Thursday, September 17, 2015

Milo Hamilton, 1927-2015

In spite of their successful season, September has been a difficult month for Houston Astros fans. First Gene Elston, then Joaquin Andujar, now Milo Hamilton.

But in spite of his many years behind the microphone for the 'Stros, Hamilton will forever be most identified with the Atlanta Braves, because of one home run.

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Leland Milo Hamilton, and he always used his middle name, pronounced MY-loh, was born on September 2, 1927 in Fairfield, Iowa. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, broadcasting on Armed Forces Radio. He not only graduated from the University of Iowa, but broadcast their football and basketball games, and also went over to do games in the early NBA, for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks.

(The region is usually called the Quad Cities: Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa; and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois. Aside from the Rock Island Independents, founding members of the NFL in the 1920s, the Blackhawks were the closest the Quad Cities have ever had to a major league team. Today, it is home to a little under 500,000 people. The Blackhawks became the Milwaukee Hawks in 1951, the St. Louis Hawks in 1955, the Atlanta Hawks in 1968, and now they're considering moving again.)

In 1953, Hamilton got his first major league broadcasting job, for the St. Louis Browns. It was a dismal season, and everyone from owner Bill Veeck to the broadcasters to the fans knew that, with beer baron Gussie Busch having just bought the National League's Cardinals, the American League's Browns could not survive, as the St. Louis area simply couldn't support 2 teams in any one sport.

The team was moved to become the Baltimore Orioles, but the Cardinals hired Hamilton, to broadcast alongside a pair of budding legends, Harry Caray and Jack Buck. But for the first time, and not the last, Hamilton and Caray ran into conflict. And when former Cardinal catcher Joe Garagiola was brought onto the broadcast team, Hamilton was the odd man out.

Sensing a public-relations boost in central Illinois, the Chicago Cubs, the Cards' rivals, hired Hamilton, who then worked alongside Jack Brickhouse and Vince Lloyd. But that lasted just 3 years, as former big-league shortstop and manager Lou Boudreau, a central Illinois native, had gone into broadcasting, and the Cubs hired him. Again, Hamilton was the man whose place was taken. At least Boudreau was a Hall-of-Famer as a player; Garagiola was a joke, the first backup catcher/comedian to make it in baseball broadcasting, though hardly the last.

In between baseball jobs, he broadcast for the NBA's Chicago Zephyrs, the team now known as the Washington Wizards; and local college basketball, including Northwestern and DePaul. He also called Northwestern football games. (DePaul doesn't have a football team.)

Yet again, it was public relations, and the hope of taking fans away from another team, that led to Hamilton being hired. In 1961, after he'd done mainly football and basketball games for a while, the Chicago White Sox hired him, teaming him with Bob Elson.

He left this job after the 1965 season, but this time, it was because someone else wanted him, not because his current team didn't. The Milwaukee Braves had moved to Atlanta, and Atlanta station WGST had been part of the White Sox' radio network. So the Braves called on an already-familiar voice, and Hamilton was paired with former Braves pitcher Ernie Johnson. (You may be familiar wit his son, basketball broadcaster Ernie Johnson Jr., a.k.a. Mr. Smooth.)

Hamilton got his first postseason play in 1969, when Divisional play began in MLB, and the Braves, curiously placed in the NL's Western Division, won it, before being beaten by the Mets in the NL Championship Series. The Braves became steadily weaker, though, and attendance suffered as a result.

But on April 8, 1974, Opening Night in Atlanta, over 53,000 people jammed Atlanta Stadium (it would be renamed Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium the next year) to see Hank Aaron try to break Babe Ruth's career home run record. Hamilton had the call that would forever place him in baseball history, as Aaron batted against Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers:

Henry Aaron, in the second inning, walked and scored. He's sittin' on 714. Here's the pitch by Downing, swinging, there's a drive into left-center field! That ball is gonna be... Outta here! It's gone! It's 715! There's a new home run champion of all time! And it's Henry Aaron! The fireworks are going! Henry Aaron is coming around third! His teammates are at home plate! And just listen to this crowd! This sellout crowd is cheering Henry Aaron, the home run king of all time! 715!

