Joe Buck: The Measured Voice Of Sports

Joe Buck fairly grew up in a broadcast booth and knows the value of understatement in a world overrun by hyperbole
| By Ken Shouler | From Hugh Jackman, March/April 2015
Joe Buck: The Measured Voice Of Sports
Portraits/Wesley Law
Joe Buck was drawn to cigars as a way to relax. It’s worked, and fine cigars have made him appreciate golf more. Here, he enjoys a smoke at the Cigar Club at the Ritz-Carlton St. Louis.

The anticipation is electric. The NFL wildcard game between Dallas and Detroit will commence in seconds. "It's an honor to be with you on Fox. You and I can't wait for this to get started," Joe Buck says, turning to his broadcast partner, Troy Aikman. Buck lays out the subtext: everyone wants to see if quarterback Tony Romo, who hasn't won a playoff game in six years, can beat an underdog Detroit team. The game has its own gravity (or else we wouldn't be watching), so Buck won't draw attention to himself with oddball opinions. You won't hear any headline-grabbing howlers here, like the one from CBS analyst Ray Lewis, who claimed that Tom Brady owes his notoriety to the tuck rule.

In essence, Buck plays the middleman, a conduit linking the live action and 50 million listeners. Understatement is the rule. He gives observers what they need to know and then gets out of the way. If a broadcaster describes every play as earthshaking in its importance, listeners may grow weary of the hype. Only a blown pass interference call in the fourth quarter raises Buck's ire, especially since a referee picked up the penalty flag and the interference was reversed. Aikman agreed that it was interference. Buck's other assessments—mostly about squandered opportunities by the Cowboys' offense in the early going—were spot on. "It's a jail break," Buck says at one point, as three Detroit linemen bum rush through the line and sack Romo. During the Green Bay-Dallas tilt the following week, Buck observed that "drafting centers and guards isn't too sexy," referring to Dallas' picks in recent years. "12-4 is sexy," Aikman quipped. "Yes, that's sexy," Buck agreed, laughing.

Buck annunciates in deep, clear tones. His accent belongs to neither coast—a kind of voice from Nowhere. Wasted words are few. "He defers to the game and puts himself below big moments," says Tom Verducci, Buck's baseball broadcast partner, along with Harold Reynolds, at Fox. Verducci noted how Buck hung on the calls of former football announcer Pat Summerall, because "No one was better at saying so much with so few words."

It makes sense. All told, Buck sounds like a writing disciple of William Strunk and E.B. White's Elements of Style. Buck has internalized their message: "Omit needless words." In a culture where commercials scream ceaselessly for attention, where hosts on satellite radio make a career of yelling, where noisy, bellowing cacophony is not the exception but the rule, Buck's verbal thrift has its place. His partner agrees.

"I've worked with the same producer since I got into this business in 2001," Aikman says. "He used the analogy that not every comment after each play is a knockout punch. You have to give body blows, too. So I was brought into this business to not drag on in my comments. What I try to do, and I hope I'm successful at doing, is make a point and then shut up."

Sitting in the living room of his sprawling mansion in Ladue, Missouri, Buck is drawing on a Macanudo. Slender and 6'1'', he might be cast as the backup shooting guard at a D-2 school. But with a longish, unblemished, and youthful face, he looks more the part of a visiting professor of romantic poetry at Brandeis than he does a network sportscaster. He's been smoking cigars—mostly Montecristo White Labels and Padróns—for about six years. "I started at about the time of my divorce [from Ann]. I found myself looking for moments to just truly relax. I was playing golf with my buddies, and one of them says ‘Here, try one of these.' I had never smoked anything in my life—not pot, not cigarettes, not anything. I was like, ‘I don't even know if I can.' Then I thought, ‘What the hell.' I'm willing to try this, because I know that a lot of my friends who love cigars seem to be able to truly relax, whether that is complete coincidence or whatever. I said, ‘Alright, I'm in.'

