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TWO FOR THE HALL: CHUCK Thompson joins broadcast legends after having a ball for many ears

By Jim Henneman

Sun Staff

August 1, 1993

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Cooperstown, N.Y. -- When he walked away from retirement three years ago, Chuck Thompson didn't realize he was stepping onto the path that would lead him to the Hall of Fame.

"To be honest, I felt if it was going to happen, it would've happened years ago," Thompson said. "It would've been nice, but I didn't think it was going to happen to me."

He was wrong, as he found out last Feb. 9, when the announcement was made. And he has since learned what others have known for decades -- that only a handful of the athletes whose actions he has described have had a greater impact on the community.

This afternoon, in the picturesque village of Cooperstown that is home to the museum that immortalizes the greats of baseball, Thompson will better understand that impact. He will be the 17th recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award and enter the broadcast wing of baseball's Hall of Fame.

"It came as a complete shock to me," Thompson said, recalling his initial feeling after learning of his selection. "When Ed Stack [president of the Hall of Fame] called, it must have taken me two minutes to say thank you."

Coming from someone who has never been at a loss for words while broadcasting major-league baseball during a span that covers six decades, two minutes to summarize two words is tantamount to a career. But it is only now that Thompson can fully understand, and enjoy, the contribution he has made to baseball -- and the community that has adopted him.

There are a lot of people who feel that because Thompson had spent virtually all his career in the "burg" of Baltimore, his nomination for the Frick award was long overdue. If that is the case, the compensation is the communal celebration that climaxes today, when hundreds of his friends and fans witness Thompson's induction.

"Ever since the announcement, the reaction of the people has been incredible," Thompson said.

"It has given me the feeling that a lot of people are rejoicing along with me. It's a nice feeling. To think that so many people will be up here . . . it's kind of strange. . . . I don't feel like I can really explain it."

Friend of the fans

Those who know Thompson best, for the most part, are people away from the sports mainstream who grew up with his voice. They, perhaps, can best explain the phenomenon of the man who came to Baltimore from Philadelphia in 1949 and immediately ingratiated himself to new surroundings.

Chick Serio was introduced to Thompson more than 20 years ago by Bud Freeman, former promotions director for the Orioles. The two played golf the next day. "He told me it was the first time he had played golf since the death of Bailey Goss [Thompson's longtime broadcast partner and friend who was killed in a car accident]," said Serio.

"We just hit it off. He's a regular guy. He's Baltimore. His friends mean everything to him. I have memories that could never be duplicated."

Asked to interpret the relationship between the community and Thompson, Serio gave a three-word summation: "Pure, unadulterated love."

Cliff Van Roby, himself a veteran radio sportscaster, first met Thompson at a banquet in Cumberland. Like most of Thompson's friends/fans, Van Roby doesn't recall a specific incident that spurred their friendship, only that it has grown steadily over the past 25 years.

"Chuck was always very well accepted in our area and he emceed our Man of the Year dinner about 10 times," Van Roby said. "Golf probably had a lot to do with our friendship, but we've become very close over the years.

"Four years ago [when Thompson was still in semiretirement], he turned down a request to broadcast an Orioles game so he could come to a 50th-anniversary party for my wife [Dorothy] and me.

"A couple of years ago, when I came to Baltimore for an operation, he took us into his home. He took me to the hospital at 6:30 in the morning, to make sure everything was OK.

"To give you an idea how people relate to Chuck, a young girl working at the hospital came over and said, 'I'll take good care of your friend if you give me your autograph.' Before he was finished signing, there were six or eight people asking for his autograph -- at 6:30 in the morning.

"I feel very fortunate that we have a very close relationship," said Van Roby, who accompanied Thompson to Cooperstown on Thursday. "You don't get to make that many -- and I consider Chuck the closest friend I have."

Buck Mann grew up and still lives on the Eastern Shore, where he is an Ocean City councilman. Although he's met Thompson on several occasions, he is like the vast majority of those who identify with him -- a fan.

"Chuck is the man, it seems like he's always been the voice of sports in Maryland," Mann said. "Everybody grew up listening to him.

"When you think of Baltimore, you think of Chuck. He's a big part of the community. He's just one of us, which is one reason we're so proud of him. This is a great tribute, and I think we all feel we can share in it with him."

Growing with Baltimore

Since coming out of his self-imposed retirement -- even though he never seemed to be away because he would fill in on occasion -- Thompson's acceptance has been greater than ever. It hasn't gone unnoticed.

"I think maybe a lot of people close to my generation looked at it as though an old friend was back -- and isn't it nice he's still around," Thompson said.

Still, it took his selection for the Frick award and a spot in Cooperstown for Thompson to see the entire picture. "I always had the feeling that once I spoke into the microphone, the words just disappeared on the other side," he said.

