The man who described perfection, hit right notes
In 1990, I mentioned to my friend Rick Wolff that I was thinking of writing a book about Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. “I think you should speak to my dad,” Rick said. “He was there. He called the game.” I had never met Bob Wolff, who died July 15, but like many people in the New York and Washington sports markets, I knew Bob. He was the TV voice of the New York Knicks during their 1970 and 1973 NBA championship runs. To fans of the Washington Senators, he was the voice of a franchise from 1947 to 1961 (including its awful first season as the Minnesota Twins). And for just about everyone who listened to him over the course of a remarkably long career, he was that smart, joyful, genial voice who loved what he was doing, who worked hard to appear that he wasn’t working hard, and who made you feel that there was a friend behind the microphone. In 1990, I met him in South Nyack, New York. On his dining room table that autumn afternoon was a cassette recorder with a tape of the radio broadcast of Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, Larsen versus Sal Maglie of the Brooklyn Dodgers. “Let’s listen,” he said turning it on. We concentrated as if the game were happening for the first time. Bob leaned toward the recorder as if he had not heard the game — as if he had not called it. But there was the voice of the then 35-yearold Wolff, calling the second half of the game after Bob Neal had finished the first half. Wolff got the better of the deal. It was enthralling to listen to the game for the first time across the table from this very exuberant man who often told me how he equated calling games to singing, how his voice rose and fell with the events of the game, how he hit his high notes with the enthusiasm of a tenor onstage at the Metropolitan Opera. He did not declare Larsen’s gem perfect until the final out. But when it ended, he excitedly said, “Man, oh man, how about that, a perfect game for Don Larsen!” Two years later, he was again in the right place at the right time when he called the 1958 NFL championship game won in overtime by the Baltimore Colts, 23-17, over the New York Giants. “The Colts are the world champions — Ameche scores!” And if you listen, you will hear his voice begin to crescendo before landing on those last two words. It was a lyric to Wolff, not a call — words to sing, not shout. These are transitional times in sportscasting. Vin Scully (whose birth date, Nov. 29, was the same as Wolff ’s) retired from the Dodgers last year after 67 seasons. Verne Lundquist and Chris Berman have drastically scaled back their workload Brent Musburger left the booth to join his family’s sports handicapping business. But Wolff ’s death ended a remarkable era. He began his career on radio while at Duke in 1939 and ended it with a commentary in February on News 12 Long Island. He had not retired, not at 96, when he still had something to say or an event to cover. No sportscaster has had a longer career — Guinness World Records backs up that claim — and few have had one that was more varied. A long time ago, Wolff followed with fidelity the advice of his college baseball coach when he asked him what he thought of his chances of playing in the major leagues. “If you want to make it to the majors,” the coach told him, “keep talking.” So he did. Wolff was a generalist who called football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. One of his more intriguing ventures began on road trips with the Senators: It resulted in the formation of a choral group, with Wolff on his ukulele, and players like Jim Lemon, Roy Sievers and Tex Clevenger singing along. So many of us grew up with him as well: a decent, hardworking sportscaster and entertainer with the heart of a journalist and the soul of a happy ham.
Don Larsen pitches en route to a perfect game in the fourth inning of Game 5 of the World Series in New York on Oct. 8, 1956.
Baltimore Colts fullback Alan Ameche advances through a big opening to score the winning touchdown in overtime against the New York Giants on Dec. 28, 1958.
Bob Wolff plays his ukulele and sings “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at his home in South Nyack, N.Y., on Nov. 30, 2015.