"It made me completely reevaluate. I'm such an avid golfer, that I had so much fun walking the back nine of this golf course in Florida. I now enjoyed golf more, cared less about the bad shots—not because of the cigar—but it gave me kind of a diversion; I was more worried about where I was going to put my cigar for my shot. I'm such a freak about everything that I was like, ‘I don't want to lay this down on the grass.' The grass had all these pesticides. So I'm going to put a tee on the ground, and put the part where my mouth is on the tee. I enjoyed my golf so much more. So I thought, ‘I'm always going to have these with me when I play golf,' because I enjoyed the heck out of it. It signifies to me that when I have a cigar in my hand that I am about to relax or I am relaxing. I'm so tightly wound and so worried about everybody's perception—you know, what I do is very public and everybody has got an opinion—if you want to get people's emotions involved, do sports for a living. Because people live and die with this stuff. So consequently you carry a lot of that around with you. And when I have a cigar, it's kind of a trigger in my mind, like ‘I'm going to shut down now and I am actually going to enjoy life for however long it takes me to smoke.' "

He shows a visitor his office. A husky humidor rests on his desk. But his prized item is a trophy that his father Jack gave him: the Cardinals' 1982 World Championship trophy, with the golden flags of all the teams. "That was my team," he says, recalling the squad that beat the Milwaukee Brewers—"Harvey's Wallbangers"—in seven Series games.

Just 45, Buck has already amassed a lifetime of achievements behind the mike. First he did radio and television with the Cardinals, before moving to national broadcasts of baseball for Fox. In 1996, at 27, he became the youngest ever to do a full World Series for a network when he and partner Tim McCarver called the Fall Classic between the Yankees and the Braves. He has already called 18 World Series. He replaced Pat Summerall as Fox's top NFL play-by-play man in 2002.

Yet, despite hard work and a studied, less-is-more delivery, despite preternatural talent and outrageous fortune, Buck doesn't foresee hanging around long enough to earn an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for most World Series broadcasts. Rather, he envisions a less harried future, a time when he will teach broadcasting to students.

His appreciation for fine smokes is such that he even introduced them to his second wife, Michelle Beisner, a feature reporter for ESPN, who has stoked his curiosity about red wines. "She'll even smoke with me," he says. "There's nothing better to me than a woman that will smoke a cigar." Beisner claims—and he agrees—that "he stalked her" for a time before they dated and then married in April, 2014. He always wants to know "How am I doing?" She texts him to say that his broadcasts sound fine.

Born in St. Petersburg, Florida, on April 25, 1969, Joe Buck grew up in the Clayton-Richmond Heights area of Missouri, a 10-minute ride from his current home in Ladue. "I've lived my whole life, when I'm not travelling, in this little cocoon," he says. From the start, he absorbed baseball more than any other sport. "As a kid I was around the Cardinals personally," he recounts (his father, Jack Buck, the voice of the Cardinals on the 50,000-watt clear-channel station KMOX). He was 13 when the Cardinals won the 1982 World Series, and he knew Keith Hernandez and Bruce Sutter, Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee, Tommie Herr and Darryl Porter. "I used to play catch with those guys on the field before the game. They all loved my dad. So my dad was like ‘Go play in the dugout, I'll see you in an hour.' " Joe played while his father did interviews and prepared for the game.

Joe Buck

Call it the embryonic stage of his broadcast odyssey. "My father did everything for the Cardinal fan. That attitude worked its way into his calls—like "Go crazy folks! Go crazy,' " Buck says, imitating his father's bust-out delivery when Ozzie Smith hit the homer against the Dodgers to win the 1985 pennant. "When Bob Gibson pitched a no-hitter [in 1971], he's crying since he's so overcome with emotion," Buck adds.

"My summers were spent sitting literally nine feet behind him," Buck recalls. "I was on the road with him all the time. I was in every National League city before I was 12." How did he sneak this nomadic tendency past this mother? "I think she really wanted me to be with him, because my dad was travelling a lot. He worked 10 times harder than I work. He was doing a radio show in town, doing Cardinal baseball, doing CBS radio football with Hank Stram, CBS TV football—all this stuff was colliding. He was gone a lot, and so when a trip came up that made sense, he would grab me and say 'Let's go'."

