Broadcast Sports Pioneer Bob Wolff Shares His Archive
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Sports caster Bob Wolff is said to be the only announcer to call a championship game in all four major sports. Wolff is rare among sportscasters, not just for his longevity, a record 74 years and counting, but also his commitment to posterity. He recorded many of his broadcasts and now he's donated this trove to the Library of Congress.
NPR's Mike Pesca talked to Wolff about his career and legacy.
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 TR'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.
TRIS SPEAKER: And Cy used to try to hit the ball that one step 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 to 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 interview Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, and this fellow, who held himself up as the exemplar of chastity.
BABE RUTH: It keeps the boys occupied, their minds occupied. It 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...
BOB WOLFF: Most of the interviews you hear now are, of the old timers, they're old when they do them.
WOLFF: I had them at the height of their glory.
PESCA: And now the Library of Congress has conversations like this, between Wolff and Mickey Mantle, on the field at Washington's Griffith Stadium. Wolf - stopwatch in one hand, microphone in other - never had notes, never did a second take, but did notice that Mantle was momentarily distracted.
WOLFF: What happened?
MICKEY MANTLE: Yogi got hit right in the head just now, line drive.
WOLFF: My gosh, who hit him?
MANTLE: Billy Martin?
WOLFF: Is that at shortstop?
MANTLE: Yogi is playing third base and Billy hit a line drive. And when he tried to catch it and it hit him in the head.
WOLFF: I'll be doggone.
MANTLE: He'll be alright. He's got a hard head.
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. He soon discovered the announcer's primary task.
WOLFF: The sportscaster's job is to enhance. So, when I say, Ameche scores, its not the words: he scored. It's my excitement which I convey to the listener or the viewer. And that's the big lesson.
PESCA: The fans remember Wolff for calls like that. Alan "The Horse" Ameche of the Baltimore Colts plowing through the Giants' line, to win the 1958 NFL Championship. Or the Yankees' Don Larson pitching the World Series' only perfect game.
WOLFF: Here comes thee pitch. Strike three...
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
WOLFF: A no hitter, a perfect game for Don Larson. Yogi Berra runs out there. He leaps on Larson and he's swarmed by his teammates. Listen to this crowd roar.
PESCA: The Library of Congress collection will include that and also the thousands of other calls, like the Australian swimming competition which lacked some of the tension of a perfect game. Wolff chose to emphasize the possibility of shark attack.
WOLFF: Folks, so far it's clear. But at any moment tragedy could occur so we'll take you every inch of the way.
PESCA: By then Wolff was working for ABC's "Wide World of Sports" and he could ask the network to tape a game for him. But for decades, he hired his own team to make recordings so he could listen back and learn. Lately, his office had begun groaning under the collections weight, so a call to the Library of Congress was made.
Today Wolf, 92, still contributes content and commentary for News 12 Long Island. Eager to offer a take on Yu Darvish, as readily as he once questioned Ty Cobb about his habit of upping his spikes to cut defenders out of the way.
TY COBB: You know, the base paths belong to the runner,.
WOLFF: And you played up to the rules all the time, I'm sure of that.
COBB: Well, a lot of the times.
PESCA: The Library of Congress is preparing the collection for scholarly and public use. Bob Wolff spends his days adding to his status as the broadcaster with the longest career in the world of sports. It will soon also be the best documented.
Mike Pesca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.