(Dave Niehaus accepting the Ford C. Frick Award during the 2008 Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Photo by Associated Press).
What an amazing outpouring of affection for Dave Niehaus since news broke yesterday afternoon of his death, but it’s really not surprising. A baseball announcer becomes practically a part of the family, and when someone holds that position with one team for 34 years, the relationship becomes even more profound. And when that person conducts his job with the warmth, enthusiasm and skill of a Dave Niehaus, well, it’s legendary stuff. When that voice is silenced, it hits hard. It touches something deep inside us, reminds those of us who are getting up in age of our own fleeting youth, and drives home the notion of our own mortality. We kind of thought Dave would go on forever, and the realization that he’s not going to be around come April is devastating.
Enough waxing philosophical. I’d like to remember Dave doing what he loved to do: Sitting in a radio booth calling baseball games. He rose to the big moment like no one else, but Dave was at his best in a mundane, meaningless August game of a season going nowhere. Coaxing all of us to listen, night after night, year after year, took a true master.
My favorite Niehaus memory occurred in July of 2008, when I was fortunate enough to cover his weekend in Cooperstown when he received the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence during the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Dave gave an eloquent speech on that warm Sunday — one that prompted Sandy Koufax, sitting on the dais next to Niehaus, to lean over and whisper to him, once Niehaus had sat down, “That was just great. That was fabulous.” Niehaus told me afterward, “Talk about a Hall of Fame kiss, man. Wow. I said, ‘Thanks a lot, Sandy.’ That’s when I almost cried.”
But his speech wasn’t my most treasured memory of that weekend, special as it was. On Friday, I asked Dave if he would mind meeting me at the Hall of Fame museum. I thought it would make for a compelling column to accompany him as he walked the halls of the museum, culminating in a visit to the broadcasting section, where his plaque was to be hung.
He readily agreed, and it turned out to be just as moving and emotional as I anticipated. Not surprisingly, Dave and his wife, Marilyn, were brimming with excitement. This is the moment every announcer dreams about, and for Niehaus, it came about a decade after most thought he should have been honored. His eyes were sparkling, and he kept muttering “Unbelievable!” as we walked the halls of Cooperstown.
I remember being struck that Dave attended a ceremony that afternoon honoring the late, great Buck O’Neil. They were unveiling a statue that will stand in the Hall of Fame, and some of O’Neil’s relatives were there. Dave and Marilyn stood inconspicuosly in the crowd, and Dave’s eyes welled up in tears as he talked to me about Buck.
But the highlight of the day came for me when we got to the “Scribes and Mikemen” exhibit, honoring the Frick winners, as well as the baseball writers who had received their top honor, the Spink Award. To get to those exhibits, you first have to walk through the Plaque Gallery, where all the Hall of Famers are honored. It’s a sacred venue, and Dave was clearly awestruck as he viewed names like Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, Mays. At one point, as I wrote in the column, Dave turned to his wife and said, “This is the holy sanctum. You don’t even want to speak in a loud voice, it’s so hallowed. People speak in whispers.”
That’s how I wanted to speak when we got to the “Mikemen” display, and watched his delight at seeing the open spot reserved for his plaque. And watching him again well up as he viewed the displays of all his heroes, and many of his peers — some of them good friends — from Harry Caray to Vin Scully.
I felt privileged to share that moment with Dave, and it’s a memory I will always treasure.