On the Chicago Cubs’ Opening Day in 1930, 7-year-old Bobby Wolf and future President Ronald Reagan had something in common. Neither had ever seen a major-league baseball game. That afternoon young Bobby listened to Pat Flanagan on Chicago radio station WBBM describing the action as the Cubs edged the Cardinals in St. Louis, 9-8. Hack Wilson drove in the first of the 191 runs he would drive in that season. As Wolf later wrote, “After just that one game, I was hooked.”
Flanagan was the acknowledged master of radio re-creations of baseball games using a Western Union ticker. A few years later he trained 21-year-old Ronald “Dutch” Reagan in the art. Reagan’s baseball broadcasts over Des Moines station WHO eventually led to a screen test with Warner Brothers, a Hollywood career, and the White House. Wolf pursued a career in journalism and became, as one colleague at the Milwaukee Journal said, “the star of the sports staff.”2 Such is the transformative power of baseball on the radio.
Robert Argyle Wolf, known professionally as Bob, was born on October 18, 1922, in the posh Chicago suburb of River Forest, Illinois, the fourth of five children. His brother Argyle (it’s a family name) was seven years older. He had two older sisters and one younger. Their mother, Pearl, was an Illinois native of English ancestry. Their father, Albert M. Wolf, whose ancestry was German, hailed from Waukesha, Wisconsin, an outer suburb 20 miles west of downtown Milwaukee. Albert attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, earning a degree in civil engineering in 1909. He followed the Chicago Cubs and Bears, but he remained a Wisconsin Badger sports fan for life.
Bob’s father became the president of Wolf, Sexton, Harper, and Trueax, an architectural firm with offices in suburban Chicago. Probably the most remarkable building they designed was the Hotel Baker, a five-story, 55-room structure on Main Street in St. Charles, Illinois. Their client, Col. Edward J. Baker, an heir to part of the Texaco Oil fortune, gave them a huge budget and one simple instruction – create the most wonderful hotel in the Midwest.
Albert Wolf and his associates did as they were told. Built on the bank of the Fox River, the Hotel Baker harnessed the power of the water with its own hydroelectric facility. All materials, from window glass to floor tiles to linens, were of the finest quality. Every room offered a private bath, a luxury in 1928. The Rainbow Room, the hotel’s restaurant and ballroom, regularly featured big-name bands fronted by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, and Guy Lombardo. The room’s piece de resistance was a dance floor illuminated from beneath by thousands of colored lights, one of only three such surfaces in the United States. More than eight decades later, Albert Wolf’s masterpiece still welcomed guests and was designated a historic landmark.
Bob Wolf followed his dad’s example and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in 1941. Small of stature but endowed with a zeal for sports, he joined the tennis squad, volunteered as the student manager of the freshman basketball team, and by the end of his third semester started writing sports articles for the student newspaper, the Daily Cardinal. His first assignment was to interview the coach of the fencing team.
In the 1940’s women did not write sports. When the more senior members of the all-male staff entered the military, Wolf became sports editor from March until the end of the semester. In July 1943, as he later wrote, “I was shouldering a musket for Uncle Sam.”3 His mother would send him sports sections and box scores from back home.
On Easter Sunday (also April Fool’s Day) 1945, Wolf was a mortarman with the Army’s 96th Infantry Division when it landed on the beach at Okinawa. It was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific Theater, code-named Operation Iceberg. The plan was for the Allies to use Okinawa as a base for air operations in the impending invasion of the mainland of Japan. The Japanese had prepared their defensive positions, so the fighting that ensued became the bloodiest US battle in the Pacific.
At about 3 A.M. on April 13, Wolf was hit by mortar fire. As he later described it, “One look at my dangling left arm told me my soldiering days were over.”4 His life might have been over if not for the heroic actions of a fellow soldier.Sgt. Beauford “Snuffy” Anderson, despite bleeding profusely himself from shrapnel wounds, repeatedly picked up mortar shells, smashed them against a rock to arm them, and hurled them at the enemy. He single-handedly killed 25 Japanese soldiers while taking out four mortars and five machine guns. Anderson’s bravery earned him the Medal of Honor and enabled Wolf to be evacuated. Wolf’s arm was amputated below the elbow the next day.
In autumn 1946 Wolf was back on the Madison campus to finish journalism school. For a semester he again was the sports editor of the Daily Cardinal. His regular column appeared under the heading “In the Wolf’s Den.” During the winter months he again distributed towels and passed out basketballs as student manager of the basketball team, this time coach Bud Foster’s varsity. The Badgers won the Big Nine Conference championship, so Bob and the team earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament in Madison Square Garden.
