Friday, July 21, 2017

J-Speaks: The Passing of a Sports Broadcasting Legend

He was the voice of the former Washington Senators, now the Minnesota Twins of MLB from 1947-1961. He was the play-by-play voice for two of the most classic games in professional sports history, involving two of the most beloved sports teams in the New York area. For 33 years, this sports broadcasting icon was the television play-by-play voice of the famed Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and the National Horse Show for the Madison Square Garden Network. In his later years, he was a staple on Long Island at the sports anchor and commentator for News 12 Long Island. In all, he was the longest running broadcaster in television and radio history that is not in one sports Hall of Fame, but two. Before the start of this week, that legendary voice that became all too familiar to soon many sports fans in the New York area was silenced.
Last Saturday, Basketball and Baseball Hall of Fame broadcaster Robert “Bob” Alfred Wolff passed away at his home in South Nyack, New York, which was confirmed by his son Rick in a report by Sunday’s edition of the Washington Post. He was 96-years-old, and is survived by his wife of 72 years, the former Jane Hoy; sons Dr. Robert; editor, author, former college coach, broadcaster, and former pro baseball player Rick; daughter Margy Clark; nine grandchildren and 11 great-granchildren. Rick said that his father passed on peacefully last Saturday night.
The final appearance by the former Navy supply officer in the Pacific during World War II came in February where he delivered his final essay on News 12 Long Island and hosted the Con Edison Scholastic Sports Award program on WHUD Radio in Westchester, NY. Wolff is an original at the cable television station, that he joined when it started back in 1986.
“Wolff was the ultimate pro and consummate gentleman,” WNBC 4 New York’s Sports anchor Bruce Beck, who called Wolff his mentor said of him on the network’s Sunday night broadcast.
“In 1982 when this 25-year-old reporter joined MSG network, Bob took me under his wing. He did college basketball with me. Plus, the Milrose Games, and the National Horse Show. I will never forget the tips he shared, and his amazing personal touch. Thank you Bob, and rest in peace my friend.”   
Wolff was cited in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2012 for the longest consecutive run as a sports broadcaster of 78 years, that began in 1939 as a student at Duke University working for the CBS affiliate WDNC Radio. He also played baseball for the Blue Devils.  
He made history as the first sportscaster for Washington DC’s WTTG-TV on the old DuMont network in 1946. One year later, he was the play-by-play television announcer for the Washington Senators, now the Minnesota Twins at a time when the color on a television was in black-and-white and the sets were in taverns and hotels.
Before the name Marv Albert, current play-by-play analyst for the NBA on TNT became the voice of the NBA and of the New York Knicks for so many years, it was the voice of Wolff who many fans heard over the radio waves and eventually the television as he play-by-play man for the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers for the Madison Square Garden network for half a century.
That run included the Knicks two championships in 1970 and 1973, which consisted of the heroics by Hall of Famer Willis Reed, when No. 19 hobbled onto the court of MSG in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals when the Knicks defeated the Los Angeles Lakers to earn that first championship.  
“Bob Wolff was not only one of the seminal figures in American sportscasting, but he was part of the very fabric of Madison Square Garden, the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers for more than six decades,” Madison Square Garden and MSG Networks said in a statement on Sunday. “In addition to leaving behind an unmatched body of work, his spirit carries on in hundreds of broadcasters he mentored, and the millions of fans he touched. His legacy will live forever.”
He was on the call for the last half of the only perfect game in the history of the World Series when the New York Yankee’ pitcher and Hall of Famer Don Larsen accomplished that great feet against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956.
 “A no-hitter. A perfect game for Don Larsen,” Wolff said of Larsen’s memorable day 71 years ago. He added, “He’s being mobbed by his teammates. Listen to this crowd roar.”
Among the Yankee legends he interviewed included the late Hall of Famers George Herman “Babe” Ruth, Ted Williams, George Steinbrenner, and Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra.
Along with doing commentary for the Yankees, Mr. Wolff teamed up with the late Joe Garagiola on the then NBC-TV’s baseball Game of the Week in the early 1960s.
He was also behind the microphone for the Baltimore Colts’ overtime win over the New York Football Giants in the 1958 NFL title game at the old Yankees’ Stadium, that was dubbed, “The Greatest Game ever played.”
“The Colts are the world champions-Ameche scores!” Mr. Wolff said, with a rising voice, as Colts fullback Alan Ameche won the game with a one-yard touchdown plunge.
Besides being a great sportscaster, Mr. Wolff as Beck pointed out earlier in a statement was a gentleman, and one way he showed it was by sharing his greatness for all to see and hear.
In April 2013, Mr. Wolff donated 1,400 video and audio recordings that represented 1,000 hours of his broadcast work to the Library of Congress. Those recordings included interviews with Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Thorpe, Ruth, baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, and boxer Joe Louis.
