Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Prince was a man of paradox. He was often brash and loud, but tender and caring around the disabled children who meant so much to him; a carefree playboy who enjoyed a drink or two (or three), but a devoted family man who raised two children with his wife of 44 years; proud and sometimes arrogant, but gracious in his relations with players and younger broadcasters; occasionally hated, but ultimately loved by Pirate fans who invited him into their homes, offices, and cars every day of the baseball season for 28 years. Perhaps it is because of these paradoxes, this humanness, that Prince's name is still a magical one among fans in Pittsburgh and the entire Pennsylvania-Ohio-West Virginia tri-state area, almost two decades after his death.
Another paradox is that Prince, who would become a Pittsburgh institution, lived a rather nomadic existence during his youth. The son of Frederick and Guyla Prince, Robert F. Prince was born in Los Angeles on July 1, 1916. His father, a former West Point football standout, was a career military man whose job took him and his family all over the United States. The stereotypical army brat, Bob Prince attended, by his own estimation, 14 or 15 different schools before graduating from Schenley High School in Pittsburgh. A fine athlete, Prince lettered in swimming at the University of Pittsburgh. Although in his later days, Prince was known for his stick-figure physique, photographs of him in the mid-to-late 1930s reveal an athletic-looking young man with a well-developed upper body. Prince left Pittsburgh in 1937, to enroll at Stanford University (where he claimed to have intentionally flunked out), and finally ended up at the University of Oklahoma, where he was again part of the swimming team and where he completed a bachelor's degree in business administration.
After an unsuccessful stint at Harvard Law School ("In those days, anybody could get in. It wasn't like it is now," Prince claimed), Prince turned his love of sports into a profession, winning an audition and become host of "Case of Sports" on WJAS Radio in Pittsburgh in 1941. Selling insurance during the day, then coming into the studio to host his show in the evening, Prince soon made a name for himself among Pittsburgh sports fans. He was opinionated, colorful, and a bit of a loudmouth-in some ways a forerunner of many of the bombastic radio sports talkers of today. On at least one occasion, the subject of a Prince harangue expressed his displeasure in no uncertain terms. On the air, Prince accused hometown boxer Billy Conn, who would nearly defeat Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship of the world in 1941, of ducking tough opponents. Several nights later, Conn encountered Prince at the Pittsburgh Arena, where he decided he would settle the disagreement by slamming Prince against a wall and threatening to beat him senseless. Ironically, the two men later became close friends.
Prince marketed himself brilliantly. He claimed his brash style in those early days stemmed simply from his desire to make a name for himself. He rarely hesitated to grab some gratuitous publicity, whether it was for a stunt in which someone drove a golf ball from a tee stuck in his mouth, or for forcing a frightened competitor off the track to win a celebrity stock car race. Throughout his broadcasting career, he was an inveterate joiner, building a network of personal connections and friendships through membership in organizations including the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, the Harvard-Yale-Princeton Club, the University Club, and four different country clubs. "Pure self-interest," Prince admitted. "That's how I made contacts, not through a resume or agent."
Following the 1947 baseball season, a job opened up in the Pittsburgh Pirates' broadcast booth when Jack Craddock resigned. Prince was acquainted with one of the Pirate owners, Tom Johnson, from his days at Harvard and that helped land him the job as the sidekick to beloved Pirate play-by-play man Rosey Rowswell. "Connections and associations," Prince said, "are important." At first, Rowswell-a sensitive, teetotaling man who wrote poetry-was suspicious of the brash, young Prince's intentions. During his first year in the Pirate booth, Rowswell marginalized Prince, limiting his on-air involvement to incidental activities like reading commercials during station breaks and serving as a glorified sound effects man (Prince would drop a tray filled with harness bells to mimic the sound of shattered glass in response to Rowswell's cry of "Open the window Aunt Minnie...here it comes!" when a Pirate player slugged a home run). "I had to convince Rosey that I wasn't out to upstage him," Prince remembered. "When he learned I was sincere, we worked well together."
Despite their different personalities off the air, Prince and Rowswell shared similar broadcasting styles. Both men saw themselves as entertainers, not just reporters. Each man coined his own set of memorable, folksy catch phrases. Rowswell's repertoire included his "Aunt Minnie" home run call and his mournful "Oh, my aching back!" when a Pirate rally fizzled. Prince had his own home run call, "You can kiss it goodbye!" A bang-bang play was "as close as the fuzz on a tick's ear", and the Pirates often missed a double play "by a gnat's eyelash." A sharp single through the hard-packed Forbes Field infield was an "alabaster blast." A Pirate player in slump merely needed the help of some "hidden vigorish." And if the Pirates were trailing in the late innings, Prince openly prayed for "a bloop and a blast" to get them back in the game. "Rosey taught me an important lesson," Prince said. "If you're losing 14-2 in the second inning, you've got to keep the people interested with funny stories, names, and reminiscences. You can't be worried about who hit .280 in 1943." Prince worked at Rowswell's side for seven seasons until Rowswell's death in February 1955. At that point, Prince took over as the Pirates' number one broadcaster.
