Denny Matthews

This article was written by Curt Smith


Denny MatthewsGrowing up in downstate Illinois, between Chicago and St. Louis, a midcentury youth was blessed by time and place. By radio, born in 1920, and television’s relatively new wonderwork, baseball could be followed through the art of play-by-play. If you grasped the pastime’s rhythm, the Voices often became as arresting as being at the park.

At Comiskey Park, cultivated Bob Elson — “The Old Commander” — patented he’s out and perfected the on-field interview. Crosstown, two Jacks, Brickhouse and Quinlan, conjured the Second City and embodied the beloved Cubs. In St. Louis, Harry Caray crowed Holy Cow! and sang of a home run It might be! It could be! It is! If the sky was “right,” recalled Denny Matthews, still manifestly the Voice of the Royals after a half-century of radio/TV, “I could pick other games” — from Milwaukee, Detroit, or Cleveland by the wireless — only later knowing “that I was under their influence, as well.”1

Matthews was born on November 14, 1942, in Jacksonville, Florida,2 soon moving to Bloomington, Illinois, where at home the dial was always turned to baseball — especially to longtime Cardinals affiliate WJBC, Caray, Jack Buck, and Joe Garagiola forging a nonpareil cast.3 His father, George, had been Illinois State University’s “first All-American baseball player [1938] who might have signed with the Reds or White Sox but for World War II,”4 said Denny. Instead, he and his wife, Eileen, worked at State Farm Insurance’s company offices in Bloomington, their son inheriting pop’s baseball genes.

As a freshman at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Denny even got a tryout at nearby Decatur with the affiliate of the big-league San Francisco Giants. At Wesleyan, he also belonged to Sigma Chi fraternity, manned the varsity middle infield with future major leaguer Doug Rader, and tried football — his receiving yardage eighth in the nation after not even playing in high school.5 Matthews concedes to “liking all sports, not just baseball, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with them.”6 Recalling Dad and the radio, what seemed natural to do was what he hadn’t yet tried — airing the pastime of his youth.

The part-time college basketball announcer began by working for State Farm in Bloomington, then Peoria radio, next St. Louis TV. Then, in 1968, he eyed the next-year expansion draft that upped each major league from 10 to 12 teams. That September, having never called an inning, Denny got the Cardinals’ OK to bring a recorder, find a spare booth, and on reel-to-reel tapes describe a regular-season game at Busch Stadium. Later, applying for the 1969 American League Kansas City job, he sent the three half-innings that sounded best.

“This was early ’69,” said Matthews, “and the Royals were looking for a second banana” after hiring iconic Bud Blattner as lead announcer. “A friend said: ‘A lot of people’ll [more than 300] apply. Make yours unique. It’s not enough that they like your tape. They gotta remember you.’ Schlitz beer was primary Royals sponsor — that’s why a Milwaukee agency had the account. So, I go to a local Schlitz distributor and pick up menus they gave bars and restaurants.”7 A Schlitz ad filled the outside flap. The inside was blank, for the local place to print its menu. They also had serving trays with a Schlitz logo.

Denny printed his résumé, put a menu on the tray, enclosed a tape, and sent them off. “That was my packaging — pretty corny, I’ll admit — that, and a letter I’m ashamed of,” he said. Matthews penned, “I hope you don’t think I’m a bush-leaguer for having done a Cardinal game, but here is my final pitch for the Royals’ job.”8 Ambition can be brutal — owner August A. Busch’s Cardinals had given him his chance. Several months later Denny met Blattner, was among three finalists, and got interviewed.

Blattner invited Matthews to Kansas City, telling him to arrive on a Friday at about 3 or 4 P.M. Denny left home in Illinois at 10 A.M., he said almost half-a-century later, arriving on time. From the start, “Buddy and I hit it off. We chatted, got acquainted and talked baseball, broadcasting, and the job.”9 They went out for pizza “and before you know it, it’s real late,” Denny overnighting at Bud’s home. “I got home at 10 — 10 the next morning, looked at my mother and said, ‘Mom, I told you I’d be back at 10!”10 Several days later the offer became official.

Later, Matthews asked Blattner why he had chosen a big-league neophyte. “The audition was a [baseball], not a minor-league game,” Bud explained. “It’s how [you] filled time between pitches, covering strategy and anticipating moves on the playing field. In other words, [adding] insight — beyond mere play-by-play. [Your] on-the-field experience in high school and college was a help. The Royals were a new team and wanted a fresh face and voice. Those in charge wanted someone with no bad habits.”11 In a sense, inexperience helped.

Blattner, a native Missourian, was already a household name in millions of Midwest homes when he joined the Royals — world doubles table tennis champion at 16, big-league infielder at 22, athlete-turned-announcer with the Browns, Mutual and Liberty Broadcasting System, then sidekick to as Falstaffian a legend who ever lived. On 1953-54 ABC and 1955-59 posher CBS, Bud and Dizzy Dean pioneered network TV’s first sport series, the monumental Game of the Week.12 “In the hinterlands and small towns, watching Ol’ Diz was an absolute religion,” said CBS sports head Bill MacPhail.”13 Each weekend Pleasantville closed down.

