Chuck Thompson arrived behind a microphone back in that distant,primordial time when big league baseball players left their gloves on thefield between innings and scoreboards were still operated manually. Heremembers broadcasting one game "by peeking through an aperture in the rightfield scoreboard where they hung the scores" and another from ground levelonly "10 or 15 feet behind home plate."
And here he is, past his 75th birthday, past his induction into baseball'sHall of Fame, past the time when his contemporaries have hung up their larynxto dry, the voice still golden, the enthusiasm still buoyant, the microphonemoved south from 33rd Street to Camden Yards, but he's still behind it.
For nearly 40 years, he's been a voice of the Orioles, and for 30 years hewas synonymous with the Colts of blessed memory, and now Thompson's put hiswhole 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 hearThompson's own inflections: relaxed, amiable, floating breezily across asummer's evening, the tones of an ordinary guy you've known all your life, whojust happens to have the best job in the whole world.
Like Chuck, the book is good company. Like Chuck, it's full ofself-effacing, modest moments (including his broadcast of Bill Mazeroski's1960 World Series-winning homer, when Thompson got both the opposing pitcherand the score wrong.) Hey, it's just baseball. Hey, he's just an ordinaryfellow, a guy who grew up thinking he looked like a collection of spare bodyparts 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 Parkwhen Thompson, returned from World War II to his old studio announcer's job atWIBG radio, was asked to broadcast a pregame ceremony honoring two Phillies'play-by-play announcers.
Then the two sportscasters were to return to the press box and announcethe day's game. But the elevator to the press box was hand-operated, and theoperator had disappeared. The inexperienced Thompson suddenly had to start thegame himself -- minus score card, lineup or any other assistance. He handledit well enough that the old Philadelphia A's and Phillies added him to theirbroadcast lineup the next spring.
Sure there was luck. Like the time he sat with announcer Connie Desmondbefore the 1948 Navy-Missouri football game in Baltimore, for Mutual RadioNetwork. The veteran Desmond would handle the action. Thompson only had tohandle 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, madesome remarks and then said, 'Now, for the play-by-play, here's ChuckThompson.' With that, he put on his hat and coat, and walked out of the booth-- leaving me (ELLIPSES) . . . almost totally lost, without lineups, numericalcharts or spotters' boards -- and talking to listeners on more than 200stations around the country."
Lucky for Thompson, he got through it alive. But you don't stick aroundfor half a century on luck. The voices we hear on the radio are more than justdescribers of fastballs and blocked punts. They're the narrators of ourathletic fantasies, the companions of our solitary hours, the intermediarieswho speak to our heroes and pass along the stuff they've gotten close enoughto learn.
"Ain't the Beer Cold" brings us back to Brooksie and Frank, to Marchettiand Moore, but also to Bailey Goss and Bill O'Donnell, to the long night hourson the road after dreary midseason losses, to rounds of drinks at Toots Shor'sold Manhattan saloon that end with Toots and Jackie Gleason betting $100 onwho could race around the block the fastest, and Gleason winning because hehitched a ride in a taxi when nobody was looking.
There are old Colt tales recalling ancient laughs, like the time Thompsonwatched Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb playfully reach an arm into a restaurantfish tank, trying to catch a fish the hard way, and failing. Then John Unitaswalked 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 inNew York, when Thompson, doing the TV broadcast, suddenly realizes there isabsolutely no picture.
He's brought back nice moments out of a lovely career, and he's beenassisted in the writing here by Gordon Beard, who was the Associated PressBaltimore 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 acandy 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 afterhim."
Chuck Thompson and Gordon Beard: We're in the sure hands of veterans.