Halsey Hall

This article was written by Stew Thornley

Holler “Holy Cow!” in the Eastern United States and people might think of Phil Rizzuto, the New York Yankees’ shortstop-turned-broadcaster, while a cry of “Holy Cow!” in Chicago brings Harry Caray to mind. In the Upper Midwest, though, “Holy Cow!” remains synonymous with Halsey Hall, who, if not the first to use the expression on a baseball broadcast, was at least using it before Rizzuto or Caray.

One of the most beloved sports and media personalities Minnesota has ever known, Hall was known to fans who grew up in the state in the 1960s as the color analyst on radio and television broadcasts for the Minnesota Twins.

However, Hall’s career — as an announcer as well as a writer — went back well before the Twins came to Minnesota. He was a newspaperman first and later combined it with other sidelines, including writing, public speaking, and sports officiating.

Hall was a man of many trademarks. For many, a mention of his name conjures up images of green onions, cigars, and glasses full of scotch. Others, though, think of stories when they think of Halsey Hall — stories told about him and the tales told by him. He was the consummate raconteur.

For many fans in the 1960s, the best part of a Twins game was a rain delay. That’s because Hall filled the time with stories of baseball from an earlier era and of the colorful characters who had played for the Minneapolis Millers and St. Paul Saints. During rain delays, ‘Halsey was in demand from the opposing team’s broadcast crew, as well. They put him on their stations and, as a result, Hall developed a following in other American League cities.

Just as Hall could tell stories, there were many stories told about him. Several revolve around his love of distilled beverages and the satchel full of liquor bottles that he lugged along on road trips. If asked about the contents of his bag, he would say it contained reference books. “If that was the case,” said Dave Mona, who covered the Twins for the Minneapolis Tribune in the late 1960s, “they were the only reference books I ever knew of that clinked.”

Another former colleague, Joe Soucheray, said Hall had so many bottles in his satchel that when he stepped off a plane he sounded like a glockenspiel. And then there was the time a cub reporter asked the venerable Mr. Hall why he bothered carrying his own liquor; after all, every town they visited had a bar. “My boy,” Hall replied, “you never know when you’ll run into a local election.”

Some Hall stories illustrate his irreverent nature, such as the manner in which he once described the arrival of the Michigan Wolverines onto the gridiron for a game against the Minnesota Gophers. “Michigan comes onto the field in blue jerseys and maize pants. And how they got into Mae’s pants, I’ll never know.”

There was also his fear of flying. Hall spent a lot of time studying train schedules, hoping to find a way to reach his destination without leaving the ground. He never did warm up to the idea of flying, nor did he endear himself to airline agents when he would approach a ticket counter and ask for “One chance to Chicago.” His friends didn’t help to ease his anxieties, either. Once, prior to a flight, they arranged to have a pilot walk past Hall with a seeing-eye dog.

How did this captivating character get to be the way he was? Heredity may have played a part in the interests and aptitudes that Hall was to develop.

The Hall family tree is a fascinating one. Many of Halsey’s ancestors were prominent citizens in their own right. His maternal grandfather was a distinguished Missouri judge and his mother, Mary Hall, a noted Shakespearean actress. In the 1920s Mary Hall was described as the “greatest stock actress alive today.”

Halsey had little contact with his mother throughout his life. His parents were divorced when he was a baby, and he was raised by his father’s side of the family. On his father’s side was a long line of newspapermen. Halsey’s father, Smith B. Hall, was a publicist and newspaper reporter who chronicled the growth of Minneapolis. His great-uncle, Harlan P. Hall, was a co-founder of the St. Paul Dispatch.

With this lineage, it’s hardly surprising that Hall was born with ink in his veins. He entered the newspaper profession upon his discharge from the Navy in 1919. His first byline appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune in November of that year. Hall wrote for several newspapers in the Twin Cities on both sides of the Mississippi. He jumped to the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1922; a few years later he came back to Minneapolis to join the sports staff of the Journal. After the Journal was purchased by the Minneapolis Star, Hall’s byline appeared in both the Star and Tribune, which were operated by the same ownership group.