Entering the Hall of Fame in 1953, ex-pitcher Dean had thanked God for “a strong body, a good right arm, and a weak mind.”14 Broadcasting, he made baseball a regular-season national, not just local, product. If Game failed, “maybe TV sports has a different future,” MacPhail marveled.15 Instead, debuting on Saturday and adding Sunday in 1957, Game lured more than one-half of all sets in use.16 Ol’ Diz sang The Wabash Cannonball and called the viewer pod-nuh and mangled English like no one had or will. Runners slud. Fielders returned to their respectable positions. A hitter stood confidentially at the plate.

Middle America loved the 300 pounds, string tie, and Stetson — the whole rustic goods. But — this is key — Dean’s insanity relied on “pod-nuh” restoring sanity. “Viewers loved the songs, the craziness,” Blattner said, “but Diz wouldn’t even give the score.”17 Bud gave the score — also analysis, reminiscence, and humor. Weary of Dean’s ego, he resigned in late 1959, replaced by Pee Wee Reese. Blattner aired the 1960-61 Cardinals and 1962-68 Angels before returning home, where Denny saw another skill: observation. “Bud hated if I wasn’t listening [in his innings] because he might say something, and I’d come on the air and repeat the same thing!” said Matthews. “Listening is smart. Not listening to others is also rude. God gave us one mouth but two ears. Maybe we’re supposed to be listening two-thirds of the time.”18

Blattner said, “Diz brought the audience to the game before we said a word.”19 Bud brought like credibility to the 1969 Royals — “people’d come up to him everywhere and talk about his Game with Diz” — and discretion. Off air he told of doing Mutual Radio when Pat Mullin’s late-inning 1951 home run for Detroit tied the Yankees. Bud was exhausted, Mullin due to hit again in the 10th. Except for him, Blattner would have been home, writing “the bastard” beside his name. Bud’s partner read: “Now to the bastard, I mean batter.”20 On air peers later fondly recalled how as a game was set to begin before a small crowd on the West Coast starting in the Midwest at 9:35 or, as one mused, “any other game with people disguised as empty seats,” Bud would cry before airtime: “Hi, anybody!” To Denny’s knowledge, no one answered.

Many players on the 1969-70 Royals gave anonymity new connotation, with a collective 134-190 record. Each day Matthews hosted a 10-minute star of the game show “featuring the Royals star of the previous day,” he said. “We had to have one, even if no player had played well.” By August 1969 every “Royal had made it except a utility infielder who rarely played,” Juan Rios.21 One day he made a game and got three hits. Driving to the park next day, Denny decided to have Rios as his guest — finally, Juan wished upon a star.

As usual, shortstop Jackie Hernandez offered to interpret Spanish over the Royals’ 1969 46-station KMBZ radio network.22 Municipal Stadium housed Kansas City’s two franchises — the lowly 1955-67 Athletics, missing the first division every year before vamoosing to Oakland in 1968, replaced by the expansion Royals. Matthews hosted his guest in the dugout bullpens down the right-field line. “Jackie, ask Juan for his feelings on last night’s game,” he began. In Spanish, Rios seemed a chatterer, Denny feeling “There must be some terrific stuff.” Rios then handed Hernandez the mic. “Juan said he feels great,” the translator said. As producer Ed Shepherd dropped his recorder, Denny dripped sweat. “His life story and that’s it — five seconds in English.”23

A major radio/TV sponsor was a local food manufacturing firm, Guy’s Foods, that made a panoply of snacks: pretzels, nuts, Doritos, potato chips. One 1970 Friday night in Milwaukee, the Royals’ producer/engineer handed Matthews a card reading, “Guy’s Foods,” Denny’s task to think of an apt one-liner. Wheels began spinning: Friday was July 3 — Saturday the Fourth — a long holiday weekend. People would be outside. Below, Royals-Brewers unfolded. Properly strategized, Matthews said, “For those of you planning a Fourth of July picnic, take those good Guy’s potato chips.” A nice drop-in. Unfortunately, the K.C. hurler took an eternity to pitch, which gave Denny an eternity to fill. Pleased with his plug, he tried another — for a time, he feared his last. “And fans, while you’re in the store, be sure and grab Guy’s nuts.”24

Hearing it, said Denny, Blattner whitened, his face saying, “Heavens, what have my young men done now?” Matthews returned to Kansas City afraid that a pink slip might precede him. Yet, improbably, Guy’s head Guy Caldwell had already heard the story — and the junior partner’s all-time blooper had made him howl! “Here’s to a sense of humor,” Denny hailed. “It can save careers.”25 Little saved the early Royals, locals uncomplaining after the quisling 1967 A’s had beat the sheriff out of town. A year later Royals owner Ewing Kauffman signed a four-year lease on Municipal at 21st and 22nd Streets, Euclid Avenue, and 2128 Brooklyn Avenue. By bus, car, or taxi it took 20 minutes from downtown to the park. Seats were bright, ushers kindly, and rest rooms clean. Nothing beat the heat. “During midsummer days,” Sports Illustrated had written, “it is quite possible to be baked alive.”26

