Saturday, February 20, 2016

Remembering Dave Niehaus 1935-2010

Yesterday would have been Dave Niehaus' 81st birthday. He passed away in November of 2010. Northwest residents knew him as the beloved voice of the Mariners.  I still miss him a lot.  So on this occasion of his birthday (and with spring training underway) I thought I would re-post the tribute I wrote when he passed.   Dave, we still miss you.
The best way for a baseball announcer to endear himself to a new audience is to be with a winning team. You report good news every night and the fans will love you. Piece of cake. On the other hand...

When I first became a broadcaster for the Seattle Mariners in 1992, I joined Dave Niehaus, who had been their voice since day one back in 1977. He said to me, “I figured it out, Kenny. For me to get to a .500 record, the team would have to go 2042-0.”

And yet, he became the second most treasured icon in Seattle, right behind Mt. Rainier. 

Can you imagine how many truly bad, ugly games he called over the years? Not a lot of good news to impart there. The Mariners for the first twenty years were just God awful.

Still, people in the Pacific Northwest clung to his every word. The attraction was not the team; it was listening to Dave. His passion for the game, vivid descriptions, and magnificent voice made any baseball game sound exciting, even a Mariners’.

Prior to joining Seattle, Dave worked alongside Dick Enberg calling games for the then-California Angels. Team owner Gene Autry once said to Dave, “You call a hell of a game. It’s not the one I’m watching but it’s a hell of a game.” Actually that’s only half true. It was the game you were watching, only better. Because Dave had something that so few announcers have today – SHOWMANSHIP. You were not just getting play-by-play, you were being told a tale by a master storyteller. Name me a better way of spending a warm summer night sitting out on the front porch.

Dave Niehaus passed away yesterday at age 75. Like all of Seattle, I’m devastated. We didn’t lose an announcer; we all lost a member of the family. Personally, Dave was the greatest broadcast partner I ever had. I’ve been very lucky to work with some of the best, including four Hall-of-Famers. I greatly respect them all and am eternally grateful for their friendship.

But I loved Dave Niehaus.

Summer will never be the same. And neither will Christmas, at least for me. My yearly tradition was to call Dave on Christmas morning. That’s what the holidays are all about, right? Reaching out to the people who mean the most to you, and bitching about the Mariners’ pitching.

There are many tributes to Dave today, along with replays of his classic calls and glowing testimonials. Nice to see that some ballplayers, like Ken Griffey Jr. and Jay Buhner, have already weighed in.

But I’d like to share some off the air memories. No one was more enthusiastic, laughed harder or as often, and looked better in white shoes than Dave Niehaus.

On the 4th of July he always wore this ridiculous red, white, and blue jacket. I tried to get him to wear it all year.

He still would go to movies with me even after I made him sit through Woody Allen’s SHADOWS AND FOG. To this day I still feel guilty about that.

It could be twelve degrees in Cleveland in April and he’d keep the window open in the booth because he felt it was cheating the audience to not be “in the game”. I told him in 1992 this was not good for his health! I was right!

I don’t remember just how it started but whenever the Mariners were down by ten runs or more, Dave and I would sing the “Wabash Cannonball” on the air. Unfortunately, we sang it so often we no longer had to consult the lyric sheet.

He referred to himself as “the Veteran Spieler”.

Three years ago, when I filled in for him, (and that was like Steven Seagall filling in for Brando), he called me after the first inning to say how great it was to hear me again. What made that even more touching was that I was rusty as hell. He called me anyway.

He was a great joke teller. His telling was far better than most of the jokes.

He knew every advance scout, coach, owner, reporter, umpire, official scorer, PR person, PA announcer, organist, clubhouse attendant, pressbox attendant, and commissioner in baseball.

I was forever in awe of the descriptive images he would just routinely toss off. A high pop fly one random night in Baltimore was “a white dot against a black sky”. A ground ball down the line would “rooster tail into the corner”. How did he think of these things?

He knew great restaurants in every town. Some of them have since burned down.

If you worked for the Mariners, he knew your name and your kids' names.

Dave's broadcast booth led the league in laughter every season.

He had several offers to go to other teams in larger markets but always turned them down. He loved Seattle.

On the road he never took the team bus to the ballpark. We always caught an early cab. It could be September, three weeks after the team had been mathematically eliminated, a thousand degrees in Texas with hail and locusts in the forecast, and Dave was at the park four hours before game time doing his prep. Every day. Every game. No exceptions. Ever.

He personally welcomed every new player to the team. In the years I was there, that was probably close to a hundred.

He never refused an autograph, a handshake, picture request, or invitation to emcee a program for a local charity.  

He's still remembered fondly in Los Angeles and he hasn't broadcast there for 45 years.  

No one loved the game or knew the game better than “the Veteran Spieler”.

I was so glad he was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year. And I am so sorry he never got to call a World Series game.

Dave will always be remembered in Seattle. If Yankee Stadium was “the House that Ruth Built”, then Safeco Field is the “House that Haus Built”.

He was a loving husband, father, grandfather, broadcaster, mentor, ambassador, Hoosier, military veteran, citizen, and proud to say – Hall of Famer. I will miss him terribly.

Dave Niehaus enjoyed life and made everyone else’s life more enjoyable.

But Dave, your calculations were a little off.  According to me, your record as a Mariner broadcaster was 5,284-0.  That's well above .500.


Mike Barer said...

