SABR

Byrum Saam

This article was written by Neal Poloncarz.

The man of a zillion words, summer after summer, just … “Rolling Along.”

The air at Crosley Field in Cincinnati was thick with tension for the final game of the 1964 season, for the opponents, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds, still had a shot at winning the pennant. “[If] we beat Cincy, the Cards lose to the Mets, and it’s a three-way playoff. … And now a break for the three-ring sign of Ballantine.”1 In deep staccato tones, By Saam reassured the uneasy Phillies faithful listening to the broadcast back home on WFIL radio.

Though the Cardinals’ win put an end to the Phillies’ pennant hopes, Saam’s clear, comforting voice projected hope no matter what the situation. When he described a game, you knew there was still hope.2 He remained relaxed and unflappable despite being surrounded by an atmosphere of disappointment. Whiz Kids pitching ace Robin Roberts said that Byrum had a “beautiful voice.”3 Saam “had a smooth and mellow voice, with no hint of an accent, and several generations of Philadelphians regarded it as the sound of summer and baseball.”4

In addition to his relaxed manner, Saam repeated the phrase “rolling along” between innings, as in “we’re rolling along here in St. Louis” or “we’re rolling along into the top of the seventh inning.” He was erudite, had a deep knowledge of baseball history, wore a tie even on the warmest days, and smoked a cigar. Clearly from the old school, he was quite formal while on the air, but cracked his broadcast partners up by telling jokes during breaks.

Byrum Fred Saam was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on September 11, 1914, to George William Saam, Jr., originally of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Hattie Lau Byrum, known as “Mattie,” who was born in Tennessee. George Saam graduated from Lake Geneva (Minnesota) Training School for Physical Directors and relocated to Fort Worth to become the director of physical education at the Fort Worth YMCA.

Byrum had two brothers. A younger brother, George William Saam, Jr., died at the age of 2 after being run down by a car. By was almost 5 at the time. His other brother, Robert Douglas “Bob” Saam, was almost ten years younger. Bob taught English Literature, creative writing, and drama in high school and college, and also wrote plays and acted. He had a master’s degree from the Yale University Drama School.

Byrum attended Fort Worth Central High School, where one of his Panther classmates was golfer Ben Hogan. Saam played baseball but had to stop because of appendicitis in his junior year, and never resumed playing. In his senior year he found that he enjoyed announcing his school’s football games through a public-address system. At Texas Christian University he was a classmate of Sammy Baugh, the renowned pro football quarterback. Byrum continued announcing and broadcast Southwest Conference football games, many of which aired on CBS’s College Football Roundup. The network’s main sportscaster, Ted Husing, heard his work and suggested to Byrum that he apply for a job at WCCO in Minneapolis.5 In 1934 the station asked Saam to audition for the position of baseball broadcaster, which he had never done before, as baseball games were “re-created” in the studio; “nobody did baseball broadcasts then.”

Saam got the job, and soon became the station’s lead sportscaster. He also completed his degree at the University of Minnesota. Additionally, he broadcast the university’s football games, and did voice-overs for commercial sponsors like Wheaties.6 For CBS Saam performed the re-created play-by-play of the Detroit Tigers-Chicago Cubs World Series in 1935.7

Saam’s first baseball play-by-play gig was for the Minneapolis Millers, on WCCO in 1936. He said he tried to pattern himself after Ted Husing and maintain an even keel.8 He felt he was a bit more emotional than his mentor, but never wanted to be “too high” or “too low.” He did not care for broadcasters who “dropped names,” and believed announcers needed spring training as much as the players.9

