Doc Emrick: The Master

There are two things that blow my mind about Mike Emrick, NBC’s legendary hockey announcer who on Monday announced his retirement. The first is how awed other sports announcers are of him. There are a handful of people in the world like this, people who are not just good at what they do but who leave everyone else in their business dumbfounded and dazed. Richard Pryor or Mel Brooks in comedy, Prince or Aretha Franklin in music, Michael Lewis or Laura Hillenbrand in non-fiction writing, Jeffrey Wright or Patricia Clarkson in acting, their genius goes beyond the simple wonder of their work, the stuff that the rest of us notice.

Others in their fields simply cannot understand how they do it.

So it is with Doc Emrick. A few years ago for a Doc story, I talked to some of the most famous sports announcers in America — Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Jim Nantz, etc. — and they talked about him not like he was a great announcer but like he was magical. They talked like he didn’t just call the games, he actually could bend time.

See, every sport has its own challenges to announce*, and with hockey, the challenge is bringing order to chaos. Players are constantly shifting in and out, the puck is always moving and changing sides, the game presses on at a mind-bending clip, it’s like being inside a tornado.

*This sounds like a fun future essay — breaking down the challenges of calling each sport.

And yet, somehow, Emrick slows the tornado. While other mortal announcers try to keep up with the action, with Doc it’s the opposite, it’s like the hockey action decelerates to match his pace.

“He tells stories during the action,” Costas said with genuine amazement in his voice. “He’s the only hockey announcer I’ve ever seen who could do that.”

If you are a hockey fan, you already know about Doc’s lifelong search for the perfect hockey verbs. He always wanted his verbs to precisely describe the action, so in his world players didn’t just shoot or pass or block the puck. They shuffled it, shoveled it, tapped, pitched, chopped, chipped, skipped, squibbed, whacked, deflected, rifled and stifled the puck. This was a 50-year pursuit for Emrick, this dream of calling the perfect hockey game, and he never stopped working at it, never stopped pushing himself, never stopped trying for a higher place.

And, here’s was the coolest part, he kept striving because of how much he loves hockey, because of how much he has wanted to express that love. In my life, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with so many of the play-by-play masters — the aforementioned Costas, Michaels and Nantz but also Vin Scully, Marv Albert, Kevin Harlan, Joe Buck, Verne Lundquist, Dan Shulman, the late Ernie Harwell and Dick Enberg and on and on and on — and though they are obviously very different people, there is something that connects them.

They try to make music.

That’s the part that is so difficult for us people outside broadcasting to understand. It’s tempting for the rest of us to think they are just talking, just narrating the action, just telling us down and distance, the count, how much time is left in the quarter and when the team is going for a shift change. But that’s the easy stuff. The great ones lift and soften their voices, sharpen and blur the scene, take us inside but also put us up in the top row so we can see everything from afar. And when it’s just right, yes, it is music, the action and the voice and the crowd and tension all fitting together to create a song.

Nobody made music quite like Doc Emrick.

I mentioned at the top that there are two things that blow my mind about Doc Emrick. The second is personal. Everyone will tell you what a great guy Doc is, how hard he works to connect with everybody. Well, here’s my story. The first time I met him, well, he knew how much I love baseball. And, first thing, he handed me a baseball card of himself in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform. “It’s corny,” he told me, “but I wanted you to know how much I love baseball too.”

A Memory of Buck

A few weeks before Buck O’Neil died — he died 14 years ago today — I got to tell the red dress story publicly for the first time. We were at some sort of dinner honoring Buck, I can’t remember all the details. I just know I was asked to say a few words about Buck, and he was sitting next to me on the stage. It was a full house.

I was in the middle of the very last edit of my book “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.” The book would come out about eight months after that dinner. I, of course, didn’t know that Buck would be gone by then.

Buck was insistent that I not tell him anything about the book until after it was done. I am not sure why; I think he wanted me to feel free to write it without worrying about his reaction. This was one of so many gifts that Buck gave me: He trusted me completely and utterly to tell his story. He never asked about it. He never offered suggestions about it. He never once came to me during our travels around the country and said, “Hey, can you leave that one out of the book?”

That night, with Buck sitting next to me, I decided to share my favorite story from the book. It goes like this.

We were in New York, and it was a long, hard day. Most of the days during our travels together were easy, smooth, they flew by as we ate well and met friends and Buck told stories. But that day in New York … it was rough. Buck went on a morning show, and I will always remember that when we got to the studio, the security guard in the front recognized Buck and asked what he was doing there. Buck said he was going on this show.

The guard was horrified. ““Please don’t do that show, Mr. O’Neil,” he said. “You are a gentleman. Please don’t do that. It’s the wrong show for you.”

Buck did the show. But the guard was right. The shock jock host began by calling Jackie Robinson a sellout, and it went downhill from there. Buck held his own, as he always did, but I still cringe thinking about that morning. After the show, Buck had a whole bunch of interviews to do and the rest of the day was spent stuck in traffic, waiting for elevators, answering the same questions, and looking at the watch to see just how late we were for the next thing.

And at the end of the day, we were all beat but Buck most of all. He looked as if he had aged 15 years since the morning. He announced that he was going to skip dinner and go right to bed, and for Buck that was serious — he loved dinner most of all. The car pulled up to the hotel and we all began that slow walk through the courtyard and toward the lobby.