"But the reaction to going into the Hall of Fame has been unbelievable," Thompson said. "On the first road trip this year I took hundreds of letters, because I wanted to try to read and answer them all.

"It was awfully hard to get through some of the letters I received. One gentleman wrote on a legal pad and said he hoped I understood that it wasn't the kind of letter he wanted to put on a machine.

"I think that's when it hit me. I never knew someone like myself, doing what I do, could have that kind of impact on people.

"Then I think back and realize that I've been here for parts of six decades and crossed a few generations. It's truly been a great career."

And Thompson feels that what some considered a drawback to his national acclaim was one of the reasons for his success and longevity. "The best thing that ever happened to me was coming to Baltimore," he said.

"I don't think this could have happened anywhere else. When I first got there, Baltimore got some bad raps, but it has grown and I was able to be there and grow along with it.

"I've been there to see the city rebuilt to the point where it now is one of the best in the country.

"I believe in luck, I believe in fate. I really do. And I think I was the right guy, in the right place at the right time.

"When the Orioles developed into one of the best organizations in baseball, I was the guy behind the microphone. When the Colts became a championship team, I happened to be the guy behind the microphone.

"It [his career] has been very satisfying, there's no doubt about it. But I don't think it could have happened anywhere else."

Groomed by a legend

Three years ago, Byrum Saam, who broadcast major-league baseball in Philadelphia for 33 years, went into the Hall of Fame as the recipient of the Frick award. He was Thompson's original mentor -- and the reason Thompson went to Baltimore.

It was by accident in 1946 that Thompson first broadcast a big-league game. He was working the booth while Saam was taking part in "Radio Appreciation Day" ceremonies on the field between games of a doubleheader.

"The only way to the booth was by elevator and the operator wasn't there when the activity on the field was over," Thompson said. "The next thing I knew, Whitey Lockman was coming to the plate to start the second game and I just started talking."

Les Quailey, a broadcast executive, was in the booth with Thompson at the time. When Saam finally got back to the booth, instead of shuffling the rookie out, Quailey instructed the veteran announcer to "sit down and work with the kid."

Thus began a career that has spanned 47 years -- all but those first three in Baltimore. After calling home games for both the Phillies and Athletics the next two years -- "the best job in baseball, no travel," he said -- Thompson found himself stymied by a blossoming legend.

"Les had been advising me on money matters and told me there was nowhere else for me to go unless Byrum took another job," Thompson said. "He was the one who arranged for me to audition in Baltimore."

The rest is history. Thompson and his first wife, Rose, who died in 1985, settled in and raised their three children in Baltimore.

Craig, whose wife, Donna, presented Thompson with his seventh grandchild Tuesday, is a Maryland State Trooper living in Baltimore. Sandy Kuckler now resides in Nashville, Tenn., and Susan Perkins lives in Westfield, N.J. Thompson is now remarried to Betty Cupp, who has a daughter, Darlene Allen of Pocomoke, and a granddaughter.

It was his desire to spend more time with the children and grandchildren that prompted Thompson to "retire" after the 1987 season. It didn't last for two reasons.

"First of all, WBAL asked me if I'd do a schedule of games," Thompson said. "And second, when I retired it looked like I was going to be set to live the way I wanted, but it wasn't working out that way."

Now that he's "unretired," Thompson, 72, has no immediate plans to alter his schedule. "WBAL has asked me to do some games again next year, and as long as they ask I guess I'll keep on going."

Backed by generations

When he steps to the podium this afternoon, Thompson will be flooded with thoughts and emotions. One will stand out.

"In the movie 'A League Of Their Own,' the manager tells one of the players, 'There's no crying in baseball,' " Thompson said. "Well that's not true -- people cry in Baltimore.

"They cried when the last game was played at Memorial Stadium LTC and I cried right along with them."

Today there's a good chance that Chuck Thompson will shed a tear again. He won't have to feel alone. A few generations of Baltimoreans will cry right along with him.

THE THOMPSON FILE

Age: 72.

Family: Married to Betty Cupp, his second wife. His first wife, Rose died in 1985. Thompson has three children: Craig, who lives in Baltimore; Sandy Kuckler of Nashville, Tenn.; and Susan Perkins of Westfield, N.J. He has seven grandchildren.

Started in broadcasting: 1939 at WRAW in Reading, Pa.

Came to Baltimore: 1949.

What he's broadcast: Temple University football, Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia Athletics, Philadelphia Eagles, Philadelphia Warriors (NBA), Philadelphia Rockets (hockey), Baltimore Orioles (International League and American League), Baltimore Colts (All-America Conference, NFL), Washington Senators, Baltimore Bullets, Navy football, NBC's baseball Game of the Week.