The Men at the Mike

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(Pictured: Bob Uecker interviews Reggie Jackson in the locker room after the Yankees win the 1977 World Series. This post isn’t really about Uecker, though.) 

The Milwaukee Brewers’ playoff run brought renewed attention to Bob Uecker, who’s done Brewers radio for 50 years and is still in top form at age 87, and a damn legend whose like will never be seen again. (This recent MLB.com profile is absolute gold.) Over the years I have written about some of my favorite sportscasters. Here’s a reboot of some of that. 

My voice of the Badgers was Earl Gillespie, a Wisconsin sports legend who broadcast the Milwaukee Braves on radio from 1953 through 1963 before going into TV. By the 70s, he did Wisconsin Badgers football games on a statewide radio network, and his voice was as much a part of my youth as those of Larry Lujack, Fred Winston, and the rest of my Top 40 heroes. His color man was Ted Moore, who had a significant claim to fame of his own as the man at the radio mike during the Green Bay Packers’ glory years of the 1960s. Together, Gillespie and Moore provided the soundtrack for several years of autumn Saturdays. Gillespie would say “First down for Bucky Badger!,” and introduce commercial breaks by saying, “Now before the next kickoff, listen to this.”

Those early 70s Saturdays had their own rhythm. Games almost always kicked off at 1:00. Around halftime, East Coast final scores would come trickling in, from places like Harvard and Holy Cross. At halftime of home games, the broadcasters would always pause so the fans at home could hear the fans at the game sing Wisconsin’s traditional song, “Varsity.” And late in the season, the games would end as night began to fall.

And then, on Sunday games: 

It’s fashionable to criticize Joe Buck, currently the top baseball and football voice of Fox Sports, for his minimalist style, but Ray Scott, who called Packer games and four Super Bowls for CBS in the late 60s and early 1970s, was sports broadcasting’s original minimalist, always letting the game unfold and the broadcast breathe, never using two sentences when one would do, or six words when five were enough. [Uecker is a minimalist as well.—Ed.] But Scott’s great gift (and where Joe Buck often fails) was in effectively capturing the drama of the game with those well-chosen words. For a young boy just beginning to follow the NFL, he was the voice of God. He seemed larger than life and made the games seem that way, too. I can hear him now: “Starr brings the Packers to the line on third down and 14.” Even in memory, I sit up a little straighter and lean in closer to see what happens next. There are not many play-by-play guys working today who can do that.

As I travel around the country, I hear many high-level play-by-play broadcasters who don’t seem very good, but then I realize how spoiled we are up here in Wisconsin between Uecker and Brian Anderson, who does Brewers TV and national games for TNT and TBS, Wayne Larrivee on Packers football, and Matt Lepay on Badger football and basketball (and occasionally Brewers TV). Each of them deeply understands what seems so obvious, but which many sports broadcasters miss: their entire job is to either tell people what’s happening (on radio) or to elaborate on what they’re seeing (on television) as clearly and effectively as possible. They are not there to entertain. The star of the broadcast is the game and the team or teams they are covering. Oddly, that dedication to not being the star of the broadcast makes them a major attraction—entertaining, even—to those of us who enjoy their work.

My original piece on listening to Badger football began as follows, and it’s a good way to end this one. 

October 11, 1969: The Wisconsin Badgers, riding a 23-game winless streak, get a late touchdown pass from Neil Graff to Randy Marks and beat Iowa 23-16. It’s the first win for the Badgers since the 1966 season finale, a streak eased only by a tie with Iowa in 1967.

November 23, 1974: The Badgers meet Minnesota in their traditional season finale. Wisconsin tailback Bill Marek rushes for 304 yards and five touchdowns as the Badgers destroy the Gophers, 49-14. The Badgers end the ’74 season with seven wins and four losses, their first winning season since 1963.

I saw both of those games. They weren’t on TV, and I didn’t have a ticket—but they were on the radio, and that was enough.

7 thoughts on “The Men at the Mike

  1. spinetingler

    I can’t imagine it happening again for any radio person, but I definitely shed a tear when John Ward, the Voice of the Vols passed away.

  2. Jake

    We had a great college play by play guy in Minnesota (Ray Christensen) and it was the only way to get the Gophers up until the mid to late 90s (people forget that the majority of NCAA games weren’t televised until very recently).

  3. Leo Edelstein

    Matt Lepay’s UW play-by-play is marvelous, but I loved when you could hear Badger football on more than one station. Earl Gillespie, Mike Walden, Fred Gage each had their distinct style. Living in Milwaukee, I could also tune in to Chicago powerhouses WGN, WMAQ, WIND, WBBM and hear more college and pro sports. Thank God for transister radios!

  4. Tim Morrissey

    Starr……to Dowler…….(crowd noise surges)……TOUCHDOWN! Ray Scott. Minimalist, yes, but as you adroitly pointed out, Scott had unsurpassed rhythm and flow, as the young guys say. I also remember running “Ray Scott’s Computer Football” in the early 70’s. It was a weekly feature that arrived on Thursday via 5-inch reel, and Ray would prognosticate the NFL scores for the coming Sunday. It featured a hokey jingling “computer sound” every time Ray – er, the computer – made a pick, but it was gold for sponsor money. We charged confiscatory rates to the local hardware emporium to sponsor the show.

    Living in the Fox Valley in the 50’s and 60’s, I had the same Earl Gillespie experiences as you. “Where’s the money coming from? Household Finance.”

    A couple other notes: I paid John Facenda, Philadelphia radio and TV sports guy and the VOICE of NFL films, to do liners for my morning show in the early 70’s. Fifty bucks for one 8.5x 11 sheet (double-spaced) and I could kick myself for not having saved that stuff.

  5. My brother’s ideal version of a live, pro team sporting event would be an updated-to-the-present announcerless game, a concept NBC invented late in the 1980 NFL season; while contemporary platforms like the ESPN family have done them as parallel offerings to many an event, the idea of a primary, over-the-air game in this format — even though, as a famous 70s TV series pointed out, “We have the technology… we have the capability” — would likely still be a tough sell to advertisers.

  6. I always liked Don Criqui. Take a listen to his TV call of Tom Dempsey’s 63 yard field goal for the New Orleans Saints in 1970. Criqui did a lot of games on CBS and also did Notre Dame football. Another great announcer was Frank Glieber, who did games on CBS, mostly Dallas Cowboys games as he lived in Dallas. He was only 51 when he died while jogging in 1985.

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