“He was an archivist at heart,” Gene DeAnna, head of the recorded sound section of the Library of Congress said to The New York Times. “He was systematic, organized and had this sense of the future, and the sense of the importance of his legacy to keep it, and to take care of it, and we were very grateful that he did.”
Hard work, attention to detail and consistently being a very prepared journalist were the hallmark of Mr. Wolff’s greatness.
As he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2005, “In the old, old days it was the voice that mattered. But, I felt the one thing that gave me longevity was coming up with angles, creative points, story lines. I approached every spot with the soul of a sports writer.”
Historian of baseball broadcasting Curt Smith said that Mr. Wolff’s voice was, “erudite, but not unapproachable.”
Smith also said about Mr. Wolff in an interview with The Washington Post in 1995 that, “He had a sense of humor-with the old Senators he had to-and he was always honest. There was no phony baloney with Bob Wolff.”
A perfect example of this greatness by Mr. Wolff came on Memorial Day 1957 when the then lowly Washington Senators were engaged in a double-header against the Yankees at Griffith Stadium, Mr. Wolff picked out an ostensibly typical fan in the stands to interview on the radio between broadcast.
In a memoir, Mr. Wolff recalled a moment where he said, “It’s Not Who Won or Lost the Game-It’s How You Sold the Beer.
Recalling that moment, Mr. Wolff asked the individual, “Are you originally from Washington, sir?”
He replied, “No, I’m a Californian. I was and still am.”
“Have you done much traveling around the country,” Mr. Wolff asked?
The man replied, “I’ve been in most of the 48 states at one time or another. And I’ve also traveled a bit abroad in the last few years.”
Mr. Wolff then asked the man, “What sort of work do you do, sir?”
He said, “I work for the government.”
Mr. Wolff reaction was, “Oh?”
The man then said, “My boss is President Eisenhower. I’m the vice president.”
Mr. Wolff then said, “Ladies and gentlemen, our guest has been Vice President Richard Nixon.”
As Mr. Wolff put in his memoir, “Politics notwithstanding, good straight men are hard to find.”
It is that kind of interviewing and ability to bring the listening and viewer at home closer to the action is why Mr. Wolff is enshrined in the broadcast wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995, where he played, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” on his ukulele at his induction ceremony. Mr. Wolff is also enshrined in the National Sportscasters-Sportswriters Hall of Fame, the Madison Square Garden Walk of Fame and back in 2008 was voted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame with the Curt Gowdy Award for media, joining the late Gowdy as the only two sportscasters to be in both the basketball and baseball halls.  
In 2009, the Washington Nationals, who brought pro baseball back to the nation’s capital 12 years ago, unveiled a plaque that named the home broadcast booth at Nationals’ Park the Bob Wolff suite.
Born on Nov. 29, 1920 in New York, NY, Mr. Wolff was parents to a father, Richard, who was a mechanical engineer, and his mother, the former Estelle Cohn, was a homemaker.
At the previously mentioned Duke University, where Mr. Wolff went to college, he was an outfielder for the baseball team, but his career was cut short after he broke his ankle in a slide as a sophomore.
It was there he put his focus into the media side of sports by becoming a broadcaster the Blue Devils’ games for the previously mentioned CBS radio station WDNC in Durham, N.C.
After as mentioned earlier serving in the Navy as a supply officer in World War II, where he concluded his service as a lieutenant, Mr. Wolff became the sports director for WINX radio in Washington in 1946.
A year later he was hired as the Senators’ first TV broadcaster, at a time where DC had only a few hundred sets available. So, Mr. Wolff’s wife Jane went to the appliance store to watch the games.
He not only was the play-by-play analyst for the Senators, but he also did the pregame, and postgame shows; pitched batting practice, played the ukulele, and teamed with several ballplayers to form the Singing Senators, who one time displayed their musical talents for the entire nation to see on NBC’s “Today” show.
Mr. Wolff would continue to commentate games for the team through 1961, when they moved to Minnesota, and became the Twins.
In sports world, it is the players, both collegiate and pro that we remember in terms of the great accolades the displayed on the hardwood or the grid iron and we get a chance to see those great moments in the stands if you were or are lucky enough to have gotten a ticket to that event or had a chance to see it on the small screen. Those moments if you do see them on television though, have no meaning if not for the play-by-play, and color analysts that can eloquently say the words to describe those moments and no one did it better than Bob Wolff. He saw a lot; brought it to all of us, especially those in New York over the air and TV waves. He interviewed the best and got the best out of them in those interviews and he did very well for 78 of his 96 years on Earth. His great legacy lives on though the likes of WNBC’s Bruce Beck and all the other broadcast journalist that had the opportunity to learn from the very best.
Information, and quotations are courtesy of 7/16/17 11 p.m. edition of WNBC News 4 New York at 11 with Gus Rosendale, Jummy Olabanji, Bruce Beck and Erica Grow; 7/16/17 New York Times article, “Bob Wolff, Sports Broadcaster for Nearly 80 Years, Dies at 96,” by Richard Goldstein; 7/16/17 article, via The Associated Press “Bob Wolff, Versatile and Longtime Sportscaster, Dies at 96,” and

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