He had a variety of columns through the years; the two longest-running were “Here’s How” and “It’s a Fact.” For many years he concluded his columns with the nostalgic “Do You Remember?” feature that was unrelated to sports. A couple of examples:

“Do you remember when kids went swimming in the raw in the creek where the Glenwood Chalet now stands?”

“Do you remember when you opened a bottle of pop by giving the cap a resounding smack to release it?”

Hall’s descriptive and highly colorful writing style was enjoyed by fans not just in the Twin Cities but across the country. On several occasions, his articles were included in national publications that recognized the best sports stories of the year.

Hall definitely had a way with words. It was particularly evident when he wrote about his “Celestial All- Star Team,” a group he would make reference to when writing about the passing of a baseball great. On August 16, 1948, Hall reported on the team’s newest addition, Babe Ruth:

“There’s a one-two cleanup punch on the Celestial All-Stars now. Once again George Herman (Babe) Ruth is hitting ahead of Lou Gehrig. With the passing of the Babe, this peerless tandem of batting torture is reunited in pastures where all infields are green and from where they may look down upon current mortals weakly trying to emulate their feats. …”

At the same time Hall was writing for the newspaper, he was pursuing a full-time career in sports announcing. He started in 1923 with the Jack Dempsey-Tommy Gibbons heavyweight title fight in Shelby, Montana. Hall called the fight not from Shelby, but from a second-floor window of the Pioneer Press building in St. Paul. Because Gibbons was from St. Paul (he later served as Ramsey County sheriff for 23 years), there was great local interest in the bout. Hall recreated the action from a Western Union wire and delivered a blow-by-blow account through a megaphone to the fight fans gathered on the street below.

Hall soon took to announcing in a more conventional manner — on radio instead of out a second-floor window — and his voice became familiar one to people throughout the Upper Midwest. His friendly delivery and contagious laugh was once described in a Sports Illustrated article as “redolent of happy days at Grandpa’s house.”

Hall had already established a following as a writer, but his popularity soared after he moved into broadcasting. In fact, his fame was so lasting that in 1979 he was voted as the top sportscaster of the 1970s in Minnesota — even though the poll was taken two years after his death.

Just as he had done with newspaper work, Hall jumped back and forth between radio stations. He started with WCCO and helped that station establish a national reputation it enjoys to this day as one of the giants of the industry.

In 1935 he jumped to crosstown rival KSTP but nine years later returned to WCCO and began a five-minute sports show that aired at 10:25 each evening. Hall shared a half-hour news block with Cedric Adams. So popular was the duo that when their segment ended every evening, airline pilots reported that they could see the lights in homes darken in droves throughout WCCO’s listening area.

In addition to his sports show, Hall did a great deal of play-by-play announcing. In 1934 he hooked on with a pair of championship teams. One was Bernie Bierman’s Minnesota Gopher football team, which was beginning a string of three straight national titles. He loved the Gophers, and it was Hall who came up with the now familiar nickname of Golden Gophers. He also started broadcasting games for the Minneapolis Millers, a minor-league baseball team that was in the midst of winning three American Association pennants in four years.

Hall called the play-by-play of the Millers’ home games from his familiar perch in the press box at Nicollet Park. When the team went on the road, though, Hall broadcast the games from the radio studio, re-creating the action from a Western Union wire, just as he had done with the Dempsey- Gibbons fight.

“A recording of a stadium crowd would murmur in the background, its volume rising or fading to accommodate the changing action of play as Hall described it,” recalled another longtime Minnesota broadcaster, Dave Moore, in his book, A Member of the Family.1 Behind Halsey’s voice, a makeshift sound effects gadget created the sound of bat meeting ball. In later years, first Dick Enroth and then Ray Christensen would hone and perfect the magic to an even more polished state than Halsey had.