Two years later, Saam moved to WCAU radio in Philadelphia to call Temple and Villanova University football games. The “Golden Age of Radio” in Philadelphia sported a hallowed roll of top announcers: Stoney McLinn on WIP, Joe Tumeltry of WFI, Bill Dyer on WCAU. (He and Dolly Stark in 1936  became the first part-time Philadelphia baseball play-by-play men.)10 Saam began broadcasting Philadelphia baseball in 1938,  and 38 years later he was still at that post.11 Before the early 1960s, some of his partners were Gene Kelly, Claude Haring, Chuck Thompson, Frank Sims, George Walsh, Roy Neal, and Taylor Grant.12

Saam also narrated highlight films for the University of Pennsylvania and Notre Dame.13 He called Philadelphia Eagles football, including the 1948 NFL championship game, played in a blizzard at Shibe Park. He also worked for the NFL on CBS with analyst Bosh Pritchard. At various times he broadcast the Cotton Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Liberty Bowl, and a Blue-Gray Game.

Saam was heard by fans of both baseball teams in Philadelphia, the Athletics and the Phillies. In 1938, on WCAU radio, he became the first full-time voice of the A’s, and of the Phillies on WIBG. (At the time, most broadcasters did not travel with their teams.)

In 1950 baseball teams began to broadcast road games live, so Saam had to choose which team he would broadcast, the Athletics or the Phillies. Out of loyalty to Connie Mack, his first employer, he selected the A’s. In that final season under Mack’s reign, the Athletics lost 102 games, while the youthful Phillies, known as the Whiz Kids, captured their first pennant since 1915. “It must have bothered him,” said Richie Ashburn. “You do the Phillies so long, and then leave the year they win.”14 After the Athletics moved to Kansas City in 1954, the Phillies welcomed Saam back to their broadcast team on WIBG. 15

Even with a bad team, Saam found things to be cheerful about. He mentioned the great prospects for next year when the Athletics fell 40 games under .500, or described a superb year a player was having. He got excited when an Athletic came through with a home run or a clutch hit, or made a spectacular play in the field. Even as the voice of the Phillies, you seldom heard a discouraging word from him. “If the team is going bad, I talk about an opponent, a Clemente or Mays, who’s going good,” he said. He even managed to smile his way through the Phillies’ record 23-game losing streak in 1961. “I wasn’t depressed. I just stuck to the basic things and hoped this was the day we were going to win.”16

In 1955, after the A’s fled to Kansas City, Saam rejoined the Phillies. “I hated leaving Mr. Mack, but I missed the Phillies,” he said a few years later.17 In 1963 he teamed with Philadelphia native Bill Campbell and former center fielder Richie Ashburn on the Phils’ flagship WFIL radio and TV stations.18

Saam also called NFL games for CBS and bowl games, including the Cotton Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Liberty Bowl, and the Blue-Gray Game. He and Bill Campbell broadcast the NBA game in 1962 in which Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points for the Philadelphia Warriors against the New York Knicks.

Since the Phillies and the Athletics had been “doormats” of their respective leagues for many years, in calling nearly 8,000 games, Saam probably worked more losing games than any other broadcaster. During his tenure the teams had 19 last-place finishes, and they lost 100 or more games 11 times. If all of the losses and the empty seats bothered him, it never showed. “Plenty of good seats available,” Saam would say, “under a Lehigh Avenue moon.”19

Always the optimist, when the Athletics fell 40 games under .500, Saam would look ahead to next year, or he’d describe what a superb year an A’s or Phillies player was having. He got genuinely excited when one of the players came through with a home run or a clutch hit, or made a spectacular play in the field. A listener rarely heard Saam utter a discouraging word. If things were going badly, he talked about an opponent, like Clemente or Mays, who was doing well.

In 1959 Saam announced his first World Series with the Yankees’ Mel Allen on the Mutual Radio Network. Midway through the first game, Allen saluted Saam with a long, flattering, introduction: “Here’s one of baseball’s finest announcers, the voice of the Philadelphia Phillies, the amiable, affable, able, the knowledgeable Byrum Saam.” Saam was getting his thoughts together as to what he was going to say and wasn’t paying attention to what Allen had said. So, after Allen finished the big glorious buildup, he replied, “Right you are, Mel.”20

Saam smiled his way through the Phillies’ record 23-game losing streak in 1961, hoping that each day would be the day they would win. He stuck to basics and did not allow himself to get depressed.

