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For Baltimore Radio, a 'Beautiful' Voice

By William Gildea
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2005; Page D03

When I first listened on our family's floor-model radio in 1949 to Chuck Thompson broadcasting a Baltimore Orioles game, he sounded big league even if the team then was distinctly minor league, part of the Class AAA International League. As one of his Baltimore radio colleagues, Ted Patterson, put it yesterday, "His was a voice from God, baritone and beautiful, a golden set of pipes."

Thompson, who died yesterday at the age of 83 after suffering a stroke Saturday, was one of a dwindling number of sports voices that can be identified with a particular town or team. He was nothing less than Baltimore baseball before Cal Ripken Jr. was born or Brooks Robinson became a star.

Longtime Orioles and Colts radio announcer Chuck Thompson died yesterday at age 83. (Dan Richter -- AP)

Even more, Thompson was among the last of the two-sport broadcasting legends. Not only did he bring word of his beloved Birds for what seemed like forever, with a timeout to do Washington Senators games from 1957 through 1960, Thompson did play-by-play of Baltimore Colts games for 30 years. He was both "Voice of the Orioles" and "Voice of the Colts."

He broke into radio in Reading, Pa., in 1939 on the strength of a cough syrup commercial, parlaying his audition eventually into a full-time job at $14.20 a week. He got a taste of baseball broadcasting in Philadelphia, when the two regular announcers were honored on the field between games of a doubleheader and couldn't get back to the radio booth before the beginning of the nightcap.

By Saam was the baseball voice at the time in Philadelphia, with a long career still ahead, which is why Thompson went south to Baltimore. That "turned out to be the best danged thing that ever happened to me," he said during an interview in 1993, shortly before he was inducted into the broadcast wing of the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.

He fell in love with Baltimore just as it did with him in an era when summer nights were slow and people sat on their porches listening to their radios -- to that reassuring voice that grew more and more familiar over the years. In Baltimore he was referred to as "Chuck," with no need for a last name. Curling up next to his baseball account at night or tuning in on a Sunday afternoon drive seemed as good as being at the stadium.

He was a pro who knew the two sports and could relate what happened in crisp detail even before the crowd reacted. You didn't have to wonder what happened or wait for a recapitulation. Like all the best in his business, he was our eyes. Sadly, failing eyesight in recent years forced him from behind the mike.

Anyone who didn't take to Chuck Thompson must have been from outside Baltimore because, no question, Chuck was partisan. They were "our Birds" and "our Colts." He could be sentimental. And he had a signature expression when something good happened for the home team, at least before it was suggested, some years ago, that it might be better to drop it because of the reference to alcohol. He used to exclaim, "Ain't the beer cold!"

Thompson started broadcasting the minor league Orioles when announcers were "reconstructing" away games based on Western Union telegraph code. In 1950, Thompson, in a small foreshadowing of modern times, got to travel with the team to do play-by-play of its International League playoff games. When he signed on from Montreal, he couldn't have been more excited had he landed on the moon.

He began calling major league Orioles games a year after they moved from St. Louis in 1954. After he did the 1955 and 1956 seasons, he shifted to Washington for four seasons, doing Senators games at Griffith Stadium. He described the experience as "nothing but good times . . . Herbie Plews, remember him?"

After that, Thompson was back in Baltimore to stay.

And in 1966, he couldn't hide his joy, nor did he try, when the Orioles swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

Yet maybe the most memorable game he ever broadcast was a football game, when the Colts beat the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game. The day before, Thompson and Giants announcer Chris Schenkel reported to Commissioner Bert Bell's office to determine which announcer would call which half on national TV. "They flipped the coin and I lost," Thompson later recalled. "So Schenkel said, 'I'll do the second half.' I would have, too. So I did the first half. He did the second half." But as it turned out, 60 minutes didn't end the game. "We get to overtime," Thompson said with delight, "and it's my turn."

He got to describe one of the teams he loved winning its greatest game. And that, really, was just the beginning. We would get to listen to him for years. Maybe tonight, maybe during a game this summer, whenever the beer is cold would be good time to raise a glass to Chuck Thompson.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company