“But Halsey was the only practitioner at the time and he was wondrous!” said Dave Moore. “He put you right there in that game!”

A full-time writing and broadcasting career would be more than enough to fill a person’s time, but Hall was able to fit in a couple of other sidelines into his schedule. He was one of the area’s most highly regarded referees of football and basketball games. He officiated primarily at the high-school and college level, although he also worked a handful of games in the National Football League on the two occasions that Minneapolis had a team in the NFL in the 1920s.

On some occasions Hall combined his roles as referee and reporter. After officiating a game, he’d bang out a story of the contest that would appear in the newspaper the next day.

Hall also stayed busy as a public speaker. He became the area’s leading toastmaster, regaling hundreds of audiences throughout the region as a speaker and as a master of ceremonies. Hubert Humphrey, himself a prolific orator, once called Hall “one of the few men who has given more speeches in Minnesota than I have.”

In 1961 Hall became a member of the original broadcast crew for the Minnesota Twins. For many years his partners on Twins broadcasts were Herb Carneal and Ray Scott. They both loved Hall even though they may not of been too fond of some of his habits — particularly his copious consumption of green onions and his cigars.

“Halsey always enjoyed a good cigar,” Carneal once said. “Unfortunately, those weren’t the kind he smoked.” Hall’s cigar caused all kinds of discomfort for his broadcast partners. During a game in Chicago in 1968, his cigar ash ignited a large mass of ticker tape paper that had piled up on the press-box floor. Smoke drifted upward, and Hall turned to see his sport coat, which was draped over his chair, in flames. The fire was brought under control, but not before a large hole had been burned in his jacket.

News of the conflagration reached Minnesota and, when the Twins returned from their road trip, the 3M Company of St. Paul presented Hall with an asbestos sport coat. Twins catcher Jerry Zimmerman said, “Halsey’s the only man I know who can turn a sports coat into a blazer.”

His colleagues maintain that life with Halsey was always an adventure — both on and off the air.

Many fans recall his mixed-up description of a promotion at the ballpark in which all those attending received a free pair of pantyhose. “In promotions here tonight,” he announced, “it’s pantywaist night.”

Herb Carneal’s favorite story of Hall is of the night the pair, along with Merle Harmon, who had replaced Ray Scott on the broadcast crew, went out to eat at a fancy restaurant in Baltimore. When the check was delivered to their table, Hall was taken aback by the total. He called the waiter over and asked him to re-add the figures. “What are you trying to do?” he said. “Put the chef on a pension?” The waiter pulled out his pencil, did a little addition, and said, “No, sir, this is the correct amount.” If that wasn’t enough, Hall then reached for his wallet and discovered it wasn’t there. He probably had left it back at the hotel, but the combination of events was too much for Hall. Before Carneal or Harmon could stop him, Hall stood up and began tapping his water glass with his spoon.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced to the patrons. “I want you to know this is the biggest clip joint I’ve ever been in. Not only do they pad the check, but they also pick your pocket!”

Hall left the Twins broadcast crew after the 1972 season, but his name remained synonymous with baseball in the area thanks to Hal Greenwood, president of Midwest Federal Savings and Loan, the prime sponsor of Twins’ broadcasts at that time. Greenwood hired Hall to be the Ambassador of Baseball with duties that included presiding over pregame ceremonies at Met Stadium.

Hall received numerous awards through the years, but his greatest may have come in 1966 with a testimonial dinner at which more than 1,700 people turned out to honor him. Bill Veeck, the former baseball executive, was one of the speakers on the program and commented on the size of the gathering. Veeck referred to his days as owner of the hapless St. Louis Browns and said, “With this kind of a crowd, we would have played a doubleheader!”2

Besides “Holy Cow!” another favorite saying of Hall’s was “Same house, same wife, same suit –must be the gypsy in me!” This expression may well have summed up the simple approach to life he followed away from the public eye. While he may have owned more than one suit in his life, Halsey and his wife, Sula, did live in the same house on Alabama Avenue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, for 55 years.