In 1962 he was joined by Bill Campbell, and in 1963 by former Phillies center-fielder Richie Ashburn on the Phillies’ WFIL radio and television network.

Saam was known as much for his nonsequiturs as he was for his eloquence and his mellifluous voice. Known for saying, “Hi everyone, this is By Saam,” one night he actually said, “Hi, By Saam, this is everyone speaking.”21 During a 1960s Phillies night game on the West Coast, Saam told listeners back home, “The double play went 4-6-3 for those of you who might be home scoring in bed.”22 Sometimes after a gaffe like that, the radio would go silent, and listeners could only imagine those present in the booth trying to stifle hysterical laughter.

In his first visit to the Houston Astrodome, an enclosed ballpark, Byrum remarked, “What a beautiful night for baseball. The flags are hanging limp. There’s no breeze at all.”23

The malaprops and mistakes only seemed to endear him to fans more. When the Phillies made their first visit to Montreal in 1969, Saam paid the locals a compliment of sorts: “Most people up here speak French. However, they are nice people.”24

Reminiscing about Ferguson Jenkins of the Chicago Cubs defeating his former team, the Phillies, Saam said: “Fergie comes from Canada, you know, and his mother died in childbirth. So she never saw him pitch, although she keeps a scrapbook.”25 (Mrs. Jenkins actually went blind in childbirth.) “He’d say the wrong thing,” said colleague Ashburn, “so innocent, then wonder why people laughed.”26

Still, Saam had his admirers. Bill Campbell, his partner from 1962 through 1971, thought he was always well prepared and was objective. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Frank Dolson wrote, “Through it all the great thing about Saam was that even as opposing hitters were playing ping pong off the fence, he would still leave you with a smile.”27

From the standpoint of pregame preparation, Campbell said, “He was a role model; however, he never became as emotionally involved in the ebb and flow of the game, he always was able to stand above the fray and retain some semblance of objectivity. … He’d always say, ‘Rolling along,’ we’re rolling along into the… [particular] inning of play. That was the phrase everybody associated with him. And it really described his temperament.”28 Saam himself recalled, “I was always very emotional, but never got too high or too low.”29

Phillies announcer Harry Kalas, who replaced Campbell, said of Saam, “Socially and professionally, Byrum was a joy to be around. Between innings, he would crack Whitey (Richie Ashburn) and me up with his sense of humor and one-liners. By’s sense of humor never really came across to the public. He was trained in the old school where everything on the air was serious business.”30

When Whitey Ashburn joined Saam and Campbell in 1964, By was very serious, and Bill was very emotional. Until that time, By did not believe in kidding around behind the microphone. But slowly, Ashburn changed his mind. “You’ve got to have a good sense of humor,” Ashburn said. “Why not use it on the air? So we do.”31

Saam believed that the success of a broadcast team lay in unity. “You have to enjoy the people you work with. I could name several broadcast partners who didn’t speak to each other. There is a lot of jealousy in this business. Bill, Richie, (and later Harry) and I are good friends. We play golf, gin rummy, and poker together.”32

Saam announced more than 6,000 games in 38 seasons for a two-team city without a pennant. “It wasn’t easy,’ he lamented. “Your team was getting killed, and everybody’s at the shore.”33

From Dick Fowler of the A’s in 1945 to Burt Hooton of the Chicago Cubs in 1972, Saam called 13 no-hitters. In 1964, 17 days after Sandy Koufax had thrown a no-hitter against the Phils, Saam crowed, “He gets it! He gets it! A perfect game!” as Jim Bunning hurled his gem.

