LACKING A contract with a television station whose managers never should have let him out of the parking lot, Chris Thomas left Baltimore against his will. That was nearly 16 years ago. And yet his death at the age of 55 from cancer in Tampa on Wednesday night was mourned here as the sudden loss of a local treasure, as if Thomas had just finished a broadcast on TV Hill and died in transit to spring training with the Orioles.
No knock against any of the television sportscasters who stayed or came on the scene after his departure for another TV gig in Florida, but Chris Thomas was the toughest act to follow in Baltimore sports since Brooks.
From the late 1970s through 1988, if you lived in the Baltimore region and had any sense of "star quality," you could see it in this trim, suntanned - some would say "ruddy" - mustachioed fellow with the mischievous grin and theatrically deployed arched eyebrow. He was funny, smart, cocky, outrageous and irreverent. He had an infectious humor that came through over the air and complete command of his subject - from horse racing to football, golf to fishing.
He gave the scores, for sure, but so much more. He was master of the wisecrack, practiced in the one-liner. He wore silly hats.
He famously carried on conversations with a papier-mache likeness of Robert Irsay, the reviled Colts owner who took Baltimore's beloved football team to Indianapolis in March 1984. The life-size dummy, a creation of sports cartoonist Mike Ricigliano, repeated Irsay's ravings from a memorable airport news conference: "Whaddaya beatin' me for? I'm a good Catholic! Don Schaefer is my friend!"
Recalls Rudy Miller, former news anchor at Channel 11: "Sometimes, when Chris had that Irsay dummy on the set and he'd be talking to him, I'd laugh so hard I couldn't read the next story."
"You watched and listened to Chris," says Frank Traynor, former executive producer at the station, "and you felt, 'Hey, that's the kind of guy I could have a beer with at the corner bar,' and back in those days, you probably did."
Thomas spiced his segments with offbeat highlights. The running of the bulls in Pamplona: "There were 14 people injured. Four needed medical attention. All needed psychiatric attention."
He liked to air professional wrestling highlights and other kooky sports-related clips.
"What do you think [the viewers] will remember the next day?" he asked after one of his snappy sportscasts in 1986. "Who won the Moonlight 500 at Tallahassee or the greatest frying pan tennis player in the world?"
Thomas was lucky to have worked in Baltimore during a time before the concentration of media ownership in America, and before television news managers, enslaved by the corporate bottom line and marketing consultants, cut the length of sportscasts to a why-bother afterthought, reduced the local flavor in their news shows and overdosed on weather. Once upon a time, the best on-air personalities were given room to be creative. Thomas and his crew exploited that to the fullest - and often with hilarious results.
When, as Channel 11's weekend sports anchor, Thomas knew he could not air Super Bowl highlights because of network restrictions, he gave his viewers reports on the game as they watched "dramatizations" on a vibrating electric table-top football game.
Same thing with championship prizefights. When big matches went pay-per-view, and Thomas had no video to offer at 11 o'clock, he created his own, setting up the Rock-'em Sock-'em Robots game on the Channel 11 news set and giving round-by-round accounts.
Recalls Kurt "Skip" Kolaja, a videographer who worked closely with Thomas: "Back when local television was the sandpile it should be, and you could go play in it, the pro bowlers' tour was coming to Baltimore, so we had the bowling ball in Chris' office get in the act. I think the bowling ball was called 'Big Willie.' In the video we made, Big Willie had a mind of its own and kinda slipped off the shelf, and rolled across the newsroom, and right out the front door of Channel 11, then down the Jones Falls Expressway ... and right into a bowling alley where, of course, it made a perfect strike."
Through all the antics, Chris Thomas respected his audience and understood, in its time, Baltimore's working-class sports culture and traditions.
"He had a blue-collar ethos that appealed to people," says Will Schwarz, executive sports producer for Thomas and for WBAL's prime sports anchor, Vince Bagli, back in the day. "There was nothing elitist about him. ... He admired the jockeys and the folks who work on the backstretch. I think that's why Chris was such a champion of the Blast, too. There was a working-man aura to that team in his time that struck a nerve with him, in stark opposition to the millionaire utility players in other professional sports."
And Thomas definitely had that star quality that set him apart.
"He was the kind of person who magnetized a room the moment he walked in," says Schwarz. "He enjoyed himself so much and seemed to have a way of inviting people to share in the fun. I think he did that on the air and in person - his life was a joy ride, and there was always room for one more."
Thomas' personality and talents could have carried him beyond his television and radio jobs in Tampa, to SportsCenter or other national sports programs. But that would have been a waste of a certain something that, to the viewers' detriment, is far less in demand than it was during Thomas' time in Baltimore - the instinctive ability to connect with a local audience, to offer something unique, something you can't get anywhere else - in Thomas' case, something purely Baltimore.
When that kind of thing clicks for a broadcaster, there's nothing better, which is why a lot of people around here felt awful when WBAL-TV didn't work a new deal to keep Thomas in 1988, and why news of his death last week hit home.
"There was so much Baltimore about his character and outlook," says Schwarz, "it's hard to believe he's been gone from here for so long."