From the start, Prince enjoyed an unusual relationship with the Pirate players. Not merely a broadcaster, Prince became for many players a friend, confidante, and mentor. In return, the players accepted him as one of the guys. One of Prince's closest friends among the Pirate players was seven-time National League home run champion Ralph Kiner. In January 1951, Kiner and Prince formed Kiner Enterprises to handle the slugger's substantial outside business interests. At the time, Kiner endorsed 14 products, producing estimated annual income of $20,000 to $30,000. Kiner and Prince certainly had fun together, tooling around Pittsburgh in matching silver Jaguars and spending part of the winter months together at Kiner's home in Palm Springs, California. Financially, however, the partnership was something less than lucrative. Prince and Kiner purchased a restaurant and a UHF television station in Pittsburgh, both of which flopped. According to Kiner, "He was always getting me into one deal or another. Invariably, we lost our ass." (Indeed, Prince's record in business was marked by some spectacular failures. They included the loss of a significant amount of money to a man convicted of running an elaborate Ponzi scheme, an investment in an ill-fated professional team boxing league, and a disastrous financial plunge into Peruvian oil wells).
Prince's interest in the players went well beyond the financial, however. He seemed to genuinely care about them and like them. An example came after Game 7 of the 1971 World Series in Baltimore. Bucco pitcher Bruce Kison was scheduled to marry following the game. To ensure that Kison made it to the ceremony, Prince secured a private jet (in exchange for three World Series tickets) to shuttle the pitcher back to Pittsburgh immediately following the game. "The ballclub always wanted to take credit for that," Kison says, "but the truth of the matter is that [it was] Bob Prince. You don't see his kind in broadcasting anymore. A legend who will allow himself to come down to the players' level."
Relief pitcher Kent Tekulve, who was a rookie with the Bucs in 1974, said, "Prince was like a coach on the team, the way he led you through the p.r. aspects of being a big league ballplayer." Prince, who spoke Spanish, took many of the Pirates' black and Latin players under his wing, inviting them to his home and giving them advice on how to survive life as a major leaguer. One of those players was Roberto Clemente. Clemente's relationship with the media was strained, sometimes antagonistic. He was embarrassed by newspaper stories that, in his early days as a Pirate, quoted him in broken English, hurt that some members of the media accused him of exaggerating supposedly minor injuries, and angry that he didn't receive the respect and recognition that he believed he deserved. Over the years, Clemente and Prince became close. Prince was one of the few people, perhaps the only one, who regularly got away with referring to Clemente as "Bob" or "Bobby," an Americanization of his name that the proud Clemente despised. Following the 1971 season, Prince's 25th as a Pirate broadcaster, Clemente invited Prince to his native Puerto Rico. There, in a public ceremony, Clemente presented Prince with the silver bat he was awarded in 1961 for winning the first of his four National League batting titles-a bat Clemente once called the award that he treasured most, even more than his World Series rings.
Prince helped bridge the gap between player and fan by adorning players with weird, catchy, nicknames. When Clemente would bat in a clutch situation, for example, Prince would exhort fans with the cry of "Arriba!" which, when translated into English, means roughly "rise up" or "arise." Soon fans at Forbes Field began to yell "Arriba!" spontaneously as a display of support for the great right fielder. Other Prince-invented handles included "The Cobra" (Dave Parker), "The Dog" (Bob Skinner), and "The Deacon" (Vern Law). "These names just popped into my head. If a guy reminded me of an animal, I'd call him that," Prince said. Whenever Pirate slugger Willie Stargell would come to the plate in a crucial situation, Prince would crow, "Let's spread some chicken on hill with Will." Stargell owned a fast food chicken restaurant in Pittsburgh's Hill district. The origin of Prince's own nickname, "The
Gunner," is unclear. That appellation was the creation of Prince's longtime broadcast partner Jim Woods. Some say it was in honor of Prince's rapid-fire on-air delivery. However, another, slightly more sordid version of the story traces the name back to an alleged incident in which an angry, gun-toting husband accused Prince of flirting with the man's wife in a bar. (Woods, of course, also had a nickname: "The Possum").