As for the 1964 season, Campbell said the game that bothered Saam the most was the one in which Chico Ruiz of Cincinnati stole home on Art Mahaffey with Frank Robinson at the plate to start the ten-game losing streak and collapse. “I believe he wasn’t too surprised,” Campbell said. “That had happened two games earlier in Los Angeles, when Willie Davis turned the trick to end a 16-inning game.”34

Campbell’s sudden departure in 1970 opened the door for the broadcasting crew of Saam, Ashburn, and Harry Kalas. The three worked together for five years until Saam retired in 1975. By then, By had difficulty picking up the ball on the artificial turf at the new Veterans Stadium. He later admitted that he should have had cataract surgery, but thought it would be okay to put it off until he retired. Harry Kalas said it led to one bizarre gaffe: “There’s a ground ball to short … and it’s gone!”35

Saam came out of retirement for one inning of one game in 1976 when he was invited by his former broadcast partners to call the last inning of the Phillies’ East Division-winning game against the Montreal Expos at Jarry Park in Montreal. Saam also was invited into the broadcast booth in the National League Championship Series, when the Phillies were swept by the Cincinnati Reds.

In 1990 Saam received the Ford Frick Award, presented by the Baseball Hall of Fame. At the reception dinner, the cocktail napkins had “Right you are!” on them. (His partner of six years, Harry Kalas, received the award in 1992.)

Saam’s wife, the former Anne Fitzpatrick, died in 1986 at the age of 68. He died of a stroke at his home in Devon, Pennsylvania, on January 16, 2000. He was survived by two daughters, a son, and three grandchildren.

 

This biography is included in the book "The Year of the Blue Snow: The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies" (SABR, 2013), edited by Mel Marmer and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.

 

Notes

1 Curt Smith, Voices of Summer: Baseball’s Greatest Announcers (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2002), 52.

2 Rev. Jerome C. Romanowski, The Mackmen: Reflectios on a Baseball Team by the Baseball Padre (Delair, New Jersey: Graphic Press, 1979), 115.

3 http://www.broadcastpioneers.com/billdyer.html. (From the archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia, 2004).

4 David M. Jordan, Occasional Glory: The History of the Philadelphia Phillies (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc., 2002), 81.

5 Roger Fischer, St. Petersburg Times, March 21, 1974, 95.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Stew Thornley, On to Nicollet: The Glory and Fame of the Minneapolis Millers (Minneapolis: Nodin Press, 1988).

10 http://www.broadcastpioneers.com/billdyer.html. (Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia).

11 Ted Patterson, The Golden Voices of Baseball (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, 2002), 138.

12 Romanowski, 115.

13 http://www.letsgoquakers.com/football1940s.htm; Penn Football 1948-1949; http://archives.nd.edu/findaids/ead/index/ATH068.htm AATH Notre Dame Athletics General Collection: Audio-Visual 1899

14 Smith, 52.

15 Bruce Kuklick, To Everything a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press; 1993), 102.

16 Romanowski, 115.

17 http://www.baseballchronology.com/Baseball/Years/1963/Media.asp (1963 Baseball Broadcasters & Networks).

18 Ibid.

19 Kuklick, 102.

20 Roger Fischer, St. Petersburg Times, March 21, 1974, 95.

21 Michael Sisak, “No Loss of Eloquence,” New York Times, August 13, 1990.

22 Gerry Wilkinson, “By Saam,” Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia, 2004: http://www.broadcastpioneers.com/bysaambio.html

23 Wilkinson, “By Saam.”

24 Smith, 53.

25 Sisak, “No Loss of Eloquence.”

26 Smith, 51.

27 Smith, 53.

28 Poloncarz interview with Campbell.

29 Sisak, “No Loss of Eloquence.”

30 Roger Fischer, St. Petersburg Times, March 21, 1974, 95.

31 Ibid.

32 Sisak, “No Loss of Eloquence.”

33 Smith, 55.

34 Author interview with Campbell.

35 Smith, 53.

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.