Whenever I’d bump into Bob Wolff at a baseball game, I’d greet him with “Hi, Bob. First game?”
Being the kind and humorous and selfless man that he was, he’d giggle and nod. Of course, this was a fellow who had a photograph of himself, as a lad, with Babe Ruth and had covered Ted Williams, as a broadcaster, when The Splinter was hitting .406.
He was the man I called “Mr. Wolff” until he scolded me to do otherwise.
But he wasn’t just a man, or a broadcaster, or a Hall of Famer (inducted into the baseball and basketball Hall, among many, many others).
No. Mr. Wolff was a legend, a treasure.
When we lost him at age 96 this past weekend, we lost a wealth of history, stories and anecdotes, all of them told with a sparkle in his eye, a smile that expanded with his words.
Above all, though, we lost a kind, warm, humble human being whom we would never have gotten to know, to whatever degree, had it not been for his World Record broadcasting career that began in 1939 and extended until very recently.
Back in 2008, before his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield – making him one of only two men enshrined there and in Cooperstown – I wrote a column on Bob Wolff for The Journal News. He and his lovely wife, Jane, invited me into their South Nyack home, with the spectacular view of the Hudson River and the Tappan Zee Bridge.
I could have stayed there forever.
Between turns, he asked me if I wanted something to eat or drink. Bob spoke about his career as if it was a product of luck. Luck. Imagine?
He spoke of the “miraculous way I seem to have been guided in the right direction.”
“It’s like Shakespeare once said,” he began, with a grin. “You remember Shakespeare, pretty good second baseman? He wrote, ‘Sweet are the uses of adversity.’ And even if things don’t go well, somehow they happen for the best in the long run. I’ve gotten great breaks along the way that made it possible.”
Then this storytelling icon, who has written books, who loved to sing, loved to joke, who continued to work on Long Island into his 90s, made his case for the way good fortune carried him.
He broke his ankle in a rundown, playing baseball at Duke. He was invited up to the WDNC broadcast booth to help out. He soon was calling Duke, Carolina and N.C. State basketball games on the radio. Then, a variety talk show, too.
World War II interrupted that gig, as Wolff commissioned as an officer in the Navy and sent to Harvard where he was trained in control supply for naval ships. Then, he was assigned to Camp Peary in Virginia to train with the Seabees, and that’s where he met a Naval nurse named Jane Hoy from Elmira, NY. Jane had cared for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s grandson when he became ill at the Yalta Conference as the president met with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin.
Wolff’s Seabees were off to the South Pacific and landed on a jungle island where the mission was to clear trees and build a base for the Marines who would follow. Only Wolff discovered that his Harvard training was for ships, not jungles. So he grabbed a photographer and put together a how-to book that covered advance supply procedures under these circumstances and sent it to DC. Fearing he might be court-martialed “for telling the Navy how to run the war,” instead Wolff was ordered back to Washington for a commendation and to be put in charge of writing Navy regulations and procedures.
He and Jane were married May 5, 1945 at Bethesda Naval Chapel.
“Well, if I hadn’t written that book, I wouldn’t have gotten to Washington,” Wolff said. “And in Washington, when the war was ending, I decided I’d better get back into the broadcasting business.”
Wolff got a job at WINX radio and in 1946, he “heard of a new invention called television.” Soon he was DC’s first TV sportscaster, for the Washington Senators and Washington Capitals, in a basketball league that preceded the arrival of the NBA, then pro and college football games of the week.
When the Senators traveled to Boston, Wolff often visited Gillette Razor Company, an MLB sponsor which held sway over the choosing of broadcasters for the World Series and All-Star games. In 1956, they selected Wolff to do the All-Star game, since it was held in Washington, and then he got the World Series assignment, which happened to include Don Larsen’s perfect game for the Yankees, against Brooklyn.
More World Series followed for Wolff, then the Rose Bowl, and the Sugar Bowl, and he called the NFL’s “Greatest Game Ever Played” – Baltimore’s 1958 championship victory over the Giants.
“How all these things happened, one after the other, I don’t know,” Wolff said. “If I weren’t at the right place at the right time … I just feel I’ve been blessed, really. There was some force beyond me, which put me in the right spot at the right time.”
On to New York City he would go, with WPIX, where he’d call Rangers games. The longest being, 27 years for Knicks games – including both of that franchise’s NBA championships – and other events at Madison Square Garden.
“So I know The Garden pretty well,” he quipped.
Wolff recalled his relationship with Knicks coach Red Holzman, who once, in a hotel room on the road, asked Wolff why there were so many papers in the suitcase with his clothes.
“I said, ‘Those are the notes Jane writes me as to what outfit to wear each night for television,’” Wolff said. “Red said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
Wolff often liked to say that he spent seven years of his life standing for national anthems at sporting events.
Wolff gave of his time, for example, as a member of the committee that chose the weekly Con Edison Scholar-Athlete of the Week award for high school athletes in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam. He did that for about 40 years. Just adding to his legend, and piling on hundreds of new relationships, each of whom became a friend.
“I think one of the reasons I’ve been successful,” Wolff said, “is that I thoroughly enjoy people and I’ve operated on the belief, which I firmly do believe, that everybody has a story to tell. … This is not something I do for a living. I’m curious about people and their lives and what they do, and I think that curiosity has been a major factor in the journalism business. So in that, I think I have the soul of a writer as well. I’m curious.
“The second thing is that I show my emotion and that’s something that I am able to do on TV and radio and the writer doesn’t have that privilege. I can say, ‘What a play!’ or ‘Just terrific!’ and express the way I feel, and (to) the listener and the viewer, I’m in essence feeling his emotion for him.
“I think that natural emotion, combined with the ability to use words, is all a sportscaster really does.”
Well nobody has ever done it longer, you could argue nobody’s done it better, and it’d be a safe bet that nobody’s done it with the dignity and class that Bob Wolff has.
He was a treasure.