Most big-league announcers will tell you that they grew up dreaming of calling games.
Al Michaels sat in a seat next to his dad at Ebbets Field, looking up at the booth where Vin Scully worked. He knew immediately that’s where he wanted to be. Ditto Marv Albert, at the same ballpark. Marv would drag his bulky reel to reel recorder and tape games from a far corner of the press box. Other budding broadcasters have a pretty good idea of their career goals and apply to schools like Syracuse University to begin the preparatory process.
Denny Matthews says that he stumbled somewhat into broadcasting. Raised in Bloomington, Illinois between Chicago and St. Louis, Denny was an excellent athlete, actually a chip off the old block. His dad was an All-American at Illinois State and came close to signing with either the Reds or the White Sox. But World War II ended that dream in a hurry.
The younger Matthews starred in baseball at the high school level and then at DIII Illinois Wesleyan. In fact, after his freshman year, he considered an opportunity to sign with the San Francisco Giants through its affiliate in Decatur. It wasn’t just baseball. Denny excelled on the football field too. For that matter, he was 8th in the nation in pass receiving in college after not playing the game at all in high school.
Matthews’ dad loved the Cards when radio was still the first stop for play-by-play coverage. In Bloomington, St. Louis games were carried by a station that’s been a longtime Cardinals affiliate, WJBC. As a kid, Denny remembers the radio always being tuned to baseball. He listened as a fan. Who called the games and how they did it mattered little at that point.
After Denny’s freshman year of football, an unplanned opportunity came along. WJBC’s news director Don Newberg and Wesleyan’s athletic director were friends. Newberg suggested that Matthews help out at the station. By that fall, Matthews was on-air giving line-ups and assisting Newberg who called the basketball games. Denny got paid all of $5 a game.
One night when Decatur played Bloomington in a rivalry game, Newberg told Matthews at a commercial break between the first and second quarters that he had to rush to the toilet. He asked Denny to just start talking after the break if he couldn’t make it back on time. As fate would have it, Matthews was forced into calling the play-by-play for the entire quarter.
At halftime Newberg reappeared at which point Denny asked him if he’s okay. “Oh I was fine the whole time. I just wanted to see how you would do at play-by-play.”
It sounds like he did pretty well. For Matthews, it was the start of a long and illustrious play-by-play career.
After college, Denny worked a host of part-time jobs; State Farm (headquartered in his hometown of Bloomington), radio in Peoria and television in St. Louis.
After the old Kansas City Athletics bolted for Oakland at the end of the 1967 season, Denny set his sights on getting a play-by-play gig with the new Royals franchise who were planning to launch in 1969. He went to Major League ballparks in Chicago and St. Louis and recorded audition tapes.
Buddy Blattner who called California Angels games and partnered with the colorful Dizzy Dean on the Game of the Week had been appointed the Royals lead announcer. The team was looking for his sidekick.
Denny, all of 25 then, did what was required; he sent a tape, a picture and a resume. But Denny’s experience didn’t fill a thimble. When he was initially told that he was one of 200 applicants, he chuckled and said to himself, “Wow it’s a cinch.”
He kept following up during the hiring process and was told that the number of applicants were whittled down to a handful and that he was still in the mix. Denny’s thinking, “Who knows? At that point, Blattner was more involved in the hiring process.
“Buddy invited me to Kansas City. He told me to come on over on a Friday at about 3 or 4pm. I left our Illinois home that morning and told my mom that I should be home about 10. Buddy and I hit it off. We chatted, got acquainted and talked baseball, broadcasting and the job. We then went out for some pizza and before you know it, it’s real late. So I ended up sacking out at his home in Kansas City. I got home at 10 –10 the next morning, looked at my mother and said ‘Mom, I told you I’d be back at 10!’
“At that point, I knew I had the job. A few days later, I got the official offer.
“It was just the two of us the first year. We did radio and TV; not many televised games maybe 15 or so early on.”
Once he was hired, Matthews asked Blattner why he was picked over so many applicants. He was told:
- The audition tape was an MLB game not a minor league game.
- It’s how he filled time between pitches, covering strategy and anticipating moves on the playing field. In other words, Denny added some insight – beyond mere play-by-play. His on the field experience in high school and college was a help.
- The Royals were a new team and wanted a fresh face and voice.
- Those in charge wanted someone with no bad habits.
We caught up with Denny, now enjoying his 50th year with the Royals. No American League announcer has ever broadcast for the same club as long.
Q&A with Denny Matthews
Fifty years with the same club! You were 26 when you started. You only have 17 more years to go and you’ll tie Vin Scully. Other than Vin and Dodgers’ Hispanic broadcaster Jaime Jarrin, no broadcaster has been with the same team as long as you. Other than old, how does it make you feel?
