SABR

Chuck Thompson

This article was written by Matt Bohn.

For nearly half a century, one man’s voice defined baseball in Baltimore. Chuck Thompson, referred to as “the voice of God in Baltimore”1 by fellow sportscaster Ted Patterson, was the play-by-play broadcaster of Baltimore baseball for nearly every season from 1949 through 2000. Cal Ripken, Jr. grew up listening to Thompson on the radio and recalled late in his career, “When the Orioles were doing some great things on the field, the excitement and familiarity of his voice just made it that much better,” Ripken recalled. “When I hear his voice now, I’m just flooded with memories.”2 Orioles broadcaster Fred Manfra said simply, “Chuck Thompson was sports in Baltimore as I was growing up.”3

Born Charles Lloyd Thompson on June 10, 1921, in Palmer, Massachusetts, to Lloyd and Maggie (Moon) Thompson, Chuck lived with his family in Springfield, Massachusetts, for a time before moving to Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1927. Among Thompson’s fond memories of his early childhood were being introduced to radio by a babysitter at the age of 3 or 4. “The sitter would put earphones on my head and I would listen to KDKA in Pittsburgh. For me, that was fascinating,” Thompson remembered years later.4

After moving to Reading, the Thompson family maintained close ties to Massachusetts. Chuck spent his childhood summers staying with an aunt in Palmer. It was in Palmer that he developed a great love of baseball. During these summers, Thompson would play baseball with children in his aunt’s neighborhood, as well as listening to Boston Red Sox games on the radio with his grandmother. “A man has to have some background that dedicates him to a career in sports and I suppose my grandmother helped to set the stage for that when many, many years ago, she had this boarding house in Brookfield [Massachusetts] and Connie Mack used to stay there, back in the days when he was a semipro,” Thompson said years later. “There were many stories about baseball and this helped to bring about a love for the game that has endured.”5 Thompson remembered trips to Fenway Park as the highlights of his childhood summers spent in Massachusetts.

By the time he was in junior high school in Reading, Chuck played basketball and soccer. He was also active in sandlot baseball and played football at Reading High School. In the summer of 1938, just after his junior year of high school, Thompson began singing with the Joe Lombardo band. Thompson’s stint singing with the band led indirectly to his radio debut.

One night in 1939, while he was singing with the band, a neighborhood girl dared Thompson to get into radio. Thompson initially was against the idea. In 1966 he recalled, “She kept daring me to go to the program director of the local radio station for a singing audition and finally I did. But when I did, mainly because I had played ball in high school, the audition developed into a sports broadcast. I’m sure it turned out the right way because this gave me my start.”6 Soon after being hired at Reading station WRAW, Thompson got his first “big break”: broadcasting a college game between Albright and Carnegie Tech that was being fed back to Pittsburgh. Thompson recalled, “In those days, the N.W. Ayer Advertising Agency out of Philadelphia controlled high-school and college broadcasts on the Eastern Seaboard, from New England into the South.”7 He credited agency executive Les Quailey with teaching him much about how to do play-by-play on radio. It was while working at WRAW (as well as its sister station WEEU) that Thompson married his high-school sweetheart, Rose Heffner. The two were married on November 15, 1941. Their marriage lasted until Rose’s death nearly 44 years later. They had three children.

After a dispute over pay, Thompson left WRAW in early 1942. After spending a few weeks working at Youngstown, Ohio, radio station WKBN, he got an offer to work at WIBG in Philadelphia. “For the most part, I was a staff announcer to WIBG and did sports programs twice a day,” Thompson said.8 He also provided play-by-play for Temple University football and occasionally covered Harvard, Princeton, or Dartmouth games.

By the time Thompson arrived at WIBG, the United States was involved in World War II. He wrote a half-century later in his memoir, “Hovering over my budding career was the war and my impending induction. So I decided to take matters into my own hands and take an exam to enter the Marines.”9 Rejected by the Marines because of his inability to distinguish between green and gray on an eye exam, Thompson was inducted into the Army in October 1943. He served with the 30th Division in Europe. Returning from the war in 1945, Thompson got his job back at WIBG.