Prince was a homer, an unabashed Pirate fan. After every Pirate win, regardless of the final score, he would croak in his raspy, cigarette-cured voice, "We had 'em alllll the way!" According for former Bucco shortstop Dick Groat, "One of the reasons he was so popular and so well-liked by everyone is that I don't remember him second-guessing the ballplayers or the manager." And Prince made no apologies for it. "Who do I broadcast for, the Pennsylvania Turnpike? If I did I'd tell you about the charm of the tollbooths. No, I broadcast for the Pittsburgh Pirates. I always call them 'Our Bucs.' They belong to every fan in Pittsburgh and I love them." Sporting News television critic Jack Craig panned Prince's work on NBC during the 1971 World Series as "glaringly biased." But Craig allowed that it was just Prince being Prince and that, "as a veteran announcer, and a wealthy one at that, Prince could not be expected to worry about any damage to his career resulting from a slanted one-shot performance in the World Series."
Prince believed that part of a broadcaster's job was to pull for the home team, make things interesting for the fans, and put people in the seats. This philosophy led to the birth of Pirate fans' erstwhile magic charm-the Green Weenie. During a 1966 game against Houston, Pirate trainer Danny Whelan screamed at Astros' pitcher Dave Giusti, "You're gonna walk him!" while waving a green rubber hot dog in the direction of the mound. Giusti, thus jinxed, indeed proceeded to walk the batter and eventually lose the game. Prince noticed this from the broadcast booth, and the next day he grilled Whelan about it on the air. And thereby the legend of the Green Weenie was born. Official Green Weenies, filled with little pebbles that would make noise when shaken, were sold at Forbes Field (known as "The House of Thrills" in Prince-speak). The Serta Mattress Company created a special mattress on which the Weenie could rest when not busy hexing opponents. Although Prince and the Pirate fans were unable to conjure up a pennant in 1966 (the Bucs finished third, three games behind Los Angeles) the Green Weenie did have its moments. In July, Prince implored Pirate fans to direct the power of the Weenie against Giants' pitcher Juan Marichal. Marichal won the game, but the next day slammed his hand in a car door, which caused him to miss two starts. During the seventh inning of a game against the Phillies, with the Pirates trailing 3-1, Prince's broadcast partner Don Hoak ("The Tiger" in his Pittsburgh playing days) urged Prince to use the Weenie. Prince declined, waiting until the eighth inning, at which time the Bucs responded with four runs to win 5-3. The lesson, according to Prince? "Never waste the power of the Green Weenie." In 1974, Prince would invent a similar talisman, encouraging female fans to waive their "babushkas" (handkerchiefs) to spark a rally.
When he chose to stay focused, Prince could deliver a very accurate, exciting play-by-play description. But he rambled-a lot. He would say hello to older fans listening at home who couldn't make it to the ballpark ("The shut-in lists are important," Prince argued. "When you mentioned the name of a fan in Delmont, [Pennsylvania], you made that person feel like a million dollars, especially if he or she was laid up in bed. He or she was recognized."). He told stories that had nothing to do with baseball. Seemingly no subject was off limits. He talked about the splendor of the trees in Schenley Park beyond the left field wall. He talked about his friends. He talked about college football. One fan recalls a broadcast in which "The Gunner" enlightened fans with an extended discourse about driving in fog.
Most Pirate fans seemed to like this kind of thing. Prince was funny, intelligent, and interesting-a genuine entertainer. But he also drove some people crazy. Now and then, a cry of "Shut up, Prince!" would emanate from the Forbes Field stands. Branch Rickey, general manager of the Pirates from 1950-1955, couldn't stand Prince. Rickey, a self-professed expert on almost everything, once wrote an epistle on baseball broadcasting in which he sniffed, "There should be very little horseplay in a broadcast. It is a business proposition. Every now and then an anecdote is quite proper...Broadcasters should have frequent conversations with club owners or secretaries...Scores of other games are interesting...The most important thing in all this world for a broadcaster is to have in mind constantly that 1,000 people have just turned on their radios and immediately start asking themselves 'Who is playing? What's the score?'" Rickey's broadcasting philosophy was anathema to Prince, who claimed to have never gone into a booth with anything more than a pencil, a scorecard, and his imagination. Rickey went so far as to criticize Prince in a memo to the Pirates' board of directors, claiming Prince detracted from the game with "editorial comment and comparison. He [also] has unfortunate stretches of silence until anyone trying to get the game on the dial would think that there was no broadcast." Part of Rickey's angst probably stemmed from Prince's criticism (both on-air and off) of the trade of his friend Kiner to the Chicago Cubs in 1953. Prince groused that Rickey "got six jock straps for Kiner."