Then it happened. The child protégé was summoned to deliver an impromptu performance. "It's the Cardinals and the Mets at Shea Stadium in 1987. And I'm in the back of the booth, and he and Mike Shannon are broadcasting the game. And my dad says, "Now to take us through the fifth inning, my son the birthday boy, Joe Buck." Buck resisted. "I'm pleading with him not to do the game, because I haven't really been paying that much attention. But he and Mike [Shannon] get up and leave. He knew that I could handle it, because of all those broadcasts in an empty booth at Busch Stadium when I was 13, 14 and 15. I'd broadcast the play-by-play into a tape recorder. I would listen to the cassette tapes in his car on the way home, and he would tell me what he liked and what he didn't like. I kind of got the rhythm of how to do it. I paid so much attention and idolized him that it was a pretty easy transition. I was 18, but sounded like I was 10, I'm sure. Maybe this is because it's so long ago, but I don't remember being scared when it happened. I just remember it felt natural. It was the osmosis factor; I'd been around it as much as anyone had been ever."

One element requiring no osmosis was the tonal quality of his voice. His father had a raspy delivery, a kind of male equivalent of Melissa Etheridge. "My dad was a three-pack-a-day guy. Mike Shannon was also a three-pack-a-day guy, the engineer was a three-pack-a-day guy. So the booth was like Jeff Spicoli's van in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. You opened the door and smoke billowed out. I was surrounded by that and trying to sound like this older guy."

Though hailing from St. Louis, Buck's voice seems untraceable to any specific city for most of us. Not that that is requisite for sports announcers. Certainly, mike men Mel Allen and Red Barber got away with lilting Southern accents in the New York market. "I think you see that now in television with the British voice," Buck adds. "Soccer announcers seem to get a pass because people hear them and say, ‘Well, it's got that British sound to it; that guy is really smart.' It's not always the case; it just sounds different and is a little more aristocratic than any of us. Also, there are certain guys with a heavy, New York accent that have gotten away with it," Buck adds. "Most guys who try to go national lose that and sound more like a Midwesterner. I'm sure New Yorkers think I have some sort of a weird accent."

In no time, Buck was teaming with his father and Shannon for Cardinal games on TV and radio. Before he really got rolling, however, he had to deal with the nepotism charge. "There was this critic Dan Caesar, who is still here in town, and he wrote an article about how offensive it was that I was hired because I was Jack Buck's kid. It was a good lesson. I had to try better than expectations to meet expectations. We've become good friends. When my father was dying in the hospital, I became his conduit and I trusted him with things off the record. But back then I was the whipping boy, and I was good for a column a week in our one newspaper [St. Louis Post Dispatch]. And this is a very small town. I was floored. I was crying like a baby about it. It forced me to fight through that."

What remained was to show that his seat in the booth was earned, not bestowed on him because of his sequence in the Buck gene pool. Legendary father or not, a broadcaster must make his mark in one or several ways, or there is no memory of him. Without some distinctive property, some singular trait, a broadcaster gets lumped into a great heap of also-rans. Besides the aforementioned voice and unfailing economy of words, Buck's calls have a rhythm.

Listen to this one. It's the eighth inning of game four of the 1996 World Series at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. The Yankees are behind two games to one and trailing, 6-3. "That was 98 miles per hour," Buck says of reliever Mark Wohlers' pitch to Yankee catcher Jim Leyritz. "Two and two to Leyritz. In the air to left-field, back at the track, at the WALL, WE ARE TIED." The crescendo reaches its apex at "tied." He falls silent for 16 seconds; McCarver never jumps in. The camera catches Leyritz's tour of the bases, then Wohlers in dismay, then the Yankees swarming to greet Leyritz outside the dugout. In three beats—"at the track,at the wall, we are tied"—the cadence is peerless. The subsequent silence lets the viewer come to his senses and take in all that has happened.

Up comes the replay and Tim McCarver feasts. "Leyritz pulled the ball because it was a slider and not a fastball," he explained. "The slider sped up Leyritz' bat head," McCarver continued. He attacked Wohlers for getting beat with a slider, not a fastball, the best pitch in his arsenal. "You don't ever get beat with anything but your first pitch," Buck says, mimicking McCarver these 18 years later.

