The voices carried me home. Dating back to high school, on most weekends in the summer I’d drive to the Jersey Shore and relax with friends and family who owned or rented houses there (see: mooching). Seaside Heights, Ocean City, Sea Isle, Avalon, Wildwood — I’ve slept on porches and tight couches and in sheets decorated with conch shells. Sundays meant the dreaded trip home, and the worst stretch was usually where the Garden State Parkway meets the Atlantic City Expressway. Traffic crawled. The air conditioner in my black 1994 Chevy Cavalier was broken. It’s a safe bet I was dehydrated, from the sun or booze or both.
Far more important to me than a cool blast of air was my radio. Music was the soundtrack for the ride to the Shore; Sundays were for the Phillies, and for Harry. As the heat and my stress level rose, Harry Kalas turned my sweatbox-on-wheels into a Buddhist monastery where baseball was peace and Harry the K’s play-by-play was a Zen koan. You can still hear his voice, like that of a grandfather or dad who told stories that held you rapt, or a friend who could talk sports for hours: “Struck’im ouuuuut!” During that long drought between 1993 and 2007, when the Fightins mostly stunk like a Vet Stadium bathroom, you tuned in not just for baseball, but for a version of the game as described by Harry. It was often better than what you’d see with your own eyes.
By contrast, a lousy broadcaster can ruin the experience. Like former Sixers color man Eric Snow, who was so dull he once apparently put himself to sleep. On the air. Or the current Phillies television crew, who should begin each inning with a narcolepsy warning. (Google “Matt Stairs Wing Bowl” for proof of a far more entertaining guy than you’ve heard so far. Jamie Moyer? I think he may have a future on NPR.)
With the window now officially closed on the Phillies’ ’08 championship era, and with no basketball, hockey or meaningful football till the fall, it feels like we’re all stuck in a hot car on the Philadelphia sports highway — going nowhere and not happy about it. Which makes this the perfect time to recognize the local TV and radio play-by-play men and color analysts who’ve made our best sports memories better and helped us survive the lean years. To rank them, I’ve looked at three categories: voice (smooth delivery, unmistakable sound), calls (moments that will live in Philly sports history), and general awesomeness (would you want to have a beer or play a round of golf with this guy?).
What makes a broadcaster special is more than the ability to interpret the infield fly rule or describe the action; it’s the weird, deeply personal one-sided relationships that fans develop with him over time. These broadcasters will likely never know you, but they’re part of your family for the big game and your co-pilot on long drives home.
10. Mike Emrick
Flyers TV 1983–’93
“Doc” had an impossible act to follow, taking over the Flyers’ TV duties from then-living-legend Gene Hart. (Indeed, Emrick was eventually let go to give Hart his job back.) His encyclopedic knowledge of the game, creative vocabulary (players “sashayed”; passes were “shillelaghed”) and recall of obscure facts made him seem like a buttoned-up professor in contrast with Hart’s emotional delivery. But Emrick’s style and his “Scooooore!” calls were so synonymous with the game that he was the first media member inducted into the sport’s Hall of Fame. Sportswriter Peter King once said Emrick was to hockey what Jack Buck was to baseball. High praise indeed. Doc deserves it.
9. Tom McGinnis
Sixers radio 1995–present
In the nearly two decades McGinnis has been calling Sixers games, there’s been exactly one thrilling season. The other 18 have varied from Andre-Iguodala-interesting-at-times to Eddie-Jordan-excruciating, and McGinnis has done yeoman duty at tempering enthusiasm with reality (and somehow not leading a march off the Walt Whitman Bridge). Think of that glorious Iverson-led run to the Finals in 2001, and it’s hard not to hear McGinnis’s “Are you kidding me?” as the soundtrack to your mental highlights. Most impressive is that McGinnis is a one-man show, juggling the roles of both analyst and play-caller. It’s a display of broadcast wizardry akin to passing the ball to yourself and finishing with an alley-oop dunk.
