For many fans, a new season of Major League Baseball means the return of warm afternoons and evenings listening to the play-by-play on the radio, cellphone or computer.
And for fans of the Cincinnati Reds, it means hearing the familiar voice of Marty Brennaman, who has been calling the team’s games since 1974. With the retirement of Vin Scully of the Los Angeles Dodgers at the end of the last season, only four radio announcers have been calling Major League Baseball games longer than Brennaman, and only a handful have ever spent so long working for the same team.
Brennaman, a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, got his start in broadcasting in North Carolina and seemed headed to a career in basketball. As a boy in Portsmouth, Va., he had listened to Bill Currie, the “Mouth of South,” call UNC Tar Heel basketball games, and his first paid work included basketball games for Catawba College in Salisbury and later the Virginia Squires in the old American Basketball Association.
Brennaman continued to call some college basketball games over the years; he considers his favorite non-baseball broadcast the Duke-Kentucky NCAA tournament semifinal game in 1992, when Duke’s Christian Laettner hit the last-second basket to win in overtime.
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But it’s for baseball that Brennaman will be remembered. In 2000, still very much at the height of his career, he received the Ford C. Frick Award from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, joining other broadcasters such as Scully, Ernie Harwell in Detroit and Bob Prince in Pittsburgh, whose voices were synonymous with their teams and their cities.
If there’s a pure art form in play-by-play sports it’s baseball. Because nothing happens until the pitcher throws the baseball. You can’t sit there for 25 or 30 seconds and not say anything.
Marty Brennaman, talking about the man who inspired him to become an announcer
The leisurely pace of baseball makes it ideal for radio. You can listen to the game while you do something else, the way my dad used to hear Brennaman broadcast games over the transistor radio that he kept in his shirt pocket as he worked in the garden or sat on the porch in the 1970s. That I can still listen to Brennaman’s voice calling Reds games over my cellphone as I wash the dishes or walk my dog at night in Raleigh 40 years later is amazing to me.
Brennaman says baseball is the hardest game to call on radio. With basketball, you just have to keep up with the ball, he says. But with baseball you’ve got to intelligently and cogently ad-lib between pitches.
“If there’s a pure art form in play-by-play sports it’s baseball,” Brennaman said in a phone interview. “Because nothing happens until the pitcher throws the baseball. You can’t sit there for 25 or 30 seconds and not say anything.”
Brennaman fills in the time between pitches providing background on the players, talking with guests or answering emailed questions from listeners or simply bantering with his broadcast partner, which for 31 years was former Reds pitcher Joe Nuxhall.
As he read a note from a woman informing him that students in a preschool had named the class gerbils Marty and Joe after him and Nuxhall, he did it without missing a pitch.
“ ‘Well guess what,’ ” he read. “ ‘They have the great pleasure of informing us, much to our surprise, they say’ – 2 and 1 on Santiago – ‘that Marty and Joe have become the proud parents of four little sluggers.’ ”
Willing to work cheap
Brennaman traces his interest in being a play-by-play announcer to when he was about 12 in Portsmouth, Va., and happened upon a Brooklyn Dodgers game on the radio one night.
The game was a re-creation by a guy named Nat Allbright who took simple telegraph messages sent from New York and, with the help of sound effects, turned them into an event you could hear, smell and see in your mind. Allbright, it turned out, was in a studio in Northern Virginia, but he made Brennaman feel like they were both at the ball park.
“He had a great way with words. He talked about the green grass, elements of Ebbets Field. The things he said about the ballpark, the weather that night, the kind of crowd that night, the Dodgers players. It just was magical to me,” Brennaman said. “And I just thought what a great thing to devote your life to.”
In high school, Brennaman listened to Currie work UNC basketball games on the Tobacco Sports Network, including the 1957 national championship, when he did color for Ray Reeve. He was interested in acting and attended two summer camps on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill. There wasn’t any place else he wanted to go to college.
Brennaman’s grades weren’t good enough to get in right away, but after a time at Randolph Macon College in Virginia, he transferred to Chapel Hill and majored in communications. During the 1963-64 basketball season, he got a chance to work with Currie and watch him up close.
“All I did was do the stats at halftime,” Brennaman said. “But I just got a feel for what it would be like, and I knew I made the right decision then.”
After a brief stint at a TV station in High Point, Currie put in a word for him at WSTP in Salisbury, where he got his first play-by-play job calling Catawba College football and basketball. There was no mention of baseball when he took the job, but Brennaman ended up working dozens of Rowan County American Legion baseball games, too.
After nearly five years in Salisbury, Brennaman got the chance to go home to Hampton Roads when the new Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association began looking for a broadcaster with local ties. In the off-season, the station needed someone to call the Tidewater Tides minor league baseball games, so Brennaman did that, too.
In late 1973, the Reds began looking for someone to replace Al Michaels, who left to broadcast San Francisco Giants games and would later call the U.S. hockey team’s win over the Russians in the 1980 Winter Olympics (“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”) The general manager of the Tidewater Tides recommended Brennaman to the Reds, and he became one of 221 people in the applicant pool, Brennaman says.
He says the finalists were him and two broadcasters with big league experience.
“I think I got the job because I was willing to work cheaper than those guys,” he says. “I had no idea that somebody would be interested enough in me to do big league baseball. It just happened.”
Raised on N.C. barbecue
Listening to Brennaman, you might not know he was from the South. He says he grew up with the distinct Tidewater accent of the southern Chesapeake Bay, but worked hard to get rid of it.
“Once I decided that I wanted to do something in the broadcast business, I realized that if I wanted to go anywhere I needed to get rid of the accent,” he said.
