I’ve written this column pretty much every year that I’ve been doing this, and 2014 won’t be an exception of any sort. As the Baltimore Orioles gear up for the opening of Grapefruit League play on Friday, many fans will find themselves listening to the games on the radio via WBAL’s feed of the 14 games they’re airing this spring. Baseball on the radio is still one of the great pleasures of the sport, and quite frankly it brings us back to a simpler time. More so than any other sport, baseball is identified very much so by it’s voices – Ernie Harwell, Vin Scully, Red Barber, Harry Carey, and Harry Kalas – just to name a few.
Baltimore has it’s own version of those legendary names – Chuck Thompson. Granted I grew up following the Orioles of the 1980’s, which was well past the heyday of radio in major league baseball. However I was privileged to have parents who didn’t see fit to pay the extra supplement charge to get the upgraded cable package to see the Orioles on television every night. I say “privileged” not to be sarcastic, but in reality – if not for me being forced to listen to the games on the radio if I wanted to follow them at all, I never would have heard the great Chuck Thompson call them.
Chuck Thompson WAS the Orioles. He was the likes of Earl, Palmer, the Robinsons, Powell, Eddie, and Cal…all in one. His was the voice that so many people recall in the glory years of the franchise. Ironically, his first full-time job as a big league radio announcer (he had previously broadcast Orioles games when they were a minor league team) was broadcasting the Washington Senators in 1957. He returned to Baltimore in 1962, where he was the voice of Baltimore sports for many years. I firmly believe that every city in a sense has “a voice,” and there can be no question that Thompson was Baltimore’s. He was the lead voice of both the Orioles and the Baltimore Colts for years.
Aside from his superior broadcast work, Thompson is best remembered for his catchphrases. My personal favorite was ain’t the beer cold!, which he would say after every Orioles’ win. (This is also a reference to the National Brewing Company, for whom Thompson worked given that they owned the broadcast rights.) However his other trademark phrase was Go to war, Ms. Agnes!, which would come out after a big play in a game. Both of these sayings came under scrutiny at various times, the first one from folks in the Carolinas who didn’t want to hear about alcohol advertising, and the second during the Viet Nam war.
Thompson retired in 1987, but was bought back on a part-time basis until 2000 when he was forced to retire for good due to a condition that slowly took his eyesight. Speaking for myself, listening to Chuck Thompson was probably better than watching the games on television. His smooth delivery and down-to-earth manner of calling the games made him the perfect play-by-play man for Baltimore. I have very fond memories of listening to Thompson call the action of games when I was a kid, and I was very sorry when he retired for good in 2000. Chuck Thompson passed away in 2005 at the age of 83.
Chuck Thompson received the Ford C. Frick award from the Hall of Fame in 1993, and in 2009 he was ranked as #30 out of the American Sportscasters Association’s list of the top 50 announcers ever. (And I would submit that he’s underrated.) As I said, I write this annual “tribute” to Chuck Thompson every spring because I feel he’s as much a part of Orioles’ history as anyone else. That’s why I said he was all of the players and coaches spun into one – because his voice brought us the passion and the toils of those guys while they were on the field.
Having said that, the Orioles have honored all of their Hall of Famers by erecting bronze statues of them in the ballpark. I would submit that it’s time for the team to honor Chuck Thompson for his contribution to the Orioles and to the history of the city of Baltimore. And yes folks, Thompson is a part of Baltimore’s history; when you’re as much associated with franchises such as the O’s and Colts as he is, you’re a part of the city’s proud past. It wouldn’t exactly be right to have a statue for a man who didn’t participate in the on-field part of the game, but I think it would be fitting to have the Orioles and the city of Baltimore dedicate the press box at Camden Yards as “The Chuck Thompson Memorial Press Level” (or something to that effect).
Chuck Thompson was the go-between on behalf of generations of Orioles fans and the team itself. There’s no question that he left a mark on the people here, evidenced by the number of times I overhear people saying ain’t the beer cold from my perch at Camden Yards. The Orioles successfully tapped into their past with the statues they unveiled two years ago; I think it’s time for them to complete that process by paying tribute to the great Chuck Thompson.