Monday, July 17, 2017

Bob Wolff, 1920-2017

There was an official attendance of 64,519 fans at the original Yankee Stadium for Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. The official attendance there for the 1958 NFL Championship Game was 64,185. Neither figure counts people who got to see the game for free, or who were paid to be there.

I don't know how many people were at both games. I do know that one man broadcast both games: Bob Wolff.

Robert Alfred Wolff was born on November 29, 1920 in Manhattan. In 1939, while attending Duke University on a baseball scholarship, he broke his ankle. Not willing to give up on his love of sports, he began broadcasting for the local CBS radio station, doing Duke's football games.

In 1947, the Washington Senators began broadcasting their games on television, and Wolff was their 1st lead announcer. In 1961, the team moved to Minneapolis to become the Minnesota Twins, and he moved with them, leaving after 1 season to join NBC on their Saturday Game of the Week.
Bob Wolff interviews Babe Ruth.

He had already broadcast on NBC, doing their World Series broadcasts, including Game 5 of the 1956 World Series between the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. This was the game in which Don Larsen pitched the 1st no-hitter in World Series history, and a perfect game no less.

Wolff had the call. In those days, NBC chose the TV announcers from each of the Pennant winners. That meant Mel Allen and Red Barber from the Yankees, and Vin Scully from the Dodgers. (Barber had been with the Dodgers from 1938 to 1953, but left after a dispute with team owner Walter O'Malley.)

But that year, baseball's All-Star Game was played at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. Its broadcast was sponsored by the Gillette Safety Razor Company. When Gillette became the sole sponsor of the World Series on radio, company officials remembered Wolff's performance, and brought him in to join Bob Neal, who broadcast for the Cleveland Indians and Browns. The pair would alternate throughout the Series, each calling half the game.

Wolff got to do the 2nd half of the game, and later admitted that he was finding every way possible to tell people that Larsen was doing something historic, while still avoiding the classic jinx: If you mention a no-hitter on the air while it's in progress, you will cause a batter to get a hit and ruin it. Yet, according to baseball historian John Thorn, this jinx does not seem to apply to the words "perfect game," only "no-hitter."

So Wolff got creative: "Larsen has allowed no baserunners." "No Dodger batter has reached 1st base." "Larsen has retired 21 men in a row." "24 men up, 24 men down."

In the top of the 9th, it was 26 up, 26 down, and the Yankees led 2-0, including a home run by Mickey Mantle, who had also made a great catch to rob Gil Hodges of at least a double. Remember, these were the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, the Boys of Summer. This was no easy task: There were killers in that lineup.

Hodges hit 370 home runs in his career. Duke Snider hit 407. Roy Campanella hit 242 in what was essentially half a career, cut short at the beginning by racism and at the end by a tragic accident. Jackie Robinson was much more than a pioneer, putting together a .311 lifetime batting average. Carl Furillo won the National League batting title in 1953. Jim Gilliam was an All-Star that season. Don Zimmer, later known as a major league manager and coach, was a decent player. And Pee Wee Reese, while never a great hitter, was no automatic out.

And the last batter, pinch-hitting for opposing pitcher Sal Maglie (better known for pitching for the other New York team, the baseball version of the Giants), was Dale Mitchell. A lefthanded batter stepping in against the righthanded Larsen, Mitchell was a big reason why the Cleveland Indians, 2 years earlier, had interrupted the Yankees' Pennant string: 1954 was the only season between 1949 and 1958 in which the Yankees didn't finish 1st in the American League.

Wolff's call:

I'll guarantee you that nobody, but nobody, has left this ballpark. And if somebody did manage to leave early, man, he is missing the greatest.

Two strikes and a ball. Mitchell waiting, stands deep, feet close together. 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! Yogi Berra runs out there, he leaps on Larsen! And he's swarmed by his teammates! Listen to this crowd roar!
Wolff also broadcast the World Series for NBC in 1958 and 1961, also won by the Yankees. But the Larsen perfecto tops everything he's announced: "It's the most meaningful game I've seen for its historical importance and for the effect it's had on my life. It's become a very big part of my persona."

In 1958, the New York Giants won the NFL's Eastern Division, the Baltimore Colts the Western Division. What the Colts were doing in the West, I don't know. But in those days, the hosting duties went back and forth, and, since it was an even-numbered year, it was the Eastern Division winner's turn to host the title game. (No neutral sites, as with the Super Bowl, beginning 8 seasons later.) And since Bob was already in New York, NBC assigned him the game.