Chaos and tumult seemed to follow Prince wherever he went-not that he tried to discourage it. In 1957 in the Chase Hotel in St. Louis a thoroughly sober Prince, in response to a $20 wager from Pirate third baseman Gene Freese, leaped from a third floor window into the hotel pool. Mickey Bergstein, who broadcast Penn State University football games with Prince for nearly a decade, recalls Prince jumping to his feet after a particularly exciting touchdown, losing his balance, and nearly tumbling over a railing at the outside edge of the stadium. In July 1966, Prince was boarding a Pirates team flight to San Francisco when a flight attendant asked him to place the tape recorder he was carrying in a storage compartment. Prince declined, countering, "I handle this thing more carefully than a bomb." Prince was promptly removed from the plane and subjected to two hours of FBI and police questioning.
At times, Prince could be charmingly oblivious to what was happening around him. Broadcasting the 1960 World Series for NBC television, Prince missed one of the greatest moments in baseball history-Bill Mazeroski's Game 7 home run that gave Pirates their first championship in 35 years. In the top of the ninth inning, with the Pirates leading 9-7, Prince headed to the clubhouse to prepare for post-game interviews. When the Yankees tied it in the top of ninth, Prince was ordered back to the booth. He had just stepped off the Forbes Field elevator when he heard a roar and was told to head back down to the clubhouse. The roar was in response to Mazeroski's home run, but Prince had no clue what had happened. As the Pirate players thundered in, an NBC production assistant pulled Mazeroski aside and directed him toward Prince. The interview lasted mere seconds. "Well Maz, how does it feel to be a member of the world champions?" Prince asked. "Great," Mazeroski responded. To which Prince replied with finality, "Congratulations," as he shooed the World Series hero away. It wasn't until hours later, Prince claimed, that he learned from his wife how the game had ended. On another occasion, Prince nearly missed the kickoff of a Penn State-TCU football game he was scheduled to broadcast. Prince-whose multi-colored sport coats reflected a questionable fashion sense-had taken a little longer than expected at a shoemaker's shop, where he was being custom-fitted for a pair of purple and white cowboy boots with the image of the TCU horned frog mascot stitched into them. Prince once noted, "Maybe I could have been a lawyer and made a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, but I wouldn't have had half as much fun."
Beneath all the lunacy and bizarre antics, Prince was an exceedingly caring man who displayed his generosity in ways large and small. At the behest of wealthy heiress Patricia Hillman, Prince co-founded the Allegheny Valley School for Exceptional Children, dedicated to helping severely retarded kids. Regis Champ, the school's president and CEO, estimated that Prince raised $4 million for the school over the years. "He donated money he made from speaking engagements. No one knows that. He'd tell them to send the money directly to us," Champ said. Moreover, Prince volunteered countless hands-on hours with students at the school. According to Champ, "Every Christmas afternoon he is out here spending the day with children who cannot go home. And our kids feel his love-nothing more excites them than to hear Bob Prince is on our campus." Prince co-founded the Hutchinson Cancer Fund and the Fred Hutchinson Award, named for the Cincinnati Reds manager who died of cancer in 1964. Prince helped to convince Pittsburgh-based corporations U.S. Steel, Alcoa, and PPG to provide at no charge the raw materials used in the construction of the award. Prince, along with Commissioner William Eckert, presented the first Hutch Award to Mickey Mantle during spring training in 1966. In November 1970, Prince led a contingent of major league players to Vietnam, where they visited American GIs and tried to stay out of range of rock-throwing baboons on Hontre Island. ("One of those apes was a left-hander. He could really throw," Prince joked).
Despite Prince's popularity, he began to clash with his bosses in the late 1960s after KDKA Radio, owned by Westinghouse Broadcasting, purchased the rights to Pirate broadcasts from Atlantic Richfield. Trouble began for Prince shortly thereafter. In 1969, Prince's partner of 12 seasons, Jim Woods, left the Pirate broadcasting team following a salary dispute with Westinghouse executives. Soon, Pirate general manager Joe L. Brown began to closely monitor Prince's broadcasts, even passing notes to Prince or telephoning the broadcast booth when Prince and partner Nellie King, a Pirate pitcher from 1954-57, drifted too far away from the action. Brown also told Prince after the 1974 season that he was dissatisfied with his performance and that he needed to "sell" the team better (Pirate attendance languished in the mid 70s, despite consistently competitive teams). As the Pirates were planning to move from Forbes Field to Three Rivers Stadium in 1970, Prince helped to design a spacious broadcast booth at the new park, but unfortunately that decision backfired. By the mid 1970s, Westinghouse executives were bringing guests and clients into the booth during games. Sometimes they would try to talk to Prince or ask for autographs during the broadcasts. On more than one occasion, they committed the cardinal sin of cheering the opposing team. During a game in 1975, when the Westinghouse guests became too raucous, Prince blurted over the air, "Ladies and gentlemen, we've got some idiots in the box rooting for Chicago." On October 30, 1975, Westinghouse Broadcasting shocked Pirate fans by announcing that Prince would not return for a 29th year behind the microphone. He and popular sidekick King were fired. At the time, no major league broadcaster had ever spent more years with one team than Bob Prince.