But Hamilton's tenure in Atlanta was running out. Just as Red Barber "committed suicide by cop," losing his job in 1966 by asking the cameras to pan the stands at Yankee Stadium when a midweek rainout makeup attracted only 413 fans, Hamilton frequently pointed out the Braves' small crowds, which got smaller as Aaron's milestone faded into the distance in 1974, and smaller still as he'd gone back to Milwaukee with the Brewers in 1975. Hamilton was fired after that season, not 2 years after he'd called what is still the greatest moment in the 145-season history of Braves baseball. To make matters worse, one of his replacements was Harry Caray Jr., a.k.a. Skip Caray.

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Hamilton moved on to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1976, but they had just fired the legendary Bob Prince, one of the ultimate "homer" broadcasters, and Western Pennsylvania fans thought Hamilton was too professional for them.

In 1980, the Cubs took him back, alongside Brickhouse, Lloyd and Boudreau. He thought that he was being groomed as Brickhouse's successor, later saying that this had been "guaranteed in blood." Indeed, Brickhouse, determined to retire after the 1981 season, had endorsed him as such.

Except that both the Cubs' and the White Sox' broadcasting contracts also ran out after that season. And Harry Caray, who'd been forced out of St. Louis because he was having an affair with the wife of Augie Busch, son of owner Gussie Busch, knew that the Cubs would be part of WGN's new national cable-TV "superstation," while the White Sox were going to stay on a UHF station. "I knew," he said, "that if I stayed with the White Sox, pretty soon, I would be, 'Harry Who?'" So he cut a deal with WGN, going to the Cubs -- upsetting Cardinal fans (who hated the Cubs), White Sox fans (even more so), Brickhouse (who never liked Caray), and Hamilton (who still blamed him for his ouster from the North Side in 1957).

The 1984 season was a watershed for the Cubs, as their run to the NL East title, broadcasting nationwide on WGN, made people all over the country Cub fans, Wrigley Field fans, Ryne Sandberg fans, and Harry Caray fans. Milo Hamilton was pretty much "the other guy." He said that, after the season, WGN executives called him in, and told him for an hour how much they liked him, but that they had to let him go because Caray was more important to the Cubs, and that Caray wanted him out. Again.

Hamilton never forgave him, calling him "a miserable human being" in his book Making Airwaves: 60 Years at Milo's Microphone -- published after Harry's death, and enraging Harry's son Skip and Skip's son Harry III, a.k.a. Chip Caray. But the facts appear to be on Hamilton's side: Although Harry may have saved the Cubs (or at least Wrigley Field, preventing the Cubs from having to one day share an antiseptic suburban dome with the Bears), his peccadilloes have become well-known since his death.

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In 1985, Hamilton was hired by the Houston Astros, alongside fellow Iowan Gene Elston (who also died this month). Ironically, considering his own history, Hamilton got promoted to the main Astro play-by-play man because ownership felt that Elston's call of Mike Scott's no-hitter, which clinched the 1986 NL West title, was too low-key.

Hamilton's call of "Holy Toledo!" would become familiar throughout Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, States reached by the Astro radio and TV network. He saw the Astros reach the Playoffs in 1986, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2005. The last of these seasons marked the team's 1st Pennant in their 43-season history -- and also Hamilton's 1st Pennant. At last, he would get to broadcast a World Series. But the Astros were swept in 4 games, oddly by one of his former teams, the White Sox.

During that 2005 season, Hamilton, now 78, announced he would cut back his schedule, doing only home games. He did, however, make the Astros' 1st trips to newly-opened ballparks, including the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis (apparently, it wasn't the city he had a problem with, just the team), Nationals Park in Washington, Citi Field in New York and Marlins Park in Miami. He retired for good after the 2012 season, having called games in 59 different major league ballparks.

In 1992, he was awarded the Ford Frick Award by the Baseball Hall of Fame, tantamount to induction into the "broadcasters' wing." This award had previously been given to Gene Elston, but also to Harry Caray and Joe Garagiola. The Astros inducted him into their Walk of Fame, and on Opening Day 2009, Mayor Bill White (no relation to the ballplayer, broadcaster and National League President) renamed Hamilton Street in downtown Houston -- apparently, named for Alexander Hamilton -- Milo Hamilton Way.

He was predeceased by his wife Arlene and their daughter Patricia. He died today, from a recurrence of heart trouble, at the age of 88, survived by his son Mark.

Milo Hamilton will forever be linked with a home run in Atlanta, and many homestands in Houston. There aren't many old-time broadcasters left. It's why Vin Scully of the Dodgers is particularly treasured.

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