Dave Niehaus, the iconic voice of the Mariners since their expansion season in 1977, will accept today baseball broadcasting's highest honor at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
When Chip Caray looks back on his formative two-year partnership with Dave Niehaus in Seattle, he thinks of the wren.
Well, technically, Caray thinks of much more than that chirping little bird in Arizona. He starts with the fundamental kindness that Niehaus displayed when Caray, a neophyte broadcaster with the legendary name but so much to learn, showed up in the Mariners’ booth in 1993.
Maybe Dave was just repaying a long-standing debt to Chip’s grandpa, Harry Caray, whose voice wafting out of the family Zenith on the porch in Princeton, Ind., so many years earlier had started Niehaus on the broadcasting journey that has brought him to Cooperstown today.
Or maybe Niehaus just felt obligated to help out another eager kid in his booth, as he has done with so many other inexperienced announcers who have come and gone through Seattle during Niehaus’s unwavering 32-year career as the voice of the Mariners.
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“He takes it as a very deep responsibility,” says current partner Rick Rizzs.
Really, you don’t need expressed written permission to call Niehaus the Mariners’ heart and soul.
“Dave took me under his wing like another one of his children,” Caray recalled this past week, one in a long line of announcers eager to relay their feelings about Niehaus as he accepts baseball broadcasting’s highest honor, the Ford Frick Award, to be presented this morning during the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
“I didn’t know my grandfather in the business, and I’ve only recently gotten to know my dad [longtime Braves announcer Skip Caray] during my four or five years with him in Atlanta,” Chip Caray says. “In a lot of ways, Dave was like a second dad and grandfather, professionally and personally. What better tribute can you give than that?”
So about that wren. It was near the end of one of those interminable spring-training games in Peoria, Ariz.
“It was the 19th pitching change, five hours into it, and suddenly Dave says, ‘I know it’s cold and gray in Seattle, but listen to this.’ And there’s a little wren perched near the booth, peeping. And Dave lets them hear the wren peep and he says, ‘That means the opening bell is around the corner.’
“It was the perfect way to tell people in Seattle that baseball is coming back, that hope springs eternal. That’s what Dave is all about. That’s the essence of someone great: They take the mundane and make it spectacular.”
Oh, has Dave Niehaus seen some mundane baseball in his three-plus decades in Seattle — and mundane was a step forward in some years.
But he always has found a way to make it spectacular — with his unabashed excitement in the good times, with his unconcealed frustration seeping through during the bad times, and with vivid word pictures and sometimes startling imagery throughout.
“One thing I really appreciate about Dave is his love of the language and how he’s such a wordsmith,” said Ken Levine, Niehaus’s play-by-play partner in 1992 and a talented writer in his own right on such sitcoms as “M*A*S*H,” “Cheers” and “The Simpsons.”
“His descriptions are just brilliant. Out of nowhere, he’ll come up with something where you just go, ‘Wow!’ I remember we were in Baltimore, and there was a routine fly to left field. Dave described it as a white dot against the black night. You just sit there and say, ‘Wow.’ “
But mostly, Niehaus simply won over the Northwest with his constancy, with the soothing security of knowing that year after year, the players may come and go, but Niehaus is eternal. Indeed, that might be literally true, because at age 73, he has no notion whatsoever of retiring.
“Think how announcers change and move, think how the team changes — and Dave has been there all those years,” said Lou Gorman, the Mariners’ director of baseball operations in 1977, the franchise’s initial season. “When you think of Mariners baseball, the first thing you think about is Dave Niehaus, not the managers and players.”
Through it all, Niehaus has maintained an unwavering enthusiasm for his job and a limitless love of baseball, symbiotic relationships that have allowed him to endure so many lost seasons like the current one.
“Baseball is such a wonderful game,” Niehaus said recently. “It tells you a different story every night. It’s just a huge book with all kinds of little chapters.
“My style is to be honest. And hopefully entertaining. As I receive this award, I might be representing the guys that have worked in this business and put the whipped cream and maraschino cherry on top of the sundae.
“I may have added a little bit of color to it, but hopefully, I’ve made it taste a little better, too.”
Niehaus, who will be introduced today by Tom Seaver, had little idea he had found his ultimate calling back in 1976, when he got a call from a salesman at KMPC, the Los Angeles radio station where he had carved a nice little niche as the third man on the Angels’ broadcasts, as well as the voice of UCLA athletics.