Buck reflects. "I will give you an answer I've never given anyone about that: it comes from my mom, Carole Lindsay. She was a singer and actress on Broadway when my dad first met her. (Among other shows, she acted in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.) I would say more of my influence from my parents comes from my mom than my dad. I think that really good play-by-play is musical. There's rhythm to it. You have to hit the accents and match your call to what the viewer is seeing and then get out of the way. The whole stadium is either going to go crazy—and there's nothing I can say that's going to be more exciting than listening to the crowd roar—or there's going to be dead silence. I'm proud of that, because that was '96—year one. If I was giving a class to young broadcasters, I would tell them that the tendency is always to over talk, because of fear that people at home think that you don't know what you are talking about."

And too much talk steals your analyst's thunder. "That's the other part," Buck adds. "You've gotta leave some meat on the bone for Tim. And he went to work. It takes a while to get that comfortable with yourself, that every time you open your mouth you don't have to prove all you know.

"With football, I've got all the charts I do for a game in front of me. I've used less than 20 percent of it. If I'm diving into that stuff, I'm doing too much and the game is terrible. I'd rather just let the game carry itself. And by its very nature, a play-by-play announcer on TV is redundant. Unless the person is visually impaired. I don't say, ‘Here's the pitch...ground ball to short.' What do I say? ‘Ground ball to short.' You don't need the excess."

Years later, in 2004, when the Yankees lost to the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series after leading three games to none, listeners might have detected something. Two years before, in 2002, Buck's father had died at the age of 77. Now David Ortiz came to bat in the bottom of the 12th inning of a 4-4 tie in game four. "Ortiz into deep right field. Back is Sheffield. We'll see you later tonight," Buck announced. The phrase was an homage to his father's game six call in the 1991 World Series, with Kirby Puckett at the plate in the bottom of the eleventh: "Into deep left-center...and we'll see you tomorrow night!" The homer gave the Twins a 4-3 win.

Buck jumps into his Range Rover and heads over to Joe Buck's Downtown, a family restaurant in St. Louis. On one wall are pictures of his father, one of them with Harry Caray, the longtime voice of the Chicago Cubs. Joe talks about the season's end, when he will be at home, with Michelle and his children, Natalie, a freshman in college, and Trudy, a freshman in high school.

His baseball season has been extra busy: since 2014, he has also taken on the task of broadcasting golf on Fox with Greg Norman.

"Joe and I are talking about golf to the young viewers," says Norman, the golf Hall of Famer who won two majors in his career. "We don't want to be stoic; we want to have fun. Also, Fox will be using some cutting edge technology starting with the broadcast of the U.S. Open in June."

Thinking of the future, Buck talks about his plans for instructing young broadcasters. "I would like to teach," he offers. "If I could do one thing in the meantime, I'd like to find my way to get my hands on guys just out of the game, or young announcers, and try and help."

His career was threatened when faced by a major setback in 2011, when he had paralysis of the vocal chords, an affliction that has hit others who use their voices for a living. "The doctor said it could be nine months, it could be a year, or you could never come back. All I focused on was it may never come back. So I ended up going to this doctor in Boston that had worked on Adele and Steven Tyler and Dick Vitale. What he did was he went down my throat, after numbing it, with a long needle and would inject my left vocal chord with this restylane. It was like Botox. It would fatten it up to where I made a little bit better sound. But it still wasn't working properly, and I couldn't keep my breath."

After a time, things brightened. "My voice started to feel better. I could feel it changing inside my throat. I got a call from my boss, who said ‘We've got the baseball playoffs coming up, do you think you can do it?' I said, ‘Yeah, I think I can do it.' The irony of it was is that I won an Emmy that year."

Kenneth A. Shouler is a contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

"Wonderful article David and he was amazing in Midnight Cowboy. I loved that film!" —December 28, 2015 18:16 PM
"What a shame. It's a hell of an article on an intriguing man who happens to truly enjoy fine cigars. " —December 28, 2015 16:32 PM
"Im just here to hate Joe Buck. Honestly didn't even read the article." —December 28, 2015 15:00 PM

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