Manfra will hold own in O's Hall of Fame announcing booth

Bill Tanton

February 23, 1993|By Bill Tanton

Vince Bagli, the dean of local sports broadcasters, hopes Baltimoreans appreciate how lucky they have been with Orioles play-by-play announcers over the years.

"We've had it so good that it's almost unbelievable," says Bagli.

"We had Ernie Harwell, and he's in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Chuck Thompson is going in the Hall of Fame this year. Jon Miller is probably the most talented guy in the business.

"And this season Oriole fans will hear three of the greatest voices ever to call a ballgame -- Thompson's, Jon Miller's and now Fred Manfra's."

Comparing Manfra with those giants is high praise, indeed, for the new guy. He is not unworthy of it.

Manfra, 46, who looks like a tight end at 6 feet 5, 250 pounds, has a booming, authoritative voice. He will have no trouble holding his own, even against the imposing pipes of the Messrs. Thompson and Miller.

Orioles audiences will begin to hear that for themselves at 12:35 p.m. on March 5, one week from Friday. That's when Manfra debuts on the first of 17 exhibition games to be broadcast on WBAL this spring. The Orioles play Pittsburgh that day.

I can't remember being so glad to see someone join the Orioles broadcast team -- and that's not because Fred Manfra and I are old buddies.

Though we're both native Baltimoreans, I never met Manfra until he spoke the other day at the monthly Locust Point sports luncheon at J. Patrick's.

A few years back I tried to meet him when both of us were covering a U.S. Open golf tournament in Rochester, N.Y. I had long admired his smooth, crisp work on ABC radio -- he spent the last 12 years with that network -- and someone told me he was from Baltimore.

Impossible, I thought. I've been in this town forever. I go back to Bill Dyer and Bailey Goss and Nick Campofreda. I remember Ken Rabat. I'd never heard of Fred Manfra around Baltimore.

Whenever I left my spot in the press section of the media tent to look for Manfra in the broadcast area, someone there would say, "Fred's out on the course."

I never did see him. That only added to my skepticism about this so-called Baltimorean.

Well, they don't come much more Baltimore than Fred Manfra, as I learned from him at J. Patrick's. More importantly, they don't come much nicer.

Fred grew up in East Baltimore, went to Patterson High and played football, basketball, baseball and JV lacrosse and graduated in 1964. He spent a year at Arizona State, where he says he "majored in baseball and babes." His parents still live on Kane Street, near Patterson High.

In 10th grade, Manfra played football under a coach who is a local legend, Irv Biasi. The next two years he played for John Sansone, who is now the head usher at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Sansone's duty station, ironically, is only a matter of feet from the booth where Manfra will call the games.

Sansone is a salt-of-the-earth guy who has been ushering at Orioles games for 40 years. He remembers Manfra well from Patterson.

"Fred was an end -- and a very good one," Sansone was telling me yesterday. "He wore No. 82. That's because his idol was Raymond Berry, and he wore 82.

"There's a big write-up on Fred this month in a paper called Clipper Lodge. It's all about Patterson alumni. It tells how Fred played sports at Our Lady of Fatima and in the Eastwood Little League, how he won a punting contest that was announced by his idol, Chuck Thompson. Fred's a helluva nice guy."

In the mid-'70s, Manfra was called to Baltimore to fill in on an Orioles game for the late Bill O'Donnell. Fred's partner, of course, was Chuck Thompson.

"When it was time for me to talk," Manfra recalls, "I was so awed to be working with Chuck that I couldn't get a sound out for 20 seconds."

There are three reasons why I'm so glad we'll be hearing Manfra's commanding voice on Orioles games.

One, he's a fine announcer. Two, he's the local boy who made good -- the East Baltimore kid who grew up idolizing Chuck Thompson and now will be his broadcast partner. The third is that Manfra looks like our best bet to stop the revolving door that, over the past decade, has brought Tom Marr, Jack Wiers, Joe Angel I and II, and Ken Levine into -- and out of -- the Orioles announcer booth.

"I think that's one reason the station hired me," says Manfra. "They wanted to stop the revolving door. This is where I want to stay, in the town where I grew up. We're building a house in Fallston.

"I wouldn't have quit ABC to do the Tigers or the Red Sox. This is the only job I would have quit for."

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