SABR

Bill O'Donnell

This article was written by Matt Bohn.

For 17 seasons Bill O’Donnell covered Baltimore Orioles baseball in a calm, objective style. O’Donnell, who was said to be as unflappable off the air as he was on, once commented, “If you’re always getting excited, you will lose your credibility when it is time to be excited.”1 A highly respected sportscaster, O’Donnell also covered network baseball, football, and basketball before his untimely death at the age of 56.

Bill O’Donnell was born on June 4, 1926, in the Bronx, New York, the son of William and Eleanor O’Donnell. Growing up in the Bronx, he attended Fordham Prep. At the age of 14, he was working as a copyboy for the New York Times, and he later worked for the New York World-Telegram. O’Donnell served in the Pacific as a combat correspondent with the US Marine Corps during World War II.

Discharged from the Marines in 1946, O’Donnell attended Fordham University and later Mohawk College (now Mohawk Valley Community College) in Utica, New York, where he completed his degree. He worked as a sportswriter and copy editor for the Utica Daily Press from 1946 until January 1948, when Elliott Stuart, manager of Utica radio station WIBX, offered him a position as sports director at the station. In addition, O’Donnell hosted a daily sports radio show.

While working at WIBX O’Donnell got his first opportunity to provide sports play-by-play. By the fall of 1948, he was covering Hamilton College football over the airwaves. Yearning for the opportunity to do the same for baseball, O’Donnell spent many nights in the summer of 1949 seated in the stands at McConnell Field, describing the games of the Eastern League Utica Blue Sox into a tape recorder. After the games he would listen to the tapes, critiquing his performance and taking note of ways to improve. In the summer of 1950 Blue Sox General Manager John Wise allowed O’Donnell to broadcast all Sunday Blue Sox home games as well as re-creations of road games. In 1982 O’Donnell recalled, “The seed for my baseball broadcasting career was planted before I came to Utica, but it blossomed in Utica.”2

Utica was important to O’Donnell personally as well as professionally. He married Patricia Martin on September 10, 1949, at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. The marriage was a lasting one, and they had five children. O’Donnell said in 1978, “In this business, there is no gray, it’s all black and white. Your success and lack of success depends a lot on the person you marry. You marry the right person and it is heaven, you marry the wrong person, it could be hell.”3 O’Donnell credited his wife with being the major factor in his personal and professional success.

O’Donnell continued to work on improving his play-by-play skills in Utica. “I remember always listening to tapes of those games, plus our Clinton hockey games, Hamilton College football, and occasionally basketball broadcasts, attempting to improve both style and presentation,” he said.4

O’Donnell’s chance to continue working on Blue Sox radio broadcasts ended when the Eastern League team left Utica after the 1950 season. “But it turned out to be a break,” he remembered years later. “It enabled me to accept a position in Pocatello, Idaho, to broadcast games in the Pioneer League, plus Idaho State football and basketball games.”5 The opportunity to broadcast in Idaho came about when baseball clown Billy Mills (a close friend of O’Donnell’s) was entertaining fans before a game in Pocatello and learned that the club was unhappy with its announcer and was looking for a replacement. Mills recommended O’Donnell and he was hired. He joined radio station KWIK, which broadcast the Pocatello Cardinals’ games. “The play-by-play schedule there was fruitful and it gave me the ‘live’ broadcast experience that was necessary,” O’Donnell recalled years later.6

By 1953 O’Donnell had moved to Syracuse, New York, becoming the sports director of WSYR radio and television. He provided some local baseball coverage, working telecasts of the International League Syracuse Chiefs in 1954, and describing weekend games of the New York-Penn League Auburn Yankees in 1961. But O’Donnell’s stint at WSYR was most notable for the 13 years he spent as the voice of Syracuse University football. It was an exciting time for the team. Years later, he remembered, “My association with Syracuse football came during the developmental years of Ben Schwartzwalder’s program, leading to his national championship of 1959. I was not only able to be a part of the football growth and success, but also to describe the outstanding achievements of Jim Brown, the late Ernie Davis, and Floyd Little, among others.”7 O’Donnell recalled, “Syracuse Coach Ben Schwartzwalder and his staff were so good to me. They would let me sit in on coaches’ meetings and watch films. I even had access to scouting reports. As a result of that experience, I think I gained a greater insight into the game.”8

While still working at Syracuse, O’Donnell began to gain national recognition through network television assignments. In 1958 he was selected by NBC-TV to cover the NBA Western Division playoff series. In 1965 O’Donnell became one of the network’s play-by-play announcers for AFL football. “It was a season of hectic, but valuable weekends; describing Syracuse football games on Saturday and then speeding from college stadiums to airports for flights to AFL telecasts around the country on Sundays,” he recalled.9

