Orioles broadcaster Gary Thorne says memories of 1989 World Series earthquake still vivid

Orioles broadcaster Gary Thorne was covering the World Series when an earthquake hit 25 years ago.

Twenty-five years after one of the most bizarre days in Gary Thorne's broadcasting career, let alone his life, the World Series has brought MASN's Orioles play-by-play announcer back to San Francisco. 

Thorne, in San Francisco to call the World Series for Major League Baseball's international TV broadcasts, said he gets chilling memories of the day every time he walks around the city’s downtown area.

On Oct. 17, before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series between the Giants and Oakland Athletics, a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck Northern California.

Thorne was at Candlestick Park covering the World Series as a sideline reporter for ABC. Seconds before the quake, he was in front of the Giants dugout with analyst Joe Morgan, about to interview Giants great Willie Mays.

“They had just gone to commercial on ABC, and we were coming back and we were going to talk on the field with Willie,” Thorne said. “It was right at that moment when it was thrown back to San Francisco when the quake started. We never made it on the air.”

Thorne said that inside the stadium, they didn’t know the seriousness of the quake. It would cause 63 deaths, more than 3,700 injuries and incredible structural damage around the area. In fact, once the tremors subsided, Thorne remembers the announced crowd of about 62,000 chanting: “Play ball.”

“We didn’t have an idea for about 15 or 20 minutes of just how serious it was,” Thorne said. “Nobody knew. That area gets earthquakes every once in a while, so the seriousness of it wasn’t really known until some of the reports started coming in. … It was just like, ‘Whoa.’  You didn’t have the sense of that at the ballpark at the time.”

Thorne went from covering a baseball game to covering a news story. He stayed on the field to interview baseball commissioner Fay Vincent. The game was postponed, and the World Series was delayed 10 days before it resumed. Thorne did interviews with local fire and police chiefs while ABC’s news coverage of the quake took over on air.

“The thing is, it was a total shock,” Thorne said.

Thorne remembers getting a ride back to San Francisco that night with Morgan and seeing the entire city dark. That’s when the magnitude of the quake truly hit him.

“It was pitch black,” Thorne said. “You have no idea where anything is, whether you’re on the road, on the sidewalk, if there’s a house out there. He’s driving us back into town, and we’re around Union Square, and you realize, 'My God, the Macy’s store, every window had been blown out. … It’s still the strangest thing I had ever seen. There’s no electricity, and in the hotel, they’re trying to figure out where they’re going to get water bottles from, so people have something to drink. There were some very strange nights.

“The beauty of it, if there was such thing as that, was that the city of San Francisco and the people in it remained totally calm. If there ever was a time where there could have been some serious looting and vandalism and that sort of thing, there was none of that. People were helping each other, trying to help people get back home and moving people around as best as they could. But you never had any sense that there was going to be any type of activity going on in the city, and there wasn’t.”

Thorne will be in the broadcast booth tonight at AT&T Park calling Game 3 of the World Series between the Kansas City Royals and host Giants. He said he took a walk around the downtown area Friday, and everywhere he turned, a memory of 1989 came back. Walking through Union Square and seeing where the glass of broken windows was strewn across the street. Seeing the St. Francis Hotel, where Vincent held press conferences by candlelight. 

“That doesn’t leave you,” Thorne said. “Everywhere you turn, there’s a memory of that. It just is. It’s not something you’re ever going to forget.”

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