Thompson finally wins an award as rich as his Hall of Fame voice

John Steadman

February 10, 1993|By John Steadman

Fresh and crisp. Never muddied or distorted. A voice of extraordinary resonance. Rich, distinctive, easy to understand.

Chuck Thompson, after being a part of the Baltimore sports scene since Harry Truman was president and the city had a franchise in the International League -- going back 43 years -- has now received the highest recognition major-league baseball awards to a man who has always talked a good game.

The Thompson touch and his ability to describe what's unfolding and meshing on the field of play occasioned a reference 10 years ago that the voice should be bronzed and kept for the ages.

Now, as winner of the 1993 Ford C. Frick Award, he's headed for the announcer's wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., which is the most momentous award to be granted a broadcaster.

When he pulled back from the grind four years ago and headed into a brief retirement, he mentioned he didn't have any momentous sense of accomplishment.

"The way the business is, in radio and television, there's not much permanency to it," he said. "In a couple seasons the question will be asked about whatever happened to that fellow who used to be around here calling the play."

To the contrary, he is remembered in a notable way, which is as it should be. He started as a band singer in Reading, Pa., and was doing a daily sports show when Les Qaulie, who headed a college football network for Atlantic gasoline, brought him to Philadelphia.

The Thompson star was quick to ascend. He took an opportunity to broadcast the 1949 Orioles and this led to calling the Colts' games with Bailey Goss. Thompson never needed a gimmick. His voice and pace arrested immediate attention and earned respect.

At one time, when things were going well for the home team, he would exclaim, "Go to war, Miss Agnes" or "Ain't the beer cold." But he didn't have to rely on any such array of empty cliches for long. He was too good for that. The purity of a Thompson broadcast carried itself.

"Actually," he said, "I stopped using that 'go to war, Miss Agnes' line when the country was fighting in Vietnam. I just didn't think it was appropriate to have men losing their lives while I was kidding about going to war on a sports broadcast."

When Thompson broke into radio, it was necessary to have a voice that had a full timbre to it and was appealing to the listeners. That's not as true as it used to be.

Along with the natural diction and elegant enunciation -- which are Thompson trademarks -- he brought another exceptional quality to the microphone. His accuracy under the pressure of a game was rarely challenged and is a quality respected by all reporters.

Hearing Thompson launch into a clarification or offer a correction rarely, if ever, happened. He got it right the first time, which added to his credibility as Maryland's most listened-to sports announcer during these past four decades.

Since he started off as a band singer, he had a special hero, Bing Crosby. They met several times and Chuck is fond of telling of an occasion when they were passengers on the same airplane, New York to Los Angeles, late on a Saturday night.

"We hit it off wonderfully well," he remembers. "We had a few drinks and enjoyed the conversation. Then Bing started to sing a few songs. I was a one-man audience and when we reached Los Angeles, about 5 a.m., Bing was standing there in the terminal singing me a song."

Thompson never tried to upstage the event he was broadcasting. No controversy or self-aggrandizement. His job called for him to relate what was happening on the field, nine innings worth, so he didn't linger around locker rooms or batting cages.

He came prepared to work, to let the words flow and, after the wrap-up, was on his way home or, if on the road, back to the hotel.

"This is just a tremendous award for Chuck," said friend Walter "Bud" Freeman. "It's uplifting to see outstanding performance, over such a long period of time, receive such meaningful recognition."

The public has always been able to identify with Thompson. He has knowledge of what's happening in front of him, the games he's calling, and an ability to verbalize the action with a tone that seems to have been immersed in honey.

Chuck Thompson has been everybody's good neighbor besides having a style that conveys excitement and enjoyment. It's a Hall of Fame voice.

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