Chuck Thompson arrived behind a microphone back in that distant, primordial time when big league baseball players left their gloves on the field between innings and scoreboards were still operated manually. He remembers broadcasting one game "by peeking through an aperture in the right field scoreboard where they hung the scores" and another from ground level only "10 or 15 feet behind home plate."
And here he is, past his 75th birthday, past his induction into baseball's
Hall of Fame, past the time when his contemporaries have hung up their larynx
to dry, the voice still golden, the enthusiasm still buoyant, the microphone
moved south from 33rd Street to Camden Yards, but he's still behind it.
the Orioles, and for 30 years he
was synonymous with the Colts of blessed memory, and now Thompson's put his
whole professional life on paper, in a book called "Ain't the Beer Cold,"
which was the joyous cry that served as his signature call for years.
To read it -- and it's due in bookstores within days -- is to hear
Thompson's own inflections: relaxed, amiable, floating breezily across a
summer's evening, the tones of an ordinary guy you've known all your life, who
just happens to have the best job in the whole world.
Like Chuck, the book is good company. Like Chuck, it's full of
self-effacing, modest moments (including his broadcast of Bill Mazeroski's
1960 World Series-winning homer, when Thompson got both the opposing pitcher
and the score wrong.) Hey, it's just baseball. Hey, he's just an ordinary
fellow, a guy who grew up thinking he looked like a collection of spare body
parts but had "a pretty good voice." He figures he just got lucky.
Luck's part of it. There was the day in 1946 at Philadelphia's Shibe Park
when Thompson, returned from World War II to his old studio announcer's job at
WIBG radio, was asked to broadcast a pregame ceremony honoring two Phillies'
Then the two sportscasters were to return to the press box and announce
the day's game. But the elevator to the press box was hand-operated, and the
operator had disappeared. The inexperienced Thompson suddenly had to start the
game himself -- minus score card, lineup or any other assistance. He handled
it well enough that the old Philadelphia A's and Phillies added him to their
broadcast lineup the next spring.
Sure there was luck. Like the time he sat with announcer Connie Desmond
before the 1948 Navy-Missouri football game in Baltimore, for Mutual Radio
Network. The veteran Desmond would handle the action. Thompson only had to
handle brief pregame chatter, then introduce his senior partner. But Desmond,
desperately ill, changed plans at the last moment.
"Was I in for a surprise," Thompson remembers. "Connie thanked me, made
some remarks and then said, 'Now, for the play-by-play, here's Chuck
Thompson.' With that, he put on his hat and coat, and walked out of the booth
-- leaving me . . . almost totally lost, without lineups, numerical
charts or spotters' boards -- and talking to listeners on more than 200
stations around the country."
Lucky for Thompson, he got through it alive. But you don't stick around
for half a century on luck. The voices we hear on the radio are more than just
describers of fastballs and blocked punts. They're the narrators of our
athletic fantasies, the companions of our solitary hours, the intermediaries
who speak to our heroes and pass along the stuff they've gotten close enough
"Ain't the Beer Cold" brings us back to Brooksie and Frank, to Marchetti
and Moore, but also to Bailey Goss and Bill O'Donnell, to the long night hours
on the road after dreary midseason losses, to rounds of drinks at Toots Shor's
old Manhattan saloon that end with Toots and Jackie Gleason betting $100 on
who could race around the block the fastest, and Gleason winning because he
hitched a ride in a taxi when nobody was looking.
There are old Colt tales recalling ancient laughs, like the time Thompson
watched Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb playfully reach an arm into a restaurant
fish tank, trying to catch a fish the hard way, and failing. Then John Unitas
walked in, stuck in his own hand, and immediately snared a fish.
"How'd you do that?" asked an incredulous Lipscomb.
"It's easy," said Unitas. "All you have to do is know the pass route."
And there's that moment, in the overtime of the '58 championship game in
New York, when Thompson, doing the TV broadcast, suddenly realizes there is
absolutely no picture.
He's brought back nice moments out of a lovely career, and he's been
assisted in the writing here by Gordon Beard, who was the Associated Press
Baltimore sports guy for a few decades.
Beard's also the one who emceed Farewell, Brooks Day for Brooks Robinson.
It was back when Reggie Jackson said, "If I played in New York, they'd name a
candy bar after me." Beard told the huge Memorial Stadium crowd, "Around here,
nobody's named a candy bar after Brooks Robinson. We name our children after
Chuck Thompson and Gordon Beard: We're in the sure hands of veterans.