Bob Wolff, 1995 Frick Award winner, remembered for versatility and enthusiasm

Written by: Bill Francis

Bob Wolff experienced heaven on earth in Cooperstown.

But it was Wolff’s time behind the microphone, however, that immortalized him in the family of baseball.

Wolff, who said at the 1995 National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony after accepting the Ford C. Frick Award for major contributions to baseball broadcasting that “I feel as if I’ve gone to heaven before I died,’ passed away on Saturday, July 15 at the age of 96.

Wolff’s career was not only long but extensive, broadcasting everything from the Westminster Club Dog Show to surfing championships. Having spent nine different decades behind a microphone, baseball fans will remember him best for his years with the old Washington Senators, when from 1947 to 1960 he made what was usually a losing battle for the team from the nation’s capital an entertaining show for its fans.

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“I never had to say who was winning or losing,” Wolff once joked. “I just gave the score.”

Wolff, born Nov. 29, 1920, in Manhattan and raised on Long Island, began his professional career in 1939 on CBS radio, WDNC in Durham, N.C., while a student at Duke University. Having attended Duke on a baseball scholarship, Wolff suffered a broken ankle during a rundown between first and second base. That injury became impetus the young center fielder needed to ask his coach at the time, former big league hurler Jack Coombs, where his future lay – behind a microphone or on a big league ball field.

Coombs’ answer: “I've never see an arm or leg outlast a voice. If you want the big leagues, start talking.”

The Duke Phi Beta Kappa took the advice.

A stint in the Navy and a transfer to Washington, D.C. eventually led to a radio job in the District with WINX, where in 1946 he was named sports director. The next year, the 26-year-old Wolff became the voice of the DuMont Network's WTTG-TV. Wolff was now a trailblazer in the new television industry, with the only other commercial station in New York City.

1995 Ford C. Frick Award Winner Bob Wolff interviews Hall of Famer Casey Stengel in the dugout. (National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

“When I started out, there were about 200 sets in the city,” Wolff said. “Naturally, we couldn’t afford one. My wife used to go down to the station to watch me there or go to an appliance store.”

By 1947, in addition to his many sporting assignments, including boxing, wrestling, basketball and hockey, Wolff began a three-year stretch of broadcasting Senators games on television, and added radio to his schedule two years later. During his 14 seasons broadcasting the Senators, nine times the team finished last or next-to-last in the American League, with 1952 the only winning season.

“In doing the Senators, I thought it was terrific training, a challenging experience” Wolff said. “I concentrated on feature stories and storytelling. The play-by-play outcome was predetermined most of the time. When we were behind 8-1 in the third, my job was to keep the audience, make it entertaining.”

By 1950, Wolff was Washington’s busiest broadcaster, doing play-by-play for 275 sporting events as well as pregame and postgame Senators shows on radio and television.

“I think people have always recognized an honest emotion in what I’ve done,” Wolff said, “and know I’m enjoying a game as much as they are.”

Wolff first drew national baseball acclaim in 1956 broadcasting the All-Star Game in Washington. He also has several World Series assignments to his credit, including the last 4 ½ innings of the Don Larsen perfect game in 1956 for Mutual Radio. Another highlight for Wolff was calling the Baltimore Colts’ overtime NFL championship victory over the New York Giants in 1958 (called the “greatest football game ever played”).

After the Senators left for Minnesota following the 1960 season, Wolff spent a season doing Twins broadcasts. Then it was on baseball’s “Game of the Week” for NBC and ABC from 1962 to 1965 before heading back to his native New York City and becoming the play-by-play voice of the Knicks, Rangers, boxing, track, tennis and college basketball for Madison Square Garden and the MSG Network.

Wolff, the longest-running sports broadcaster in television history who also holds the rare distinction of having broadcast the championships in all four major U.S. sports – the World Series, the NBA and NFL championships, and the Stanley Cup finals – ended his career with News 12, Long Island’s all-news cable television station, where he had been since the mid-1980s.

“I think, if you added all the time up, I’ve spent about seven days of my life standing for the National Anthem,” Wolff once said.

Wolff concluded his Frick Award acceptance speech by sharing how fortunate he had been in both his life and career.

“My wish is that I’ve been able to contribute the same happiness to the lives of others they’ve brought to mine,” he said. “I’ve had the good fortune to be at the mic and make the play-by-play calls of some of sports’ most memorable moments. But the call that’s the greatest in my life was the call made to me by Ed Stack, the Chairman of the Baseball Hall of Fame, with the historic news that I had been selected for the broadcast wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That to me is the greatest call of all.”

Then taking out his ukulele, the same instrument in which he led the “Singing Senators” in the 1950s, he serenaded the crowd with a heartfelt rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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