What a beautiful tribute! I remember Dave's death as the day it rained tears in Seattle.

japanjohnny said...

Thanks Ken. I love this post. It was the best tribute I read after we lost the Haus. It is fitting that baseball begins every year around the time Dave began. What is lost on everyone is that in the dark ages (pre-Griffey) nobody went to M's games but everyone listened to the radio broadcasts. He really did save baseball in Seattle.

Cliff said...

It was magic to listen to his calls. He seemed to have new stories for every game, at least it seemed so to me. I always had a radio with me in the Kingdome, and later Safeco to add his unique flavor to the game I was watching. So much color and fun was added to hear Dave, and yourself trade comments, and funny insights about the other team, last evenings dinner or whatever came to his mind. Again, magic.
Get out the Rye Bread and Mustard Grandma...!

Cliff said...

Ok Ken, Friday Question. Since you mentioned Dave's 4 hour prep before games, I'd like to hear of your process for getting ready to call a baseball game. I know it's a change of pace from the writer questions.

Michael said...

I remember this tribute when it ran. And think about it: five years later, Seattle has moved on, but the city still mourns.

Mr. Hollywood said...

Ken, you are the best at tributes. Lovely and touching without being fawning. I remember Dave years ago on KMPC calling Angels games. Never knew the man. Now I do!

julian said...

"He knew great restaurants in every town. Some of them have since burned down."

I don't know what that means, but i love it. Thanks, Ken.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for providing us the opportunity to stop and remember Dave. My Oh my!

DrBOP said...

The "I was right!" about the open booth windows......cuhllaaassssiiikkkkk !!!

And I might point out to 'da yoots that the correct showbiz pronunciation of the word spiel is sshhh-peel (get that UK weak speak shit outta here!).

Unknown said...

I grew up watching Mariner games on a small black & white tv in my room and an AM radio at my cabin sitting by the fire by the lake. Dave was the best by far. I miss him every time I turn on the game now.

H Johnson said...

I really like it when you post a beautiful tribute from the past. It helps to remind us that the world didn't start yesterday. Thanks.


Mike Botula said...

Ken, you mentioned the comment by Gene Autry about the game he was calling. ("it's not the game I'm watching!") You should also remember the great impressions of the Cowboy that Dave used to do!

Blair Ivey said...

More than a World Series game, I would have liked to hear his call of Felix Hernandez' perfect game.

Sometimes his frustration with the team would come through. He once described a fielder muffing a catch as 'looking like a chicken trying to lay a square egg'.

Prairie Perspective said...

I spent 11 years in the Pacific NW and learned to love Dave's work.
His passion was clear, his calls memorable.
I loved "Swuuuunnnggg on and BELTED!"
Best homer call I ever enjoyed, and with the Griffey-Buhner-Edgar M's, he had plenty of chances to let that fly.
Thanks for the wonderful memories and insights.

MikeK.Pa. said...

One of the great things about sports - especially baseball - is the attachment a city has with its teams and its sportscasters. Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn were second to none as far as broadcast teams. Kalas was the voice of the Phillies for nearly four decades. Ashburn, a perennial .300 hitter, who as a centerfielder wasn't appreciated as much as he should have been in the 1950s because of the slew of so many great ones in that era, like Mays and Mantle.

Nothing was better on a hot summer night than to be sitting on the front stoop on a neighborhood row home (now called townhouses), with a cold beverage and listening to Harry and "Whitey." Kalas played the straight man to thousands of Ashburn stories from his playing days. One famous one was Ashburn talking about about player superstitions, including hitters sleeping with a lucky hitting instrument. He'd close out the seemingly innocent story with this line, "Yeah, I slept with a lot of old bats in my day." The innocent double entendre not lost on the listening audience.

And finally this classic, courtesy of Wiki: "When calling late innings, Ashburn would occasionally ask on-air if the staff of Celebre's Pizza, a nearby pizzeria in South Philly, was listening to the radio. Pizza would then arrive at the radio booth 15–20 minutes later. The Phillies requested that Ashburn discontinue the practice, as Celebre's was not a Phillies sponsor, and it was considered free advertising.

Ashburn was allowed to make on-air birthday and anniversary wishes during Phillies games. To circumvent the Phillies' request he started to say, "I'd like to send out a special birthday wish to the Celebre's twins – Plain & Pepperoni!"

Liggie said...

Doubly difficult day for me. I got laid off of a job I had for 17 years, and then I got home to the news about Dave. The outpouring of emotion at his Safety Field public memorial left no dry eye in the house or with TV viewers.

I can confidently say that, other than Internet trolls (who don't count), the only one I know who disliked Niehaus was... my dog. When a Mariner would hit a hone run or make an incredible catch, and Dave started yelling, Buddy would get up and run out of the room. He was not a fan of sudden noises.

Come to think of it, Seattle has been blessed with terrific sports broadcasters. Dave, Pete Gross with the Seahawks, Bob Blackburn and later Kevin Calabro with the Sonics, even NBC'S soccer and Olympics voice Arlo White was with the Sounders. If we ever get an NHL team, that guy's got a lot to live up to.

fred said...

I moved "west" from a small farm town in Michigan where I grew up listening to baseball games broadcast by Ernie Harwell and George Kell. Ended up in Washington State around 1979. And became a Mariner fan from the word go. Talk about luck, Ernie Harwell and then Dave Niehaus ... Thanks Ken!!