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Video Killed The Radio Star

It was one of those period pieces, a plastic maroon Motorola radio about the size of a small shoe box; say, size 5.

Two knobs dominated the front: the left one controlled on-off and volume, and the right tuned in the ballgame. No FM dial and certainly nothing to adjust the tone or quality of sound.

Sox games even then were carried on AM 1000, but it was WCFL, not ESPN. "CFL" stood for Chicago Federation of Labor. If that doesn't tell you how times were different, then consider there were few McDonald's and no Starbucks.

The dulcet tones of White Sox broadcaster Bob Elson floated from the speaker centered between the controls, and you never had to replace a battery. This little guy remained plugged into an outlet in my brother's room for most of the 1950s, and it's a credit to engineering and design that it survived those 10 summers.

Radio was the medium that communicated joy and pain when it came to our team. WGN televised both the Cubs and Sox, but only home day games. That meant all Cub games at the Friendly Confines were on TV but not so many Sox games, because they weren't stupid. Night baseball meant more fans.

Jack Brickhouse did play-by-play for both teams' telecasts, so we never considered him a Sox loyalist. Elson was our man.

We listened to a lot of baseball on the radio. When things went well, that little maroon bugger was in no danger.

However, if it had legs, the Motorola marvel would have hid under the bed or escaped to Glencoe when people like Kaline, Williams, Berra, or Mantle performed unmentionable deeds from the seventh inning on to sink our beloved White Sox. My brother, you see, didn't take kindly to those heartbreaking losses. In his adolescent fog, the closest object for his displeasure (I'm being kind) was - you guessed it - the messenger, the maroon radio.

By mid-decade, its facade developed cracks and the knobs often came loose from their moorings. The band across the top for easy carrying was detached on one side. But it kept on going. The "accounts and descriptions" - a favorite Elson phrase - of each game continued to emanate from that indefatigable kernel of technology.

Our father had the unlucky station in life of living in the adjoining room. Too frequently for him - long after he had fallen asleep - he would be awakened by an outburst when something ill had befallen the South Siders. He would burst into the room and admonish brother John that he didn't know "how" to listen to a ballgame.

This was of small benefit because Dad was in no mood to explain the proper method. And we weren't aware of any instructional guides or manuals. All we knew is that we were pleased when the Sox won and less so when they lost.

And that Elson would deliver both the good and the bad news.

Elson and his contemporaries - Harry Caray in St. Louis (that's right, St. Louis), Bob Prince in Pittsburgh, Ernie Harwell in Detroit, Waite Hoyt in Cincinnati, and Earl Gillespie in Milwaukee - had much different styles than the broadcasters of today.

First of all, these men - with the exception of Hoyt who was a teammate of Babe Ruth - were not former players. The broadcasts today by Ed Farmer and Darrin Jackson include frequent rehashings of their careers. A fairly meaty percentage of each game pertains to what they did as players. Sometimes this is pertinent information. Most often it is not.

Elson, of course, had a different background. He broadcast his first Sox game in 1929 and continued to do so until 1970.

He wasn't fancy or charismatic. No "You can put it on the board, yes!" or "He gone." His broadcasts were filled with what we grew to expect: a description of what was happening on the field and at the ballpark. We learned where the wind was blowing, whether rain was in the area, what each team's uniform looked like, who was throwing in the bullpen, how the defense was positioned, and what kind of pitch just got hit into the upper deck.

The Sox had a first baseman, Walt Dropo, who had a habit of adjusting his cup two or three times every at-bat. Here's Bob Elson as Big Walt steps into the box: "Dropo's one-out-of-three today, a single in the second when the Sox scored their first run. He wears a black eight ringed in red on the back of his home White Sox uniform. He's digging in and looking out toward Whitey Ford. Now he's (pause) . . . don't forget, tomorrow is a day game before the Sox hit the road."

Elson painted the picture, and we embellished it in our heads. When he told us, "He's gonna get it, and he does," we knew a routine fly ball had been caught. "Throw to first, back in time," meant that this was not the pitcher's best move. The world of the 1950s was rather predictable, and so was Bob Elson's broadcasting. It wasn't about him. It was about the game, the team, Nellie Fox, Minnie Minoso, and Luis Aparicio.

