The voice of Washington baseball was getting ready to ask Mickey Mantle about his tape-measure Griffith Stadium home runs in 1953, when suddenly he heard a cry.
“Yogi got hit right in the head right now! My God!” Mantle exclaimed.
“Who hit him?” asked Bob Wolff, the television voice of the Senators for 15 years.
“Billy Martin” Mantle replied. “[Yogi Berra] was playing third base, and Billy hit a line drive, and he tried to catch it, and it hit him in the head. It took a bad hop and it hit him right in the nose I think.”
“My God,” Wolff said.
“Aw, he’s got a hard head,” Mantle reassured the broadcaster. “He’ll be alright though when the game starts.”
The conversation shifted, and Wolff soon brought in longtime Washington sports columnist Bob Addie; “Mickey, how are you at poker?” Addie asked.
“Well, Casey [Stengel] won’t let us play poker very much,” Mantle drawled. “I haven’t had much practice.”
What makes the audio work, aside from near-perfect quality, is its ordinariness — just a regular conversation between ballplayer and media members, from a regular day, at a regular ballpark. Multiply that moment by hundreds, and you start to understand why the Library of Congress’s recent acquisition of Wolff’s massive collection of audiovisual recordings is so significant.
Wolff – recognized by Guinness World Records as the longest-serving sports broadcaster – preserved thousands of audio recordings from his 74 years (and counting) in the industry, on lacquer discs, tape reels, audio cassettes, video cassettes and motion picture films.
The Library’s acquisition – celebrated at a ceremony on Friday morning – included more than 1,600 items and an estimated 1,500 hours of footage. And while there are legendary moments – play-by-play of Don Larsen’s perfect game and the Colts’ win over the Giants in the NFL’s greatest game, for example – there are also scores of smaller treasures like the Mantle interview, spanning decades.
“It’s a real snapshot of history, not just highlights or World Series games,” said Gene DeAnna, head of the Library’s Recorded Sound Section and a lifelong Washington baseball fan. “Radio was ephemeral, especially in that period, and so much of it wasn’t recorded. What was recorded was used and repurposed and discarded. We haven’t come across many [collections] from that period that are as extensive as Bob’s.”
Perhaps a quarter of the collection – which will be digitized, and which DeAnna hopes to make available online — is focused on D.C. sports, from Wolff’s play-by-play for the inaugural season of the Red Auerbach-coached Washington Capitols to his pre- and post-game Senators TV and radio. Friday’s ceremony included a reflective interview with Ty Cobb on his reputation for dirty play – recorded in a Washington hotel — as well as a video clip of Wolff playing ukulele for a quintet of “Singing Senators” including Jim Lemon, Tex Clevenger and Roy Sievers, who performed “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose.”
“I can play guitar, but I don’t think our guys would sing with me,” quipped MASN’s Bob Carpenter, the current television voice of the Nats, who watched the ceremony from the audience.
Indeed, the event explicitly linked Wolff to Washington’s current baseball franchise, which also honored the broadcaster at Nats Park. Representatives of the Nats ownership and front office sat in the first few rows, and current radio voices Charlie Slowes and Dave Jageler asked Wolff about his interviews with Mantle, Cobb, Tris Speaker and Jackie Robinson, seemingly casual conversations in which the players called Wolff “Bob” and talked at great length about their mechanics and styles of play.
“Working in the game now, it’s hard for us to get that close and to know ballplayers from the other teams,” Jageler observed, asking Wolff how he managed that feat.
“In those years, the ballplayers were anxious to go on the air with me,” Wolff said. “Money wasn’t any big deal, giving them a little knickknack or something like that. But basically, they roomed together, after the ballgame in the afternoon they’re in the hotel lobby answering questions and so forth. They really cared about the techniques of the game, swapping stories.”
“It’s a walk back in time,” Slowes told me after the event.
“I was in awe of the whole thing,” Jageler added. “It’s a history of the sport in a time capsule. It’s remarkable. I’ve saved stuff, and I’m thinking to myself, is this stuff that I’m saving from 2006 gonna be worth something in 60 years? Maybe it will. It was a thrill to me just to be a part of this.”
Wolff said he would have paid for the privilege of broadcasting so many memorable events, called the Library’s acquisition “one of the great occasions of my life,” and expressed gratification that his enormous audio history would be preserved.
“When I watched your presentation,” he told DeAnna, “I thought to myself, if I could bring my body to you — I mean, if you could resurrect that — we could really have something going,” he joked.
“You ready to be digital?” DeAnna responded?
Digitizing his voice, at least, is the next best thing.