Capturing the conference crown, however, was not as straightforward as usual. The Badgers sat atop the standings when they traveled to the Purdue Fieldhouse in West Lafayette, Indiana, for the next to last game of the season, on February 24, 1947. The score was close through the first 20 minutes. Wisconsin trailed at halftime, 34-33. As the teams trotted off the court, the Purdue students leaped to their feet in a spontaneous moment of joy. Without warning, before most of the players reached their locker rooms, a large section of newly installed wooden bleachers collapsed. Three students were crushed to death and more than 200 were injured; witnesses were surprised the toll wasn’t higher. The game was suspended.
It took a week for the league commissioner to decide what to do about the outcome. The conference title was at stake. In the end the game was resumed after the half at a nearby high-school gym with Purdue leading by a point. The Badgers proved worthy of the championship by easily overcoming the Boilermakers, 72-60.
Wolf graduated in June. His timing was perfect. The Milwaukee Journal needed a reporter to cover high-school sports. For $40 a week, Bob was their man. He attended four prep football games on a typical weekend, all the while learning the workings of the sports department of a major newspaper. The missing limb proved to be no handicap. Wolf mastered the art of typing with one finger. His customary bow tie was not a clip-on, but the kind that had to be tied, and Wolf managed that with dexterity. Rather than feel sorry for himself, Wolf adapted well to his circumstances.
Wolf’s first big assignment at the Journal found him covering the National AAU track meet hosted by Marquette University in July 1948. This was a prestigious event, a prelude to the London Olympic Games. Many top-flight athletes competed: football star Ollie Matson, world champion pole vaulter Bob Richards, and the nation’s best miler, Gil Dodds, “The Flying Parson.” As luck would have it, they were all overshadowed by a 3,000-meter walker who, Wolf wrote, “provided comic relief.”5 The young man was disqualified for running, not walking, but he refused to leave the track. One of the judges eventually ran him down, tackled him around the neck, and removed him bodily from the premises.
In a 39-year career writing for the Journal, Wolf was able to identify his strangest and least enjoyable assignment. It was the Carrera Panamerica, known to gringos as the Pan-American Road Race. In 1950 the Mexican government celebrated the completion of its portion of the Pan-American Highway by sponsoring an open-road auto race. The event quickly earned a reputation as the most dangerous race of any kind in the world. The 1951 race claimed the lives of three drivers. In November 1952 Wolf was sent to report on the third annual competition.
The race ran south to north, starting in the tropical region near the Guatemala border, winding through frightening mountainous terrain that two years previous had been impassable, then traversing stark desert before concluding its five-day chase at Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. The challenge of following such a trek, nearly 2,000 miles, is obvious. In addition, food and lodging were strictly catch-as-catch-can. Wolf described conditions as squalid, his worst week since Okinawa. To top it off, one of the stories he sent back to the Journal arrived in Spanish.6
The rules of the race were bizarre. If you stopped to help anyone, you were automatically disqualified. The drivers competed in two-man crews. On the first day a Wisconsin entrant from Fond du Lac fell out of his car on a sharp mountain turn. He survived but was advised to rest for a day before rejoining his partner. Another driver was injured when a low-flying buzzard crashed through the windshield, struck him in the face, and escaped by smashing out the back window. As it turned out, the winner of the stock-car prize was a driver from Milwaukee, who earned $11,628 in his modified Lincoln. It was estimated that between 8 million and 10 million racing aficionados witnessed at least part of the spectacle along the course.
Like all of Milwaukee’s sportswriters, Wolf enjoyed a career-changing experience when the Braves became the hometown team in the spring of 1953. He had worked some baseball in 1951 after the Journal’s regular man, Sam Levy, suffered a heart attack in June. For the rest of the season Wolf took over the job. The Brewers won the American Association pennant and the Junior World Series. Wolf enjoyed spending five autumn days in Montreal, including two days off because of postponements.
In March 1953 Wolf became the number-two baseball writer. He became numero uno when Levy experienced a fatal heart episode on August 6, 1955. From then on all the excitement of two pennants and two near-pennants was part of Wolf’s daily life.
Wolf found true love, or maybe it found him, in a restaurant near Wrigley Field. A young woman named Ruthie Patzke was seated in the dining room with her girlfriend. They had come in with a busload of Braves Boosters from Milwaukee. It was Ruthie’s first baseball game. She remembered seeing Bob for the first time. “He was standing in the balcony talking to someone,” she said. “He had a blue jacket on. It matched his eyes. Bobby always wore a jacket and tie and shirt.” Ruthie told her girlfriend that she wanted to meet that man and would marry him someday.7
Long story short, the fire was kindled for Bob and Ruthie that day. He found out where she and her friend would be sitting in the ballpark (upper deck). All through the game she worried that he wouldn’t stop to see her, but he did. Bob offered them a ride back to Milwaukee in his car, but this was 1953. That would not have been proper. They rode the bus. He called Ruthie at home, and they started dating.