Gene Autry, the Angels’ owner, owned KMPC as well as their sister station in Seattle, KVI. The salesman said that KVI was going to carry the games of the new expansion team in Seattle. Would Dave be interested in doing their games?
Truth be told, not very much.
“I was happy doing what I was doing,” Niehaus said. “Dick Enberg, Don Drysdale and I were calling Angels games. I was doing UCLA football and basketball. Marilyn’s folks were down there.”
But as with every announcer, the lure of being No. 1, the lead man, ultimately proved irresistible.
“I saw a great talent, a wonderful talent, but I think he needed the opportunity to have the total stage, or a major portion of the stage, to show all he had,” said Enberg, a broadcasting legend in his own right.
“He was the right guy at the right place at the right time for Seattle. Dave was able to build his own career with a team that was building from page one. He needed to be his own man. I think he had been too satisfied too long being a swing man.”
Entertainer Danny Kaye, one of the original Mariners investors, knew and enjoyed Niehaus’s work from living in Hollywood. But Niehaus still needed to fly to Seattle to interview with Dick Vertlieb, the somewhat eccentric M’s president.
“I’ll never forget walking into his office on First Avenue,” Niehaus said. “He had one chair, a barber’s chair, the kind you pump up. I sat in the barber’s chair, and he’s over here, interviewing you. I spent all day interviewing with Dick.”
Niehaus gave Vertlieb a drop-deal salary that it would take to lure him from Los Angeles. Vertlieb replied, “You’re not going to make more money than me.”
“Dick, I don’t care how much you make,” Niehaus countered. “This is what it’s going to take to move my family and three kids.”
Said Niehaus: “I didn’t get that good a feeling about it. I went back to L.A. and told my wife, ‘It was a fun experience, but I think we’re safe.’ I get a call three or four days later: ‘You’ve got the job.’ “
And so began, at age 42, his new life. Niehaus’s first partner was Ken Wilson, a comparatively inexperienced announcer from Hawaii who had caught Enberg’s ear on a vacation and nearly landed a job as Niehaus’s replacement with the Angels.
Instead, he wound up with Niehaus in Seattle and stayed there until 1983, when new owner George Argyros suggested, none too subtly, that broadcasting might not be Wilson’s life’s calling.
“The first thing I realized was that Dave was warm and welcoming,” Wilson recalled. “He’d been in the big leagues; I had never been. We were both really optimistic, very enthusiastic about the entire situation.
“We were marrying each other. It was a new city, fresh organization. It doesn’t get much higher than that. Probably too high. We got a quick realization — not that we didn’t know it — that it would be a long time before we saw a team that won. Neither of us anticipated the problems with the Kingdome. It was such an uninviting facility.”
The expansion Mariners were awful. Northwest fans, while ecstatic to have major-league baseball back after a seven-year hiatus following the departure of the Pilots, had a show-me attitude toward Niehaus and his partner.
“All we heard about was Leo Lassen,” said Wilson, referring to the legendary voice of the Seattle Rainiers. “It was, essentially, that you guys will never be as good as Leo Lassen. All we could do was shrug our shoulders, do every game and have a good time.”
Wilson has seen the judgmental nature of local fans come full circle.
“Back then, if you didn’t sound like Leo and do things like Leo, you’re no good,” he said. “Now, of course, if you don’t sound and do it like Dave Niehaus, you’re no good, or a second-class citizen, anyway.”
The parade of Niehaus partners, including analysts and color men who worked with him over the years, has been constant, and eclectic.
Wilson recalls Danny Kaye himself doing games. Mel Stottlemyre, current Mariners pitching coach, was the No. 3 man in the booth in 1977. Former major-leaguers Rico Petrocelli and Bill Freehan had improbable stints, as did Ken Griffey Sr., Wes Stock, Nelson Briles, Ken Brett, Joe Simpson and Billy Sample, among others.
Each of the Niehaus partners took away something from the association.
“As a fledgling baseball broadcaster, to have someone like Dave mentor you, it doesn’t get better than that,” said Simpson, a former M’s outfielder who was an analyst from 1987 to 1991.
“He gave me great advice I still use today, most notably: ‘If you always tell the truth, you’ll never get in trouble.’ I try to utilize that at all times.”