The memory of Kansas City’s first big-league act clouded the second in the October 15, 1968, AL expansion draft. Assuming patience, the Royals eschewed age. The first choice, Orioles pitcher Roger Nelson, 24, had finished 4-3 with a 2.41 earned-run average. His 1969 suggested promise before 1970-71 injuries struck: 7-13, 3.31 ERA, 29 starts, 8 complete games. Other pitchers selected were Ike Brookens, Wally Bunker, Tom Burgmeier, Bill Butler, Jerry Cram, Moe Drabowsky, Dick Drago, Fitzmorris, Mike Hedlund, Steve Jones, Dave Morehead, Don O’Riley, Jim Rooker, Jon Warden, and Hoyt Wilhelm. Position players were Jerry Adair, Mike Fiore, Joe Foy, Billy Harris, Bill Haynes, Fran Healy, Hernandez, Pat Kelly, Joe Keough, Scott Northey, Bob Oliver, Ellie Rodriguez, Paul Schaal, and Steve Whitaker.27 Kansas City opened April 8, 1969, edging Minnesota, 4-3, on Keough’s 12th-inning sacrifice fly, before 17,688 at Municipal. Its lineup read: Lou Piniella, leading off, in center field; Adair, at second base; Ed Kirkpatrick, left field; Foy, batting cleanup, third base; Chuck Harrison, first base; Oliver, right field; Rodriguez, catcher; Hernandez, shortstop; and Bunker, pitching.28

K.C.’s first hit, run batted in, and victory were Piniella’s, Adair’s, and Drabowsky’s. Its first home run was Fiore’s on April 13 against Oakland.29 The Royals placed fourth in the six-team East and drew 902,414, the best in their tenure at the makeshift park (next year luring a Municipal-low 693,647). Rookie of the Year Piniella, temper as searing as Sahara heat, played a makeshift left field. “He was a character here [1969-73] before he was a Yankee,” Denny said. The early Royals wore button-down jersey tops, Lou so irate making an out that he grabbed his jersey by the collar, pulled violently, and tore the buttons off — “a wonder he didn’t put out someone’s eye.”30 One Saturday, he hit into an inning-ending double play, profaning and kicking dirt and grass. Shortstop Freddie Patek brought out his glove and sunglasses, which Piniella threw to left field, where they landed in a heap worthy of a rugby scrum. Still fried, Lou got there, picked up and put on the glove and glasses — and would have seen the second batter fly to left had he not, flipping down his glasses, popped a lens out when it hit the ground.

“Lou’s blinded in one eye by the sun!” Matthews bayed much later. “And he starts spinning like a top to get an angle, yet amazingly made the catch!”31 A fine hitter, 1969-71’s Piniella averaged .282, .301, and .279, the ’71ers reaching second with a shocking 85-76 record. Everything was relative: A year later Tigers catcher Ed and umpire Tom Haller faced the Royals — said 1968-82 Hall of Fame librarian Jack Redding, “the first such sibling act in big-league history.”32 Next year, Municipal’s last as K.C.’s chateau, Piniella hit .312. He retired with a .291 average, then managed for the Yankees, Reds, Mariners, Devil Rays, and Cubs, where, thankfully, sunglasses were no longer a concern. Handclapping feted Oliver’s 27 and John Mayberry’s 25 homers in 1970 and 1972, respectively; Big John’s 100 RBIs in Municipal’s final year; Piniella’s 18-game hit streak in 1971; and Roger Nelson’s six shutouts in 1972. Oliver and Amos Otis got six hits and stole five bases in a game, respectively — all exceptions to expansion’s rule.33

From 1969-72, K.C. drew as many as 32,728 for an April 12, 1971, night opening game against Minnesota; 30,035, May 24, 1970 day, Milwaukee; 31,872, April 20, 1969, doubleheader, Oakland; 16,406, June 13, 1970 non-opener night, New York; and 18,248, June 18, 1969 twi-night doubleheader, Oakland.34 The ’72ers left Municipal October 4, blanking Texas, 4-0. To many, they still seemed merely the A’s’ successor — the local team once owned by Arnold Johnson, crediting Yankees brass for getting the AL to let him move from Philadelphia in late 1954. All decade Johnson kept trading fine players to his old Bombers benefactor who later starred in the Bronx — Art Ditmar, Ralph Terry, Roger Maris — the relationship, they believed, miming its former vassal state — major-league Kansas City still the “Yankees’ cousins.” What could change such servitude? The only major-league sports site built solely for baseball between 1962 and 1991.

The nearby chapter on Royals, later renamed Kauffman, Stadium describes a vote of local citizens in 1967 approving bonds for the Truman Sports Complex, including a stadium for pro football’s Chiefs and a park for the Athletics.35 This flouted the 1960s mania a.k.a. multisport stadia that dissimilar baseball and football could somehow live as one. In turn, A’s owner Charles O. Finley flouted his word, breaking a lease to move cross-country in 1968. Irate, the US Senate vowed to revoke baseball’s antitrust exemption if Kansas City wasn’t given another team. The offshoot was 1969 expansion: the Royals and Seattle joining the AL; Montreal and Seattle, swelling the National League; K.C.’s owner to be pharmaceutical czar Kauffman.36 Then, in 1973, the Royals got a new skipper, “Trader Jack” McKeon, new road uniform — “powder blue” — and new home — a 40,733-seat baseball park, 12-story-high crown-shaped scoreboard near a fountain, waterfall, and pool complex, and accent on defense, alley power, and speed. The Sports Complex built two houses, not one. No longer did everything seem up to date here — except its park.37

“Everything changed here when we moved into our new place,” said Matthews. “We became a trailblazer. We began to draw.”38 1,345,341 its first year, 1973; 1,680,265, the team’s first West title, 1976; and 2,255,493, 1978’s third straight crown. In 1975, Blattner reached a flagship WIBM Topeka 50-outlet radio network, aided by Denny and Fred White, and KMBW TV seven-affiliate arrangement, aides Matthews and Gene Osborne.39 That winter the Royals’ first-liegeman behind the mic retired or was axed, depending on which paper you read or announcer you believe. Most saw Blattner’s hand at work, tired of the travel but regretting that his exit deprived the Royals of a familiar, easy name, leaving for his home and business in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. Matthews “succeeded, not replaced, my mentor,” Denny said carefully, rolling lucky 7 from the start.

