From 1947 to 1960, the Washington Senators were a bad baseball team. Nine times in 14 years, they finished last or next-to-last in the American League, managing a winning record only in 1952, when they were 78-76.
Bob Wolff, Washington's pioneer television sportscaster, witnessed and reported all of that bad baseball. As a permanent scar of sorts, he remembers most of it.
"I would never say, 'Well, the Senators are leading, 12-1. It looks like a good day for them,' because there were still two more innings to go," he said. "Too much could happen to them. The Senators were always one out away from winning the game, always on the verge, always reaching, always lacked one more player to make it a good team.
"In doing the Senators," Wolff said, "I thought it was terrific training, a challenging experience. I concentrated on feature stories and storytelling. The play-by-play outcome was predetermined most of the time. When we were behind, 8-1, in the third, my job was to keep the audience, make it entertaining."
Wolff, 64, is in town to announce tonight's Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic on WMAL-630 radio with long-time Baltimore Orioles broadcaster Chuck Thompson. Wolff and Thompson did the Senators together from 1957-60.
Before George Michael, before Warner Wolf, there was Bob Wolff. And only Bob Wolff, it seemed, in the years he worked in Washington.
In 1947, Wolff became the city's first television sportscaster on WTTG-TV-5. Aside from the Senators, he also was the first to broadcast televised Maryland football, Washington Capitols basketball and Washington Lions hockey, as well as boxing and wrestling from Turner and Uline arenas -- all on WTTG.
"When I started out, there were about 200 sets in the city," he said. "Naturally, we couldn't afford one. My wife used to go down to the station to watch me there or go to an appliance store."
The first three years, he did the Senators only on television. Then he joined Arch McDonald on radio and became the city's busiest broadcaster. In 1950, for instance, Wolff did play-by-play on 250 events. He reached the point where he not only did live, 15-minute pregame and postgame Senators shows on television but also taped pregame and postgame reports for radio.
Still, Wolff had ambitions that probably would go unfulfilled. "I hungered to be an announcer on the World Series," he said.
In those days of single-sponsor telecasts, the broadcasting road to the World Series was simple: either you worked for the company that sponsored the Series broadcasts or covered a team that made the Series. Wolff's Senators did not appear headed to one for several lifetimes.
"I went to see the Gillette people often to stay in good with them," Wolff said. "Then in 1956, I got a break. The All-Star Game was in D.C., and I did it. They liked me. As luck would have it, I did the Don Larsen perfect game, the last 4 1/2 innings of that game (in the World Series for Mutual Radio)."
His reputation and workload grew. In 1958, he broadcast the memorable Colts-Giants overtime NFL championship game. He spent four years as a studio host for ABC Sports shows.
Then, in 1961, the Senators left Washington to become the Minnesota Twins. Wolff went with them, yet, remarkably, continued to do his sports show every night from Minnesota for WWDC radio here, "figuring I'd come back to Washington."
He never really did. In 1962, he joined Joe Garagiola to do NBC's baseball "Game of the Week" for three years. In 1966, he returned to his native New York City to join the Madison Square Garden Network full-time, where ever since he's done college basketball, selected New York Knicks games, the Westminster Club Dog Show and innumerable other events.
Back in Washington for a few days, Wolff sidestepped questions about what support the area would give another baseball team. "We know that Washington's a great football town," he said. "Washington was never really tested with what they might do with a winning team. Heck, they had a parade once when they won nine in a row."
In chronicling the Senators' miseries, he never lacked for entertainment. "Although the Senators never had very good teams, they had good individual stars and great, great personalities -- Jim Lemon, Harmon Killebrew, Roy Sievers, Camilo Pascual," he said.
He often pitched and took batting practice with the team. For relaxation, Wolff, who sang with a college dance band although "my singing is the type I barely get away with in my own home," formed the Singing Senators.
Tonight, Wolff might be one of the few folks in RFK Stadium praying for rain. "I've always enjoyed rain delays," he said. "I had envelopes in my pockets with rain stories."
Last year, the game indeed had a rain delay and Wolff and Thompson swapped stories. And, for a few short hours, if you were huddled up to a radio while it thundered outside, Washington seemed like a big-league town again.