Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Vanilla On Vanilla (or like white on sox)

     Pity the poor Chisox fan. Between the curse of the Black Sox that produced long strings of woulda, coulda, shoulda been a contender clubs filled with some legit talent and more than a few characters, some crappy uniforms (the red scheme, the disco model and—ugh—the shorts), the destruction of the grimy palace that was Comiskey Park and all for but one world championship banner to wave in a Windy City winter to show for it... well, my hat's off for hanging so tough.

     I'm afraid to say, dear readers, it gets worse—way worse. For providing the AM soundtrack to more than forty years of White Sox and Cubs baseball was perhaps the lamest excuse for a play-by-play man I've yet to come across on this batch from the archive.

For a link to the September 2, 1967 White Sox @ Red Sox game click here (#14):

     Now perhaps I'm being too harsh. By the time Bob Elson parked his carcass behind the mic atop Fenway Park on a blustery Saturday a couple days shy of Labor Day, the then-sixty-three-year old had been on more or less the same gig since the summer prior to Wall Street laying another f'n goose egg.

     Maybe the guy was getting a little burned out, maybe he'd been disappointed by the White Sox a few too many times fumbling and bumbling a pennant race down the stretch, maybe he'd downed one too many the night before this day game (it is said Elson enjoyed hoisting a few with the players), or maybe he was just way too old and/or old school to pack much of a verbal punch in the Summer of Love's waning hours.

Bob Elson Bio:

     Though a veteran of the era when broadcasters would recreate road games by reading and seriously embellishing the feeds off a Western Union telegraph (see, kids, before email, a quick way of transmitting info long distance was... ah, forget it), Elson shows none of the talent that some of his peers in the field with similar experience had. Guys like Gordon McClendon had a lot of fun using the language and riffing whether they were reading off a ticker tape or actually witnessing the action. Yeah, I am well aware Elson is a semi-revered figure in the radio baseball Elysium, enshrined in Cooperstown as a Ford C. Frick Award annually presented to a distinguished broadcaster of note. And because he is said to have inspired and influenced a slew of latter generation word painters like Jack Brickhouse and Milo Hamilton, who am I to dis Mr. Elson on the strength or weakness of but one extant recording? But, caveat emptor, this one example is deadly.

     Double deadly: Elson's partner, the somewhat junior Red Rush, is only incrementally better here. With their big rounded vowels, shared allergies to mentioning what kind of pitch is thrown (not sure the words "curve," "slider" or "change-up" are ever even uttered), and mutual obsession with both the weather and out-of-town scoreboard, this very much like-sounding pair are the very definition of vanilla. When a broadcaster does a better job at selling a bottle of suds than describing a centerfielder's loping route to snare a drive off the Green Monster, nine miles of rocky road lie ahead. Bird and Diz, Gleason and Carney, yin and yang these fellows definitely are not. Think Pat Boone and Dick Clark.

Red Rush Bio:

     In some ways they are the very embodiment or reflection of so many of those interchangeable white guys on the White Sox from the era: Ron Hansen, Ken Berry, Pete Ward, Gary Peters, Ed Herrmann, J.C. Martin, Joel Horlen, Tommy John, Al Weiss... well, you get the idea.

     Truth be told, the game itself was not the greatest one ever played on Earth either even though it did come in the froth of the last great true pennant race before the leagues were sliced and diced, before the ALCS or NLDS, before wild cards and, like Dylan would sing long after Blonde On Blonde: "greed got in the way."

     Still, for anyone with a soft place in their heart for the 1967 "Impossible Dream" Boston Red Sox, this recording is a must despite the outcome.

For Red Sox 1967 videos:

     With but a month remaining in the regular season, a few mere crooked numbers in the loss column separated five teams: the Red Sox, Twins, White Sox, Tigers, and Angels were all in the proverbial thick of it. One would like to think that an announcer might bring some urgency and drama to the fore when it counted—even in a sloppily played game—but not here. 1967 was the first of four years in which Elson and Rush were paired and, to these ears anyway, it was four years too long.

     Despite the two smiley faces imparting the action, there is much to savor from the game which was essentially decided in the top of the first when Boston ace Jim Lonborg bringing his impressive 18-6 record to the hill coughed up three runs after handily retiring the first two South Siders to visit the plate.

     A pitchers' duel of sorts unfolds over the course of the following frames with Chicago's Horlen (a force to be reckoned with in his career year of '67—he threw a no-no a mere eight days later en route to a 19-7, 2.06 ERA) shutting down the Bosox when it counted. Yaz, George Scott, Rico Petrocelli, Reggie Smith—all Boston's heroes are in the house and, along with Chi's Rocky Colavito, Tommie Agee, Don Buford, Jerry Adair, and Walt "No Neck" Williams, it warms the heart to hear these names spoken once again.

     Williams is easily the focus of the game's more interesting moments as not only does he make every ball hit to him in left an adventure, he gets thrown out at third not once but twice!