The adopted Illinoisan inherited three Western Division titlists in a row. Like other prior almost-dynasties — think postwar Brooklyn — the Royals found the Yankees in their way, New York taking each 1976-78 skin-of-its-teeth American League Championship Series. A kinder, gentler end graced K.C.’s greatest comeback: Friday night, June 15, 1979, in Milwaukee. After the Brewers took an 11-2 fourth-inning lead, skipper Whitey Herzog yanked his starters and sent them back to the Pfister Hotel for a good night’s sleep, the Royals had a game scheduled next afternoon, a Saturday.  “Incredibly, the subs rally, winning, 14-11,” said Denny. “Around 11 P.M., the guys who’d left to get some sleep were still in the hotel lounge, telling stories and having a few cool ones.” The team bus arrived, one sub saying, “We don’t need you guys, we won!”40 The starters needed a little convincing. A few more drinks helped.

In 1980, Mid-America toasted George Brett — on August 17, reaching .401. Could No. 5 become the first batter to average .400 since Ted Williams in 1941? He missed 45 games — but hit .390 as league MVP.41 “He was a one-man warrior,” said Matthews, but the Royals were not a one-man team. Dennis Leonard won 20 games for the third time in four years. Saving 33, reliever Dan Quisenberry was nicknamed The Quiz. An answer was center fielder Willie Wilson’s Gold Glove, then-record 705 at-bats, and 230 hits.42 K.C.’s reply in that year’s LCS was new, beating the Yankees twice, 7-2 and 3-2. The Bronx Zoo hosted Game Three: New York, 2-1, in the seventh inning. Yankees bullpen ace Goose Gossage threw a fastball. “Swing and a high fly ball!” White said on Royals wireless. “Deep right field! There she goes!”43 Royals Stadium’s scoreboard could use more than 16,000 bulbs. Brett’s three-run titan into Yankee Stadium’s upper tier still hangs in lights: final, 4-2, K.C.’s first pennant. “Making the World Series,” said Matthews, “threw off all that frustration.”44 The Series renewed it — in Game Six, the 97-year-old Phillies franchise won its first title, 4-1.

Having climbed one rung, the Royals had not yet scaled the final. Ahead — that elusive Series victory, also photographs and memories. Anecdotist more than statistician, Denny liked to reminisce. Exempli gratia: Amos Otis was a superb 1970-83 center fielder acquired from the Mets who ranks among the top 10 Royals in at-bats, bases on balls, caught stealing, doubles, double plays grounded into, extra-base hits, games, hits, home runs, plate appearances, runs, runs batted in, sacrifice flies, singles, stolen bases, steal percentage, total bases, triples — and first in power/speed quotient.45 To Matthews, he exceled as a basestealer by studying pitchers. The A’s’ famed lefty, Vida Blue, was a special subject, relying on rhythm. To break it, Amos stepped out of the box or asked the umpire to check the ball, so irking Blue that he threw the ball directly at him. “Vida faced first base in the stretch, yet Amos took the biggest lead I’ve ever seen,” Matthews said. Kauffman Stadium’s then-artificial turf had dirt around the bases. Otis would plant both feet on the carpet — about an 18-foot lead — and ask a teammate if he saw a wrinkle. What wrinkle? Denny said Amos answered: “‘That wrinkle in his pants. When that’s there, he’s going home.’”

Two players occupied opposite poles of Denny’s radar. Hal McRae was Kansas City’s clubhouse enforcer. In 1979 George Scott arrived after 13 years with Boston and Milwaukee, Herzog using him to pinch-hit or sub at first base. Matthews said that Scott’s nickname, Boomer, was at variance with his high-pitched voice — “Mike Tyson before Mike Tyson.” Wanting his Boston number 5 with the Royals, Scott found another George wearing it. Inexplicably, Boomer couldn’t grasp why Brett got to keep it, complaining 24/7. “I’m George Scott!” he said in a voice Denny dubbed Scott’s “Tiny Tim” contralto. “I deserve number 5! Boomer gets no respect!” Mates tired of Scott’s rhetoric and hitting into double plays: “I’m number 5!” (He wore No. 0.) Finally, after Scott went 0-for-4, again whining, McRae, the club enforcer, exploded. “Boomer, shut up! I’m sick of listening to you talk about number 5. We have another number we’re going to give you … 6-4-3!46 Silence. Scott was released, then briefly signed by the Yankees, who wouldn’t give him number 5, either. As Denny said, it belonged to some guy named Joe.

