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Legendary broadcaster Jack Buck dies at 77
Dan Patrick: One of a kind
Campbell: Buck's legacy in good hands
Friday, June 21, 2002
Buck known for effortless style, class
By Curt Smith
Special to ESPN.com
Jack Buck died Tuesday, at 77, in St. Louis -- by any yardstick, a Voice of art and verve. He segued eight World Series, 17 Super Bowls, and the 1954-2000 St. Louis Cardinals into a trifecta -- the baseball, football, and radio Halls of Fame. By reputation, Buck put forth irony, a fluent phrase, and a brave front under pressure. Expert at social intercourse, he was always ready with the beguiling gesture and hospitable word.
Say Mel Allen, and you recall his boom box of a voice. Howard Cosell changed the parameters of his profession. Curt Gowdy evoked Jack Webb's "Just the facts, ma'am." Buck recalls how humor can best life's absurdities, improbabilities, and preposterous cant.
TV's Matlock, Andy Griffith, muses, "Ain't nothing easy." Nothing was easy for John Francis Buck. The wonder of his style is that he made you swear it was.
Buck was born in 1924 in Holyoke, Mass. As a child he loved baseball on the air. "I was a Red Sox fan, and their Voice was Fred Hoey. I'd listen to Mel Allen, Red Barber on network radio," Buck once remembered.
At night, Buck heard games in Spanish from Havana, Cuba.
Ain't nothing easy: Jack was the third oldest of seven kids. "Our diet was simple," he said. "Cereal for breakfast, soup for lunch, bakery leftovers for dinner." At 15, Buck moved to Cleveland. At 49, his father died. The teenager took odd jobs -- porter, cook, baker, deck hand, crane operator, and iron ore worker on the Great Lakes. All made play-by-play seem life's sun, moon, and stars.
In 1943, Buck entered the Army. In March 1945, he crossed the Remagen Bridge into Germany, was shot in the left shoulder, and got the Purple Heart. Broadcaster Lindsey Nelson was also wounded -- same spot, same day. Buck spent V-E Day in a Paris hospital.
He returned to the United States pining to make up for lost time.
At Ohio State, Buck graduated in three years, majored in Radio Speech, and took a course in football theory from Woody Hayes. A broadcast teacher told Buck "to find something else to do for a living." Ignoring the advice, the Columbus Redbirds hired Buck in 1950.
In 1953, Jack joined the Cardinals' other Triple-A team at Rochester, N.Y.. A year later Buck trekked to Busch Stadium, joining Harry Carry on giant 50,000-watt KMOX, and found why St. Louis may be the best baseball city in the world.
"When I think where I could have wound up," he mused in 2000, "a Houston, where people don't know baseball, or Pittsburgh, with that awful park ..."
Instead, he mirrored the Cardinals' vast appeal. Pilgrims traipsed to the park by the Mississippi. The Redbirds' network tied together 124 stations in 14 states. "Forget Atlanta," Buck chuckled. "We're the real America's team."
The Falstaffian Caray treated reserve like leprosy. By contrast, Buck evoked Casey Stengel telling a player, "Not too hard, not too easy." Glib and nonchalant, he exuded wearability. "I tried to entertain, have a style, and get excited but not lose control."
In 1959, Buck got a break. "A year before the Giants and Dodgers had moved West, but they still had fans in New York." Anheuser-Busch Brewery hired him to call 44 of their games for the deserted. Ratings hit the roof. Buck wowed Thomas Wolfe's Fabulous Rock. A year later he keyed ABC-TV's "Game of the Week," rejoining the Cardinals in 1961. Nothing easy? Caray was still king.
"He had his moments," said Buck, "but he was the first to editorialize like hell." The '64-67-68 Cardinals won the pennant. Buck did NBC's 1965 All-Star Game and '68 World Series.