And for most of those years, Hall did not have an unlisted phone number. This did result in a certain amount of inconvenience for him, and Hall could count on an occasional post-midnight phone call from drunks trying to settle a sports bet before the bars closed. Hall would let the callers know how angry he was at their waking him up, but he’d also answer their question before hanging up.

Another passion of Hall’s was poetry. His ability as a wordsmith manifested itself in many other manners and mediums than just through sports articles in the newspaper. “He thought words could solve anything,” said his daughter, and Hall often used poetry as a way of dealing with problems, whether they were family difficulties or health problems.

The subjects of his poems could cover cheerier topics as well, such as sports and soap operas. Hall was an avid soap-opera fan and often said the greatest acting in the world could be seen on the daytime serials because, as he explained, “Every day is a brand-new performance for these people.”

Hall went to great lengths to watch his soaps. When he and Sula drove to Florida for spring training each year, he brought along a battery-operated television set. It wasn’t unusual for Halsey and Sula to pull off the road around 1 o’clock in the afternoon, hop in the back seat, and try to pull in a television signal.

After leaving the Twins broadcast crew in 1972, Hall continued to watch a lot of baseball. He was presented with a lifetime pass from the American League and still spent time at Met Stadium, watching the Twins.

In his autumn years, however, Hall’s health began to fail. He had lengthy hospital stays in 1974 and 1975 because of heart troubles.

In January of 1976, his wife was injured in an accident at the Radisson Hotel. While ascending the stairs to the dais for a testimonial dinner for Hubert Humphrey, the Halls fell. Sula cracked her head on the floor and had to undergo brain surgery. She survived, but never fully recovered, and finally had to be put in a nursing home.

The final months for Hall were lonely ones as he rattled around in his house without Sula. On December 30, 1977, Halsey joined the Celestial All-Stars. He died of a heart attack at his home in St. Louis Park at the age of 79.

Halsey was gone, but his stories live on, as do the honors. In 1985 Minnesota members of the Society for American Baseball Research organized themselves into a regional chapter and named themselves after Hall.

In November of 1989, Hall was inducted into the Minnesota Sports Hall of Fame.

But the greatest encomiums are the memories that remain in the minds of those who knew him best. Upon Hall’s death, Dick Cullum, his newspaper colleague and close friend, provided what may be the most fitting eulogy: “Halsey Hall laughed his way through life, and he kept the rest of us laughing, too.”3

 

An updated version of this biography appeared in "A Pennant for the Twin Cities: The 1965 Minnesota Twins" (SABR, 2015), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. It originally appeared in "Minnesotans in Baseball" (Nodin Press, 2009), edited by Stew Thornley.

 

Sources

Newspaper accounts of Halsey Hall’s columns and articles; interviews and correspondence with friends and family members, most notably his daughter, Sue Hall Kennedy, in February 1990.

Airline pilots seeing lights in homes darken throughout WCCO’s listening area: “Halsey Hall Puffs Past Fifty-Yard Line” by Ron D. Johnson, Minnesota Motorist, January 1969.

1966 testimonial dinner and Hubert Humphrey quote: “Minnesotans Pack Hall, Raise Cheers In Salute to Halsey,” by Max Nichols, The Sporting News, July 30, 1966.

Play-by-play description: Sports Illustrated quotation: “And Here, to Bring You the Play By Play,” by Jerry Kirshenbaum, Sports Illustrated, September 13, 1971, 32.

Voted top sportscaster of the 1970s: “1970s TV Poll: Local Sportscaster,” by John Carman, Minneapolis Star, October 15, 1979, 2C.

  • 1. Dave Moore, A Member of the Family: Letters and Reflections (Minneapolis-St. Paul: The Lazear Press, 1986), 87.
  • 2. Suburban Life, July 17, 1966
  • 3. Minneapolis Tribune, January 1, 1978, 2C