The voice at the heart of the Orioles, Colts

Michael Olesker
Sun Columnist

His was the Voice of Summer. Across five decades of Baltimore Orioles baseball, those familiar tones arrived in bedrooms and barrooms, in kitchens and in cars strung out along dark lonesome roads. The athletes came and went with the years, as athletes do, but Chuck Thompson held things together. He brought us the ballgames of summer, and these helped turn us into a community.

He was there every autumn, too, in a now-vanished ballpark on 33rd Street where he led the Sunday worship services for a religion called the Baltimore Colts. It was Chuck who helped forge that holy communion between the team and the town. "The voice of God in Baltimore," broadcaster Ted Patterson once called him.

Remember how it was? If you listen to your imagination, you can still hear the echoes of Chuck from his press box pulpit:

"Unitas pitches to Moore. Now here's Lenny, moving laterally along the 35. He's got Parker in front of him. Moore slips away from Nitschke at the 40. He ducks Adderley at the 45, and he's got Mackey knocking people down at midfield. Here's Lenny moving into Packer territory, throwing a hip, bobbing and weaving ... "

Remember? For half a century, in the midst of cheering thousands, Chuck's was the voice at the heart of it. He did what announcers are supposed to do: He gave us an honest accounting. He created a ballpark inside our heads. He painted the human face of the team on the field. He became a keeper of the clubs' histories and an igniter of the public imagination.

And he did it in the present tense. When he did baseball, you didn't hear the crack of the bat and then that embarrassing pause while the announcer figures out what's happening and tries to put words around it. Thompson's eye and his verbal machinery worked in harmony. He was talking to you the instant bat and ball connected, and he kept up with the play until it was over.

Remember Brooks Robinson's miracles behind third base? Remember the 1970 World Series, when Lee May's bullet was hit so ferociously that it carried Brooksie deep into foul territory? Here's Chuck's call, at laser speed:

"The 2-2 to May. Swing, ground ball, third-base side. Brooks Robinson's got it, throwing from foul ground toward first base. It is ... in time!"

So much going on so quickly, and he was right on top of it, as it was happening.

In football, he was even better. For most radio announcers, the game is murderous. It's 22 men in organized chaos. They give you a ball carrier's name and a yard line if you're lucky, and then their press box spotter slips them the tackler when it's over. Then they search their memory and try to re-create the play from a nearby TV monitor. Chuck brought us the news as it was happening; he put you in the moment.

"Here's Moore, bobbing and weaving..."

"The guy's amazing," Vince Bagli was saying at Memorial Stadium some years back. Bagli was Chuck's sidekick for so many Colts games. "Night before the game, Chuck's always in his room, going over the numbers. Matching up the player and the number. After all these years, making sure he's got it perfect when he's on the air."

He was the veteran who approached each game with utmost respect for his listeners. To hear his voice doing an Orioles game - relaxed, amiable, floating breezily across a summer's evening - was to hear a gentleman neighbor drop in for a chat.

He was good company. You can't keep company around for half a century if you don't find him delightful - and Chuck was here from those early days when we were just getting to know our modern teams.

One day - it was Jerry Hoffberger's funeral, actually - I sat next to Chuck as he reminisced about how it all started for him. Thompson and Hoffberger, who owned Orioles' sponsor National Brewing Co. and later became the owner of the ballclub, "first sat down in 1955. It wasn't much of a conversation. He stuck out his hand and said, 'Kid, we got a deal.' And, for 23 years, that was it. We never had a contract. It was just a handshake, and it was good enough."

Then Chuck lifted his left hand and held up a wristwatch. On it was the commercial visage of a generation that linked Thompson, and broadcasts, and Maryland: Mr. Boh, the mustachioed National beer mascot. "Ain't the beer cold?" Chuck would cry. Jerry Hoffberger sold beer, and Thompson's voice sold a community an identity: The Land of Pleasant Living.

He was fine on television, but he was great on the radio, where you watched the game inside your head. Mark Harris, author of the great baseball novel Bang the Drum Slowly, once wrote:

"Radio was awe. The awe was produced by remoteness. ... Television reduces awe. In the days of radio, we scarcely knew the faces of the players, and so they were gods in ways the modern player can never be, whose face is familiar to us; whose stances and style we so clearly see; who sweats, who spits, who tugs at his crotch; whose tight fitting uniform in living color reveals his merely mortal form."

Chuck produced awe in real time. He did it by reporting the truth, and he did it with a sense of humor, too. Still vivid is the memory of 1958, when Unitas was sidelined for several games with a punctured lung. Then, on his first play from scrimmage, he found Lenny Moore and heaved a 60-yard touchdown bomb.

Behind his microphone, Thompson dryly asked, "How rusty can a guy get?"

It was Chuck and the late John Steadman who helped create the religious fervor around the Colts. It was Steadman who used to blow a horn in the press box when the Colts would score a touchdown. It was John's little rebellion against the stiffness of all those allegedly objective sportswriters.

One night years later, at the Bay Cafe, Chuck mentioned the horn. He said he and John took a little boat out on the Chesapeake Bay one day, and they played taps and then buried the horn at sea.

"Look at this," Chuck said as he told the story. He pointed to his bare arms. "I've got goose bumps."

That's what Chuck Thompson gave us for half a century: goose bumps. And it wasn't just because the beer was cold.

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