It was December 28, 1958. The game went back and forth, and when Steve Myhra of the Colts kicked a last-second field goal, the game was tied 17-17. The NFL had a provision for overtime in case a Championship Game ended in a tie (no regular-season overtime was available until 1974), but it hadn't been necessary until now.

The Giants were unable to score on their 1st drive. Quarterback Johnny Unitas took the Colts downfield, mostly throwing to receiver Raymond Berry, who would join him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On the 1-yard line, in what would be deep left-center field in the Bronx ballyard's baseball configuration, he handed off to Alan Ameche. Two years earlier, at the University of Wisconsin, "The Horse" had won the Heisman Trophy, but he's remembered more for this short plunge.

Unitas gives to Ameche... The Colts are the World Champions! Ameche scores! The most dramatic finish in professional football!
Alan Ameche's touchdown, made possible by
Lenny Moore's block on Emlen Tunnell at left.
Johnny Unitas, Number 19 in white, stands behind Ameche.

Wolff later said that he worded his statement properly, rather than bury the lead. He was glad he said, "The Colts are the World Champions!" first, rather than, "Ameche scores!" first.

The Colts beat the Giants the next year as well, taking the 1959 NFL Championship Game in Baltimore, and became the original "America's Team." But that 1958 title game has gone down in history, with some exaggeration, as "The Greatest Game Ever Played." Of course, being in New York, featuring a New York team (though it lost), and being the 1st title game broadcast fully coast-to-coast had something to do with that.

But it can be argued that the greatest games in the history of both Major League Baseball and the National Football League happened just 810 days apart, in the same Stadium, and Bob Wolff broadcast them both.

In the 1960s and '70s, he broadcast Knicks games with former NYU and Knicks player Cal Ramsey, one of the earliest black sportscasters. This included announcing the NBA Finals of 1970 (the Knicks beat the Los Angeles Lakers), 1972 (the Lakers got revenge) and 1973 (the Knicks beat the Lakers again).

Game 7 of the Finals on May 8, 1970 at Madison Square Garden is easily the greatest moment in Knick history, because it was their 1st NBA Championship. Knick fans of a certain age will tell you that it was the greatest game in basketball history. It wasn't: Indeed, the Knicks made sure it wasn't all that close, 113-99.

But team Captain Willis Reed returning from injury, limping onto the court for pregame warmups, sinking the 1st 2 baskets of the game, and then Walt Frazier (who would later be a broadcast partner of Wolff's) having the game of his life, to bring the Knicks of Reed, Frazier, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere over the Lakers of Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West was a great moment.
Walt Frazier, dribbling past Happy Hairston

So Bob Wolff was behind the microphone for the greatest moments in New York baseball, football and basketball history. In 1972 and 1979, he broadcast the Stanley Cup Finals with the Rangers (losing to the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens, respectively).
The postgame handshake after the Bruins
beat the Rangers in Game 6 of the 1972 Stanley Cup Finals.

In fact, he is believed to be the only broadcaster who's ever broadcast the finals of the Big Four sports in North America. Dick Enberg and Bob Costas both fall a Stanley Cup Finals short, and I believe Curt Gowdy and Jack Buck did as well.

Bob Wolff and Curt Gowdy are the only announcers to be honored with the broadcasting awards of both the Baseball and the Basketball Halls of Fame. Indeed, the Basketball Hall's is named the Curt Gowdy Award, while the Baseball Hall's is named for former Commissioner Ford Frick, even though Frick was a sportswriter rather than a broadcaster.

He interviewed Babe Ruth and Jim Thorpe -- and Derek Jeter and LeBron James. In 2012, The Guinness Book of World Records certified him as the longest-running sportscaster in the history of the world. He broadcast from 1939 to 2017 -- 78 years. That's 11 years longer than Vin Scully.

"Bob is simultaneously credible and engaging," Costas says. "He has a genial authority, which is a rare combination. He exudes honest enthusiasm. It's not just a broadcast persona: He's actually a nice guy."

Late in life, Bob lived in South Nyack, Rockland County, New York, and broadcast on News 12 until a few weeks ago. Just this past October, approaching his 96th birthday, he said, "I enjoy it. If I didn't do it, what would I do to have fun?"
Honored for his Washington broadcasting service
before a Washington Nationals game, 2013

He died this past Saturday, July 15, 2017, at his home in South Nyack. He was survived by his wife Jane, 2 sons, a daughter, 9 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. His son Rick Wolff is an author, and hosts a show on WFAN.

Brian Kenny, the longtime ESPN anchor now on MLB Network, grew up in Levittown, Long Island, and said, "For those too young, you missed a true gentleman. Bob Wolff was a terrific person, a role model."

No comments: