Thursday, July 30, 2009

Hurry Back Bob

Sorry, folks. It looks like I’m not going to be getting to work on the 1937-42 seasons this summer after all due to a few other things suddenly cropping up. I haven’t been to a ball game, either.

I got a phone call a week or so ago with the news that veteran WIL baseball broadcaster Bob Robertson wouldn’t be calling games in the Northwest League this season because Jo isn’t in the best of health. She hasn’t travelled with Bob the last couple of years, at least north of the border, and I do hope she gets better very soon.

Bob is a genuine guy. He’s what you hear on the radio. Some may dismiss his “Be a sport always” tag line as old-fashioned and corny, but he's sincere every time he says it.

Fortunately, the Seattle Times did a little story on him, which I transcribe below. You can link to it HERE. The only thing Bob didn’t talk about is how he came to call the Wenatchee Chiefs games and why it was, through circumstances beyond his control, he didn’t get a major league play-by-play job in Seattle which, frankly, was rightly his.

Voices of the Game
Bob Robertson is a link to bygone era of broadcasters

Robertson, 80, has much more on his resume than 42 years with the Washington State Cougars.
By Percy Allen
Seattle Times staff reporter

Almost everyone is gone now — except Bob Robertson.

He is the enduring voice of a bygone generation of Northwest radio and television sports broadcasting giants. Most of his peers — Ted Bell, Pat Hayes, Rod Belcher, Clay Huntington, Bill O'Mara, Bill Schonely, Ray McMackin, Pete Gross, Wayne Cody, Keith Jackson and Leo Lassen — have died or retired.

Mariners voice Dave Niehaus also remains. And in many ways, Niehaus and Robertson are kindred spirits.

Robertson, whose carrot-colored hair has turned gray and thin now, took a much different path to his Hall of Fame, however. He's an icon to generations of sports fans, even though he spent most of his career outside the major markets.

You see his name and think: "That's the Cougars guy with the funny sign off who has been at Wazzu forever."

But there's so much more to the Washington State play-by-play man than his 42-year career with the Cougars.

To know him, you need to know he temporarily stopped broadcasting this summer — the first time in 61 years — to take care of his ill wife, Joanne.

You need to hear the story about the blind boy who would sit by his side during Clover Park High School boys basketball games and made him aware that his radio audience was also sightless.

You need to know he was the last man in radio to do re-creations — where written reports were phoned in to a studio and he would call Tacoma Tigers minor-league baseball games with sound effects and his imagination.

You need to know he worked part-time jobs as a referee for the first Sonics exhibition game in Seattle; an official for Fife High School football games when Jim Lambright was the coach; and a general manager of the Seattle Rangers, a minor-league football team in the 1960s.

You need to know he nearly became the voice of the Mariners, and in many ways he is a real-life Crash Davis, the character from "Bull Durham" who pines for one last shot at the big leagues.

And you need to know that he turned 80 in March. And he's in better shape than you are because he swims frequently, drinks a glass of Cabernet at dinner and eats a reasonably healthy diet. And he has three years left on his WSU contract.

And he has no intentions of retiring any time soon.

There are six decades of broadcast history to recap, so get comfortable.

Bellingham, circa 1948, is as good a place to start as any. Robertson spent much of his childhood in Canada, where his father, a professional baseball player with the Seattle Indians, was in the Canadian Air Force during World War II. Robertson graduated from Blaine High School and spent two years at Western Washington University before signing a contract to play center field for the Portland Beavers.

Before playing a game, he quit baseball and accepted the play-by-play job with the Wenatchee Chiefs, a minor-league baseball team.

"I don't think too much about it anymore, but for years I wondered if I made the right decision," Robertson said. "After I turned 30, I knew baseball was over for me."

Next stop is South Bend, Ind., 1955, where Notre Dame hired Robertson to anchor its fledgling school-run television station. Although he spent less than a year covering the Fighting Irish, it's one of the highlights of his career.

Next stop is Pullman, 1964, where Robertson began broadcasting football games for Washington State. It was a match made in Cougars heaven.

Next stop is Seattle, 1969, where Robertson began calling Huskies games for three years because his radio station, KVI, bought the broadcast rights to the crossstate rival.

The final stop is Pullman again, 1972, where Robertson returned to WSU. In addition to calling football games, he did play-by-play for men's basketball until 1994, when he was replaced by Bud Nameck.

Former WSU coach Kelvin Sampson supposedly wanted an announcer who lived near Pullman. Robertson has resided in the Tacoma area since 1950. Years later, Sampson phoned Robertson and told him he had nothing to do with his firing.

"It's not important now," said Robertson, who received the Chris Schenkel Award from the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004. "I'm just happy to still be working."

Between Bellingham and Pullman, Robertson has covered just about every sport — professional and amateur — in Washington and Oregon.

He's done it all, from table tennis to hydroplanes — roller derby, the Seattle and Tacoma Rainiers, boxing, rodeo, high schools, Seattle Totems hockey, Sounders and Portland Timbers soccer, professional wrestling, Seattle University men's basketball and Pacific Lutheran University men's and women's basketball.

He never broadcast a Seahawks game and never had any interest in calling NBA games, declining two NFL and two NBA jobs in the 1960s and early '70s.

But if there's any regret, it's a missed chance to call major-league baseball.

Robertson recites lines from "Bull Durham" when he talks about his three-game stint in 1992 as Mariners broadcaster.

"Yeah, I was in the show," Crash Davis said. "I was in the show for 21 days once — the 21 greatest days of my life."

Robertson was a finalist in 1977 when the expansion Mariners chose Niehaus as their play-by-play voice. For years, Robertson believed he might be considered for an analyst position with the team, but he never got the chance.

"I had my cup of coffee in the bigs," he said, laughing. "I had a great time. I'd still go [to the major leagues] right now if they asked, but at my age, they're not going to ask."

But Robertson doesn't want anybody to feel sorry for him.

While Joanne is recovering, he's preparing for his 43rd season with the Cougars in the fall and a return next year as the voice of the minor-league Spokane Indians, his summer job since 1999.

Robertson's recent sabbatical from the radio booth has made him eager to get behind the microphone again, calling games like he has for 61 years and ending each broadcast with his signature goodbye: "Always be a good sport, be a good sport all ways."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or