In 1965 O’Donnell got his first opportunity to broadcast play-by-play for major-league baseball, covering a doubleheader between the Orioles and Angels over Baltimore radio. Early in 1966, when broadcaster Curt Gowdy left the Boston Red Sox booth to focus on network assignments for NBC, O’Donnell applied for the opening with the Boston broadcast team. Notified that he was one of three finalists for the job, O’Donnell was told he would need a “major-league push”10 to get the job. O’Donnell remembered, “I decided to call the Orioles for a recommendation for the Red Sox job because I had worked that doubleheader for them. I didn’t know it at the time, but the same morning that I called Baltimore, the Orioles held a meeting in which they decided to add an announcer to their staff. I called them for a recommendation that morning and before I even asked the question they told me to wait by the phone that day because I was going to be getting a call from the Orioles.”11 He was offered the job as an Orioles radio and television broadcaster the same day. “I felt like my prayers had been answered,” he said. “It was truly the broadcaster’s dream come true—and little did I realize some greater thrills were to follow like clinching the pennant later that summer in Kansas City and the four-game series sweep over the Dodgers.”12

As well as broadcasting the Orioles’ games, O’Donnell continued to cover many network assignments. In 1970 he told Utica columnist Phil Spartano, “Last fall in the eighth inning of the third and final playoff game with Minnesota, Chet Simmons of NBC-TV sports walked into our booth and asked me to call him the next morning. I was sure it meant an assignment to work the World Series. That’s what it turned out to be. Right after breaking into radio with WIBX I had always hoped to someday broadcast a World Series. It took a long time but the wait was worthwhile, even though the Mets won it in five games.”13 O’Donnell also broadcast the 1971 World Series and the 1975 American League Championship Series for the television network, as well as serving as a play-by-play voice of NBC’s backup Game of the Week from 1969 to 1976.

O’Donnell also continued to work other sports. After spending 1966 to 1968 on radio broadcasts of Baltimore Colts football, he broadcast NFL football on NBC-TV from 1970 to 1975, as well as NCAA football on ABC-TV in 1969. Throughout his career, he kept a busy schedule. By 1982 he reportedly worked a schedule of 180 baseball games (including exhibition games), 32 basketball games, and 10 football games a year.

In 1981, O’Donnell was diagnosed with cancer. Broadcast partner and close friend Chuck Thompson recalled, “Bill underwent cancer surgery in 1981, and made enough progress to return to work. But a year later, he had another operation and never fully recovered. Sometime after the second operation, he wanted to come back to the booth and do his share.” Thompson remembered, “The night he returned, we went in to an extended rain delay. As long as I live, I’ll remember Bill stretched across three metal chairs in the back of the booth during the delay, trying to conserve as much energy as possible for the resumption of the game. I begged him to go home. But professionals don’t quit—and Bill completed the game.”14 Bill O’Donnell died in his sleep at Johns
Hopkins Hospital on October 29, 1982, at the age of 56.

Twenty-five years after his passing, O’Donnell was recognized for his contributions to the Orioles. In 2007 the team honored him with the Herbert E. Armstrong Award, presented to nonuniformed personnel who have made significant contributions to the club and to baseball. Fans and colleagues of O’Donnell have maintained that one other honor should be bestowed on the longtime Orioles voice. Chuck Thompson summed it up, saying, “I hope that sometime, somehow, that those who have the say in Cooperstown will remember that Bill O’Donnell belongs there.”15

 

Sources

Curt Smith, Voices of Summer (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005).

Curt Smith, Voices of the Game (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987).

 

Notes

1 Jack Craig, “O’s O’Donnell A Real Pro,” The Sporting News, July 25, 1980, 53.

2 Scott Pitoniak, “O’Donnell Finds Practice Pays Off,” Utica Observer-Dispatch, May 2, 1982.

3 Mark Decotis, “Bill O’Donnell Returns to Utica; Oriole ‘Voice’ Picks Yankes,” Utica Daily Press, April 5, 1978.

4 Phil Spartano, “Bill O’Donnell: Baseball Prophet,” Utica Observer-Dispatch, June 28, 1970.

5 Spartano, “Bill O’Donnell.”

6 Spartano, “Bill O’Donnell.”

7 Spartano, “Bill O’Donnell.”

8 Pitoniak, “O’Donnell Finds.”

9 Spartano, “Bill O’Donnell.”

10 Pitoniak, “O’Donnell Finds.”

11 Pitoniak, “O’Donnell Finds.”

12 Spartano, “Bill O’Donnell.”

13 Spartano, “Bill O’Donnell.”

14 Chuck Thompson and Gordon Beard, Ain’t the Beer Cold! (Lanham, Maryland: Diamond Communications, 2002).

15 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold.”

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