BY JOE RINI
I sat in a living room with sportscaster Bob Wolff discussing his heralded life and career on October 30, 2016, but it felt more like a front row seat to the history of American sports and broadcasting.
A member of the national baseball and basketball Halls of Fame for broadcasting excellence, the long-time South Nyack resident and soon-to-be 96-year old is in his Guinness World record-setting 77th straight year on the airwaves, including his 38th year as moderator of the Con Ed Scholar Athlete of the Week program for high school students heard on WHUD, as well as a weekly appearance on News 12 Long Island for their own scholar athlete program.
Wolff’s career began in 1939 on CBS Radio, WDNC, in Durham, North Carolina and continues today as he provides commentaries and sports coverage to News 12 Long Island. His illustrious career has included being the original TV voice for the Washington Senators and the lead announcer for baseball’s Game of the Week in addition to being the lead announcer for Madison Square Garden for 36 years and the voice of the New York Knicks during their championship years. By his count, he’s covered 31 different sports for the Garden.
Perhaps the most famous game announced by Wolff was his radio call of the perfect game by Don Larsen of the Yankees in the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. As the game progressed, Wolff was mindful of the baseball superstition about mentioning the words “no hitter” and the criticism announcer Red Barber faced for defying that unwritten rule in the 1947 World Series.
Halfway through the game during a commercial break, Wolff told producer Joel Nixon, “I’m a reporter. I have to tell people what’s happening but I’m not going to mention the two words ‘no hitter’ but they’ll be no question that no Dodger has been on base.” Nixon replied to Wolff that was fine, “as long as the public knows what’s happening.”
“I figured out innumerable ways as a journalist to say what’s happening without losing the audience…so far only the Yankees have been on base…18 up and 18 down for the Dodgers. I went out of my way to say the only hits so far are by New York.”
Ironically, although the great Vin Scully did the TV call of the final out, it was Wolff’s radio call that would be immortalized on highlights of the game because of his description of the final out and its aftermath.
“Larsen is ready, gets the sign. Two strikes, ball one. Here comes the pitch. Strike three! A no-hitter, a perfect game for Don Larsen! Yogi Berra runs out there, he leaps on Larsen and he’s swarmed by his teammates. Listen to this crowd roar! The first World Series no-hitter, a perfect performance by Don Larsen!”
According to Wolff, “some so-called experts” advised TV sports announcers not speak much, “not to embroider anything,” so Scully didn’t mention Berra leaping into Larsen’s arms in the televised broadcast.
Having gone into broadcasting at such a young age, I asked Wolff if he had performed or if he had prior public speaking experience. Pointing to a picture frame on the coffee table, I picked it up to see it was Wolff playing the ukulele.
“I was a performer. My mom was a great singer and dancer.” He recalled being 10 years old and he and his younger sister-“she could really sing and I could play the ukulele”- taking the train from Woodmere to Manhattan to appear on a radio show because performances by children were popular at time.
“Let’s have one more rehearsal at the station,” he told her and afterwards a fellow commuter handed them his cap with money contributed by the other passengers. “It was my first professional job,” he chuckled but added that his father was “a great ethics purist” and he instructed them to give that money to charity.
Interestingly enough, Wolff said, “When I do the ballgames, I sing the words,” and the years seemed to disappear as the veteran broadcaster filled the room with, “He scores! What a play!”
Singing the words is a more pleasant sound he said-“clear and musical”-and it helped save his voice.
Having covered major sporting events and interviewed people from Babe Ruth,“a jolly guy, loved talking, loved adulation,” to Richard Nixon, “A fan about baseball, he loved it! One year he sent me his All-Star team to critique,” Wolff seems to equal the same enthusiasm when he recently interviewed the high school star of the week 77 years into his career.
Seem it’s the only way he knows to be. Wolff said, “I’m a great believer in being nice to people…I enjoy people. I get emotional about people. I’m the guy leading the applause at a Broadway show…I get enthused about people who work hard and do well and it doesn’t concern me if it’s for 10 people or 10 million people.”
Bob Wolff and his wife Jane have been married for 71 years with a home filled with photos of three children, nine grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren – but not the athletes he’s covered. After all, “Family means most to me.”