     Chicago's 4-1 win that afternoon had a momentary impact on the league's standings by sundown, knocking Boston from its precarious 1/2 game perch atop the AL when coupled with the Twins easy five-zip victory over the Tigers. There was still a month of thrills and chills and very high drama yet to come with the final standings not decided until Lonborg coaxed Minnesota's Rick Rollins to swing at off-speed pitch sending a meek pop-up into the glove of Petrocelli on the season's final pitch.

     A curio of note: early in the game, Elson mentions that White Sox games are being carried on a new affiliate, WCJU in Columbia, Mississippi. I wonder if that might be due to migrations of African-Americans up and down Highway 61. From the 1940s on, the White Sox were favored by Chicago's African-American community many of whom who lived in the same South Side neighborhood in which this home team played. Perhaps by 1967, many of them were heading back points south after two decades of working the Gary, Indiana, steel plants and some smart local radio exec thought WCJU might be able to cash in on the allegiance of the returning masses to the team they had long pulled for.

     A final, semi-tangential anecdote related to Chicago's second baseman that day, Don Buford: returning home from a business trip out west, I was killing time in the San Francisco airport when a pay phone I was standing next to went ding-a-ling. For some reason, I decided to pick it up. "Hello?" I asked. "Is Don Buford there," said the voice on the other end. "Don Buford the baseball player?" I asked. "Yeah," said the voice. I looked up and immediately saw that year's excuse for the San Francisco Giants waiting to pick up their bags after returning from a road trip. And, standing in the middle of a tired looking bunch was Don Buford. More amazingly, standing next to him was one of my all-time favorite players and personalities, Frank Robinson who was in the midst of managing the squad to yet another not even so-so year. "I see him, hold on a second," I told the mystery voice.

     I walked up to Buford and, pointing at the phone, said "There's a call for you over there at that phone."

     Exit Buford leaving what seemed like just me and Frank Robinson as the only two people left after a long nuclear winter. Unable to resist, I began telling Robinson how—even though I rooted for New York teams—I just loved watching him, how he soared in the '66 World Series, how he robbed Bobby Murcer of a game winning three-run homer by diving into the right field wall in Yankee Stadium, how he...
Rambling, I could see Robinson's tired, jaded, jet-lagged face grow ever-more impatient with yet another celebrant extolling his exploits. And then I remembered his legendary, reported surliness prompting me to cut the Pindarian rant and merely say, "Well, thanks."

For link to the 9/2/67 White Sox @ Red Sox box score click here:


  1. "Well, thanks." Excellent post, Oliver.

  2. That photo on the top of the young lad at Fenway Park is--you guessed it--a young Oliver "Toby" Trager taking in a Bosox-Twins game with his dad who snapped the pic circa 1965. A great day with my pops visiting Beantown.

  3. Fun Oliver. Thanks and congrats. I'm going to forward the link to my nephew who, as a senior both manages the Wooster College baseball team, and does their radio play by play - (Think he might be a bit of a homer?)

  4. I was asked who won the game.

    My response:
    Don't remember who won, not sure we stayed for the entire game or if it was the Twins. Researching the matter I am convinced that it was, indeed, 1965 as we also went to a movie -- "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" released that year -- at the Boston Music Hall where, a mere eleven years later, I caught my first official Grateful Dead show.

    We used to visit Cape Cod every summer in August (I THINK) for a couple of weeks and on this day my dad I flew into Boston for father-son day which (I THINK) was a Saturday or a Sunday. Problem is Twins didn't visit Boston that month on a week (according to which leads me to believe that it was probably another team/game/date

    Likely candidates might be 8/14/65 White Sox-5 Red Sox-3, the next day's 7-4 White Sox win. Detroit visited Boston the following weekend and the teams split a pair of games. Looking at the old box scores posted on the web, I note how low the attendance was for the these games--between 7,000 & 10,000 even on a weekend (!) and, judging my the empty seats in that photo, that would seem to be a good ballpark (ha-ha) estimate.

    Bottom line: I gotta ask my parents what they remember which is probably a lot less than detailed above.

  5. 1967 was a magical season, The Chi Sox had a cast of characters that included late season arrivals Ken Boyer and Rocky Colavito. Labor Day at the Stadium, Ken Boyer rips a line drive homerun to the same spot that his '64 series slam landed....Eddie STANKY gets thrown out of second game...Cisco Carlos dazzles the hitless Yankees before tiring in game 2....Pete Ward gets into a brawl....btw, Jerry Adair was sent packing to bosox and hit .291 as a part time player...

  6. Wow, Scott! As Nabokov would say: "Speak Memory"!

  7. The Frank Robinson game in which he robbed a YANKEE from a game winning homer was in June a Friday night twi-nighter at the STADIUM. Roy White was the hitter....

  8. When I was a kid, growing up in a no-baseball-franchise city - Miami - we had a local feed of White Sox broadcasts - go figure. I fell asleep many a night listening to the transistor under my pillow as Agee and Buford and Ward and Horlen and Peters and John did something reasonably good. Those mid-60s White Sox teams were always reasonably good, but never so good to win enough ballgames to really challenge the top teams. They had great pitching but they had to be the weakest hitting bunch in history.