Ken Levine is a screenwriter and broadcaster, and he worked for many years on Mariners' games alongside the late Dave Niehaus, who died of a heart attack in 2010. The following is excerpted from Sports Illustrated’s Seattle Mariners at 40, a 96-page, fully illustrated anniversary keepsake. Available at retailers and at Amazon.com
The best way for a baseball announcer to endear himself to an audience is to be with a winning team. You report good news every night and the fans will love you. Piece of cake. When I first became a broadcaster for the Seattle Mariners in 1992, I joined Dave Niehaus, who had been the team’s voice since day one back in 1977. He said to me, “I figured it out, Kenny. For me to get to a .500 record, the team would have to go 2042–0.”
But you’d never know it listening to his broadcast. Prior to joining Seattle, Dave worked alongside Dick Enberg calling games for the then California Angels. Team owner Gene Autry once said to Dave, “You call a hell of a game. It’s not the one I’m watching but it’s a hell of a game.” Actually that’s only half true. It was the game you were watching, only better. Because Dave had something that so few announcers have today: showmanship. You were not just getting play-by-play, you were being told a tale by a master storyteller. Name me a better way to spend a warm summer night sitting out on the front porch.
Dave Niehaus was a throwback to the days when announcers had distinctive styles and unique personalities, and great catchphrases. “My oh my!” is how he punctuated a great play. “It will fly away!” for a home run. And, of course, his inimitable call for a grand slam: “Get out the rye bread and the mustard, Grandma, it’s grand salami time!”
I was Dave’s broadcast partner in the ’90s, but we had been longtime friends, since the ’60s. I can honestly say that working alongside him I never learned more, had more fun, or ate worse. Dave had an enormous vocabulary but two words that were never in it were “salad bar.”
The first time I met Dave, he cussed me out. We were both working at KMPC, Los Angeles—he as a sportscaster and me as a lowly sports intern. One of Dave’s assignments was hosting the “Lefty Phillips” show before every Angels game. Lefty was the Angels’ manager, and listeners were invited to leave questions on a voicemail device, and if Dave used your question you won two free tickets to an Angels game. The team was on the East Coast, it was a Saturday night, and I decided on a whim to call in a question. The name I used was Johnny Lizard, which was my air name in college (Charlie Tuna and Jimmy Rabbit were already taken). Anyway, the next morning, Dave was doing the show from the studio and said, “Our next question is from Johnny Lizard.” The engineer said, “Huh? That’s really Ken Levine. He’s one of our interns.” I was sleeping when the phone rang. I picked it up, and heard, “If you think you’re getting those goddamn tickets you are goddamn mistaken!” I knew who it was, so I let him rant until I finally said, “Good morning. Lizard residence.” He broke up, and we were fast friends everafter. Dave always loved a good joke, even if it was at his own expense.
When I got the job in Seattle with the Mariners—and this I’ll never forget—Dave took me aside, put his hand on my shoulder, and in his most fatherly way, said, “Kenny, make friends with car dealers.” Dave always drove new cars.
I was embraced by Seattle because Dave embraced me. But that was Dave—gracious, unselfish, supportive. He’s maybe the only star I’ve ever known who was willing to trade his close-up for a two-shot.
Everyone copes with adversity differently. Some get angry, others get depressed. (Mariners’ skipper Lou Piniella did both.) For Dave, it was with laughter. And if there was nothing to laugh about, he laughed on credit. No man’s sense of humor was ever put to a more rigorous test than was Dave’s by the first 20 years of Mariners baseball. And yet, he never lost that enthusiasm, that joy, that booming cackle.
Noted baseball legend Victor Borge once said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Anyone who ever listened to Dave felt he was talking directly to them, and only to them. And he was. Dave didn’t announce; he shared. He was your favorite uncle, only far more interesting. He was your fishing buddy, your best-loved teacher, that hale fellow well met—and for younger listeners, your BFF (even though he had no idea what that meant). Dave Niehaus was the most down-to-earth larger-than-life figure that’s ever been.
Some random memories of Dave:
• On the 4th of July he always wore this ridiculous red, white and blue jacket. I tried to get him to wear it all year.
• It could be 12 degrees in Cleveland in April and he’d keep the window open because he felt it was cheating the audience to not be “in the game.” I told him in 1992 this was not good for his health. I was right!
• He referred to himself as the Veteran Spieler.
• I don’t remember just how it started but whenever the Mariners went down by 10 runs or more, Dave and I would sing “The Wabash Cannonball” on the air. Unfortunately, we sang it so often we no longer had to consult the lyric sheet.
• He knew every advance scout, coach, owner, reporter, umpire, official scorer, PR person, PA announcer, organist, clubhouse attendant, pressbox attendant and commissioner in baseball.
• I was forever in awe of the descriptive images he would routinely toss off. A high pop fly one random night in Baltimore was “a white dot against a black sky.” A ground ball down the line would “rooster tail into the corner.” Where did these things come from?
• He knew great restaurants in every town. Some of them have since burned down.
• He personally welcomed every new player to the team. In the four years I was there, it seemed like there were a thousand.
• On the road he never took the team bus to the ballpark. We always caught an early cab. It could be September, three weeks after the team had been mathematically eliminated, a thousand degrees in Texas with hail and locusts in the forecast, and Dave was at the park four hours before game time doing his prep. Every day. Every game. No exceptions. Ever.
I think back to a pregame show the Veteran Spieler once did. We were at Yankee Stadium—the real Yankee Stadium. Dave decided to grab a tape recorder, go down to the monument park in centerfield and simply describe what he saw. Dave sauntered from plaque to plaque, lovingly and reverently paying tribute to these immortals of the game. All off the top of his head. It was masterful. It was moving. It was musical. The greatest love song to baseball I’ve ever heard.
And now Dave is in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. And forever more, fans can pay tribute and remember him. “My oh my!”
Dave had a number of opportunities to move to other teams, to winning franchises in major markets. Had he taken one of those jobs he might have been in the Hall 10 years sooner. But he felt a commitment to the team and a connection to Seattle.
If Yankee Stadium was the House that Ruth Built, then Safeco Field is the House that Haus Built.
He was a loving husband, father, grandfather, broadcaster, mentor, ambassador, Hoosier, military veteran, citizen and, proud to say, Hall of Famer. I miss him terribly.
Dave Niehaus enjoyed life and made everyone else’s life more enjoyable.
But Dave, your calculations were a little off. According to me, your record as a Mariners broadcaster was 5,284–0. That’s well above .500.