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The Men at the Mike

Recalling the days of sportscasting's legends—Mel Allen, Red Barber, Curt Gowdy And Others—When baseball and cigar smoke were in the air.

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Hodges' call forever immortalized Thomson and his "Shot Heard 'round the World." To that point, no homer had ever ended a World Series or playoff series. But as large as the event was, Hodges' call made it 10 times larger. "I called it on television," recalls broadcaster Ernie Harwell. "I said 'It's gone' and let it go at that and let the picture take over." But that's television. Hodges' call--with its crazed, raw emotion--would never have been as superb were he describing an event we could already see. Since we couldn't see it, he just had to scream about it.

"Radio is to TV as a book is to a movie," says Harwell, who is still active as a broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers. "With the radio and the book the listener uses his imagination. So the announcer on radio is bigger."

Those who love the game--including millions of us who weren't yet born when the ball reached the seats--will be eternally grateful that Hodges gave us the call he did with all its genuine unrestrained excitement.

Gowdy recalls "The Shot" like it happened yesterday. "I was driving on a highway in Massachusetts and I drove off the road! Russ captured the emotion. It was one of the glorious moments in baseball history."

Irony of ironies, the radio call almost didn't survive. "Most people don't know this," says Harwell, "but it's a miracle that we even have a recording of Russ' call. We didn't tape things back then, keep that in mind. Russ got it in the mail that winter, months after the season ended. And he got it--if you can possibly believe this--from a Dodger fan," Harwell says. "The fan said he taped Russ in the ninth inning for the sole purpose of hearing him cry. Then, I guess he felt guilty and sent it on to Russ."

At that time, Gowdy was in Boston broadcasting Red Sox games. He, too, would get his share of historic moments. He announced Henry Aaron's 715th homer in 1974, though it was Milo Hamilton's call in Atlanta that most often accompanies the footage of Aaron's momentous blow. A year later Gowdy called the dramatic sixth-game World Series homer by Carlton Fisk.

His stay in Boston overlapped the great Ted Williams years. Gowdy called Williams' last major league game on Sept. 28, 1960, when the Red Sox slugger homered in his last at bat.

Recently, Gowdy had the pleasure of introducing his longtime friend at Ted Williams Hitter's Hall of Fame in Hernando, Florida: "Ladies and gentlemen, Ted Williams is the most competent man I've ever met. He's the best hitter I ever saw, the best fisherman--whether it be marlin fishing, fly or spin fishing--he studied everything and worked at it. And I recently spoke to John Glenn, who was with Williams in Korea, and Glenn called him 'the best jet pilot I ever saw.' Ted had the eye-hand coordination, the natural attributes. What made him even better was he worked harder and studied more than anyone."

The year after Williams retired, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle combined for 115 White Owl Wallops for the Yankees. The privilege of announcing Maris' 60th circuit clout went to Mel Allen. Phil Rizzuto delivered the famous call for the 61st.

The following spring, the New York Mets made their debut. Those 1962 Mets plumbed new depths of baseball futility, winning 40 games and losing 120. "Some players lose the ball in the sun," cracked their clowning manager Casey Stengel. "Our guys lose the ball in the moon." Their men in the booth during that inauspicious start were Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy and Ralph Kiner, who would become the longest-running threesome ever, together until 1979.

Kiner was used to such futility; and then again, he wasn't. The Pittsburgh Pirates he played for in the 1940s and '50s were perennial cellar dwellers. But Kiner was a slugger, a home run hitter so prodigious that he made it to the Hall of Fame in 1975 on the strength of his slugging alone. He led the National League in homers for seven consecutive years, from 1946 through 1952. So frequently did his towering shots reach the seats at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh that their resting spot came to be known as "Kiner's Corner." (He later adopted the name for his postgame show with the Mets.)

While Kiner's slugging exploits began 50 years ago, he has been smoking even longer. "I started when I was playing minor league ball. There were bus rides all night long and I was smoking Roi-Tans. It was 1941, and there were no adverse publicity or repercussions for smoking. Today, they chew [tobacco], but I tried that and got sick!"

Now Kiner smokes Griffin's "almost 95 percent of the time." In the WOR television booth at Shea Stadium, he smokes with partners Tim McCarver and Gary Thorn. "Rusty Staub [another Mets broadcaster] is anti-smoke, and after his pleading I don't smoke while he is on the air," says Kiner. "I don't smoke in the house, either, but I average about three a day on the golf course. I enjoy it."

In the booth, Kiner does more than smoke. He admits to getting off a few malapropisms--he calls them "Kiner-isms"--now and then. A recent one was "All of the Mets' road wins against the Dodgers this year have been at Dodger Stadium." Observing today's style of play and large salaries, he once said, "If Branch Rickey was alive today he'd be spinning in his grave." Rickey was the general manager of the Pirates, and he and Kiner debated over salary figures more than once. Says Kiner with a laugh: "I said Rickey had all the money and all the players and never let the two get together.

