Remembering Sportscaster Bob Wolff

Jul 19, 2017
Originally published on July 19, 2017 7:49 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's remember a legend in the world of sportscasting. Bob Wolff was said to be the only announcer to call a championship game in all four major U.S. pro sports. He died this past weekend at the age of 96. Wolff was rare among sportscasters, not just for his longevity - 78 years behind the mic, a Guinness record - but also for his commitment to posterity.

He recorded many of his interviews over the decades. And a few years ago, he donated this trove to the Library of Congress. There was this moment where Wolff questions baseball great Ty Cobb about his habit of raising the spikes on his cleats to cut defenders down while running the bases.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TY COBB: You know, the baseline belongs to the runner.

BOB WOLFF: (Laughter) And you played up to the rules all the time, I'm sure of that.

COBB: Well, a lot of the times.

GREENE: Back in 2013, our former colleague Mike Pesca interviewed Wolff for NPR about those recordings and about his long career.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: A baseball fan can only dream of being able to pick Hall of Famer Tris Speaker's brain for tips on playing center field. It's like getting to ask Teddy Roosevelt about the best ways to charge a hill. And Speaker did play during T.R.'s time in the White House. And Bob Wolff did get to ask Speaker about defensive positioning, which prompted Speaker to drop a name more casually than he ever did a fly ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRIS SPEAKER: And Cy used to try to hit the ball that one step that I couldn't go. And I used to sneak a little bit on him, and I'd start before he hit. And many times, I'd catch up to that ball. And Cy had a tough time fooling me after a few years of it.

PESCA: The Cy is of course Cy Young, born 1867, and, therefore, just a wee bit too early for Bob Wolff to have chatted him up. But Speaker was born in 1888. That interview exists as part of the Bob Wolff collection because he was working in the American League when Wolff was announcing Washington Senators games.

Wolff also did play-by-play for the Washington Redskins, Knicks basketball and broadcast NBC's "Game Of The Week." Over the course of his career, he interviewed Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams and this fellow, who held himself up as the exemplar of chastity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BABE RUTH: It keeps the boys occupied, their minds occupied, and makes them live clean. And by doing so, they turn out to be clean-living men.

PESCA: Babe Ruth on the virtuous life.

As Wolff points out, there are a lot of interviews with Hall of Famers from the flannel-uniform days. However...

WOLFF: Most of the interviews you hear now are of the old-timers. They're old when they do them (laughter). I had them at the height of their glory.

PESCA: Wolff, born in New York, schooled at Duke, ankle broken on the base paths in Durham, soon found himself invited to broadcast a game he was too injured to play in. Wolff never stopped talking. The fans remember Wolff for calls like, Alan The Horse Ameche of the Baltimore Colts plowing through the Giants' line to win the 1958 NFL championship or the Yankees' Don Larsen pitching the World Series' only perfect game.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WOLFF: Here comes the pitch. Strike three.

(CHEERING)

WOLFF: A no-hitter, a perfect game for Don Larsen. Yogi Berra runs out there. He leaps on Larsen. And he's swarmed by his teammates. Listen to this crowd roar.

The sportscaster's job is to enhance. So when I say, Ameche scores, it's not the words, he scores. It's my excitement, which I convey to the listener or the viewer. And that's the big lesson.

GREENE: That was our former colleague Mike Pesca there. His interview with the late Bob Wolff originally aired in 2013. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.