NSSA: Marty Brennaman proves he belongs
By Mike London
Marty Brennaman’s Hall of Fame career in sports broadcasting got off on the wrong foot.
His first play-by-play effort was for Salisbury’s WSTP radio. Crammed into a tiny booth at North Rowan High for a Friday night football game and self-conscious about the reporters, coaches and officials clustered around him, he welcomed fans to Spencer with the immortal words, “Well, it’s a crowd full of people.”
He got better. That was only the first small step on a journey to recognition as one of the smoothest voices ever to describe baseball.
Brennaman, back in town over the weekend for NSSA festivities, has been the voice of the Cincinnati Reds 36 seasons. He root, root, roots for the home team, but he’s also the Reds’ harshest critic when they’re bad, indifferent or lazy.
“Ownership had told me to work until I’m 90 if I want to, and that’s nice,” Brennaman said. “I’m in a very transient occupation, but I’ll be like (Dodgers legend) Vin Scully and get to stay with one team.”
Brennaman has blasted Cubs fans and umpires with vigor. His style has made him an institution in Cincinnati, a small-market city more like Salisbury than New York.
Cincinnati’s 700 WLW (AM) still allows Brennaman’s baritone to drift into North Carolina, meaning at least one thing hasn’t changed since he debuted with the Reds in 1974.
On Opening Day of that season, Hank Aaron launched his 714th homer off former Salisbury Dodgers hurler Jack Billingham to tie Babe Ruth’s record. As Brennaman described the historic moment, his dry sidekick Joe Nuxhall leaned over and whispered, “It’s all downhill from here, buddy.”
Brennaman watched the “Big Red Machine” roll in 1975-76, and there may not have been a better baseball team ever. Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan terrorized hurlers.
“And the pitching was way better than it gets credit for,” Brennaman said. “It just didn’t get noticed.”
Brennaman called Rose’s 44-game hitting streak in 1978, Tom Seaver’s no-hitter that same year and Rose’s “Ty-breaking” hit that broke the great Cobb’s all-time record in 1985. He described Tom Browning’s perfect game in 1988 and the Reds’ improbable 1990 World Series triumph.
In 1974, after a dramatic win against the Dodgers, Brennaman bellowed, “This one belongs to the Reds.”
That became his signature call. A few times he “went nuts” and forgot to say it. The station was flooded with calls if he did.
Nuxhall, who died in 2007, and Brennaman were the perfect team for 31 seasons.
“That record won’t be broken,” Brennaman said. “Just two lefties who never broke up. We were like an old married couple. I’d start a sentence ó he’d finish it.”
Brennaman now works with his son, Thom, and former relief ace Jeff Brantley. Things still go smoothly, and the new-look Reds, who have traded power for pitching, are off to a good start.
“Pitching is what it’s all about at any level,” Brennaman said.
Brennaman admits he wasn’t much of a pitcher. Growing up in Portsmouth, Va., they stuck him in right field with the dandelions in Little League.
He majored in Radio, Television and Motion Pictures at North Carolina, graduated in 1965 and landed a job after graduation, doing news for the High Point station.
Six months later, Tom Harrell hired him at WSTP.
He sold advertising by day and broadcast local sports by night. Catawba football and basketball. High school stuff. Rowan County American Legion baseball.
“There was no pressure at all because I wasn’t getting paid enough for there to be pressure,” Brennaman said. “I wasn’t good when I started, but I was able to refine my skills and grow at my own pace. Looking back, I cherish those five years I was in Salisbury. You just can’t fall into a better situation than I did, with a guy like (Legion coach) Joe Ferebee teaching you baseball.
“People ask me what I’d change and I wouldn’t change a thing. Salisbury prepared me, and everything that’s happened for me happened because of Salisbury. It’s a special place.”
The most special local venue for Brennaman is Newman Park. He made the call of his life there in Aug. 12, 1969, as Randy Benson’s ninth-inning homer beat Wilmington 2-1 and gave Rowan County a state championship. Benson, sprinting furiously with his head lowered, thought he had his third double until he saw Ferebee jumping up and down. Benson’s line drive had cleared the wall.
The victory sent Rowan to the regional in Florida, and a delirious Brennaman screamed, “That ball has suntan lotion splashed all over it.” Almost 40 years later, Brennaman still feels the chills from that homer.
Brennaman returned to Newman Park on Saturday. Pete Needham, as much a part of the park as the old grandstand, was awaiting a Catawba practice. When he saw Brennaman he started talking about Benson.
“It’s funny,” Brennaman said. “Forty years, but Pete’s still there and the park hasn’t changed much. Only they’ve got that double-decker fence out there now. I don’t know that Benson’s homer would’ve cleared it.”
Brennaman moved on from WSTP to become the voice of the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association. He believed his future was in basketball, and he’s always been an underrated hoops announcer because everyone associates him with the Reds. He considers the Duke-Kentucky East Regional final in 1992 ó the Christian Laettner game ó to be the best work of his life.
Brennaman wasn’t interested in the Reds job after Al Michaels left Cincinnati for the San Francisco Giants, but he’d been doing Tidewater Tides minor league baseball broadcasts in the basketball offseason and applied as a courtesy to Tides general manager Dave Rosenfield, who had put his name out there.
There were 221 applicants. Nuxhall had never heard of Brennaman, but he got the job.
Brennaman got off to another slow start, welcoming WLW listeners to “Al Michaels Field,” instead of Al Lopez Field for a Spring Training Game and cracking up Nuxhall.
Reds fans accepted him after he made a dramatic call of a game-winning homer by Perez. He went just as wild as he did on Benson’s blast, and WLW was besieged by callers begging to hear a replay.
Brennaman still goes nuts, still comes in loud and clear on summer nights.
“Even with the new technology, baseball’s perfect for radio,” he said. “As long as they play baseball, guys like me will do play-by-play.”
The weather has improved over the past few weeks to work outdoors and many have called with questions about their... read more