GOWDY’S LEGACY: A BIG HEART, A COMMAND OF THE MICROPHONE, A NATURAL WARMTH AND A WILLINGNESS TO HELP OTHERS
Who are the only broadcasters to voice an NBA Final, NCAA Final, a World Series and a Super Bowl? The answer: only one, Curt Gowdy. For fun, add 12 granddaddies as Curt referenced Rose Bowls. And if not enough, Curt did hockey too during ABC’s 1968 and ’76 Olympic coverage.
Name those who’ve received the broadcast award from the Pro Football, Basketball and Baseball Halls of Fame. If you answered Curt Gowdy and Dick Enberg you’re spot on. They’re the only two.
Bottom line. From the mid ‘60s to the late ‘70s, there was no bigger network play-by-play man in America than the avuncular Curt, born 100 years ago this Wednesday, July 31st.
He was so popular and beloved that ABC Sports president Roone Arledge wanted him as the play-by-play announcer for Monday Night Football when the network launched its prime-time NFL coverage in 1970. But Gowdy had an ironclad contract with NBC and wouldn’t budge.
Curt got into broadcasting by accident. He suffered an injury while playing basketball for the University of Wyoming and was forced to undergo spinal surgery. While recovering, a local radio station in Cheyenne asked him to do a football broadcast. He told the station manager that he had never done play-by-by-play. The manager said, “Curt, it’s either you or my wife and she certainly hasn’t done any.” A star was born.
Later recruited to Oklahoma, he did OU football, coached by the nationally prominent Bud Wilkinson and OSU basketball under Olympic coach Hank Iba.
It was in the Sooner State where he caught the attention of CBS Sports Director Red Barber who used Gowdy on a network radio football broadcast. And it was in Oklahoma City where he made a name for himself doing baseball while handling play-by-play for the Indians of the Texas League.
When the Yankees had an opening for a broadcaster in 1949, Jack Slocum, working on behalf of sponsor Wheaties recommended Gowdy to lead voice Mel Allen. Slocum liked his relaxed style, so did Mel. General Manager George Weiss and Broadcast Director Trevor Adams concurred. Although he had seen only one Major League game in his entire life, Gowdy got the biggest break of his career. On opening day in 1949, there he was, sitting near Allen, calling Yankee games.
“I was scared to death, nervous and tense. Mel taught me a lot, from weaving in commercials to paying attention to detail. He liked to go back and forth on the air which I had never done,” Gowdy reminisced.
With Mel locked in at Yankee Stadium, Curt knew that to grown he would have to find a number one gig with another team. In 1951, he moved up to Boston with his wife Jerre and their family to become the lead voice of the Red Sox. There, he developed a friendship with the great Ted Williams and called the Hall of Famer’s final at bat, a home run in 1960.
By the 1950s, NBC started using him on NBA games with Lindsey Nelson and on the 1958 World Series with Mel Allen.
In 1962, Gowdy began voicing AFL games for ABC and transitioned with the package when it went to NBC in 1965. When the leagues merged in 1970 and NBC had the AFC package, Curt continued as the network’s lead football voice through 1979. In all, he did 7 Super Bowls, including the first which was carried by both CBS and NBC.
His recollection of the first, formally the AFL-NFL Championship Game, was that it was more a battle between the two networks than the Packers and Chiefs. “Vince Lombardi said it himself in the days leading to the game. It was true. Every five minutes during the game, executives of both networks were calling New York for the latest on the ratings. Even though CBS had the dominant NFL, we at NBC did fairly well (22.6 for CBS and an 18.5 for NBC),” he told an interviewer years later .
The sunniest moment of Gowdy’s star studded career was Super Bowl III, the Namath guarantee game, the stunning upset by the Jets over the mighty Baltimore Colts.
Curt insisted that although he had been the unofficial Voice of the AFL for seven seasons, he had no rooting interest in the game. Yet there had to be joy in his voice, ”Ladies and gentlemen, we’re sitting in on history. No one thought it would be close and the Jets almost shut out the mighty Colts.” Still, Curt mollified Colts’ fans after the crushing loss, “(Jets coach) Weeb Ewbank coached (Colts coach) Shula and says Don will be a great coach.” Indeed.
Earlier that 1968-69 season, Gowdy was behind the mic for the famous Heidi Game when a tight Jets-Oakland telecast was cut off in the final couple minutes for the popular children’s film. When Gowdy came down to the truck after the game, he was told that half the country didn’t see the finish. Curt was asked to go back to the booth to recreate the last minute over taped film. From his recreated commentary it’s obvious that he knew the result, “The Jets will never lose a more heartbreaking game,” Gowdy said in his recreation of the final minute. In New York, the end of the game was shown on WNBC-TV at 11:20pm. By then, New York sports fans were heartbroken.