8. Tom Brookshier
Eagles radio 1962–’64; CBS TV 1965–’87
Including Brookie on this list is a stretch if you only consider his relatively brief stint as color man for the Birds. But the ex-Eagle All Pro left town to join Pat Summerall on CBS, and for years the duo was the network’s A-team for football — so I’m claiming him. Brookshier would become one of the first jocks skilled enough to handle play-by-play work; in the early days, athletes were usually pigeonholed as sidemen. He also left an indelible mark — or stain, some might say — on this city as one of the fore- fathers of sports talk radio: His morning show on fledgling WIP eventually became Brookie and the Rookie and launched the career of his sidekick, a young Inquirer beat writer named Angelo Cataldi.
7. Jim Jackson
Flyers TV 1993–present; Phillies radio 2010–present
Jackson has quietly anchored Flyers broadcasts for 20 seasons, and like an umpire in baseball, he’s so steady that he sometimes goes unnoticed until he makes a mistake. Thing is, “JJ” rarely does — he’s the sublime balance of insight and emotion, the Mr. Dependable of Philly sports. It’s an especially impressive feat considering the pace of hockey and all those tongue-twisting foreign names. (You try saying “Niittymäki stops Kovalchuk, clears to Pitkänen, who passes to Zhitnik!”) What does he do in his spare time? Handles the middle innings across the street for the Phillies with the same skill and expertise, only slower.
6. Bill Campbell
Eagles radio 1952–’66; Phillies TV and radio 1963–’70; Sixers TV and radio 1972–’81; Warriors radio 1946–’62; Big Five basketball radio various years
I was in first grade when “The Dean” retired from broadcasting, so my only references for Campbell’s work are YouTube clips and talk-radio impressions. (If Joe Conklin did a By Saam, he’d be on this list, too.) But even if you never saw or heard Campbell call a game, the man’s body of work stands untouched. It takes a true sportsman to cover basketball, baseball and football, both pro and collegiate, with skill and smarts. You get the sense that if someone asked Campbell to do play-by-play of a halfball tournament or dice game, he’d oblige, and sound great doing it. He was so beloved in his prime that the Phillies were roundly eviscerated after replacing him with some punk from Houston. Wrote Stan Hochman in the Daily News, “The new guy’s name is pronounced Kal-us, as in callous.” There’s also a retro-coolness to Campbell, from his broadcast of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game to his classic beer pitches, during which he’d pour a cold one on live television: “Why don’t you join me in a glass of Schmidt’s?” How much does this man love Philly sports? At 90, he’s blogging about them.
5. Richie Ashburn
Phillies TV and radio 1963–’97
When Ashburn died in 1997, the Phillies played the Mets at Shea Stadium. In the outfield, the American flag flew at half-staff. That’s how respected Whitey was around the league, not just as a Cooperstown kind of ballplayer, but throughout his 35 years in the booth. For 27 of those seasons, his partner was Harry Kalas, and together, they defined the sound of Philadelphia sports. As a color man, Whitey knew when to step in with his dry Nebraska wit and when to let Kalas lead. “His Whiteness” presided mostly over losing seasons, but his enthusiasm for the game and front-porch-with-a-cold-one rapport with Harry never waned. Someone asked him once how it felt to be an institution. In typical style, he cracked he hoped to be one before he was sent to one.
4. Scott Franzke | Larry Andersen
Phillies radio 2006–present | Phillies radio 1998–present
Franzke and L.A. are inseparable for the purposes of this ranking, since the whole here is better than the sum of its parts. Andersen has long been a steady presence on Phillies broadcasts, but it wasn’t until he teamed up with Franzke that the former Phils reliever hit his stride. Together, they recall the easy banter of Harry and Whitey, as if sometimes they forget their mics are on. Franzke pokes fun at L.A.’s flub while reading an advertising promo; Andersen goes on a rant about players with big egos, or umpires with big egos, or pretty much everything umpires do. The duo was at their best in 2009, when Jimmy Rollins knocked in two runs in the bottom of the ninth against the Dodgers in the NLCS. “Rollins has won it! They stream out of the dugout!” Franzke says, as Andersen yells “Yes!” and howls in the background. They’ve earned the loftiest praise one can give in this hi-def video age — with Franzke and L.A., even when the game is on TV, sometimes it’s more fun to just listen. (Memo to the Comcast SportsNet brass: Get these two on TV. They could be the best reason to watch the team next season.)
