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RIP Dick Enberg

Dick Enberg: “Draw to Byner … Ernest Byner … fumbled the ball and Denver has recovered. Oh, my!”

Here’s how good Dick Enberg was: He brought me the worst sports news of my life. Repeatedly. And I loved him anyway. He always seemed to be there when my world came crashing down, there to call the John Elway drive against the Cleveland Browns, there to call the Byner fumble the next year as you see above, there every year it seemed to deliver that devastating news that, no, the Browns were not going to make it to the Super Bowl again, sorry about that.

Maybe it was the “sorry about that,” part of Dick Enberg’s broadcasting style that made me and so many love him. He didn’t want your team or my team to lose. You could tell. He didn’t want to bring you bad news. You could hear it in his voice. Enberg was, first and foremost, a sports fan. There was comfort in that. Dick Enberg knew how you felt.

He was, on the air, entirely without ego. He was, best I could tell from my own encounters with him, entirely without ego off the air too. That’s a rare quality. But Dick Enberg was a rare announcer. There are people you come to know, a few of them, who seem entirely happy with their lives. And there are others, even fewer, who simply seem born to do what they are doing.

Enberg, somehow, was both of these things.

“I’d rather be me,” he wrote in his autobiography, “than anyone else I know.”

Enberg spent the core years of his childhood on a farm in Michigan where on weekends he would work the family fruit stand and, between customers, listen to sports on the radio. He only came to understand that he would not become a sports star when he got to Central Michigan and found he could not quite make the varsity baseball team and was either the sixth or seventh quarterback on the freshman football team. At some point, you are low enough of the depth chart that the precise number no longer matters.

Not long after that, he applied for a job as a janitor at WCEN radio in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. The general manager said the job was his but added, “Enberg … you have a nice voice.” The GM asked Enberg to go into a studio and read. Dick Enberg was then hired as a weekend disc jockey.

Enberg … you have a nice voice. That’s how one of the great sportscasting careers in American history began.

And, in so many ways, it perfectly described Enberg’s style. He did have a nice voice, one that rose and fell melodically with the action on the field. But he also had a NICE voice, meaning he always seemed like such a nice guy. He was like a friend calling games. No self-importance. No conceit. No need for you to even notice him.

With Enberg, much of his brilliance was in what he didn’t say. Few have ever called games more precisely — his words tended to be exact and explicitly and specifically what mat hed the moment. Al Michaels has talked about how a broadcaster’s job is to blend into the broadcast, to say the right words that keep the viewer in that slightly dreamy state of being inside the game. One wrong word can pull any of us out of that reverie. No one kept us inside the game better than Dick Enberg.

But, just as much, when you go back and listen to Dick Enberg call a game on television — a football game, Wimbledon, college basketball, baseball too — you can’t help but notice how often he stayed silent and how long he would let the crowd and the action on the field and the tension of the moment tell the story. He understood the power of silence when broadcasting television..

There was something else, something harder to describe but it’s the thing that everyone who grew up in my time understood: His very voice lent significance to whatever you were watching. When Dick Enberg called a football game, you knew it was important. When he called a tennis match or a basketball game or a baseball game or anything else — he called more or less everything in his 60-year career as an announcer — you knew that it mattered. He helped make it matter. At the end, he called baseball because that was the sport he loved most, the one that he said was embedded in his DNA. A few times during the season, I would tune into a San Diego Padres game for only one reason: To hear to an inning or two of Enberg’s voice.

And, remarkably, it was just the same. He didn’t call too many big games for the San Diego Padres, but the games took on a more meaning when he called them. He turned meaningless July games between the Padres and Marlins into something a little bit more. “Touch ’em all!” he would say when a home run was hit, and that home run mattered even if it only cut the Padres deficit to four runs.

Yes, he did call The Drive, and The Fumble, two of the most the heartbreaking moments of my young life, but I never connected Dick Enberg’s voice to that. His voice was bigger than my Browns troubles. His nice voice captured the spirit of the big game.


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8 Responses to RIP Dick Enberg

  1. […] Joe Posnanski loved the late Dick Enberg’s calls, even when they delivered news he didn’t want to hear: […]

  2. Marc Schneider says:

    I remember him doing UCLA basketball when I was a kid. Great announcer. Somehow his low-key manner made the big moments better than the guys that go nuts.

