Chuck Thompson's voice resonates from his book

September 24, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Chuck Thompson arrived behind a microphone back in that distant, primordial time when big league baseball players left their gloves on the field between innings and scoreboards were still operated manually. He remembers broadcasting one game "by peeking through an aperture in the right field scoreboard where they hung the scores" and another from ground level only "10 or 15 feet behind home plate."

And here he is, past his 75th birthday, past his induction into baseball's Hall of Fame, past the time when his contemporaries have hung up their larynx to dry, the voice still golden, the enthusiasm still buoyant, the microphone moved south from 33rd Street to Camden Yards, but he's still behind it.

For nearly 40 years, he's been a voice of the Orioles, and for 30 years he was synonymous with the Colts of blessed memory, and now Thompson's put his whole professional life on paper, in a book called "Ain't the Beer Cold," which was the joyous cry that served as his signature call for years.

To read it -- and it's due in bookstores within days -- is to hear Thompson's own inflections: relaxed, amiable, floating breezily across a summer's evening, the tones of an ordinary guy you've known all your life, who just happens to have the best job in the whole world.

Like Chuck, the book is good company. Like Chuck, it's full of self-effacing, modest moments (including his broadcast of Bill Mazeroski's 1960 World Series-winning homer, when Thompson got both the opposing pitcher and the score wrong.) Hey, it's just baseball. Hey, he's just an ordinary fellow, a guy who grew up thinking he looked like a collection of spare body parts but had "a pretty good voice." He figures he just got lucky.

Luck's part of it. There was the day in 1946 at Philadelphia's Shibe Park when Thompson, returned from World War II to his old studio announcer's job at WIBG radio, was asked to broadcast a pregame ceremony honoring two Phillies' play-by-play announcers.

Then the two sportscasters were to return to the press box and announce the day's game. But the elevator to the press box was hand-operated, and the operator had disappeared. The inexperienced Thompson suddenly had to start the game himself -- minus score card, lineup or any other assistance. He handled it well enough that the old Philadelphia A's and Phillies added him to their broadcast lineup the next spring.

Sure there was luck. Like the time he sat with announcer Connie Desmond before the 1948 Navy-Missouri football game in Baltimore, for Mutual Radio Network. The veteran Desmond would handle the action. Thompson only had to handle brief pregame chatter, then introduce his senior partner. But Desmond, desperately ill, changed plans at the last moment.

"Was I in for a surprise," Thompson remembers. "Connie thanked me, made some remarks and then said, 'Now, for the play-by-play, here's Chuck Thompson.' With that, he put on his hat and coat, and walked out of the booth -- leaving me (ELLIPSES) . . . almost totally lost, without lineups, numerical charts or spotters' boards -- and talking to listeners on more than 200 stations around the country."

Lucky for Thompson, he got through it alive. But you don't stick around for half a century on luck. The voices we hear on the radio are more than just describers of fastballs and blocked punts. They're the narrators of our athletic fantasies, the companions of our solitary hours, the intermediaries who speak to our heroes and pass along the stuff they've gotten close enough to learn.

"Ain't the Beer Cold" brings us back to Brooksie and Frank, to Marchetti and Moore, but also to Bailey Goss and Bill O'Donnell, to the long night hours on the road after dreary midseason losses, to rounds of drinks at Toots Shor's old Manhattan saloon that end with Toots and Jackie Gleason betting $100 on who could race around the block the fastest, and Gleason winning because he hitched a ride in a taxi when nobody was looking.

There are old Colt tales recalling ancient laughs, like the time Thompson watched Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb playfully reach an arm into a restaurant fish tank, trying to catch a fish the hard way, and failing. Then John Unitas walked in, stuck in his own hand, and immediately snared a fish.

"How'd you do that?" asked an incredulous Lipscomb.

"It's easy," said Unitas. "All you have to do is know the pass route."

And there's that moment, in the overtime of the '58 championship game in New York, when Thompson, doing the TV broadcast, suddenly realizes there is absolutely no picture.

He's brought back nice moments out of a lovely career, and he's been assisted in the writing here by Gordon Beard, who was the Associated Press Baltimore sports guy for a few decades.

Beard's also the one who emceed Farewell, Brooks Day for Brooks Robinson. It was back when Reggie Jackson said, "If I played in New York, they'd name a candy bar after me." Beard told the huge Memorial Stadium crowd, "Around here, nobody's named a candy bar after Brooks Robinson. We name our children after him."

Chuck Thompson and Gordon Beard: We're in the sure hands of veterans.

Pub Date: 9/24/96

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