Pirate fans went berserk. One fan summed up the feeling around Pittsburgh quite nicely, "I can't believe they'd do that to someone who gave so much for 20 [sic] years...As far as I'm concerned he was the Pittsburgh Pirates." A KDKA switchboard operator received more than 600 calls between 5:30 pm and 11:30 pm the night the firing were announced. She estimated 95 percent of the callers were pro-Prince. Pirate broadcast sponsors were miffed as well. Jim Ficco, an executive for the ad agency that handled the account for Ford Motors, a Pirate sponsor, said, "The dealers are upset. I'm personally upset. We're reevaluating our position. We have $700,000 earmarked for radio and television for Pirate games. Prince is our man." The Pittsburgh Brewing Company, a sponsor since 1957 and a minority broadcast rights holder, denied initial reports that it had voted in favor of the dismissals. Brewery president Lou Slais explained, "We have a one-third vote and Westinghouse has two-thirds." (This didn't stop one downtown Pittsburgh restaurant from boycotting Iron City, Pittsburgh Brewing Company's most popular beer). Pittsburgh Post Gazette sports editor Al Abrams noted, "Utterly ridiculous is the charge that Prince and King did not help being people to the ballpark. They shilled so much for the club on the airwaves, I tuned them out at least 100 times."
Prince admitted that Brown (echoing beliefs expressed two decades earlier by Branch Rickey) wanted Prince to ramble less and stick closer to the action on the field. But, "I never dreamed that meant, 'If you don't, you're out.'" He pleaded to remain with the Pirates. "It's the first time I've ever begged for anything. I asked for another chance. I even offered to write out a resignation for ill health of they would let me come back for '76." But regional director of Westinghouse Broadcasting, Ed Wallis, would hear nothing of it. Wallis, who became the public bogeyman in the firings, initially ducked requests for comment on the firings. But later he responded, "Club management and station management met with him (Prince) at the beginning of this year and summarized specifically all of our previous concerns. It became clear last season that the issues in dispute could not be reconciled; therefore, the contracts were not renewed." He told a Rotary Club luncheon that he was looking for a play-by-play man who could provide "accurate, consistent, uninterrupted accounts of the baseball game." Prince contended, "The only person who doesn't want me back is Ed Wallis. It's that simple." The level of acrimony on both sides suggests that somewhere along the line the disagreements between Prince and King and the Westinghouse executives had crossed the line from professional to personal. King claims that Wallis laughed when he reminded the executive that he needed the job to support his family. "It was almost like dealing with someone from The Godfather," according to King. Indeed, one person at Westinghouse claimed that Prince simply had gotten "too big for his britches."
A Pittsburgh radio station hastily organized a parade to honor Prince and King. The day prior to the parade was Election Day, and turnout was the lowest it had been in the city 35 years. Pittsburghers might have been apathetic about their government, but not about Bob Prince. A crowd estimated at 10,000 lined the streets of downtown Pittsburgh in a display that was part demonstration, part farewell, and part revival meeting. Fans carried signs-one reading "Bring back royalty to Pittsburgh-Prince and King." Women frantically waved their babushkas. Local politicians were there. Pirate players, current and former, lent their support. Ford Motors donated cars for the parade and affixed signs to the side of each vehicle reading, "The Pittsburgh District of Ford Dealers Support Bob Prince and Nellie King." Prince and King rode atop a fire truck, with Prince brandishing a Green Weenie. At the conclusion of the 90-minute parade, the dignitaries gathered at Point State Park to address the crowd. Allegheny County Commissioner William Hunt told the throng, "200 years ago, I don't think there were this many people on this spot defending Fort Duquesne." Willie Stargell spoke, likening the firing of Prince to "the U.S. Steel building falling down." Stargell was joined on the speakers' platform by teammates Dave Giusti, Bruce Kison, Jim Rooker, and Al Oliver. "It's overwhelming," Prince said. "Maybe these people will get Nellie back, but Wallis won't change his mind about me." Wallis would change his mind about neither of them.
