In the spring of 1955 I was a freshly minted twenty-year George Washington University graduate waiting to begin rabbinic studies that autumn at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan. In those halcyon years there was plenty of summer employment, and I had planned to be a municipal playground director in my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia.
At GWU, I was on the track team and a sports editor of the Hatchet, the University newspaper. Some folks in the athletic department mentioned me to Bob Wolff, the radio/TV announcer of my beloved Washington Senators baseball team. I was elated when he offered me a dream job as his personal assistant for the summer.
Today Bob Wolff is a national icon, an authentic “living legend,” and still going strong at age 92. He is the longest running sports broadcaster in television and radio history and a member of the Baseball and Basketball Halls of Fame. Bob has covered each of the four major league sports leagues as well as soccer. For years he was the play-by-play telecaster for Madison Square Garden events including the Westminster Dog Show.
Back then Bob worked out of his Washington home where he maintained an office replete with numerous files and newspaper clippings. This was, of course, long before we used computers. Much of his success is based upon an extraordinary knowledge of every sport he described on the air and a disciplined work ethic that considered sports broadcasting a serious profession.
My responsibilities were to maintain the individual player and team statistics of the eight American League teams of that era, compile the commercial copy Bob required during broadcasts including “National Bohemian Beer, Oh Boy What A Beer!” and Robert Burns cigars. Interesting, my boss did not smoke or drink. I also studied the sports pages of several newspapers searching for information for use on Bob’s daily radio show, and I checked his incoming mail.
But the best part of my work was to join Bob Wolff for the Senators’ home games in Griffith Stadium (demolished a decade later in 1965), now the site of Howard University’s Hospital. His broadcast partner was Arch McDonald, and the contrast between Bob and Arch could not have been greater. There was a constant culture clash in the broadcast booth.
The Arkansas-born McDonald was nineteen years older than Bob, a Phi Beta Kappa Duke University graduate and college baseball player. McDonald employed a “good ole boy” style of sports casting filled with folksy commentary and the use of such expressions as “ducks on the pond” to describe runners on base in scoring position.
McDonald represented the days when baseball was a game played in the sunshine by country boys in Southern states. But in 1955 Bob represented the advance guard of modern sports announcing with emphasis on statistics, less worshipful player interviews, and interesting descriptions of the intricacies of baseball that unknowing outsiders often viewed as boring and slow moving.
Clark Griffith, the Senators’ owner, was an early major league player and team manager. Nicknamed “The Old Fox,” I remember meeting him a few months before his death in October 1955 at age 86. He asked me whether I intended to make sports casting my career. When I replied I would soon be entering rabbinical school, Griffith was at first silent, then shot me a quizzical look and finally said, “I guess they don’t keep batting averages for sermons. Good luck!”
My stadium duties included rounding up players for interviews on Bob’s pre-game TV show, “Dugout Chatter,” and entering locker rooms at the end of a game to escort the day’s star for an appearance on the post-game “Tenth Inning.” Guests usually received a Countess Mara necktie, a Helbros wristwatch or a set of men’s cologne. In special cases the gift was a men’s suit from Raleigh Haberdasher, a fashionable Washington store of the time.
The Senators record that year was 51 wins and 103 defeats. The only bright spot for last place Washington was the presence of Harmon Killebrew, a 19-year slugger who later became a Hall of Famer.
Late in the season I walked into the Cleveland locker room following another Senators defeat. The Indians, pennant winners the year before, were loaded with stars including Bob Feller, Al Rosen, Larry Doby, Bob Lemon, Ralph Kiner, and two rookie “phenoms:” Rocky Colavito and Herb Score. I was surprised a number of Cleveland players sat in front of their lockers reading The Wall Street Journal and not the so-called baseball “bible:” The Sporting News; clear evidence the game was as much a business as a sport.
Working for Bob Wolff taught me three important lessons that have guided my own career: preparation, professionalism and pride. In the Jewish tradition we say, “May you live to be 120.” Knowing Bob, he just might make it!