Late in the 1946 baseball season, a faulty elevator at Shibe Park led to Thompson’s major-league broadcasting debut. Thompson was at the microphone between games of a doubleheader to describe a ceremony taking place on the field honoring Philadelphia Phillies radio announcers Byrum Saam and Claude Haring. Thompson recalled, “In those days, the ballpark elevator was hand-operated and required a key to be put into motion. But when Saam and Haring were ready to come back upstairs, the operator was nowhere to be found.”10 The second game began with Thompson alone at the microphone. “With Saam and Haring still absent, I tried to describe the game—without a scorecard, lineup, or anything,” Thompson remembered11. By the time Saam and Haring arrived in the booth, it was the bottom of the first inning. Quailey of N.W. Ayer was present in the booth and persuaded them to let Thompson continue. Thompson said, “This impromptu audition led to me being added to the broadcast team in 1947 for the Phillies’ and A’s home games. I’ve wondered many times over the years what would have happened had the elevator man been on hand to bring Saam and Haring back on time. Would I have wound up in play-by-play? Would I have wound up in baseball?”12 Thompson spent the 1947 and 1948 seasons providing two innings of radio play-by-play for each Phillies and A’s home game.

In 1948 Thompson was assigned to provide color commentary for the Navy-Missouri football game over the Mutual Radio network. When play-by-play broadcaster Connie Desmond became ill just before the broadcast, Thompson had his trial by fire; he had to step into Desmond’s place, providing play-by-play on a national football broadcast with little preparation. “Frankly, I was almost totally lost, without lineups, numerical charts or spotters’ boards—and talking to listeners on more than 200 stations across the country,” he said13. With the help of Les Quailey (who had once been a spotter for network sportscaster Ted Husing), Thompson got through the broadcast. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the football broadcast led to his broadcasting in Baltimore. “My appearance had been setup by the Gunther Brewing Co. and the Ruthrauff and Ryan advertising agency as an on-air audition while they sought to replace Baltimore legend Bill Dyer as the broadcaster of International League Orioles games,”14 Thompson wrote. Because announcer Byrum Saam was already firmly established in Philadelphia, Thompson had been advised that his chances of advancing in that city were small. Due in large part to his performance on the Navy-Missouri football broadcast, Thompson was hired as voice of the International League Orioles in 1949.

One of Thompson’s earliest memories of broadcasting the Orioles had nothing to do with the game he was broadcasting. “It was my second or third game here,” he said, “and I saw one of the Orioles climb up the screen behind home plate, jump into the seats, and beat up a spectator. Apparently the spectator had been very abusive and they didn't have the kind of help they have today, ushers or security guards, to take care of things. So one of the umpires asked this player to handle the situation.”15 Broadcasting all home games and doing telegraphic recreations for road games, Thompson covered Baltimore’s International League games for five seasons. Beginning in 1949, he also worked broadcasts of Navy football and the All-America Conference Baltimore Colts.

When major-league baseball returned to Baltimore in 1954, Thompson was not included on the broadcast crew. “The National Brewing Co. was to be the major Orioles sponsor and I was disqualified because of my previous connections with the Gunther Brewing Co.,” Thompson remembered16. “It was made more frustrating because the ballclub and the fans wanted me to do the games and so did Bailey Goss, who was the color man.”17 By late 1954, however, Thompson was invited to meet with Jerry Hoffberger, president of the National Brewing Company (and later the owner of the Orioles). Hoffberger told Thompson that they wanted him to be part of the Orioles’ on-air crew the following season.

Hoffberger was also responsible for one of Thompson’s notable trademarks: his fedoras. “He saw me standing hatless during a network telecast from Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium as I conducted an interview during a National Football League game,” Thompson said. “Jerry, who had seen the telecast in California, called his office the next day and said, ‘Tell that son-of-a-gun to put a hat on.’ He was paying the bills, so from then on I wore a lid on my bald head when I was on camera.”18

Another Thompson trademark developed during his early years in Baltimore was the expression “Go to war, Miss Agnes!” This was picked up from a golfing partner who refused to swear. “He was a great guy and, like any golfer, he had real frustrations,” Thompson explained. “But instead of cussing, he’d come up with the phrase ‘Go to war, Miss Agnes!’ It sounded so funny. I picked it up and used it to emphasize something big and exciting on the ballfield and it just caught on.”19 Eventually Thompson dropped it. “I phased that expression out of my lexicon as the Vietnam War dragged on. It was something I could no longer justify, because of the mounting American casualties.”20

Another famous phrase of Thompson’s was borrowed from Bob Robertson, a spotter who worked with him on Colts football games. When things were going well for the Orioles, Thompson would exclaim, “Ain’t the beer cold!” Thompson eventually retired this trademark expression as well. “Eventually I received lots of mail from people in the Carolinas, the area sometimes referred to as the Bible Belt.”21 Respecting the opinions of listeners who objected to the reference to beer, Thompson stopped using the expression in the 1970s.