In 1971-81, the Royals and Athletics won the AL East 10 of 11 years. Having stolen the A’s, Oakland was viewed by Kansas City as the Capulets would the Montagues. In Oakland, an A’s fan, leaning over the Royals bullpen railing, was struck by a player, “like putting your head through a carnival hole and meeting a water balloon,” said Denny.47 The next fan to do so met a fate in kind. McRae, a 1973-87 Royal whose 133 RBIs led the league in 1982, grabbed a fan’s umbrella and hit the bystander on the head. Next morning an Oakland paper showed Hal holding this umbrella, about to strike him. According to Matthews, “Charlie Lau, our hitting coach, always got on Mac because Hal’s top hand dominated his swing, the top wrist rolling over too soon. At breakfast, Lau pointed to the picture. ‘See,’ he told Mac, ‘I keep telling you — too much top hand.’”48

Once the would-be player almost became a player. At K.C., the first four A’s hit safely: 3-0, nobody out, runners on, “and Whitey strolls toward the home-plate umpire, everybody puzzled.” As they talk, Matthews thinks, “‘They got good swings,’ and a light went on. Does Whitey think they’re stealing signs and know what pitches are coming?” Later, Denny conceded, “I shouldn’t have done this — no proof — but I say on air that Whitey may think they’ve got his signs,” citing how a club could flash a sign to the hitter, using binoculars in the bullpen. “You’d have a pitcher who puts a towel over his right leg for a fastball. Little towel: a breaking ball.” Suddenly, Herzog and the umps start for the A’s pen. Matthews “feels like the guy with a huge fish on his line.” They reach the pen, go through the gate, and get to the bench’s end, where Whitey picks up the binoculars. “I’m watching with my binoculars, and suddenly a heady feeling hits me. Whitey and I may have been the only people in Royals Stadium who were on to the A’s ruse.” For one game, Denny “knew exactly what was going on, as much a part of it as anyone on the field, feeling like a player.”49

In 1981 players felt like striking, an abbreviated regular season siring a best-of-five-games divisional playoff series. Fittingly, the A’s and Royals met: Oakland swept. Next year Denny called his first LCS on CBS Radio — Brewers-Angels. In 1983 Brett’s home run against the Yankees in the Bronx was ruled illegal because pine tar on his bat topped the rule book’s 18-inch limit. Later, an AL president for the first time overruled an umpire, Brett’s homer was restored, the game continued, and Kansas City won the 5-4 “Pine Tar Game.”50 Blattner had warned Matthews not “to be a bad imitation of some original.”51 His first full year, 1974, Brett held his bat high above his head, a bad imitation of Carl Yastrzemski. He was blessed to have a great work ethic and hitting coach. Midseason, Charlie Lau asked if he wanted to work on his swing. Slumping, George absorbed Lau’s “extension through the ball and having a weight shift.”52 Investment in Lau’s advice reaped spectacular returns.

 

Ageless: The Royals captain won batting titles in 1976, 1980, and 1990 — the only player to lead in three decades.53 Peerless: the 13-time All-Star became the 18th player to get his 3,000th hit, in 1992.54 Timeless: Some still debate which 1985 Brett game mattered most. “Many say it’s in that World Series,” said Matthews. “Actually, it’s LCS Game Three. We’d lost the first two in Toronto. Lose the next, at home, and you’re dead.” It was arguably Brett’s best-ever game. “A position player, say shortstop, rarely dominates baseball, since it’s not a one-man game, you can’t control what’s hit your way, and at most bat five times. George made huge plays in the field and went 4-for-4, homering twice.” Somehow Lau, an average hitter, made Brett a superb hitter, using a teaching tool, his “incredibly soft-spoken manner,” to teach hitting. A commercial went, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” When Charlie spoke, “people listened,” Denny said. “Brett, most of all.”55

In 1985 George wed 30 homers, 112 RBIs, and a .335 average. Wilson, the star on almost every other American League club, lashed 21 triples, topping Brett’s 20 in 1979 and the most in the majors since 1949. The Quiz led a fifth/final time in saves (37). Cy Younger Bret Saberhagen went 20-6. Still, Kansas City trailed the LCS, three games to one, despite Brett’s third game of two homers, a bravo stop to throw out a Jay at the plate, and making the final out — a rare “one-man game.” Before 1985, the series consisted of best-of-five; under that format, K.C. would have been kaput. Best-of-seven gave the Royals breath. Using it, they swept Toronto three straight. “The War Between the States” followed, Kansas City extending its trend of not wanting to peak too soon. St. Louis launched it, 3-1 and 4-2, no team having won a Series after losing the first two at home. Saberhagen ignored the past, 6-1, the Cards then replying, 3-0, before Danny Jackson countered, 6-1.

This backdrop preceded the play that more than any other led baseball to later sanction instant replay. To the 1985 combatants, a more immediate goal was to win Game Six. St. Louis led, 1-0, in the home half of the ninth inning, three outs from a title, as Royal Jorge Orta led off by rolling to first baseman Jack Clark. Pitcher Todd Worrell took his throw and beat Orta to the bag — except that umpire Don Denkinger called him safe. Steve Balboni then popped out in foul ground — except that Clark lost the ball. The Cards still led — until a passed ball, intentional walk, and pinch-hitter Dane Iorg’s game-winning 2-1 hit. Next evening, mentally bent on chaining Denkinger in Leavenworth, St. Louis sleepwalked through Saberhagen’s Game Seven five-hit jewel and Darryl Motley’s seeming blast onto adjacent Interstate 70. “One out to go in the ninth inning,” Denny said. “Eleven to nothing. The one-oh pitch. Fly ball! Motley going back to the track! No outs to go! The Royals have won the 1985 World Series! And they converge on the mound in celebration!”56 As usual, Matthews aired the Series on the Royals radio network — and also CBS wireless.

