Bob Wolff Remembrance

By

Bob Wolff Remembrance
Jul 24, 2017

My dad had a genuine passion for baseball that I inherited, so growing up in the greater Washington area in the 1950’s meant Senators’ baseball every summer.

We’d go to a half-dozen games at Griffith Stadium every season, but mostly we’d listen to the games on the radio. WWDC, and later, WTOP – where I’d eventually  start my own career – carried the games between 1957 and 1960, the final four seasons of the original franchise.

Bob Wolff, who died  this month at 96, and the late Chuck Thompson broadcast the games, Chuck taking over the for the late Arch McDonald, and Bob continuing a job he’d begun four  years before I’d been born. Televised games – of which there were few back then – had each announcer do four-and-a-half innings on one medium and the last four-and-a-half on the other. As a result, in my house the dulcet tones of Wolff and Thompson were as familiar as favorite uncles.

The original Senators  moved to Minnesota the winter of 1960-61, and were replaced by an expansion team. Unfortunately, a new team also meant new broadcasters, as Bob Wolff went to Minnesota with the Twins, and Chuck Thompson returned to Baltimore, where he’d begin a long run of voicing Orioles’ baseball, as well as the NFL Colts.

Like those occasional songs that get stuck in your brain, I could never quite get Bob Wolff’s voice out of my head. He, and Chuck, always came across as guys who might be relatives.

There was a familial warmth to their delivery that was somehow reassuring, even when the Senators were down by five or more runs early in the game. Bob, in particular, seemed like a man who’d never blow his top if his kid came home with an occasional “D” on a report card. Much like my own father in many ways.

When I heard that Bob had left the Twins after just that first year, my 11-year-old self was pleased, thinking that perhaps he was coming back home. Alas, he was going to New York, his actual hometown, to broadcast basketball and hockey, sports that had no professional Washington representation.

I never forgot Bob, and when conversations with high school and college classmates would turn to favorite sportscasters, I never hesitated to throw Bob’s name into the discussion. I had a circle of friends in college from New York who knew Bob from the Knicks’ games, and I always thought our shared affection for Bob’s work was part of the reason we found common ground.

After college I found work in 1973 as a news writer at WTOP, where I interacted with some of the radio engineers who had worked Senators’ games with Bob, and who, to a man, thought he was an absolute prince.

Through a series of unplanned events over the next few years, I found myself actually on the air at WTOP, hosting a nightly sports talk show beginning in 1979. I made sure everyone knew I was an actual native Washingtonian, which set me apart from the competition, and I made frequent references to local people, places and things I’d grown up with, which led to the occasional mention of Bob Wolff.

One summer night in 1980, while I’m hosting the show and taking calls from listeners, I go to a caller named “Bob” in the District.

To my surprise, the caller says “Hi Phil, it’s Bob Wolff. How are you doing?”

My heart skipped a beat. I knew the voice in an instant. I hesitated a for second before saying “Hi Bob. What brings you to town?” He explained he was in town to do a soccer game at RFK Stadium, and had actually heard me drop his name on a previous broadcast (you could hear WTOP at night in New York pretty clearly back then), and thought he’d call in to say hi.

Here’s the thing, though: he had called in, the screener answered the phone, and he never said who he was other than his first name and where he was calling from. He actually waited on hold through another couple of callers before his turn came up. He expected no special treatment, though I’m sure he also wanted it to be a surprise. It was.

After that conversation, Bob left his number and home address with the screener. I called him later and we spoke as if we’d been friends for years. We had, in my head anyway, but there was never any big me, little you, on his side of the conversation. Over the years we spoke numerous times over the phone, and I’d have him on as a guest on my radio show every so often.

I actually got a chance to work with Bob in 1995, when I was asked to help write and produce a documentary on Washington baseball for WETA. Part of the show was a roundtable discussion with several former Senators’ players, moderated by Bob.

The segment was filmed at a downtown DC sports bar, and before it began Bob asked me to help him come up with some questions for the players from the expansion years. Bob was such a quick study, he probably could have done it himself, but it was a thrill to enjoy that kind of give-and-take with him professionally.

Baseball came back to Washington in 2005, and Bob came back to town to enjoy some of the festivities. I was on XM Radio at the time, and interviewed Bob on the field at RFK before the first home game. He could tell how emotionally pumped up I was, and before we started he grabbed my arm and said “Try to exhale a little bit, Phil.” I needed that. I’d already gotten misty-eyed in Philadelphia at the first game in club history; the opener at RFK might’ve been too much.

I was later able to enjoy Bob’s company at Nats Park when they named the broadcast booths in his honor, and his DC Sports Hall of Fame induction in 2013. When I started teaching sports broadcasting in the winter at my college alma mater, Austin Peay, I called Bob for some advice, since he’d also spent some time teaching at Pace University.

“Be honest with your students,” he said. “Don’t lead them to think that it’s easy, that anyone can do it. Emphasize preparation.” Inasmuch as there may have never been a more prepared sports announcer than Bob Wolff, I knew exactly what he was talking about, and I’ve taken that into the classroom.

Bob Wolff was a genuine icon of the industry. No hyperbole there, just fact. No one had a longer career – he was still working part-time at News Channel 12 on Long Island as recently as this spring – or covered more major events than Bob.

I can probably add that no one enjoyed the work more than Bob. He became a somewhat inadvertent mentor to me, inasmuch as I never really set out to do what I’ve ended up doing the past 40-plus years. Bob’s voice may have been stilled by his passing at age 96, but it’s a lasting part of my internal soundtrack. Thanks for everything, Bob.

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Longtime Washington sportscaster Phil Wood covers the Washington Nationals for MASN-TV and 106.7 The Fan.

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