Well, I have no plans of catching Vin. Do the math. I was 7 years when Vin started and he retired a couple years ago. And what if I did, who cares? There’s no reason to set that goal.
Kansas City is a small market team. You’ve had chances to leave. There was talk of Chicago and St. Louis. Did any one of the two cities entice you more?
In the 1970s, I had a couple chances to go to Chicago and in the 80s, I had an offer to take the Cardinals job. St. Louis was probably a bit more enticing because I grew up a Cards fan.
At one point, I sat down with our owner Ewing Kaufmann and he said to me, “We like you. You can stay here as long as you would like. If you’re not happy, snap up the other job”
Ultimately, I determined that I was happy and content in Kansas City which has been great to me.
What did Buddy Blattner mean to you?
He was a mentor and superb baseball announcer. We worked together for seven years. He also did the old St. Louis Hawks. As good as he was at baseball, he may have been an even better basketball announcer. He called the St. Louis Hawks ’58 title series’ win over the Celtics. Buddy retired to the Lake of Ozarks where his family had business interests. At that point, Buddy was tired of the travel.
You worked all those years with the late Fred White, 25? Other than all that time together, what made you guys so identified with the Royals?
Fred, now deceased, was eight years older. Like me, he was from Illinois. We got along wonderfully. I played the game so I did some analysis during Fred’s innings. He never played the game so he contributed less during my innings. One reason we got along so well is that we were together for great Royals years and star players. We wrote a book together, Play-by-Play: 25 Years of Royals Baseball on Radio.
Recollections of the Royals first General Manager, Cedric Tallis?
Cedric deserves all the credit for making the Royals so competitive almost immediately. He scoured and scouted National League rosters and made fruitful trades with NL teams. (e.g. Fred Patek, Amos Otis, John Mayberry, Hal McRae)
You’ve done Royals TV too. Why do you like radio over TV?
I like radio for all the obvious reasons. You’re your own boss. No director or producer is in your ear. On television, you’re never going solo. What I miss though about television is the ability to be instructive. I could call for a replay and point out one thing or another. It’s more difficult to be instructive on radio.
As you get older, is there an issue with word retention or word retrieval?
(Denny chuckles, surprised by the question.) No, both my focus and concentration are good. I like having fun with words. The other day Ryan Lefebvre (current radio partner) and I had a little fun, I used the word moribund with him. We’ll also have fun playing some rhyming games. “Players Mader, Bader and imagine if one was a Gator.”
Other than painting a picture, what do you try to achieve on radio?
Listeners have different likes and dislikes so I mix it up – all while focusing on the fundamentals of game description. Some like stats, some like stories. some think strategy, some want the weather. I try to accommodate everyone, as best as possible.
You’re 75. How much longer do you want to go?
I take inventory in mid-August which is tough because your view is different from December when you’re ready for another season. I’m finishing up a four year deal. When we made the last deal, Mike Swanson, Royals executive, told me that they don’t want to throw me a retirement party at the end of my contract. My deal is directly with the ballclub. It has been that way since the early 1970s. We’ll talk at the end of the year.
I’m fine now. I make my own schedule- pick out road games that I’ll do. I choose the easiest trips and try to stay away from longer ones. I also try to limit it to the ones in the same time-zone. Taking games off recharges my battery. It’s healthy.
Who were the play-by-play announcers you listened to growing up in the Midwest?
Jack Quinlan, Lou Boudreau and Vince Lloyd of the Cubs and Harry Caray and Jack Buck of the Cards. I wasn’t an AL fan.
If you have to list the top Royals you covered in your fifty years, who would they be?
I enjoyed watching players for their individual specialties. There are so many. Yet names that come to mind are George Brett, Willie Wilson, Carlos Beltron, Frank White and Dan Quinsenberry – among many others
You, Bob Uecker, Vin Scully and Bill King cut back on doing full schedules as you got older. You said it’s a healthy thing to do. Why?
Games were about two hours and 15 minutes when I started. Now they’re over 3 hours. Everything is much more difficult. Everything is longer. It’s a grind.
Why does John Sterling of the Yankees insist on doing every inning of every game at age 80?
I asked him. I was surprised. He told me, “What else will I do?” I love my time off. I play hockey, I enjoy fine restaurants, reading or watching the NFL. In fact, I told a reporter my dream is to announce a pre-season NHL game while I’m the goalie.
Any recollections of old Municipal Stadium where the Royals played when they started in 1969?
It served its purpose. We played there four years. Our stadium, still a palace, opened in 1973. It would have opened in 1972 but there was a construction strike. Municipal was a 1930s stadium. When the A’s moved there from Philadelphia in 1955, an upper deck was added to bring it to a big-league size. It was worth the wait. Kaufmann Stadium is a palace.