Thompson joins broadcast legends after having a ball for many ears


August 01, 1993|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

COOPERSTOWN, NEW YORK — Cooperstown, N.Y. -- When he walked away from retirement three years ago, Chuck Thompson didn't realize he was stepping onto the path that would lead him to the Hall of Fame.

"To be honest, I felt if it was going to happen, it would've happened years ago," Thompson said. "It would've been nice, but I didn't think it was going to happen to me."

He was wrong, as he found out last Feb. 9, when the announcement was made. And he has since learned what others have known for decades -- that only a handful of the athletes whose actions he has described have had a greater impact on the community.

This afternoon, in the picturesque village of Cooperstown that is home to the museum that immortalizes the greats of baseball, Thompson will better understand that impact. He will be the 17th recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award and enter the broadcast wing of baseball's Hall of Fame.

"It came as a complete shock to me," Thompson said, recalling his initial feeling after learning of his selection. "When Ed Stack [president of the Hall of Fame] called, it must have taken me two minutes to say thank you."

Coming from someone who has never been at a loss for words while broadcasting major-league baseball during a span that covers six decades, two minutes to summarize two words is tantamount to a career. But it is only now that Thompson can fully understand, and enjoy, the contribution he has made to baseball -- and the community that has adopted him.

There are a lot of people who feel that because Thompson had spent virtually all his career in the "burg" of Baltimore, his nomination for the Frick award was long overdue. If that is the case, the compensation is the communal celebration that climaxes today, when hundreds of his friends and fans witness Thompson's induction.

"Ever since the announcement, the reaction of the people has been incredible," Thompson said.

"It has given me the feeling that a lot of people are rejoicing along with me. It's a nice feeling. To think that so many people will be up here . . . it's kind of strange. . . . I don't feel like I can really explain it."

Friend of the fans

Those who know Thompson best, for the most part, are people away from the sports mainstream who grew up with his voice. They, perhaps, can best explain the phenomenon of the man who came to Baltimore from Philadelphia in 1949 and immediately ingratiated himself to new surroundings.

Chick Serio was introduced to Thompson more than 20 years ago by Bud Freeman, former promotions director for the Orioles. The two played golf the next day. "He told me it was the first time he had played golf since the death of Bailey Goss [Thompson's longtime broadcast partner and friend who was killed in a car accident]," said Serio.

"We just hit it off. He's a regular guy. He's Baltimore. His friends mean everything to him. I have memories that could never be duplicated."

Asked to interpret the relationship between the community and Thompson, Serio gave a three-word summation: "Pure, unadulterated love."

Cliff Van Roby, himself a veteran radio sportscaster, first met Thompson at a banquet in Cumberland. Like most of Thompson's friends/fans, Van Roby doesn't recall a specific incident that spurred their friendship, only that it has grown steadily over the past 25 years.

"Chuck was always very well accepted in our area and he emceed our Man of the Year dinner about 10 times," Van Roby said. "Golf probably had a lot to do with our friendship, but we've become very close over the years.

"Four years ago [when Thompson was still in semiretirement], he turned down a request to broadcast an Orioles game so he could come to a 50th-anniversary party for my wife [Dorothy] and me.

"A couple of years ago, when I came to Baltimore for an operation, he took us into his home. He took me to the hospital at 6:30 in the morning, to make sure everything was OK.

"To give you an idea how people relate to Chuck, a young girl working at the hospital came over and said, 'I'll take good care of your friend if you give me your autograph.' Before he was finished signing, there were six or eight people asking for his autograph -- at 6:30 in the morning.

"I feel very fortunate that we have a very close relationship," said Van Roby, who accompanied Thompson to Cooperstown on Thursday. "You don't get to make that many -- and I consider Chuck the closest friend I have."

Buck Mann grew up and still lives on the Eastern Shore, where he is an Ocean City councilman. Although he's met Thompson on several occasions, he is like the vast majority of those who identify with him -- a fan.

"Chuck is the man, it seems like he's always been the voice of sports in Maryland," Mann said. "Everybody grew up listening to him.

"When you think of Baltimore, you think of Chuck. He's a big part of the community. He's just one of us, which is one reason we're so proud of him. This is a great tribute, and I think we all feel we can share in it with him."

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