In retrospect, Prince's dismissal was symbolic of the end of an era of Pirate baseball. Roberto Clemente was killed in a plane crash on New Year's Eve, 1972. Pitcher Bob Moose was killed in a car accident in October 1976. Danny Murtaugh, hired to manage the Pirates four times between 1957 and 1976, also would die following the '76 season. Bill Virdon, a popular player and manager, was fired in 1973. King says, "This (Pittsburgh) is not a transient area. There are second and third generations. Prince would talk about oldtimers-guys without big names-and people here would know who they were. He left...it was like a death. I know it sounds corny-but it was real. There was a love affair here." Although the Pirates would win a World Series in 1979, the next quarter century of Pirate baseball would be marked by sagging attendance, drug scandals, frustrations, and futility. Pittsburgh's love affair with the Pirates would never be quite the same.
Prince did not handle the firing well. His wife Betty recalled that "The Gunner" sunk into a depression. "It took the life out of him," she said. "He retreated to the bedroom for three days right after. He had the drapes drawn in the bedroom and kept the door closed." Years later he would admit, "If I would have been Westinghouse, I would have fired Bob Prince, too." But some who knew Prince say he never completely got over it. Upon his death, veteran Pittsburgh columnist Bob Smizik observed, "He seemed to be on a steady ever-so-slight decline ever since KDKA ripped out his heart."
Prince's replacements in Pittsburgh were Milo Hamilton, who had been recently fired by the Atlanta Braves, and Lanny Frattare, who had been doing play-by-play for the Pirates' AAA team in Charlestown, West Virginia. They were fine broadcasters in their own right-Hamilton later won the Ford C. Frick Award (1992), and in 2003 Frattare matched Prince by completing his 28th season as a Pirate broadcaster-but they were very different from Prince. Although Hamilton and Frattare were well prepared and technically accurate in their description of the game, they were thoroughly lacking in the zany unpredictability that marked Prince and, before him, Rosey Rowswell. Pittsburgh fans did not respond well. "It was like competing with a ghost," Hamilton recalled. "Everything was 'Prince did this, Prince did that.'" He accused Prince of working behind the scenes to sabotage him. "His situation cost me a friend," said Hamilton. "Prince was incredibly bitter [and] he directed that bitterness at me. Bob had bad-mouthed me in every bar in Pittsburgh, and he set the entire media against me." In the end, the Pittsburgh fans and media basically ran Hamilton out of town. "When I came back in '79 for the final year of my contract, I knew that was it. No way was I going to extend that kind of living hell."
Frattare, on the other hand, idolizes Prince to the extent that even after nearly three decades he refuses to refer to himself as "The Voice of the Pirates." Frattare insists, "I could do this for 40 years, and Bob would still be the shining example of Pirates broadcasting and be the only true voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I don't want, in any way, my longevity to detract from Bob." In 1974 and 1975, Prince invited Frattare to join him in the booth for a late-season game and broadcast an inning of play-by-play. Even after his firing, Prince remained generous to Frattare. "Despite the fact that I was one of the guys that replaced Bob and Nellie, Bob was extremely helpful to me. He sat me down on a regular basis and talked to me about things that he believed in, gave me theories, gave me rules to follow as a Pirates broadcaster." Frattare also admits that Hamilton "took most of the shots," in those years following Prince's ouster, which eased some of the pressure that he felt replacing a local legend.
It wasn't long before Prince was rescued from the scrap heap. Within weeks of his dismissal from Pittsburgh, Prince agreed to join Gene Elston in the Houston Astros' broadcast booth. Elston believes Prince, though grateful for the opportunity, viewed Houston as a remote outpost and his new job as a step down. "I heard that he made comments about going down to where there were Indians and people riding around in covered wagons and all that stuff. It was like he thought, 'What's Bob Prince doing down here?'" Elston, who had been behind the microphone for the Astros since their inception in 1962, doesn't think Prince showed him proper respect initially. "I felt like he was testing me. I remember in our first broadcast he said, 'I'll bet you don't know who the third baseman was for the Cubs when they had the infield of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance.' I knew it was Harry Steinfeldt, and he was taken aback by that. I think he was very upset that I knew the answer."
Despite that awkward beginning, Prince and Elston worked reasonably well together, but Prince's work habits left something to be desired. "He would never show up until right before the pre-game show started-sometimes later than that," Elston recalled. "He was always at the Astrodome Club having a drink or two. Never did I see him really drunk or anything, but he would always walk over to the booth with a drink in his hand. We had a lady working in the booth who would always prepare his scorecard for him, so he would just come in, sit down, and do the game. That was every day." Moreover, Elston says, Astros' fans couldn't adjust to Prince's irreverent, rambling style. "He was not accepted here. He got a lot of complaints. When he was doing play-by-play he would put his feet up on the desk and would spend more time talking to me than watching the game. I knew he was a better broadcaster than that." Prince admitted his heart wasn't in it in Houston. "I hated it. My wife couldn't come down for family reasons [so] I was there all by myself." Prince and the Astros parted ways after that one season. "I liked the guy. He was an icon, an excellent broadcaster, but I didn't see it [in 1976]," said Elston. "I really did enjoy working with him, but it's something that I would never want to do again."