When National Brewery lost the rights to the Orioles broadcasts after the 1956 season, Thompson became a member of the Washington Senators’ broadcast crew. Working with Bob Wolff, Thompson described the games for the Senators from 1957 through 1960. Returning to the Orioles’ broadcasting crew in 1962, Thompson remained on the air describing Baltimore baseball through the end of the 20th century.

Thompson worked on the NBC-TV Game of the Week in 1959 and 1960. He was also at the mike on the NBC radio network during Game Seven of the 1960 World Series. “I called Mazeroski’s homer on radio and, for some unknown reason, gave the final score as 10-0 instead of 10-9,” Thompson recalled later. “Not only that, I told the listening audience that the homer had been hit off Art Ditmar instead of Ralph Terry.” It was one of the most exciting moments he had described over the air, but for Thompson, “easily the most embarrassing moment of my career behind the microphone.” But he didn’t try to undo it. “… When the Pirates’ broadcaster Bob Prince called me during the off-season and asked if I’d like to redo the ending for a souvenir record the Pirates were going to produce, I declined. I figured it had gone on the air that way, so it would not be honest to change it.”22

Baseball and football were not the only sports Thompson covered during these years. In 1963-1964, he handled telecasts for the Baltimore Clippers of the American Hockey League. Outside of his baseball work he was probably best known for providing radio and network television play-by-play for the NFL Baltimore Colts for several decades. Thompson’s most noted football moment came on December 28, 1958, when he and Chris Schenkel were at the mike for the NBC television network to describe the championship game between the Colts and the New York Giants. Flipping a coin before the game to decide how play-by-play duties would be divided, Schenkel won the coin toss and opted to broadcast the second half. When the game went into overtime, Thompson returned to play-by-play and got to describe the action as the Colts won the game. He later recalled the significance of the telecast, noting, “The sudden-death game, witnessed by some 50 million people on television, probably did more to establish the NFL as a TV property than any other game played previously or since.”23

In 1966 Thompson saw the Orioles make it to the World Series for the first time, sweeping the Dodgers in four games. It was the first of many championship Orioles teams he would describe, but he always claimed his fondest memories were of the 1966 team. “The Orioles also played in the World Series in 1969, 1970, 1971, 1979, and 1983, but like the first kiss, I’ll always be fondest of the first one,” he said.24 Thompson was part of the NBC television broadcast crew for the World Series in 1966, 1970, and 1971.

The year 1966 was also important to Thompson’s career for another reason: It was that year in which he began working on with Bill O’Donnell. The two came to form a memorable team on Orioles radio and television broadcasts through the 1982 season. Not only did they have a close working relationship, but they formed a good friendship as well. O’Donnell noted in 1980, “I would guess that of the last 100 dinners we’ve had on the road, 95 we’ve had together.”25 Thompson described their partnership as a “wonderful association.”26 When O’Donnell was stricken with cancer and died after the 1982 season, Thompson was devastated. Broadcast colleague Tom Marr said a few years later, “It was a tough year. Bill was dying of cancer, everybody was hoping and pulling for him. It was devastating, really tough on Chuck. Chuck experienced a total personality change. He was very depressed the whole season.”27 After that 1982 season Thompson confined his Orioles broadcast duties to television only.