3. Gene Hart
Flyers TV and radio 1967–’95
The call stands among the greatest in Philadelphia sports. It’s one phrase, repeated four times, that somehow encapsulates how we felt then and still feel today, in those rare moments when our teams win the big one. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Flyers are going to win the Stanley Cup!” Can you believe it? Is this really happening? “The Flyers win the Stanley Cup! The Flyers win the Stanley Cup!” My God, this is really happening! “The Flyers have won the Stanley Cup!” We did it! Hart was more than the mouthpiece for a franchise — he was a teacher who helped us understand a strange new game on ice skates played by guys from Flin Flon and Medicine Hat. Early on, when only a handful of games were televised, Hart served as the public-address announcer, explaining why offside and icing drew whistles. There was also no finer sign-off in all of sports, one that serves as both legacy and epitaph: “Good night and good hockey.”
2. Harry Kalas
Phillies TV and radio 1971–2009
Harry. No surname necessary. He didn’t get to broadcast the 1980 World Series because Vin Scully was on the job for CBS Radio; he’d later credit outraged Phillies fans for pressuring the league to allow local radio stations to carry the Fall Classic. We needed him behind the microphone in case the Phils won again. With words, he framed so many memories between ’80 and ’08 — Schmitty’s 500th home run, Thome’s 400th long ball (“Take a bow, big man!”), Chase Utley’s all-hustle score from second base (“Chase Utley, you are the man!”), and every ball that left the park to the tune of “Outta heerrrre!” He sang “High Hopes,” knowing that in many years, hope was all we had. In the end, he lost a bit on his fastball, but it didn’t matter — we finally got his call, the call: “The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 world champions of baseball!” A year later, thousands passed by his casket behind home plate. For them, for all of us, he wasn’t just an announcer. He was a friend, a father, a yarn-spinner who turned sport into story. He was also the smoky voice of the NFL’s highlight reels, and a guy who you hoped would share some of the untold tales from the road and the locker room if you could buy him a few gin-and-tonics. Today, he’s a statue, the name on a ballpark restaurant — and, still, Harry is Phillies baseball.
1. Merrill Reese
Eagles radio 1977–present
Like Harry, Merrill has achieved single-name status, and in the realm of Philadelphia sports broadcasting, it’s a two-horse race for the crown. By the numbers, these two are a statistical tie. Merrill has his share of classic calls, among them the Miracle at the Meadowlands parts I, II and III; Reggie’s sacks; Randall’s scrambles; and every clutch field goal (“It’s gooooooooood!”). Football is a gritty game, but Merrill brings a certain eloquence to it — his voice doesn’t rumble; it floats, soaring weightless and falling heavy as the drama demands. But what sets him apart is what he doesn’t have. Harry enjoyed 162-plus games every season, each one filled with mound conferences and batter’s-box ballets that gave him time and space to muse about baseball, life, anything. Merrill has 16 Sundays and covers a game that speeds by faster, with so many moving parts. In baseball, everyone sees an error; in football, it takes a special eye not just to catch a lineman out of place or a missed coverage, but to recognize its significance. Harry also had Whitey, an icon in his own right; Merrill often shined despite his partner. (Woe unto thee who must turn to Stan Walters for insight. Even Mike Quick took a few seasons to find his groove.) Harry wasn’t a homer, per se, but he rarely criticized the Phils. With the Eagles, you turned down the television and turned up the radio because you knew that when Andy Reid wasted a time out, Merrill would say what you were thinking. Merrill is us, but better — he understands the game the way we wish we did, describes it in ways we wish we could, and admits he’s perplexed, frustrated or pissed off without throwing things. All this, and at age 71, he’s as sharp as ever. Merrill deserves a statue, too — hopefully not for a long time, and, like Harry, after the parade.
Originally published as “Play-by-Players” in the August 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.