“My mom used to give me a hard time about it. She’d say, ‘You’re not proud of where you’re from.’ That didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Indeed, Brennaman does refer to his Virginia and Carolina roots on the air, as when the subject of barbecue came up during a trip to Texas last summer. Asked if he liked Texas barbecue, Brennaman said, incredibly, that he hadn’t really tried it and that the only meat he considered barbecue was the chopped pork of his childhood.
“I was basically raised on North Carolina barbecue,” he said.
Brennaman speaks fondly of his time in North Carolina and remains a huge fan of UNC sports – basketball, football and baseball. He said he was saddened to read about the neurocognitive disorder that has taken the voice of long-time UNC broadcaster Woody Durham, who he says he has known for close to 50 years.
“For me, he’s the greatest college announcer of all-time,” Brennaman wrote in an email.
Brennaman still follows UNC sports when he can. When UNC played Duke during a Reds spring training game earlier this season, he taped the game, as he often does. If UNC wins, he watches it. If they lose, he doesn’t bother.
“My wife says, ‘I can’t believe you’re watching the game, because you already know the outcome,’ ” he said. “And I say, ‘Yeah, the outcome is a good one.’ ”
Building a tradition
Even with his Southern accent suppressed, Brennaman was an unknown and an outsider when he came to Cincinnati in 1974. But he was paired with Nuxhall, a fan favorite, who had played nearly all of his pitching career with the Reds and worked in the broadcast booth as a color man since 1967. They would spend the next 31 years together, a record.
Nuxhall helped Brennaman become accepted in Cincinnati, said Paul Daugherty, a sports writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer since 1988, but he earned his place in the city by being good at what he does. Cincinnati is a place that is very big on tradition, “and Marty Brennaman doing Reds games is tradition, since 1974,” Daugherty said. “Marty remains the kind of prototypical icon.”
In his first game at Riverfront Stadium, Brennaman got to call one of the biggest events of his career: Hank Aaron’s 714th home run, tying Babe Ruth for the all-time record. Brennaman remembers the details: Two Braves on base, Reds starter Jack Billingham falls behind 3 balls and 1 strike, then the shot over the 375-foot sign in left field.
“The inning ends, and Joe said to me, ‘What in the hell do you do for an encore?’ ” Brennaman says. “And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
But there were plenty of big moments to come. Brennaman joined the team at the dawn of the Big Red Machine era that produced back-to-back World Series championships in 1975 and 1976. He called Tom Seaver’s no-hitter, Tom Browning’s perfect game and another World Series win in 1990, his favorite season.
Baseball fans have their own favorite moments that came to them over the radio. For me, it was sitting in my Dodge Aspen station wagon in a fast-food restaurant parking lot in Oberlin, Ohio, on Sept. 8, 1985, with a friend. I asked him to wait a few minutes before we went inside because Pete Rose was coming to bat and this could be the moment that Rose broke Ty Cobb’s all-time major league hits record.
As Rose stepped up against Eric Show, the starter for the San Diego Padres, Brennaman said, “He levels the bat a couple of times. Show kicks and he fires. Rose swings and…” And Brennaman’s voice was temporarily lost as his partner Nuxhall shouted “There it is. There it is. Get down, get down. All right.”
“Hit No. 4,192,” Brennaman continued. “A line-drive single into left center field. A clean base hit. And it’s pandemonium here at Riverfront Stadium,” as there was in my car.
No holding back
In 50 years behind the mic, Brennaman has made mistakes and caused some controversy. Last spring, he criticized a new rule meant to minimize contact when runners slide into base as one that was turning baseball “into a game of sissies.” He apologized the next day for using what has become a pejorative.
Marty doesn’t insult our intelligence as a fan.
Paul Daugherty, a sports writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer
“It was a poor choice of words,” he said at the time. “I realized that as soon as I said it. That’s not the first time I’ve said something spontaneously and wanted to reach out and grab those words and stuff ’em back down my throat.”
Brennaman also doesn’t hold back in criticizing the Reds management, coaches or players, which has gotten him some blowback from fans at times. Often he focuses on the finer points of baseball, as when a player swings away when he probably should be bunting runners into scoring position.
But other times his ire is aimed at the front office, the people who pay his salary.
Last season, when the Reds relief pitcher Abel de los Santos gave up four runs in the 8th inning against the Cubs to crack a game wide open, Brennaman addressed the decision-makers who had acquired de los Santos when the Washington Nationals placed him on waivers.
“You’d think they’d learn that picking up players that have been cast off by other teams simply doesn’t work,” he said, expressing the frustration shared by fans in another losing season.
Brennaman says he would never criticize a high school or even a college athlete, but pros are different. Daugherty says he thinks most fans appreciate that.
“Marty doesn’t insult our intelligence as a fan. Maybe it’s part of the work that I do, but as a fan I don’t want a broadcaster to tell me how good things are when things are not good. And Marty doesn’t do that,” he said. “I like the fact that he takes on the team on occasion, and I like the fact that the Reds permit it. After all, they are his employer.”
Brennaman, who turns 75 in July, chose to sign his first one-year contract last summer (he has always operated under 3-year contracts), but says he doesn’t know when he’ll retire from broadcasting. “The only thing I’m willing to say is it won’t be too long down the road,” he said.
He says his wife, Amanda, would be happy to have them retire to North Carolina, perhaps down at the coast, but he’s not sure he’s ready.
“I know a lot of people who get up in the morning and go to a job they detest,” he said. “At the end of the day, I enjoy what I do. I love broadcasting baseball.”
How to listen
Major League Baseball makes it possible to listen to any local game broadcast on computers and mobile devices with its At Bat app, available for a fee at MLB.com. But on clear nights, particularly out in the country, you can pick up the Cincinnati Reds flagship station, WLW, at AM 700 and hear Marty Brennaman the way fans have heard him for decades.