Marty Brennaman to speak at Catawba baseball event
By Mike London
Marty Brennaman is a Cincinnati Reds broadcasting legend, but not every word that’s rolled off his tongue was pure gold.
Brennaman was scared to death the night his Hall of Fame career began as the newly hired sports director for Salisbury’s WSTP radio. He was crammed into the tiny pressbox at North Rowan High, surrounded by coaches, officials and reporters.
Brennaman remembers that he welcomed his listening audience with the immortal words, “Well, it’s a crowd full of people.”
Those shaky syllables were the start. He got better. A lot better. He’s been the voice of the Reds since 1974, and he’s regarded in Cincinnati now with same sort of reverence they have for Vin Scully in Los Angeles.
Brennaman will return to Salisbury for a special occasion on Friday, Jan. 22. He’ll be the keynote speaker for a Catawba College event at Peeler Crystal Lounge that’s billed as the First Pitch Dinner. It’s a fundraiser for Catawba’s baseball program, and $75 tickets have been selling briskly. As of Thursday, there were 25 tickets left.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Brennaman said. “I’m glad I can come back and in some small way, help Catawba and Salisbury.”
Brennaman grew up Portsmouth, Va., dreaming of becoming either a radio play-by-play man or an actor. After talking to some starving actors, he went to the University of North Carolina and majored in Radio, Television and Motion Pictures.
He graduated in 1965. He didn’t land a play-by-play job immediately, so he took a job at WGHP, the High Point television station. Mostly, he had news assignments, but he was also the backup for legendary sports anchor Charlie Harville.
Brennaman had been in High Point for six months when legendary sportscaster Bill Currie provided the recommendation that moved Brennaman to Salisbury — to sell ads by day and broadcast games by night.
Currie was outrageous (awful plaid sports jackets and wide polka dot ties), but he was also entertaining, racking up multiple North Carolina Sportscaster of the Year honors as the “Mouth of the South” for UNC Tar Heels sports broadcasts, and Brennaman had assisted him on some broadcasts.
“WSTP’s Tom Harrell offered me a job based on Bill Currie’s recommendation,” Brennaman said. “Salisbury was a perfect situation for me. It was a chance to do play-by-play and lots of it — football, basketball and baseball. 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 can’t fall into a better situation than I did. There was absolutely no pressure. I wasn’t getting paid enough for there to be any pressure.”
Broadcasting Catawba games, high school games, American Legion games, and even the Soap Box Derby, Brennaman’s baritone voice became a Salisbury staple for five years. He learned baseball nuances from Joe Ferebee, basketball from Sam Moir and football from Harvey Stratton.
“Getting to practice my craft in a small town for five years made it a lot easier for me than the path my son (Thom) traveled,” Brennaman said. “Thom had a very speedy ascent. He came out of college, straight to the NBC affiliate in Cincinnati.”
Brennaman’s most memorable call during his Salisbury days came when the Rowan County American Legion team won the 1969 state championship at Catawba’s Newman Park.
Randy Benson lashed a ninth-inning line drive that cleared the wall for a walk-off homer and sent Rowan County to the regional in Florida. “That ball has suntan lotion splashed all over it,” Brennaman barked. Listeners never forgot it.
Brennaman’s work in Salisbury was the springboard to professional and big-time college sports. In 1970, he was hired as the play-by-play man for the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association. When the Squires expressed concerns that he’d be able to handle an 80-game schedule, Brennaman laughed. Compared to the hectic schedule he’d handled in Salisbury, he was on vacation.
His career expanded to include triple A baseball broadcasts for the Tidewater Tides and football and basketball work as the voice of the Virginia Tech Hokies.
Brennaman was convinced his best sport was basketball, but Tides general manager Dave Rosenfield recommended him to the Reds, who were seeking a replacement for departing Al Michaels, prior to the 1974 season.
Brennaman sent in an application as a courtesy to Rosenfield. There were 221 applicants. Much to his surprise, Brennaman, an unknown in Cincinnati, was hired.
He’s been on the job since. He has carved out a unique style with the cornerstone being credibility. He roots hard for the Reds, but he doesn’t hesitate to blast them when they’re lazy or bad. That sets him apart from most home-team broadcasters.
His broadcasts still can be heard in Salisbury on clear summer nights on WLW-700, a powerful flagship station that easily extends beyonds the Reds’ base states of Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.
Brennaman’s first Reds broadcast was opening day in 1974. Hank Aaron hit his 714th homer for the Atlanta Braves that day to tie Babe Ruth, and the victim of that homer was Jack Billingham, who had played minor league ball in Salisbury.
After Aaron’s homer, Brennaman’s veteran broadcast partner Joe Nuxhall leaned over and whispered to Brennamnan, “It’s all downhill from here, buddy.”
Brennaman’s dramatic call of a game-winning homer by Tony Perez made him an immediate hit with Reds listeners. Not long after that, he spontaneously ad-libbed, “This one belongs to the Reds,” after Dave Concepcion delivered a game-winning hit.
That simple phrase became his signature call. He still employs it.
“If I went nuts and forgot to say it, people would call the station and asked why I’d stopped saying it,” Brennaman said.
Nuxhall died in 2007 after he and fellow lefty Brennaman had been partners in the booth for 31 years. Great moments included Tom Seaver’s only no-hitter in 1978, Pete Rose breaking the all-time hits record in 1985, Tom Browning’s perfect game in 1988, and Ken Griffey Jr.’s 500th homer in 2004.
There were World Series titles in 1975 and 1976 when the Big Red Machine was in high gear, behind the bats of Rose, Johnny Bench, Perez, Joe Morgan and George Foster.
“The pitching was way better than it gets credit for,” Brennaman said. “It just didn’t get noticed.”
Brennaman received the Ford C. Frick Award on July 23, 2000, in ceremonies at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. That award is presented annually by the Hall of Fame to a broadcaster “for major contributions to the game.”
Brennaman has been elected into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame, the National Radio Hall of Fame and the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
Brennaman is 73, and his current contract runs out after a 2016 season that will be his 43rd with the Reds.
“I’ve been conflicted about what’s coming after this contract runs out,” he said. “You have to think about retirement at some point, but I still believe I do a pretty good job, and I still enjoy it. I don’t believe the 2016 season will be my last one.”
It all started for Brennaman in Salisbury. His love for the town and its people will bring him back here on Jan. 22.
“People ask me what I’d change about my career and I wouldn’t change a thing,” Brennaman said. “Salisbury prepared me. Everything that’s happened for me happened because of Salisbury. It’s a special place, and I’ll never forget where I came from.”