Eye disease limits WBAL's Thompson; Role is restricted to radio commentary
By Milton Kent
In an article in Wednesday's editions, The Sun reported that Orioles
radio announcer Chuck Thompson was undergoing "new, experimental therapy" to
treat the eye disease macular degeneration.
When Thompson's treatment began earlier this year, the therapy was
permitted as part of an experimental study. Since then, on April 12, the Food
and Drug Administration approved verteporfin, the drug involved in the
therapy, making it no longer experimental.
Chuck Thompson, the voice of Orioles baseball and Colts football for
generations of Marylanders, is undergoing treatment for an optical disease
that could bring to a close his broadcasting career.
Thompson, who will be 79 next month, is suffering from macular
degeneration, a leading cause of blindness among the elderly, that has limited
his vision to the point where he can neither read documents nor do baseball
play-by-play, because he can't see the ball.
As a result, Thompson's duties on Orioles games this season have been
limited to commentary, a role he will fill this weekend in New York, while
Fred Manfra is doing Kentucky Derby broadcasts for ABC Radio.
"I have parts of sight, but I don't have the ability to read. I can look
out my window and see trees and I can see my grandchildren and my wife," said
Thompson. "There's one minor problem and we hope that it can be corrected."
Thompson, who said he has felt the effects of the disease for the past two
years, is undergoing a new, experimental form of treatment called photodynamic
therapy at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute. The treatment may either
slow the progress of the disease or help him to see better.
In the "wet" form of macular degeneration, which Thompson has, tiny
capillaries grow behind the macula, the portion of the retina that provides
central vision. When those vessels burst, the blood from them destroys
light-sensing nerve cells and damages a person's sight.
Thompson said the disease causes no pain, headaches or side effects, but
has the effect of making it difficult for him to distinguish word endings or
to follow a plane across the sky or a putt across the green.
Thompson said he can see stop signs, but not when they are surrounded by
trees and other vegetation, and while the ailment has improved his night
vision, one of the unfortunate casualties of the disease is that he has been
unable to complete the audio version of his book, "Ain't the Beer Cold."
"The stop sign just blends right into the foliage. Yellow lines on the road
just seem to split right up the middle, as do telegraph poles," said Thompson,
whose brother also suffers from the ailment.
The photodynamic therapy treatment that Thompson is undergoing involves the
infusion of a drug, verteporfin, into the bloodstream. The drug looks for and
identifies the abnormal capillaries, then, using a low-power laser, a doctor
starts a chemical reaction that essentially seals off the vessels and causes
them to dry up.
Thompson, who underwent the therapy earlier this year, said the evaluation
period, which was originally thought to be about seven weeks, may now be as
long as three months.
The doctors "are not positive that it will have any effect and they are
anxious to see what the result will be, as am I. It may work for some people
and not for others," said Thompson. "If anything good comes of this, I'm
hoping that my experience can be helpful to others who have this and aren't
Thompson has been a mainstay of Baltimore radio and television since he
began broadcasting Orioles minor-league games in 1949, and his catch phrases,
"Go to war, Miss Agnes," and "Ain't the Beer Cold," are indelibly stamped in
the memories of area fans.
He received the Ford Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993,
which while not technically signifying induction into the Hall, is the highest
honor a baseball announcer can receive. Besides the Orioles, Thompson, and
former WBAL broadcaster Vince Bagli, were the voices of the Colts, and area
football fans will recall his call of Alan Ameche's touchdown plunge in the
overtime of the 1958 NFL championship game between the Colts and the New York
In recent years, Thompson, who will work alongside Jim Hunter on Friday and
Saturday, has done a limited schedule of Orioles games for WBAL (1090 AM), the
team's flagship station, and station manager Jeff Beauchamp said he's content
to let Thompson work at his own pace.
"We made it clear to Chuck when we entered into this last deal that he
could do whatever he felt comfortable with," Beauchamp said. "If he wanted to
do color, that's fine with us. He's an icon and we want him to be a part of
our broadcast in whatever way is best for him."