Thompson retired from broadcasting after the 1987 season. His retirement period was brief however, as he was lured back by the Orioles to cover 81 games on WBAL radio in 1991, providing three innings of play-by-play on games when Orioles announcer Jon Miller had television commitments. Continuing to work a partial schedule on Orioles broadcasts every season throughout the 1990s, Thompson provided a sense of continuity on Baltimore airwaves as the Orioles moved from Memorial Park to Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

In 1993, Thompson received the Ford C. Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame. His selection for the award, the highest honor that can be given to a baseball broadcaster, overwhelmed him. “I don't know if I'll ever get over the enormity and the prestige of this,” Thompson said on learning of his selection. “I never felt this would happen – I didn't think I was good enough.”28 Thompson’s former Colts broadcast colleague Vince Bagli summed up how many of his peers and fans felt about Thompson’s selection for the award: “It was well-deserved. It was overdue.”29

By the 2000 season Thompson was losing his eyesight because of macular degeneration. That season he appeared on some Orioles radio broadcasts, but was no longer able to do play-by-play, instead providing commentary and anecdotes from his years as an Orioles broadcaster. “If something happens that may remind me of something, or a certain pattern becomes obvious to me, we might talk about that,” Thompson said. “I’m just kind of sitting in, I guess, to have the voice heard again on WBAL.”30 Though Thompson’s eyesight was not expected to improve, he wanted to do the play-by-play one last time. “If my eyes were ever recovered enough to read, you can bet your boots I’d come out to the booth to see if I could do it. I would do one inning and just shut the book and go away and forget about it.”31

Thompson’s wife, Rose, died in 1985. On September 24, 1988, he remarried widow Betty Kaplan. In his autobiography, Thompson wrote, “Among the wonderful things she has done for me was to take me back to the church. Thanks to Betty, I joined church again, attend as regularly as I can, and do whatever I can to help the congregation.”32 In later years, Chuck and Betty were members of St. Leo Catholic parish, where he sometimes lent his booming voice to calling bingo games. Chuck’s daughter, Sandy Kuckler, died of breast cancer in 2001.

On March 6, 2005, Chuck Thompson died after suffering a stroke. He was 83. His memorial Mass was held at Baltimore’s Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and was attended by Maryland Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., Orioles owner Peter Angelos, and former Orioles broadcaster Jon Miller. Former Baltimore Orioles outfielder Ken Singleton assessed Chuck’s approach to broadcasting, stating, “To him, the game came first. Chuck was just the messenger—and a damn good one.”33 Cal Ripken, Jr. summed up Thompson’s place in Baltimore Orioles history, saying, “He’ll forever be associated in my mind with what was right with the Orioles.”34

 

Notes

1 Michael Olesker, “Thompson brought listeners to the ballpark,” Baltimore Sun, December 12, 2002.

2 Associated Press, “An Orioles tradition: Limited vision can’t keep Thompson out of booth,” Frederick News-Post, June 23, 2000.

3 Associated Press, “An Orioles tradition.”

4 Chuck Thompson and Gordon Beard, Ain’t the Beer Cold! (Lanham, Maryland: Diamond Communications, 2002), 20.

5 Carl Lundquist, “Girl’s Dare Started Thompson on Long Air-Waves Career,” The Sporting News, May 14, 1966, 27.

6 Lundquist, “Girl’s Dare.”

7 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 32.

8 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 48.

9 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 49.

10 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 4.

11 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 4.

12 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 4.

13 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 5.

14 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 6.

15 Randi Henderson, “Memories fill the stands; Chuck Thompson signs off from the ballpark,” Baltimore Sun, October 3, 1991.

16 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 93.

17 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 94.

18 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 94.

19 Lundquist, “Girl’s Dare.”

20 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 9-10.

21 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 9.

22 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 101.

23 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 112.

24 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 128.

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

26 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 146.

27 Dave Ammenheuser, “Jon Miller and Tom Marr: Those men inside your radio,” Frederick News-Post, June 28, 1984.

28 Jim Henneman, “Go to the Hall, Miss Agnes; Thompson’s being honored,” Baltimore Sun, February 10, 1993.

29 Ed Waldman, “‘A class all to himself’; Broadcaster: The future Hall of Fame announcer came to Baltimore in 1949 and won over the hearts of the city; Chuck Thompson 1921-2005,” Baltimore Sun, March 7, 2005.

30 Associated Press, “An Orioles tradition.”

31 Associated Press, “An Orioles tradition.”

32 Thompson and Beard, “Ain’t the Beer Cold,” 9.

33 Mike Klingaman, “Saying goodbye to a familiar voice; Thompson recalled fondly at Cathedral memorial,” Baltimore Sun, March 11, 2005.

34 Associated Press, “An Orioles tradition.”

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.