Thompson brought listeners to the ballpark

WHEN IT WAS Chuck Thompson's time to say a few words, Fred Manfra led him to the microphone and then Chuck's wife, Betty, and his son, Craig, were there to guide him away. Chuck doesn't see too well now. It is one of the cruel ironies of our time. For so many years, his eyes supplied the vision for a whole community.

More than a thousand people gathered Tuesday night, at Martin's West, to pay tribute to Thompson, the retired sportscaster, and to raise money for the Wilmer Macular Degeneration Center and the International Rett Syndrome Association.

"To all those with macular degeneration, Chuck's a hero," said Peter Camochiaro, from the Wilmer Eye Institute. "For so many years, his gift of the spoken word let them see things even if they weren't there."

He did it across half a century, and he did it for everyone who didn't have a ticket to the game. He did it sitting in radio and television booths with the Orioles and Colts from their earliest (and last) days here, and he described the action with authority and wit and a golden voice and the remarkable ability to stay on top of the play as it was taking place.

"Also," said Lenny Moore, "a quality person. In a world of take, you don't see this kind of man who's always looking to give."

Moore, the marvelous Hall of Famer for the Colts, helped create a lifestyle in Baltimore built around a football team. But it was Thompson up in the booth, igniting people's imaginations, telling the stories of wondrous things happening in a ballpark, creating the buzz that made people want to be a part of it.

We build communities of the spirit out of such things. The sportscaster Ted Patterson was there Tuesday. He has a swell new book and CD, The Golden Voices of Baseball, with a section devoted to Chuck Thompson. As you look through the book, and see all the familiar names - Mel Allen, Red Barber, Vin Scully, Russ Hodges, Bob Prince - you realize how many of them became identified not only with a team, but a town.

"Chuck's the voice of God in Baltimore," Patterson said.

Thompson was there from the beginning of modern sports in Baltimore. On summer nights before air conditioning, you could walk through neighborhoods and keep up with Orioles games by the radio broadcasts coming through open windows.

On Sunday afternoons each autumn, Fred Manfra remembered, "You could look out your window, and there was never a soul on the street. If they didn't have a ticket to the Colts, they were listening to Chuck on the radio."

Manfra, now one of the Orioles' voices, grew up in East Baltimore, graduated from Patterson Park High, and "lived and died with the Colts and Orioles. Chuck was my idol. He's one of the greatest ever to sit behind a microphone. But the man who was our eyes has lost his."

"I feel good," Thompson said Tuesday night as the big crowd gathered. Macular degeneration has taken away much of his sight, but not his ability to count his blessings. "I can't read anymore, but I feel fine."

"Chuck's voice has resonated through this city," said Ken Singleton, the former Orioles outfielder now broadcasting Yankees games. "On cold nights in April and October, I'd slip out of the dugout and go back into the clubhouse to listen to Chuck. It got me away from Earl." He meant Weaver, the volcanic manager.

"The thing is," said Singleton, "Chuck's like a man who's been in your house through the generations. Even if we haven't met him, we know him."

"A great man, a wonderful man," Art Donovan, the Colts Hall of Famer, told the big crowd. "I don't think he ever said a bad word about anybody. I'm gonna go back and have another beer and think about that."

"I think I made the Hall of Fame because Chuck made such a good case for me," Jim Palmer said. "But he had a pretty good needle, too. He watched Reggie Jackson when Reggie was traded here, and said, `There's not enough mustard in the world to cover this young hot dog.'"

What we have here are not just tributes, but testaments to the power of the word. It wasn't just that Chuck Thompson watched ballgames for us. The games created generations of good will, of characters around whom we all invest common emotions.

Donovan can joke about beer, and we understand the joker behind the crack. Chuck told us all about this guy on the radio. Palmer can mention Reggie, and everybody understands the hot dog line. Singy can mention Weaver, and we recall sparks flying out of Earl's cap as he chased after some poor umpire.

We remember it, even if we weren't there. Chuck Thompson brought it to us across half a century. He was our eyes. He gave us a vision of ourselves in our most playful moments.