    • BobDD says:

      Me too! thurs and sat nites at 11 pm replay on KTLA with Enberg.

    • EnzoHernandez11 says:

      My father used to watch the taped-delayed UCLA games with Enberg on KTLA during the Alcindor-Wicks-Walton years when they went something like 200-3. He’d always beg us not to tell him the outcome, since each game had, of course, finished several hours earlier. Once, I walked past the TV at 11 pm just before the televised start of one game and said, “The Bruins are going to win, you know.” He angrily asked me why I told him that when he specifically asked me not to. “I have no idea how the game went,” I laughed, “but the Bruins always win, don’t they?’

      In terms of sports broadcasting, was there any better place to be than Southern California in the late 60s and early 70s, when Vin Scully, Chick Hearn, and Dick Enberg (doing the Angels as well as UCLA) were at their peak? (Before any New Yorker chime in, the correct answer to this question is “no”. 🙂 ).

      • invitro says:

        “In terms of sports broadcasting, was there any better place to be than Southern California in the late 60s and early 70s” — LA seems like an exciting place to have been in that time, in general, if the political and cultural craziness didn’t get you down. But I suppose if someone wanted to listen to a sportscaster who wasn’t quite so mild-mannered, he might go for St. Louis and Chicago, where Harry Caray was.

  3. invitro says:

    I most remember Enberg for his NFL games in the 1980’s. Back then, each network had a distinct style for their NFL games–NBC with Enberg was about mild-mannered fun, CBS with Madden & Summerall was about drama and “smashmouth” tough action, and ABC with Michaels was about show business. I favored NBC then, maybe because my favorite teams (Oilers & Broncos) were in the AFC, which NBC did (CBS did the NFC), but all three networks did their styles well and were highly enjoyable.

    I vaguely remember being disappointed when Enberg was replaced by Scully for NBC’s baseball Game of the Week on Saturdays. I didn’t like Scully (never did), and while Enberg wasn’t my #1 favorite sportscaster (I think Costas was), he was near the top.

    I remember Enberg for tennis matches, too. I’m sure he did a lot of NBC’s NBA games, and probably some college basketball games, but I don’t remember those quite so much–college hoops had lots of very distinctive sportscasters in the 1980’s (Vitale, McGuire, Raftery) and it was easy to get lost among those big-personality guys.

    • mrh says:

      I never thought Scully was very good until I lived in Southern California for several years in the mid-80s. He was great IMO doing Dodger games on the radio. But I never did take to him as a TV guy.

      I liked Enberg okay in his heyday, at least he wasn’t obnoxious. But like many “name” announcers he hung on too long. He does sound like a good person. Also see Feinstein’s obit in the WaPo.

  4. I first encountered Dick Enberg when the family transistor radio introduced me to Vin Scully in 1973, and I decided I wanted to grow up to be Vin (that didn’t work out). But I wanted to be a baseball broadcaster, and between the transistor and a larger radio, I was able to pick up a lot of different broadcasts. But in Las Vegas, we got the radio broadcasts of the Dodgers and, it turned out, the Angels. The Angels crew from 1973 to 1976 was the 3 D’s: Dick Enberg, Don Drysdale, and Dave Niehaus. Two Frick winners, and a Hall of Fame pitcher. Not bad at all. They weren’t Vin, but who was? I also got to hear Enberg do the Rams on the radio, and he was a marvelous play-caller.

    I’ll always honor him for coming back to his first love. Contrary to a comment above, Vin didn’t exactly replace him on the Game of the Week. In 1982, Enberg did the World Series with Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek, and was supposed to move onto the Game of the Week the next year. Then Vin left CBS, and the backup game went to the then-not-quite-first-tier Bob Costas. In 1985, Enberg went back to do Angels games (he had been with them for 10 years before going full-time with NBC, and Gene Autry basically had told him he had a lifetime contract), and he said he did it because he missed it. But he had too much to do with the network.

    Then, when his string was running out at CBS, he went to the Padres. He didn’t have to go back full-time to baseball, but he did because he loved it. And he was terrific. I was blessed to be able to hear him again on his favorite sport and mine.

    It comes down to this: I’ve never read an unkind word about Dick Enberg. Criticism of his broadcasting? Certainly. But I’ve never encountered anyone who said he wasn’t as nice as Joe suggests.

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