Everest was the presidential opener, a select audience including the White House, Navy, Army, and other Federal officials listening to Bob from Griffith Stadium. An Army colonel called the day after an opener. “Third inning, foul behind the first-base dugout, I made that catch,” he said, wanting on-air credit. “Tell you what,” said Wolff. “Keep me posted on your future baseball exploits.” The colonel never called.
In eight of Wolff’s 14 D.C. years, the Senators placed last or next-to-last. Usually Griffith was almost empty, a 1954 game drawing 460. The inaugural filled the park, “so with everyone watching,” Bob said, “I couldn’t afford a muff.” Now, a president throws the pre-game lob to the home catcher. Then, he flung the pitch over players grouped near the presidential box, all racing for the souvenir.
Anxious to name the victor, Bob asked, “Which player will get it?” One April Jim Piersall, his life marked by mental breakdown, shock treatment, and resilience, waited till President Eisenhower threw the first ball to give him another. “Would you sign this ball,” he asked Ike, “while those idiots scramble for that ball?” One year “a rare win” led to Wolff’s first-day on-air toast. “Amazing! Washington leads the league!”
In 1924, the Senators had won their first World Series. It took them 95 years to win another. Whatever the result, “I never said who was ahead,” Bob mused, memorably. “I just gave the score”—5-4, 10-2, 8-4. “People tuning in already knew who was winning—and it wasn’t the Senators.” Bob’s proxy for team success was voicing big-league records: “most of them set against the Senators!”
After Mickey Mantle bashed a 1953 leviathan off Chuck Stobbs at Griffith Stadium, Yankees publicist Arthur [Red] Patterson traced the belt over the left-field bleachers past an outer wall into a residential yard—a 565-foot “tape-measure” clout. Bob also called Stobbs’ “longest wild pitch,” bouncing over the backstop into mustard at a concession stand—and Mick’s 1956 behemoth almost becoming the major leagues’ first fair ball to leave Yankee Stadium.
Given the Senators’ God-awfulness, Bob’s aim was novelty, interviewing “fans in the stands” and notables like Jerry Lewis in the booth. Once D.C. won a twin-bill opener. Off-air Wolff told his post-game guest, “Don’t say your name until we’re finished talking.” They spoke for seven minutes. “Are you originally from Washington?” Bob ended. Guest: “No, I’m a Californian.” Wolff: “What sort of work do you do?” Visitor: “I work for the government.” Bob: “What sort of work do you do, sir?” “Well, 1’m the vice-president,” said Richard Nixon, leading that week’s The Sporting News.
One day the Nats began the ninth inning seven runs behind, Wolff fantasizing a “magic ray gun” to let viewers “mesmerize” rival fielders into muffs. “If even one of you isn’t thinking hit,” he warned, the ray could kaput. Under stranger than fiction: One batter after another got a hit where the camera had aimed, bringing Washington within a run. Mickey Vernon then lined a bases-full final out. Dazed, Bob hailed his audience. “You almost wrought a miracle until perhaps one had to leave the TV,” breaking the spell.
In 1956, Wolff tried to cast one for himself. Gillette Co. was baseball’s longtime network sponsor. “I’d ask it, ‘How about [Mutual Radio] network work?’ They’d say, ‘If your name gets big enough, we’ll put you on.’ I’d say, ‘Put me on tonight, and my name will be big enough tomorrow.’” Griffith hosted that year’s All-Star Game. “I finally wore Gillette out. Plus, I knew the park,” hosting the only game where Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Mantle, and Ted Williams homered.
In March, Ted reluctantly agreed to be on Bob’s local pre-game show if hitting .340 by late summer. On August 7, No. 9 blew a fly at Fenway Park, was jeered, spit at the crowd, and was fined $5,000. Next stop: D.C. Wolff cornered The Kid, batting .357, who kept his word, “expressed remorse, and said he was there because of our ‘friendship.’” Bob then used Ted’s and Mickey Mantle’s tapes—”sport’s most famous athletes”—to sell Colgate Palmolive a TV pilot. Soon he hosted then-rare syndicated series for half of the 16 big-league clubs.