During that '76 season the Astros' organization allowed Prince to accept an offer from ABC Sports to join Warner Wolf and Bob Uecker on the primary broadcast team for the inaugural season of Monday Night Baseball. It proved to be a poor fit. Prince, long accustomed to a starring role in Pittsburgh, was reduced to a being a ringmaster on ABC, suppressing his own personality to provide the flamboyant Wolf and comedic Uecker (of whom Betty Prince remarked, "My Bob always thought he was a buffoon") with an opportunity to shine. Those familiar with Prince from his Pittsburgh days could tell he wasn't comfortable. "When I heard him on TV, he wasn't the same Bob Prince," said friend and longtime Dodger announcer Vin Scully. "He wasn't the same guy I knew. They stripped him of his personality, of all the things that made him special. Here they had the best, most colorful baseball announcer in the country and they took the life out of him." Prince agreed. "I never got to be Bob Prince," he said. "I had too many people talking in my ear, 'Do this. Do that.' And all they wanted us to do was talk, talk, talk-didn't matter what we said as long as we kept babbling." Critics didn't like what they heard. Too much talk, too much manufactured hype. Ratings were poor. Prince became one of the fall guys, canned, along with Wolf, prior to the start of ABC's coverage of the 1976 postseason. The most memorable moment of Prince's brief tenure at ABC came on June 7, 1976 as "The Gunner" returned to Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium for the telecast of the Pirates' Monday night game against the Cincinnati Reds. Before the game he signed autographs, shook hands, and received food and a "Babushka Power" T-shirt from fans. In the third inning, when the scoreboard flashed a welcome to Prince, Uecker, and Wolf, Pirate fans took the opportunity to say thanks, serenading Prince with a minute and a half standing ovation. Bruce Kison stepped off the mound and the game came to a halt. Prince bowed several times and waved a babushka. Then he cried, telling viewers, "I have to apologize to Warner and Ueck and turn over my mic." Wolf said, "I've never seen anything like it."
For the final decade of his life, Prince remained a highly visible jack-of-all-trades on the Pittsburgh scene. After the 1976 season, he made an unsuccessful bid for the broadcast rights to Pirate games. The National Hockey League's Pittsburgh Penguins hired him in a public relations role and to broadcast some games. He did play-by-play for Carnegie-Mellon University football, hosted a Saturday morning sports talk show on a small network of radio stations in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and returned as sports director at the radio station where he had gotten his start 40 years earlier, WJAS. Prince also continued his charitable work and remained a popular master of ceremonies and after-dinner speaker. In 1981, Prince, along with Pittsburgh-area native Stan Musial, former Pittsburgh Steeler Andy Russell and others, briefly considered forming a consortium to purchase the financially troubled Pirates. In 1983, he broadcast a select number of Pirate games on a local cable outlet, Home Sports Entertainment. He was happy to be back doing play-by-play for his beloved Pirates but conceded, "I have to be honest-it's not like daily radio, like the good old days. But you go on, you hang in there."
In 1985, Prince, a smoker, was diagnosed with mouth cancer. In early April he underwent surgery to remove a tumor located between his tongue and jaw. But even while he was on the operating table, movements were afoot to bring "The Gunner" back to the Pirate radio booth full-time. It was Frattare's idea, and the Pirates, looking for anything that could spark a rebirth of interest in their dormant franchise, were amenable. On April 18, Prince dragged himself from his hospital bed to attend a press conference at Three Rivers Stadium, where it was announced that he had signed a three-year contract with the Pirates. Prince was overcome with emotion, tearfully declaring, "Other than my family, you've given me back the only other thing I love in the world." Prince looked and sounded terrible. Worn down from radiation treatments, his speech was slow and weak. He had lost weight and wore a bandage on his neck to cover a wound created by a tracheotomy. Writers openly speculated whether Prince physically would be up to the task of broadcasting baseball again. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Tom McMillan wrote, "He may not pull it off...but he is going to try." Prince said, "They must have some faith in the Lord and me. They gave me three years." But even as he spoke, Prince was dying.