On September 27, 1954, the day after the National League season ended, Ruthie and Bob were married in a small chapel in a Lutheran church in Milwaukee. (Virjean Lauby and Eddie Mathews were married the same day.) Bob and his bride honeymooned in New York City – for two days. He had to be there to cover the World Series. After Willie Mays made “The Catch” and the Giants took two from the Indians, the Series and the newlyweds shifted to Cleveland. The Indians were awful, and so was the couple’s closet-sized hotel room. Wolf got in touch with Braves traveling secretary Duffy Lewis, who saved the day by procuring nicer accommodations for them.
The Braves pulled out of Milwaukee after the 1965 season. Wolf was left without a beat. He received a new one when the National Basketball Association expanded in January 1968 and formed the Milwaukee Bucks. Pretty soon they drafted UCLA’s Lew Alcindor, better known later as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the good times were back in Beertown. In April 1970 the one-year-old American League Seattle Pilots became the Milwaukee Brewers and took up residence in County Stadium. Wolf was not tempted, though. Pro basketball offered less travel and a more normal home life. In 1975 he was offered a position as a columnist, and he gladly accepted.
Beginning in 1978, Al McGuire, Marquette’s retired basketball coach and later a national TV commentator, hosted a charity event to benefit Children’s Hospital. It was a five-mile run through downtown Milwaukee. The fundraiser started small, about 4,000 runners, and grew to be one of the largest in the nation. Twice, in 1982 and again in 1985, Wolf ran alongside McGuire and interviewed him as they jogged. Normally Bob took notes on a stenographer’s pad using his own version of shorthand, but for this occasion he made an exception and carried a tape recorder. Ruthie also entered the run. “I always beat him,” she said with more than a hint of pride.8 Wolf continued his running until he was 70.
After 39 years at the Journal, Wolf retired in November 1986 so he and Ruthie could live on the beach close to their daughter Debi in California. In retirement he contributed articles and columns to the San Diego edition of the Los Angeles Times.
When Wolf turned 80 in 2002, Debi hosted a party for her dad. She knew that his all-time favorite ballplayer was Chicago Cubs slugger Ernie Banks. She arranged for Mr. Cub to call Bob and wish him well on his birthday, which he did.
Wolf suffered a stroke on January 3, 2003. He died at age 81 the day after Thanksgiving of that year in Oceanside, California.
This biography is included in the book "Thar's Joy in Braveland! The 1957 Milwaukee Braves" (SABR, 2014), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To download the free e-book or purchase the paperback edition, click here.
Wiseman, John B. (ed.), Joy in Mudville: Essays on Baseball and American Life (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Co., Inc., 2010), 89.
D’Amato, Gary, “Wolf Had It Covered,” Milwaukee Journal, November 30, 2003.
Davis, Richard S., “Bleachers Fall Like Tumbling of Big Wave,” Milwaukee Journal, February 25, 1947.
Wolf, Bob, “Milwaukee’s Chuck Stevenson Wins Mexican Road Race Stock Car Title,” Milwaukee Journal, November 24, 1952.
________, “Moments To Remember,” Milwaukee Journal, November 23, 1986.
________, “Okinawa: Bloodstain in the Pacific,” Milwaukee Journal, April 1, 1970.
________, “State Car Is Third in Mexican Race After Freak Mishap,” Milwaukee Journal, November 20, 1952.
________, “39-Year Labor of Love,” Milwaukee Journal, November 23, 1986.
“Al’s Run Rapidly Becomes One of the Biggest in U.S.,” Milwaukee Sentinel, September 26, 1987.
“Badger Game Disaster! 2 Dead, Over 200 Injured,” Milwaukee Sentinel, February 25, 1947.
“Beauford T. Anderson, Second Lieut., U.S. Army,” arlingtoncemetery.net/btanderson.htm.
“Battle of Okinawa.” militaryhistoryonline.com.
“Carrera Panamericana.” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrera_Panamericana.
“Haunted Hotels in St. Charles, Illinois/USA Today.” traveltips.usatoday.com.
“Hotel Baker.” hotelbaker.com.
“Hotel Baker.” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotel_Baker.
“Nine Things You Probably Did Not Know About Ronald Reagan’s Radio Career,” radio.about.com.
“Okinawa: The Last Battle.” history.army.mil.
“Soldiers Grove: Beauford T. Anderson,” soldiersgrove.com/BT%20Anderson.htm.
Telephone interviews with Debi Wolf and Ruthie Wolf.
1 Bob Wolf, “A 39-year labor of love,” Milwaukee Journal, November 23, 1986.
2 Gary D’Amato, “Wolf had it covered,” Milwaukee Journal, November 30, 2003.
3 Bob Wolf, “Okinawa: Bloodstain in the Pacific,” Milwaukee Journal, April 1, 1970.
5 Bob Wolf, “McKenly Sets World Record for 400 Meters in AAU Trials,” Milwaukee Journal, July 3, 1948.
6 Bob Wolf, “State Car Is Third in Mexican Race After Freak Mishap,” Milwaukee Journal, November 20, 1952.
7 Ruthie Wolf, telephone interview, November 5, 2012.