"Rickey was a big cigar smoker who always had ashes on his shirt. Anyway, in 1952, I hit 37 homers but we lost 112 games, and in negotiating Rickey and I had a total impasse. We met in California to discuss it. I said, 'I led the league in homers,' and he said, 'What place did we finish?' Well, we finished last, and he said, 'We could finish last without you.' So I got a 25 percent cut, from $90,000 to $68,000."

But Kiner gets the last laugh. Someone once asked him why he didn't choke up on the bat and he responded, "Cadillacs don't choke up." And Hall of Famers needn't smoke Roi-Tans.

He recently got to see his old friend, Ted Williams. Williams selected Kiner as one of the 20 greatest hitters of all time and inducted him into his Hall of Fame.

Howard Cosell didn't make the Hall of Fame as a baseball broadcaster, but he left an impression on baseball just as he did on football and boxing. "He was never without a Macanudo," says Peter Bonventre, who wrote Cosell's autobiography, Never Played the Game. Bonventre tells a story that seems to capture Cosell'sirascible essence:

"One time, Howard was smoking in an elevator in the ABC building. A woman gets on and says to him, 'Must you smoke that thing in this elevator?' Howard puffed and spoke. 'My dear, I'm Howard Cosell, and you are nobody.'" That was Cosell.

As Jimmy Cannon once said, "If Howard Cosell were a sport, he'd be roller derby." Cosell would reply to the barbs, saying "I'm just telling it like it is." And Cannon would be waiting with a reply: "He changed his name from Cohen to Cosell, put on a toupee and 'tells it like it is.'" But Cosell deflected remarks by joining in on the hissing. "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a show-off," he once said. "I have been called all of these. Of course, I am."

"Cosell is the most important broadcaster of our times," says Curt Smith. "He defined what's allowed to be asked, what's expected to be known and, yes, he told it like it is. Cosell was the largest personality in broadcasting history. Whatever your feelings, you must respect him. A lot of questions would not have been asked, but were because of Cosell. He brought the tough interview to sports."

Gowdy agrees: "He cut his own swath."

And his swath was broad. Given his law background--he had excelled at the New York University Law School and was editor of the law review--he had several advantages: critical thinking and an expansive vocabulary. And just as his language could cut to the quick, it could also be overwrought. During one baseball broadcast for ABC, he began to recall a childhood memory, saying, "Let us reflect back nostalgically on the past." This leads us to reflect back on when Howard reflected on Tom Owens, a mediocre quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1970s. "I'm impressed by the continuity of his physical presence," Cosell said of Owens. Did this mean that no matter where one turned, Owens would be there? Only Cosell knows. He marched to his own drummer.

"Cigars were part of his shtik and part of his persona and part of his signature," says Curt Smith.

New York Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte recalls Cosell's nonstop smoking. "He used a cigar as a prop. He'd lean back, peer at you through a cloud of smoke, used it as a pause to get the right line, waved it through the air like a scepter--he used it in all the stereotypical ways. And at the end, when he was very ill and taking a lot of medicine, what he missed were the pleasures of life. And you know, I think he missed the cigars the most."

Cosell died on April 23, 1995. The following day, a photo on page one of the Times showed him with his ever-present Macanudo. Inside the paper, Lipsyte wrote: "Cosell was brighter and worked harder than almost everyone around. If history casts him properly he will be remembered not only as the most important sports journalist of the century, but as the only one who was more of a show-business celebrity than his subjects."

Steve Stone, former Cy Young winner with the Baltimore Orioles and now a broadcaster with the Chicago Cubs, sits next to a celebrity in the booth at Wrigley Field--his broadcast partner, Harry Caray. Caray is a living legend among "Cubbie" fans in Chicago.

In the booth or out, Stone likes full-bodied Honduran cigars. "I have smoked a Punch on occasion. I smoke all the time--on the golf course, in the booth, when I go to the track, four or five a day, even six, depending on the day. I like Hoyo de Monterrey, Excalibur No. 5 claro, but because of [your] magazine they are getting harder to get. I occasionally come across Cohibas or Montecristo No. 1s. If I can get Cuban Romeo y Julietas, I also like those.

"Harry and I, we've been together since 1983, and there's an on-going fight between us," Stone confesses. "When the game gets dull, he makes attacks on my cigar smoking. He says 'Why's a nice, college-educated guy smoking those stinking, rotten things?' So the fans started sending cigars--about 200 a week! They were writing letters saying 'Here, blow these at Harry.' They sent good ones, even Cubans on occasion."

His smoking still aggravates Harry, who at least gets to poke his head out of the smoky booth while leading the crowd in renditions of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

But don't begrudge Harry and Steve their fun. They need to have a few laughs in Chicago. The Cubs last won the Series in 1908, the same year that Jack Norworth wrote "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

That's baseball.

Kenneth Shouler, a freelance writer based in White Plains, New York, is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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