By the ’80s, Denny led the American League’s largest radio network — 120 stations in 11 states57 — the Voice of Cardinals Nation’s Radio Free AL, preferring radio to TV “for the obvious reasons,” he said, later. “You’re your own boss. No director or producer in your ear. On TV, you’re never going solo. What I miss, though, about [doing radio] is the ability to be instructive. You can’t call for a replay on radio.”58 Matthews reached far beyond greater Kansas City. Similarly, Kauffman’s original artificial turf absorbed rain, reducing postponement, key to pilgrims trooping from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. The team drew chiefly from its own Central Time Zone — but also the next-door Mountain Zone. Then, in 1993 the NL gave an expansion franchise to Denver, heretofore not represented by a big-league baseball team. “Until then we’d been their closest franchise,” said Denny of pulling weekenders from Arizona to Montana.59 Now the new Colorado Rockies began “crowding us,” luring radio/TV outlets in Colorado’s Durango; South Dakota, Lead-Deadwood; Utah, Salt Lake City; and Wyoming, Cheyenne — many of whose listeners previously cheered the Royals.

Kansas City’s radio network still consists of 60 teams in six states: Eureka Springs, Arkansas; Cherokee and Humboldt, Iowa; Coffeyville and Emporia, Kansas, names even apart from places redolent of a Gunsmoke TV episode; Miami, Oklahoma; North Platte, Nebraska; Moberly, Missouri, the sites of suburbs and farmhouses and sleepy small towns. Ratings have bloomed despite, not because. For the team’s, the quarter-century after 1985 fused one saw (“It’s always darkest before the — dark”) with another (William Bendix as 1950s TV’s hard hat with a heart of gold, Chester A. Riley, who regularly boomed, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”)60 In 1990, general manager John Schuerholz left for Atlanta after a decade of K.C. taking or vying for the AL West title. The Royals promptly plunged, never near a ’90s West or realigned Central Division crown. In 1993 Kauffman died after assuring a succession plan to keep the team in town. He could not assure success.

In 1994 team payroll had been $40.5 million. In 1999, it fell to a paltry estimated $16.5 million, wrote the Kansas City Star.61 That year the Royals set a franchise-low .398 losing percentage, Carlos Beltran became Rookie of the Year, Matthews and Fred White wrote Play by Play: 25 Years of Royals on Radio — and Ryan Lefebvre replaced White. The new millennium began with beloved Mike Sweeney’s club record 144 RBIs and Johnny Damon’s league-leading 136 runs — as good as the Royals’ then-getting got. In 2001 the Voice of the Royals contracted to air 130 games a year. “It recharges the battery,” Matthews hailed his schedule. “You get away from it for a few days and come back strong.” Mirage lightened the Royals’ 2003: their first .500 (64-51) record since 1994. Misery resumed in 2004, K.C.’s first of nine straight losing years, five in the cellar.62 Denny did his first TV play-by-play since 1986. “I had to remind myself you don’t need to paint the picture,” Matthews said. A few writers scored him for placing thought above emotion behind either mic, hating to promote or schmooze, thinking it “not my job to scream,” said Denny. “I tell what happened and then you can scream.”63

Ironically, away from a microphone, Denny was a baseball Bible when it came to opinion: Ask, and ye received, as the below views show.64

 

Realignment. “Create four geographic divisions,” he proposed. “We’d be with the Cubs, White Sox, and Cardinals.” Instead, the bigs once briefly eyed contraction before sanity returned.

 

Favorite park: Wrigley Field, Denny said, “by a mile, the atmosphere inside and out fantastic. The Cubs have made the most of its charm and history, almost creating the feeling of a pilgrimage to a holy shrine.” To Matthews, Fenway Park was its equal until “the Red Sox forgot what they were trying to sell.”

Performance-enhancing drugs: “You’d have to be on Mars in the last two decades to miss players trying to get a legal and illegal edge through steroids, growth hormones, and other performance-enhancing drugs. I don’t condone their use, though risking future health is a player’s business.”

 

October scheduling: “As kids, we raced home to watch postseason, brought a radio to hear at school, and took an extra-long lunch break to catch some innings. Loving baseball, we found a way to listen.” Earth to baseball: Make October count again. “Let kids catch daytime coverage. There’s a new generation to attract.”

Designated Hitter: “The AL created the DH in 1973 because interest was down, the NL having better players. So what do we do? Add offense! Sadly, the DH made ours a standaround kind of game. So end it — now!” Some announcers think the hymn “How Great Thou Art” refers to them, personally. To Matthews, storytelling meant team, not self. “Listening, you don’t learn about his life,”65 Fred White had said — Denny working out with the Green Bay Packers, catching passes from All-Pro quarterback Len Dawson, or tossing to a rather well-known wide end in a touch football game.

“Denny, thank you,” said that receiver, radio’s Rush Limbaugh, eyes turning moist. “That was the first touchdown I ever had.”66 Listening to Denny, a Royals listener never knew. You had to hear it elsewhere. Matthews’ emotion was conveyed quietly, graciously — having been brought up, like Middle America, not to brag on himself, diverting conversation to a visitor.