Finally a “name,” he did that fall’s Series for Gillette. At Duke, Wolff studied King Lear. His 1956 Classic ode may have been replayed as often as Lear is read. New York led Game Five, 2-0, in the Bronx as Dale Mitchell hit in Brooklyn’s ninth inning. “I’ll guarantee that nobody—but nobody—has left this ballpark,” cried Bob. “Larsen is ready, gets the sign. Two strikes, ball one. Here comes the pitch. Strike three! A no-hitter! A perfect game for Don Larsen!”—the sole Classic no-no.
Next day Jackie Robinson batted in the 10th inning. “There goes a line drive to left field! [Enos] Slaughter’s after it, he leaps! It’s over his head against the wall! Here comes [Jim] Gilliam scoring! Brooklyn wins [1-0]!” It catapulted Bob to the 1958 and 1961-65 Series, football Rose, Gator, and Sugar Bowl, Colts, Browns, and Redskins, and 1958’s Greatest Game Ever Played— “The Colts win! [NFL overtime title game, 23-17, v. the Giants.] [Alan] Ameche scores!”
That year Bob famously got players to literally sing for a song. “Suppose I went to a team now and said, ‘Fellahs, want to join me in a singing group?’” he said in 1995. “You couldn’t print their answer.” “The Singing Senators” performed gratis on NBC’s The Today Show. Players like Jim Lemon and Roy Sievers tuned melody. Howie Devron played accordion. Bob strummed ukulele: “People liked us, anyway.”
Sadly, too few paid to watch the Nats’ catatonia, the renamed Twins moving to Minnesota in 1961. Wolff moved, too, but missed the East, the 1962 expansion Mets hoping to sign him. Time passed. When Mets GM George Weiss still lacked a sponsor/station, Bob resigned with Minnesota. Weiss later gave NBC baseball Voice Lindsey Nelson the Mets’ new job. “What timing!” Wolff said. “Lindsey’s hired for what might have been my Mets job. Then the Twins freed me so that NBC could give me his old job!”
Wolff inherited NBC’s Major League Baseball analyst Joe Garagiola. From 1962-64, viewers changed TV channels between Bob and CBS’s Falstaffian Dizzy Dean, doing baseball simultaneously every Saturday and Sunday. Bob tried to “be the best announcer I could be.” Dean tried to be himself: “Butcher names, didn’t know players or the score,” said Wolff. Grammarians clashed; Bob’s perfect against Dean’s fractured English like “That batter is standing confidentially at the plate.”
Wolff and Joe were “bigger in the cities, but Dean [was] gigantic elsewhere,” Bob said.
Since NBC owned post-season, he aired its 1962-65 Series pre-game show and 1962 Giants-Dodgers playoff then-record four hour and 18 minute Game Two. “Each half-hour the network said, ‘This program will not be seen tonight because of baseball,’” Wolff said. “Another thirty minutes later, they’d chop another.” (Bob Wolff, left)
In 1965, buying regular-season exclusivity, ABC hired Bob for baseball. Madison Square Garden then approached him about voicing a new cable TV network. He did up to 250 events a year, including the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, where, in coaching garb, Wolff gave dogs a “pup talk.” He joined News 12 Long Island, won a cable ACE and multiple Emmy awards, made MSG’s Walk of Fame, and became a six-time New York State Sportscaster of the Year.
Bob spent the rest of his life in South Nyack, New York, near The City, with his wife Jane of 72 years and near their three children, including New York’s WFAN host Rick. Though Wolff never again voiced baseball, “travel taking a toll,” in 2009 D.C.’s Nationals Park TV booth was named in his honor. Bob’s valedictory lives on tape, the TV/radio interview comprising most of the vast material he donated to the Library of Congress in 2013: Wolff witty, articulate, hosting Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb to Bob Hope and Milton Berle.
In 1996, Bob gave the Hall of Fame his ’50s syndicated TV series, later used by MSG to birth Bob Wolff’s Scrapbook. Then, in 2007, the Hall released Wolff’s Legend to Legend, his DVD of Ike-era interview. “I think it holds up pretty well,” he said, “but I keep thinking, ‘Who is that young man on the screen?'” Bob was an artist, still a teacher from whom students learn. Each time we hear or see him on film, the greatest break is ours.
CURT SMITH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org