"His greatest skill as an announcer was his interviewing," remembers retired sportswriter Ed Stone, who wrote for the old Chicago American as well as the Tribune.

Stone covered the Bears in the 60s and 70s. After being unceremoniously dumped by the Sox, Elson did a Saturday morning sports show from the lobby of a Northwest Side bank. Elson invited Ed onto the show.

"He never prepared his guests for the questions he was going to ask," says Stone. "There always was some controversy with the Bears, and I figured he'd ask me something related to that. But once we were on the air, he asked me why they don't kick more coffin corner punts. Well, after I picked my way through that answer, then we went on to some Bears questions."

Ballplayers needed offseason jobs in those days because they didn't make much money. Elson was no different. He had an early afternoon show emanating from the Pump Room in the Ambassador East Hotel where he would interview a list of celebrities, most of whom were not from the world of sports.

In the 1940s he did a show called The 20th Century Limited where he would go to the LaSalle Street Station to meet the famous train as it arrived from New York. Airline travel was in its infancy, so the Limited delivered the rich and famous. Elson simply would collar celebrities as they disembarked from the train.

"He never knew who he'd be talking to," Stone says, "but he could bluster his way through any interview. He had nothing written down. One time the famed musician Isaac Stern got off the train. Elson asked him how he would rate the top three musicians in the world, one, two, three. It was like a sports question. That was his real skill."

Elson did have something in common with the likes of Hawk, Stone Pony, D.J., and Farmio: he didn't criticize the team. If the Commander - his nickname since he served in the Navy - were doing the games today he simply would describe the failure to hit with runners in scoring position and the failure to hit period in the cases of Dunn and Rios.

The Sox are fortunate that a personality like Harry Caray isn't around to blast their ineptitude. Harry was famous for making life miserable for players like Brian Downing, whom he helped run out of town with his constant criticism. Downing went on to play 15 solid seasons after he left Chicago.

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If you've stuck with me this far, you've surely noticed that little has been mentioned about the 2011 White Sox. Of course, this is by design since the just-completed 2-5 homestand against division rivals was painful to watch. Thankfully we now have the All-Star break, and the Sox won't lose a game for at least four days. What a relief!

If you want a fun respite while we await the return to action, check out a tribute that my friend singer-songwriter Warren Nelson wrote for Bert Blyleven, who will be inducted to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on July 24th, along with Robbie Alomar and Pat Gillick. Warren's a lifelong Twins fan who was born and bred in Minnesota. He lives today in Washburn, Wisconsin, and he'll be in Cooperstown on the 24th.

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Comments welcome.

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1. From Sol Gittleman:

Very happy for him; now I wish they'd get on to Jim Kaat. They are both so much more deserving than some already in Cooperstown.

2. From Mike Knezovich:

It's a pleasure reading your stuff, Roger. I listened growing up in the 60s, and remember Bob Elson very well - I can still hear his voice. Totally understated, I'm sure he'd be considered boring by today's standards, but maybe not. The one guy still broadcasting who's old-school in the very best way is Bob Eucker. We listen to Brewers games via the Internet just to hear him. He does the broadcasts by himself, spelled for a few innings each game, and only occasionally chatting with someone else during a game. The pauses are what make the call. There aren't multiple broadcasters competing on a words-per-minute basis.

And like you, in my house Elson was the Sox guy, while Brickhouse was a suspect Mercenary. Finally, amen on Harry Caray. His deification (thank you WGN/Tribune) flew in the face of his being a mean-hearted bastard. It's one thing to criticize players for their play, but he would just ride them. His most despicable behavior was with Piersall - he baited him into tirades deliberately, and in my view, was not laughing with Piersall, but at him.

Anyway, keep up the good work.

3. From John H. Olsen:

Excellent piece!

4. From Lee Glazer:

Thanks for the report on my traumatic childhood . . . As the seven years younger sister of our brother, John, I lived, basically, in fear of the White Sox . . . I'm over it, finally . . . Not so over that my very first radio was the remnants of that maroon baby . . . I'm still working on that! Oddly enough I do have fond memories of Bob Elson. Thanks Rog for a fantastic stroll down memory lane!


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