Promise me one thing. Promise that at the end of this you won't
feel sorry for Jack Buck.
As square as a pan of corn bread, as American as a red Corvette,
Buck has been doing what he loves in the St. Louis Cardinals'
radio booth for 47 years, which makes him just about the exact
center of this country. The last thing he wants is sympathy.
Yeah, Buck has Parkinson's disease, which makes his hands tremble
and his arms flail. He also has diabetes, which means poking
needles into himself twice a day. He also has a pacemaker. And
cataracts. And vertigo. And excruciatingly painful sciatica. And
a box of pills the size of a toaster. But all that only gives him
more material to work with.
"I wish I'd get Alzheimer's," he cracks. "Then I could forget
I've got all the other stuff."
Luckily, you can still find the 76-year-old Buck at the mike
during every St. Louis home game, broadcasting to the Cardinal
Nation over more than 100 radio stations in 11 states. Herking
and jerking in his seat, his face contorting this way and that,
he still sends out the most wonderful descriptions of games
you've ever heard.
"I've given the Cardinals the best years of my life," Buck says.
"Now I'm giving them the worst."
That's a lie. Despite enough diseases to kill a moose, Buck has
gotten even better lately. "I have no idea how," says his son and
radio partner, Joe, "but his voice has been stronger lately. It's
like he's pouring every ounce of energy God can give him into
those three hours of the broadcast."
Yet Buck makes it all sound effortless, like talking baseball
with the guy across the backyard fence. He's natural, simple and
unforgettable. When Kirk Gibson hit his dramatic home run for the
Los Angeles Dodgers and limped around the bases in the 1988 World
Series, Buck, calling the game for CBS Radio, said, "I don't
believe what I just saw!" When St. Louis's Ozzie Smith hit a rare
lefthanded home run in Game 5 of the 1985 playoffs, Buck said,
"Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!" When Mark McGwire hit No. 61 in
1998, Buck said, "Pardon me while I stand and applaud!"
Like thousands of other eight-year-old boys in Middle America in
1966, all I had of baseball most nights was Buck. If I fiddled
enough with my mom's old radio in our kitchen in Boulder, Colo.,
I could pick up Buck doing the Cardinals' games on KMOX. Bob
Gibson. Tim McCarver. Curt Flood. I worshiped Buck then. I
respect him now.
He was a kid whose family couldn't afford toothpaste; who didn't
go to the dentist until he was 15 (and immediately had five teeth
pulled); who worked as a soda jerk, a newspaper hawk, a boat
painter, a waiter, a factory hand; who was the first person in
his family to own a car; who took shrapnel in an arm and a leg
from the Germans in World War II; who danced in Paris on V-E Day.
This is a man who is coming up on his 10,000th game broadcast;
who was in the stands the day that Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting
streak ended; who called Stan Musial's five-home-run
doubleheader; who ate dinner with Rocky Marciano in Havana; whom
Jesse Owens called friend; who survived the Ice Bowl--and 16 years
in the booth with Harry Caray.
I would eat a bathtub full of rubber chicken just to hear him
emcee a banquet. He has more lines than the DMV. If an Italian
woman wins the door prize, Buck says, "You know, I've always had
a fondness for Italian women. In fact, during World War II an
Italian woman hid me in her basement for three months. [Pause.]
Of course, this was in Cleveland."
If anything, Parkinson's has given Buck more banquet material. "I
shook hands with Muhammad Ali recently," he says. "It took them
30 minutes to get us untangled."
This may be Buck's last year behind the mike, so he's savoring
every inning. So should we. "This is his victory lap," says Joe.
"This is him circling the outfield."
That lousy day is coming, of course, when he opens his mouth and
the Parkinson's won't let anything come out. But don't feel sorry
for him. "Hell, I've touched so many bases," says Buck, "I've got
no quarrel with these last few."
So, on the day he quits, he'll have to pardon us while we stand
with Ali," he says, "and it took 30 minutes to get us untangled."