In 1966, when the Peacock Network began its first completely national MLB Game of the Week , Gowdy was hired fulltime. He left the Red Sox after 15 seasons.
In addition to doing the ’58 and ’64 series, Curt did every Fall Classic from 1966-75, presiding over 12 in all.
An outdoorsman who loved to fish and hunt. the Wyoming Cowboy hosted a popular network series called the American Sportsman, a show on which he would engage celebrity guests in recreational activity on the water and in the woods. For years, it was on ABC. He did so while serving as the lead play-by-player on NBC, which had rights to just about everything that mattered in those years.
In fact, the two shows would sometimes run at the same time. So Curt would be heard calling a game for NBC while the recorded American Sportsman was on ABC simultaneously.
The comforting and husky voiced play-by-player called Bill Walton’s NCAA titles under John Wooden and 9 Final Fours in all. Curt told me many years later, “I always thought that basketball was my best sport.”
Gowdy was also a good businessman. In 1957, his back went out in spring training. He was laid up for months. The gentlemanly Sox owner, Tom Yawkey, assured him that his job was safe. But concerned about his future, Gowdy invested in radio stations and built significant wealth.
Sports Illustrated described Gowdy’s rhythm as one of “crisp dryness.” In the mid 70s, the magazine estimated that he earned $350,000 a year ($1.67 million today) and it noted that when he was told of the presence of California Governor Ronald Reagan at a game, he quipped, “Some sportscasters (which Reagan was) get to be governors, but I couldn’t be elected dogcatcher.”
In his New York Times obituary, Richard Sandomir called Gowdy, “the quintessential generalist of the pre-cable-television era.”
Gowdy’s legacy was his passion, big heart, command of the microphone and natural warmth. Most importantly, he always had a willingness to help others.
His voice was inviting and his sound was never rushed. Curt was particularly at ease when telling stories. By his own description, he would say that when he called a game, “I tried to pretend that I was sitting in the stands with a buddy watching the game, poking him in the ribs when something exciting happens.”
Curt passed in 2006 at age 86.
- Al Michaels names three fellows whom he idolized. Vin Scully, Jim McKay whom he labels as “the great tour guide” and Curt Gowdy. In fact, when local voices were part of NBC’s World Series coverage, Al joined Gowdy on the 1972 World Series. Michaels was then the 27 year old Voice of the Reds. He said Gowdy put him at ease.
- Legendary college basketball commentator Billy Packer says that he had never met Curt when asked to work a game with him in Tuscaloosa. Curt took Billy to lunch at some hunting lodge where Bear Bryant was dining. Gowdy then disappeared to the back of the lodge where he was struck by a painting and bought it on the spot. When he returned back to the table, he suggested to Billy to buy things about which he’s passionate. Packer did and built a collection of Picasso ceramics. That’s not it. After working a game with Packer, Gowdy encouraged NBC production head, Scotty Connal to give Packer more work. And that’s how Billy began four decades of covering the Final Four.
- As a youngster Tim Brando told his parents that he loved listening to Gowdy. When Tim’s younger brother was born, he was named Curt. Gowdy gave Tim good advice in the early 80s. You’ll be traveling a lot, he said. Find a town where your wife is happy. He also counseled Tim to take the job that was offered by LSU startup Tigervision. You’ll get lots of experience, he said. Tim says, Curt’s voice was always strong, believable and a little throaty when needed.
- Bob Murphy, Curt’s sidekick in Boston from 1954-59. “Curt helped me clean up my Oklahoma twang, taught me the art of pausing and suggested that I take a deep breath. I was a young broadcaster and did lots of talking. He also said, Let’s broadcast like we’re two friends at a game.”
- The A’s Monte Moore who joined Gowdy on three World Series in the 70s says that Curt was a comforting and an unpretentious boothmate. Curt suggested to him that he invest in radio stations in California. Monte did and grew them.
- Steve Holman, in his fourth decade as the radio Voice of the Atlanta Hawks actually worked directly for Gowdy and tells the story. “Mr. Gowdy was my first boss at WCCM in Lawrence, Mass. He hired me when I was 17 and a Junior in high school. He owned the station. The program director, Bruce Arnold brought me into Mr. G’s office and Curt said “Stevie, we’re going to make you full time.” I said wow, thanks Mr. Gowdy. He said “It’s $110 a week and all the records you can steal.” Gowdy helped me a lot. As a tribute to him my dog is named Gowdy!
- Gowdy told baseballer Hawk Harrelson at the time that the ex-player launched his broadcast career to be himself and not to try to please everyone.