Thompson makes the call on 'once in a lifetime experience'

John Steadman

August 02, 1993|By John Steadman

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Performance, longevity and a voice smoother than the consistency of maple syrup, dripping with the rich resonance that has always been his, has brought Chuck Thompson to a cherished and satisfying career achievement -- enshrinement in the broadcasting wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 7 1/2 minutes of acknowledgment, Thompson tried the impossible. It was an effort to compact and convey the pleasurable sentiments of how it felt to be the play-by-play announcer of the Baltimore Orioles, both in their waning minor-league era and then during their celebrated ascendancy to major-league status.

It's a relationship that has endured for 44 years and counting. Trillions of listeners have been in his audience in all that time, and his popularity has been earned by an extraordinary skill in communication.

The Hall of Fame is a coveted honor that is most meaningful in the professional context and important, too, in a personal way for the selected recipients.

As he addressed the gathering of an estimated 8,000 sun-kissed fans before him on an athletic field in this village where the sport of baseball was conceived 154 years ago, Thompson called the occasion a "once in a lifetime experience."

He said he naturally felt comfortable with the microphone and the crowd. Then he proceeded to offer a presentation that he termed "a baseball talk without statistics."

Chuck referred to the start of his career as one of "hit or miss," explaining how a classmate dared him to take a radio audition in Reading, Pa. The acceptance was so immediately successful he never went back to singing with a dance band.

Thompson, after service in World War II and action in the Battle of the Bulge, went on to become a Baltimore staple, offering a crisp, fresh delivery that contained jack-hammer rapidity, clarity and a homey, friendly demeanor. He didn't know it at the time, but he broadcast a Navy-Missouri football game at then-Baltimore Municipal Stadium in 1948 that led to his hiring by the Gunther Brewing Co., and, in turn, an opportunity to cover the Orioles as one of the most-listened-to announcers the city ever heard.

In the crowd applauding Thompson yesterday in Cooperstown was Jerry Hoffberger, former owner of National Brewing Co. Hoffberger was wise enough to minimize Chuck's association with a rival product, and made a handshake with him that lasted for 23 years.

The Hall of Fame ceremony opened with awards to sports writers Leonard Koppett of the New York Times and the late Bus Saidt of the Trenton Times. Then Thompson was introduced by a Hall of Fame baseball player, Ralph Kiner, an announcer for the New York Mets.

TC In his remarks, Chuck emphasized how important his children had been to him, despite the fact he was often on the road in his special line of work. He praised his wife, Betty, and what she has meant to him in their marriage that happened five years ago, after the death of his first wife.

Then he directed his comments to the crowd. "Without you this wouldn't have happened," he remarked. "I accept it for you and my on-the-air partners." A sizable segment of followers from Baltimore, some wearing T-shirts with his picture on the front, cheered his appreciative message.

He also mentioned associates such as Bill O'Donnell, Herb Carneal, Frank Messer, Jon Miller, Joe Angel and his latest associate in the booth, Fred Manfra. After Thompson's remarks came the main focus of the program -- the installation of Reggie Jackson into the Hall of Fame -- and the partisan New York gathering was getting restless, even though it offered respect to Thompson while he talked.

There were other things the Baltimore announcer intended to say, but his sense of timing told him to cut it short, and he did. Asked later if he was satisfied with the Cooperstown experience, he answered, "Gosh, yes, in every sense."

The Orioles' organization, headed by general manager Roland Hemond and vice-presidents Bob Aylward and Frank Robinson, plus other staff members, were hosts to a party for Thompson and guests from Baltimore when the ceremony concluded.

While much has been offered about Thompson's in-depth vocalizing and the vivid picture he paints, don't overlook his high degree of accuracy. He rarely, if ever, makes a mistake, regardless of the pressure of the moment, and to his credit and the appreciation of the audience he habitually gets it right the first time.

Chuck Thompson is the 17th play-by-play announcer since 1978, when Mel Allen and Red Barber were so named, to win the award. Succinctly put, it's all because he talks a great game.

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