In 2004, the Royals held Denny Matthews “Talking Bobble Head” Day, named him to their Hall of Fame, and helped pack a special K.C. to Wellington, Kansas, train. For Denny, the day was redolent of his grandfather, working for the Chicago and Alton Railroad. Matthews became a “train nut” — and Midwest grade-crossing safety spokesman. “The crews were terrific,” Denny saluted the thank-you ride. “The only problem was that they wanted to talk baseball — and I wanted to talk trains!” Matthews loved their lure — also, the flat, fall-grass, and endless Plains. “That alone would keep me here.”67

In 2005 Missouri named Denny to its Hall of Fame. Then, in 2007, he received the ultimate honor any baseball Voice can — the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcast excellence at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, topping other finalists Tom Cheek, Dean, Ken Harrelson, Bill King, Tony Kubek, France Laux, Graham McNamee, Dave Niehaus, and Joe Nuxhall. “It’s pretty heady stuff,” the 31st Frick honoree said. “You stop and look at the previous recipients and, gosh.” In his acceptance, Denny quoted Jack Brickhouse, who in his 1983 induction at Cooperstown, had conceded, “Today, I feel like a man 60 feet, six inches tall.”68 Matthews became only the eighth big-league Voice to spend his career with one club and at that time work for 35 or more straight seasons. A year later, he lightened his schedule, making fewer trips. Bob Davis and Steve Stewart replaced Lefebvre on radio, Ryan turning to TV.

Denny still held forth on home radio, his voice “having a pleasant timbre which suggests a cheerful occasion,” as stats guru Bill James said. “His inflection varies naturally so it’s neither falsely enthusiastic nor boring. He has a dry, understated humor that drifts through much of his audience undetected. One cannot learn these things at a microphone; they are given.”69 By now, a given for many was to focus on an individual, not the team — to wit, ’09 Zack Greinke of the 65-97 Royals named a Cy Young honoree, like 1980s Saberhagen and 1994’s David Cone. In 2012 the All-Star Game visited Kansas City for the third time, vaunting Kauffman at its refurbished best. Then: In quick succession, jewels for the Royals’ diadem joined 1985’s and lesser baubles, now almost Paleozoic to some.

In October 2014 Kansas City helped stage a seven-game classic Series, losing by a run to San Francisco. A year later, baseball’s smallest big-league market won its second World Series by besting the pastime’s largest, Kansas City clinching in Game Five at the Mets’ Citi Field.70 (See Kauffman Stadium chapter.) Matthews aired each on radio, signing a four-year pact on the last day of the 2015 FanFest to keep him with the Royals in its and his 50th year in 2018. “He has delivered the word pictures of virtually every important moment in team history,” said team vice president Mike Swanson.71 With the Dodgers’ Vin Scully’s 2016 adieu, Denny became the bigs’ second-longest tenured Voice, behind only LA’s Spanish-language Jaime Jarrin (1959-present). 

To Matthews, two early personae still especially resound. Ewing Kauffman was a casual-turned-fervent fan trying to better his product, as he had in pharmaceuticals. In 1970 his Royals Baseball Academy, founded in Sarasota, Florida, and designed to train good athletes into good baseball players, opened to skepticism.72 In the Academy’s two-year program, including Manatee Junior College, players attended daily Ewing-mandated courses in personal finance and public speaking. After school, they studied baseball basics for the rest of the day. The Academy closed in 1974, due largely to a recession, alumni Frank White and UL Washington forming much of K.C.’s 1970s and ’80s middle infield. “The biggest mistake I made in baseball was letting them talk me into closing the Academy,” Kauffman said a year before he died. Each big-league team now advises players in public relations, speaking, and finance. The image evokes class, exactly as Kauffman hoped.

The other persona is former Royals farm director and director, player development Lou Gorman’s. Joe Garagiola wrote a best-selling book, Baseball Is a Funny Game.73 Lou made Royals baseball funny, malapropping, to quote Denny, via Gormanisms of which Casey Stengel would be proud. One spring, Matthews noted, Lou was unsure about the fate of prospect Joel Bishop, noting, “We were faced face to face with the face of Joel Bishop.” Other somersaults included “That burns gas like it’s eating peanuts, “I’ll keep my ears posted,” “I vaguely and vividly remember in my own mind,” and “We’re glad to have you with you.” Once Lou said, “He looked like he threw real good listening on the radio.”74 That has been Denny Matthews, making baseball a game to be enjoyed and recalled, the pastime looking good on the air.

A personal note. I grew up in perhaps the last generation for whom trains trekked slowly through small-town America, children gathered on each side to await their last car, the caboose. Open to God and sky, the blue-suited and -capped conductor aboard waved to us like a wizard, the train then leaving to vanish like Oz into back country and tomorrow — now gone. Like Matthews, my grandfather worked on a railroad — with me, the New York Central. With Denny at the throttle, Royals Radio/TV has seldom gone off the tracks.

 

Sources

Grateful appreciation is made to reprint all play-by-play and color radio text courtesy of John Miley’s The Miley Collection. In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, most especially the Society for American Baseball Research, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites box scores, player, season, and team pages, batting and pitching logs, and other material relevant to this history. FanGraphs.com provided statistical information. In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted:

 

Books

Angell, Roger and Walter Iooss Jr. Baseball (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986). 

Coffrey, Michael. 27 Men (New York: Atria Books, 2002).

Cohen, Richard M., David S. Neft, and Roland T. Johnson. The World Series (New York: Dial Press, 1976).

 James, Bill. The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: Villard Books, 1985).

Koppett, Leonard. Koppetts Concise History of Major League Baseball (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2015).

Matthews, Denny, Fred White, and Matt Fulks. Play by Play: 25 Years of Royals on Radio (Lenexa, Kansas: Taylor, 1999).

Smith, Curt. Mercy! A Celebration of Fenway Parks Centennial Told Through Red Sox Radio and TV (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2012).

___. Voices of The Game: The Acclaimed History of Baseball Radio and Television

Broadcasting (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).