The 1985 season was a horrible one for the Pirates, perhaps one of the lowest points in the organization's history. The team, filled with washed-up veterans and bad attitudes, lost 104 games. Current and former Pirates including Stargell, Dave Parker, Bill Madlock, and John Milner had their names sullied that summer during the Pittsburgh drug trials. Attendance dipped below 800,000 for the second straight year and, with the franchise for sale, the Bucs were widely thought to be on their way out of Pittsburgh. But for one surreal night, "the good old days" returned. On May 3, 1985, Bob Prince returned to the Pirate radio booth. Prince took the microphone for the top of the fourth inning, with the Pirates leading the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-2. With Prince calling the action for the first time in 10 years and fans waving their Green Weenies, the usually inept Bucs exploded for a nine-run inning. "It was like a 21-gun salute," said Frattare. At the end of the fourth, the crowd turned toward the booth and gave Prince a standing ovation, chanting "Gun-ner, Gun-ner." In the fifth inning, Prince urged Pirate first baseman Jason Thompson, "Jason, now just park one into the seats and we'll have a little of everything." Thompson drove the next pitch over the right field wall for a two-run homer. The Pirates won the game 16-2, the Dodgers' worst loss in a decade. Prince flashed his old sense of humor, remarking about Pirate pitcher Mike Bielecki, "He's so good-looking even I like him," and calling Los Angeles outfielder Mike Marshall a "big donkey." But the broadcast obviously was an ordeal for Prince. His voice wasn't clear and he struggled to keep pace with the action on the field as plays unfolded. He only made it through two of his three scheduled innings. King concedes, "It was kind of sad hearing him that night. If you heard Bob Prince when he was good, you knew this wasn't the same...but you could hear the uniqueness that made you remember, that was so different from anything else you ever heard."
Prince return to the booth lasted just two more games. He became ill while sitting through a long rain delay and on May 20 returned to the hospital, suffering from dehydration and pneumonia in both lungs. He was moved to intensive care two days later and physicians stopped his radiation treatments. He eventually lapsed into a coma and died June 10, 1985 at the age of 68. He was survived by his wife Betty; his son Robert Prince, Jr.; his daughter Nancy; his brother Frederick; and three grandchildren. The announcement of his death came prior to a Pirate home game against the Cardinals. Frattare was crushed. "I really didn't feel like doing the game," he says. "I've asked him for so much advice throughout the years. Now, I can't ask him." On the air Frattare asked Joe L. Brown, back for a second tenure as Pirates' general manager, about Prince's firing. Brown admitted, "No question [it was] a flat-out mistake." Pittsburgh Press columnist Gene Collier wrote, "Bob Prince is Pittsburgh baseball. Bob Prince is dead. Therefore..." Prior to the game, the Pirates put Prince's picture on the scoreboard and asked for a moment of silence. As Collier put it, "Suddenly, silence had degrees."
In the aftermath of Prince's death, KDKA again faced criticism from some quarters, this time not for firing Prince, but for bringing him back when he was gravely ill. KDKA general manager Rick Starr denied that he had re-hired Prince to boost his station's ratings. "I've heard those ideas and they are entirely wrong. We didn't bring him back because we knew he was terminally ill and felt we should give him one last moment in the sun, either. We brought him back because-to put it frankly-Pittsburgh doesn't like the Pirates and we stand a good chance of losing the team."
Nearly 800 people attended Prince's memorial service in suburban Pittsburgh. Among the mourners were team owners John and Dan Galbreath, Steelers' owner Art Rooney, most of the Pirates' front office, and many former players. Reverend Laird Stuart eulogized Prince as "no saint" but a man with "a heart as big as center field." Stuart told mourners about Prince teaching a lesson about David and Goliath to Sunday school classes. In Prince's version, David was an unheralded rookie pitcher and Goliath was a huge, fearsome slugger. "Heaven knows how many kids went through our church school and had that old story come to life, indelibly etched in their minds forever because of the way Bob told it," Stuart said.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame honored Prince with the Ford C. Frick Award in 1986, enshrining "The Gunner" in the Scribes and Mikemen's Wing of the Hall's Library. In Pittsburgh, Prince's impact is still felt, years after his death. In 1999, Prince was named posthumous winner of the "Pride of the Pirates" award, which recognizes members of the Pirate organization who demonstrate sportsmanship, dedication, and outstanding character during a lifetime of service. Pittsburgh's Catholic Youth Association presents a Bob Prince Award annually. On May 21, 2003, Bob Prince Talking Bobblehead Night attracted over 35,000 to PNC Park. For fans, Prince remains a link to a cherished past that is sacred in our memories and imaginations, a time when life seemed simpler, the city of Pittsburgh was thriving, and the Pirates were atop the baseball world.
This biography is included in the book "Sweet '60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates" (SABR, 2013), edited by Clifton Blue Parker and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.
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