Said Levine: “He was the best broadcast partner I ever had. He was completely supportive, very generous with his time. He never felt threatened by me. If anything, he was smart enough to realize, if you have good partners and good chemistry with your partner, it only makes you sound better.
“Plus, he was a great traveling companion. I’d say that a large part of the fun of being a Mariners’ broadcaster was being on the road with Dave.”
None of Niehaus’s partners has forged a longer, or closer, bond with him than Rizzs, who is openly reverential of the man he says is “like my older brother.”
Rizzs spent eight years calling minor-league games before Niehaus liked his audition tape and endorsed his hiring in 1983.
Rizzs was his No. 2 man through 1992, when he left for a stint as Ernie Harwell’s replacement in Detroit. When that didn’t work, Niehaus was instrumental in bringing back Rizzs, who returned just in time for the magic of 1995 and has been happily partnered with Niehaus ever since.
“He’s the one that taught me the ropes, who mentored me, and taught me what it would be like to be in the big leagues and how to handle this situation,” Rizzs said. “He told me, ‘Just be yourself and have fun. Be honest. Just relax and enjoy it.’ I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor.”
The bond between announcers is crucial to the success of a broadcast, and theirs has been a model.
“We spend more time together than maybe our wives,” Rizzs said. “We’re attached at the hip every day for seven months. If you can’t get along, you’re in deep trouble in this business, and we get along. Sure, there’s bumpy times in every relationship, but there’s that deep-down respect for one another.”
Another Niehaus constant has been Kevin Cremin, the producer/engineer of the radio broadcasts since 1983.
“It’s remarkable. He’s still fun to listen to,” said Cremin, who has heard virtually every “My Oh My,” “Fly Away” and “Get Out The Rye Bread and Mustard, Grandma,” Niehaus has uttered over the past 25 years.
“There’s still times he’s just right on. He says things no one else can get away with. He’s almost always right on point in the big moments. He can just draw you in.”
That point was magnified during the 1995 season, which stands as the absolute peak of Niehaus’s career, an announcer in his prime meeting the challenge of a season that begged for artistry in its chronicling.
Niehaus notes that his call of Edgar Martinez’s epic double against the Yankees was “my seminal moment” and few M’s fans would argue. But that season was jampacked with memorable calls by Niehaus.
“To this day, 15 years later, we still get goose bumps talking about 1995, because Dave made us feel it,” Rizzs said. “Not too many announcers have the ability to make you not only see it and hear it, but feel it. Dave has done that for 40-plus years.”
Those days seem like a distant memory now. But Niehaus can still psych himself up to call a bad baseball team, as he did in 1977 and most of the years that followed. He’s doing it again in 2008.
“First of all, he loves baseball, and he loves the Mariners,” said Ron Fairly, who spent 14 years in Seattle’s booth (1995 to 2006). “Yeah, he is a homer, but you know what? Most of the people listening to the game are for the Mariners.
“When they play poorly, the thing about it is, Dave gets upset. It gets to a point he can’t stand it anymore and he will criticize them. I had to remind him a few times, ‘Dave, it’s a game.’ “
Fairly, more than most, understands what it means to Niehaus to win the Frick Award and join legends like Caray, Harwell, Vin Scully and Jack Buck honored in a display at the Hall of Fame.
“All this time, Dave said, ‘If it happens, it happens.’ That’s a bunch of BS,” Fairly said. “He wanted that more than you can ever imagine. He tried to downplay it, but deep down, you know it really means a lot to him.
“Dave would go to other parks and see other announcers, and they had World Series rings, or there would be other announcers in the Hall of Fame. Here’s Dave, and he has that little medallion around his neck with ‘M’ for Mariners.
“Hopefully, the Mariners do get in the World Series and win it, so Dave can have his ring. But now he’s a Hall of Famer. You can’t ever take that away.”
The Hall of Fame honoree will return to the Mariners’ booth tomorrow and for all foreseeable tomorrows. The Mariners may gently urge him to cut back, but when team president Chuck Armstrong once broached the subject of cutting back his road games to wife Marilyn, she replied, “It would kill him faster if he wasn’t doing the games than if he was.”
“I don’t see him retiring,” said Cremin. “Not happening.”
“The guy’s 73, and he’s going to broadcast until he’s 173,” added Rizzs.
“I can’t imagine not doing it,” Niehaus said last week. “I can imagine not doing it, but you might as well dig a hole and put me in it.”
After all, he can still hear that wren chirping.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com.