 

Newspapers

The Kansas City Star has been a primary source of information about Denny Matthews’ career. The Sporting News and USA Today also were extremely helpful. Other contemporary sources include Associated Press, Baseball Digest, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and the Miami Herald.

 

Interviews

Bud Blattner, with author, December 1975.

Bill MacPhail, with author, September 1977.

Denny Matthews, with author, February 2007, November 2015, and August 2018.

Jack Redding, with author, January 1981.

Fred White, with author, May 1998.

 

Notes

1  Denny Matthews interview with author, August 2018.

2  Ibid.

3  sportsbroadcastjournal.com/denny-matthews-hall-of-fame-voice-of-royals. David Halberstam, “Denny Matthews, Hall of Fame Voice,” Sports Broadcast Journal, July 13, 2018: 2.

4  Matthews August 2018 interview.

5  Halberstam.

6  Matthews August 2018 interview.

7  Matthews interview with author, February 2007.

8  Ibid.

9  Halberstam, 4.

10  Ibid.

11 Halberstam, 5. 

12 Ron Powers, SuperTube: The Rise of Television Sports. (New York: Coward-McCann, 1984), 71-76.

13 Bill MacPhail interview with author, September 1977.

14 Acceptance speech, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Induction Day 1953, Cooperstown, New York.

15 MacPhail interview.

16 Powers, SuperTube, 74.

17 Bud Blattner interview with author, December 1975.

18 Matthews February 2007 interview.

19 Blattner interview.

20 Ibid.

21 Matthews February 2007 interview.

22 “Radio/TV Rundown,” The Sporting News, April 12, 1969: 31.

23 Matthews November 2015 interview.

24 Ibid.

25 Matthews February 2007 interview.

26 “Analysis of this year’s Athletics: Spectator’s Guide,” Sports Illustrated, April 15, 1957, 61.

27 worldcat.org/title/official-major-league-baseball-fact-book. Official Major League Baseball Fact Book 2001 Edition (St. Louis: The Sporting News, 2001), 383.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Matthews November 2015 interview.

31 Ibid.

32 Jack Redding interview with author, January 1981

33 Official Major League Baseball Fact Book 2001 Edition, 381: All statistics in paragraph from Oliver’s home runs to Otis’s stolen bases.

34 Bill Shannon and George Kalinsky, The Ballparks (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1975), 255.

35 royalsreview.com/2013/4/10/4207434/today-in-royals-history-royals-stadium. Craig Brown, “Kaufman Stadium Turns 40,” Royals Review, April 20, 2013: 5.   

36 www.royalsreview.com/2018/4/12/17230714/here-are-your-kansas-city-royals. Bradford Lee, “Here Are Your 1969 Kansas City Royals.” Royals Review, April 12, 2018: cover.

37  Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1992), 49-50.

38 Matthews February 2007 interview.

39 “Broadcasting Batteries for 1975,” The Sporting News, April 10, 1975: 38.

40 Matthews, August 2018 interview.

41 kansascity.royals.mlb.com/kc/history/all_stars.jsp.

42 kansascity.royals.mlb.com/kc/history/single_game_records.jsp.

43 Play-by-play courtesy of The Miley Collection.

44 Matthews February 2007 interview.

45 kansascity.royals.mlb.com/kc/history/all_time_leaders.jsp.

46 Matthews November 2015 interview.

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid.

50 Official Major League Baseball Fact Book 2001 Edition, 332.

51 Blattner interview.

52 Matthews August 2018 interview.

53 kansascity.royals.mlb.com/kc/history/single_game_records.jsp.

54 Ibid.

55 Matthews August 2018 interview, quotations throughout paragraph.

56 Play-by-play courtesy of CBS Radio.

57 “American League Broadcasting Batteries,” The Sporting News, April 11, 1981: 42.

58 Halberstam, 7.

59 Matthews August 2018 interview.

60 Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946-Present (New York: Ballantine, 1988), 449. From 1953-58, William Bendix starred as Chester A. Riley on NBC’s The Life of Riley — a blue-collar hardhat with a heart of gold.

61 Bob Dutton, “2010 Royals to Open Season with $70.1 Million Payroll,” Kansas City Star, April 4, 2010.

62 kansascity.royals.mlb/com/kc/history/timeline.jsp.

63 Matthews November 2015 interview.

64 Ibid.

65 Fred White interview with author, May 1998.

66 Ibid.

67 Matthews August 2007 interview.

68 Matthews’ acceptance speech at Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, July 7, 2007.

69 baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Bill_James_Historical-Abstract; Bill James, The Bill James Historical Abstract (New York: Villard Books, 1985).

70 kansascity.royals.mlb/com/kc/history/timeline.jsp.

71  kansascity.com/sports/mlb.kansas-city-royals/article8875085.html.  “Royals Broadcaster Denny Matthews’ New Contract Ties Him to Team Through 50th Season,” Kansas City Star, January 31, 2015.

72 kansascity.com/sports/spt-columns-blogs-sam-mellinger/article940797.html. Sam Mellinger, “Forty Years Later, Royals Academy Lives On in Memories,” Kansas City Star, August 2, 2014.

73 goodreads.com/book/show/3981587-baseball-is-a-funny-game. Joe Garagiola, Baseball Is a Funny Game, (New York: HarperCollins, 1960).

74 Matthews February 2007 interview.

Full Name

Dennis G. Matthews

Born

November 14, 1942 at Jacksonville, FL (US)

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