In '69, Anheuser-Busch fired Caray, elevating Jack. Picket lines formed at Busch Stadium. Fitzgerald dubbed style "an unbroken series of perfect gestures." Inside, Buck worried. Publicly, he never broke a sweat.
In 1976, Jack took a sabbatical. "NBC wanted me to host a new studio series ['Grandstand']." It failed. Jack's lite and bite turned to ill-at-ease. He again rejoined the Cardinals -- and the sport he learned at OSU.
In 1960, ABC named Buck the new American Football League's mikeman. He did its first two title games, including 1962's Dallas-Houston overtime game. Jack then began a 17-year run on CBS-TV.
"He prepared, but in a loose way," said his analyst, Pat Summerall. "'This is not a funeral,' he'd say. 'We're going to have fun, and we hope people do, too.'"
Buck did the Bears and Cowboys, Super Bowl IV, and the January 2, 1967, Ice Bowl. The hotel operator greeted him: "Good morning, Mr. Buck. It's 7:30 and it's 17 below zero."
From 1978-96, he and analyst Hank Stram made CBS Radio's "Monday Night Football" a fetching and inspired hit. Buck raised money for cystic fibrosis and mentored a young announcer. "I was starting out in the mid-'70s with KMOX," said Bob Costas, "and I'd hang around the booth -- really, hoping to soak up Buck."
For CBS, Jack did the 1976-77 All-Star Game, 1979 through '82 NL playoffs, and World Series and Super Bowl, respectively, from 1983-89 and 1980-95.
In 1987, he entered Cooperstown. Tongue in cheek, Buck mocked his craft. "You golf, swim, and shoot pool during the day, go to the park and b.s. a little before the game, do it, and go home. It's real tough." He made it seem effortless -- e.g. a hit parade of calls.
In 1985, Ozzie Smith batted in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the NLCS. "Smith rips one into right!" Buck called. "Down the line! It may go ... Go crazy, folks! Go crazy! It's a home run, and the Cardinals have won the game, 3-2, on a home run by the Wizard!" Two days later Jack Clark's homer won the pennant. Cried Buck: "Adios! Good-bye!"
In 1988, the Dodgers trailed Oakland 4-3 in the ninth inning of the Series opener. Limping to the plate, Kirk Gibson pinch-hit a game-winning homer. Buck aped Ripley: "I don't believe what I just saw!" In an age of broadcast vanilla, he never scent of bland.
To Buck, football meant mechanics. "Call every play, tell where the ball is, don't forget the score." Baseball meant storytelling. "The audience knows more about its sport because you're brought up on it." In 1990-91, CBS-TV hired Jack to head its coverage. It didn't work: No matter. The Smithsonian saluted him. The Cards unveiled his statue outside Busch. Buck still graced each year's Irish Derby. "The Irish are so relaxed. If you go to buy a paper, they say, 'Do you want yesterday's or today's?' If say, 'Of course I want today's.' They say, 'Come back tomorrow.'"
Parkinson's Disease surfaced in the mid-1990s.
In 1998, Buck called Mark McGwire's record-tying 61st homer. In 2001, the Cardinals renewed play the week after Sept. 11. Jack read an original poem to hail the living and the dead. His face twitched, and his hands shook. Buck never stood so tall.
That winter he entered the hospital. Jack's poise abided as Irish luck left a life begun hard. At bedside was son Joe, Fox TV's football and baseball Voice. Once Churchill said of former British prime minister Herbert Asquith: "His children are his best memorial."
"He meant class," said Costas, "a guy who never talked down."
Said Buck upon each Cardinals' victory: "That's a winner!" It seems easy to apply to Jack himself.
Not easy: imagining sport without the man who synthesized the Gaelic mix of grace, pain, and cheer.
CURT SMITH is America's leading expert on baseball broadcasting. The former Saturday Evening Post senior editor and Speechwriter to President George Bush has written ten books. His latest, "What Baseball Means To Me," is available from TIME-Warner Books.
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