Bob Wolff, a Hall of Fame sportscaster who spent more than 75 years as the voice of professional athletic events and who served as the first TV announcer for the Washington Senators, died July 15 at his home in South Nyack, N.Y. He was 96.
The cause was not yet known, but Mr. Wolff had been recovering from a cold, said his son Rick Wolff.
Guinness World Records certified in 2012 that Mr. Wolff, whose career began on CBS Radio in 1939 and continued through recent years on Cablevision’s News 12 Long Island, had the longest-known vocation in sports broadcasting.
In his prime, Mr. Wolff called two of the most famous games in American sports history: Don Larsen’s perfect game for the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series and the 1958 National Football League championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts, often called the “greatest game ever played.”
In addition to broadcasting Senators games for 14 years, Mr. Wolff did play-by-play for the Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland, national baseball and football broadcasts for the old Mutual radio network, and even several inaugural parades in Washington. In all, he broadcast eight sports — an impressive range — and averaged more than 250 live events each year until he was well into his 80s.
He also wrote three books, appeared as a local radio and TV sportscaster in Washington and New York, and found time to be the announcer for the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at New York’s Madison Square Garden for more than 30 years.
Mr. Wolff once estimated that he had covered more than 11,000 sporting events and that he had spent more than eight days of his life standing for the playing of the national anthem.
“I felt the one thing that gave me longevity was coming up with angles, creative points, story lines,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2005. “I approached every sport with the soul of a sportswriter.”
He was the only broadcaster to have called the championship games in all four major professional sports: baseball, football, basketball and hockey. He was also one of only two broadcasters, along with Curt Gowdy, to be enshrined in both the national baseball and basketball halls of fame.
“His preparation and specificity to detail were unparalleled,” Curt Smith, the author of “Voices of the Game” and other books about sportscasters, told The Washington Post in 1995. “He speaks in sentences and full paragraphs. His voice is erudite but not unapproachable. He has a sense of humor — with the old Senators, he had to — and he was always honest.”
Mr. Wolff’s broadcasting style was unadorned and uninflected, and he often said he belonged to the less-is-more school. Unlike many younger sportscasters, he never developed a signature call or a series of Wolff-isms.
He was known for playing it straight, speaking in a midrange baritone with a prodigious vocabulary at his command.
“Great calls used to be based upon the use of words as an art form, but now TV has changed that considerably,” he told USA Today in 2011. “. . . Words carry nuance. I believe a part of my strength is matching the right nuances with the right words and not just using the same ones over and over again.”
He also prided himself on meticulous — some colleagues said obsessive — preparation. For more than 40 years, Mr. Wolff’s wife, Jane, would drive him to assignments so he could grab extra time to bone up on his pregame notes.
But when the action and tension grew more intense, so did Mr. Wolff’s delivery. In his broadcast of the 1956 World Series for Mutual, he set the scene in the ninth inning as the Yankees’ Larsen faced Dale Mitchell of the Brooklyn Dodgers:
“Two strikes and a ball. . . . Mitchell waiting, stands deep, feet close together. Larsen is ready, gets the sign. . . . Here comes the pitch. Strike three! A no-hitter! A perfect game for Don Larsen! Yogi Berra runs out there. He leaps on Larsen and he’s swarmed by his teammates. Listen to this crowd roar!”
One of the greatest moments in baseball history became one of Mr. Wolff’s signature calls as a broadcaster.
“It just burst out of me,” he told USA Today. “You channel the emotion, excitement and tension.”
In Washington, Mr. Wolff was the TV face and voice of the hapless Senators from 1947 to 1960. Only once in those years did the team’s record exceed .500, which forced Mr. Wolff to develop a habit of never telling his listeners who was ahead.
“I’d look for human interest stories all the time to keep people listening to the game,” he told the New York Times in 2013. “I’d just say, ‘Well, folks, it’s 17-3,’ and they knew which team was losing.”
He was at the microphone for one of the Senators’ lowest moments: the famous 565-foot home run that the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle hit off hurler Chuck Stobbs in 1953. The home run is believed to be one of the longest ever hit in a major league baseball game.
When the Senators left Washington after the 1960 season, Mr. Wolff accompanied the team to its new home in Minnesota. After one season as the play-by-play voice of the Twins, he moved to New York, where he broadcast events at Madison Square Garden until he was nearly 80, including play-by-play coverage of the National Hockey League’s New York Rangers and, for 27 years, the National Basketball Association’s New York Knicks.
He also did weekly baseball broadcasts for NBC-TV, teaming with former catcher Joe Garagiola.
With the Senators, Mr. Wolff often had to deliver commercials on live television. Once, he couldn’t pry the lid off a can of Prince Albert pipe tobacco, straining and yakking until the lid finally flew open, spilling tobacco everywhere.
“Prince Albert abdicated as a sponsor soon after that,” Mr. Wolff recalled.
National Bohemian beer required Mr. Wolff to drink its product during breaks between innings.
“By the seventh inning, I was kind of weaving my way through the broadcast,” he recalled to the New York Daily News in 2003. He eventually prevailed on his bosses to hire a designated drinker.
Robert Alfred Wolff, whose father owned an engineering firm, was born Nov. 29, 1920, in New York City and grew up in the Long Island community of Woodmere. A self-described sports addict from a young age, he captained his high school basketball team and was one of the city’s top baseball prospects.
He went to Duke University in Durham, N.C., to play baseball, but during his freshman year he broke his ankle during a base-running drill.
He was invited to be a guest on a radio station broadcasting Duke’s games and soon was serving as a color analyst and as the host of a daytime sports variety show. Although he was eager to return to the playing field, his college coach gave him a bit of advice: “If you want to get to the big leagues, I suggest you keep talking.”
He graduated in 1942 and then served with the Navy in the Pacific during World War II. After his discharge, he resumed his radio career in Durham. In 1946, he got an offer to join WINX-AM in Washington. A year later, he became the first TV announcer for the Senators.
Mr. Wolff, who was about the same age as most of the Senators ballplayers, traveled with the team and grew close to the players, often tossing batting practice before games.
He formed the Singing Senators, a group of players who sang barbershop tunes while Mr. Wolff strummed the ukulele.
He crooned “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” accompanying himself on the ukulele, when he was inducted into the broadcasters’ wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
In 2013, Mr. Wolff donated more than 1,000 hours of tapes to the Library of Congress, including his on-air interviews with historic sports figures such as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Jim Thorpe, Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson.
In 1945, he married Jane Hoy, a former naval nurse whom he met during the war. Besides his wife, survivors include three children: Rick Wolff of Armonk, N.Y., Robert Wolff of Boston and Margy Clark of Avon, Conn.; nine grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
During his years in Washington, Mr. Wolff often ventured outside the booth to roam the stands at the old Griffith Stadium, interviewing die-hard Senators fans. Between the games of a doubleheader in 1957, he approached a spectator sitting near the dugout, telling him: “Let’s play a game. Don’t say your name until we’re finished talking.”
They spoke about the game and various players before Mr. Wolff asked the fan about himself.
“What sort of work do you do, sir?”
“I work for the government,” the fan responded.
“Oh, for the government?”
“Well,” Richard M. Nixon finally said, “I’m the vice president.”
Bob Levey is a retired Washington Post columnist.
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