And to our left was a woman wearing a red dress.

All these years later, I have a picture in my mind of what she looked like — but I’m not sure that it’s right. I do remember how red and gorgeous that dress was, though. That dress was Marilyn Monroe. That dress was Paris. That dress was the song “La Vie En Rose.” That dress was Rick and Ilsa, the balcony scene, the Temptations singing “My Girl” and chocolate strawberries with wine.

So, when we got into the hotel, I turned to talk to Buck about it.

But Buck wasn’t there.

I looked around but couldn’t find him. I looked back to where the car dropped us off, but the car was gone. And then, yes, I turned and saw the Buck was talking to the woman in the red dress.

They talked. They laughed. They hugged. A man walked over, and Buck hugged him, and they all laughed, and this lasted for a good solid minute or two. By the end, they were all best friends. Buck walked into the hotel lobby, and all the years New York had added that day were gone along with 10 more. “OK!” he said loudly as he made a beeline for the hotel restaurant. “Let’s eat!”

So we walked toward the restaurant, but suddenly Buck stopped. He put his hand on my shoulder and he asked, “Did you see the woman in the red dress?”

“Yes,” I said, and I smiled a little.

I will always remember that stern look Buck gave me then. He shook his head, and squeezed my shoulder, and said those words: “Son, in this life, you don’t ever walk by a red dress.”

I have probably told that story 500 times in the 13 years since The Soul of Baseball came out. People still come up to me sometimes and ask me to tell it. But what I remember now is that first time I told it, with Buck sitting there on the stage with me. He didn’t know it was coming. More than that, I don’t know he would have even remembered saying it had I not brought it up.

And I remember the plate erupted in laughter and cheers after. Buck just kind of looked out into the crowd and smiled and afterward so many people came up to Buck to talk about red dresses. I believe in the last few weeks of his life, numerous women wore red dresses as the came to see him at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, at the handful of events he did and, yes, even in the hospital.

The last time I saw Buck O’Neil, it was in the hospital. We talked about many things, including the book, which I had just finished. Then the doctor came in, and I got up to leave but Buck asked me to stay. The doctor talked a little bit about next steps, and then he walked out, and Buck said, “Next time, bring the book with you and read it to me.” I told him I would. I didn’t know there wouldn’t be a next time. I guess we never do.

“I’ll keep an eye out for red dresses,” I told him as I was getting ready to leave.

“Don’t walk by,” he said. I don’t think those were the very last words he said to me, but they are the last words I remember. In the 14 years since I’ve tried not to walk by — not red dresses or opportunities to make a friend or moments of joy or chances to make a difference. Of course, I have failed repeatedly, daily, hourly.

Then I think of Buck, who was denied a chance to go to Sarasota High School, to attend a white college, to play in the Major Leagues, to manage in the Major Leagues, to buy a home in the white part of Kansas City, to fight side by side with white Americans in World War II. And I think of him asking people in airports if they can remember the first baseball game they attended or their first day of school. I think of him walking up to strangers tables in restaurants and starting conversations. I think of the countless times he would see little girl or boy wearing a baseball glove, and he would pull out a baseball and play catch. I think of him offering hugs to anyone and everyone.

“Give it up!” he used to say.

Red dresses. He never walked by. It’s 14 years, and I still miss him every day.

Renewals

Hi everybody. Hope you’re holding up in these crazy times.

I apologize again for not posting here more often. I’m hoping for things to begin to clear up a bit over the next few weeks and we can get this thing rolling again. In the meantime, I wanted to mention a few things.

  1. I’ve heard from a few of you that your free year-long subscription to The Athletic has expired and your credit card has been charged its renewal cost. I, unfortunately, do not have any first-hand knowledge about this, and if you would like to cancel or dispute charges, you need to email The Athletic directly at support@theathletic.com. I’m told they are responsive to all inquiries. My sportswriting appears at The Athletic and I hope you’ll keep reading. Here are a handful of recent stories:

Five Baseball Things: The Yankees, the AL Central and a plea to the Hall of Fame

Thoughts on the Novak Djokovic fiasco

60 Moments: Game 6 of the 1975 World Series

The angel that inspired Lou Brock (unlocked for everyone)

Considering Tom Seaver in baseball history

The Comeback: When baseball greats returned from World War II

  1. This newsletter and blog is free. I guess that’s not much of a bargain if I’m not writing for it, but I do hope to pick things up here over the next few weeks and have pieces here focusing mostly on non-sports stuff.

  2. Our oldest daughter and I have been binge-watching Community, and we’re hopelessly smitten by it. I think we completely ignored the show when it was actually playing because of my general aversion to Chevy Chase. There was a time when I got Chevy Chase, back in the Fletch days when he would do movies now and then with Goldie Hawn, but that’s a long time ago and I’m pretty sure seeing Modern Problems affected me in ways that I’m still not completely over. In any case, I don’t particularly like Chevy Chase in Community either but I didn’t realize that he’s really a small part of it, and the rest is just wonderful. When there seems so much to be happy about in the world, Community brings us nightly joy (though we are about to finish the sixth season, and there’s no movie yet).

  3. For reasons I cannot fully explain, The PosCast is now weekly … and has been for several months now. I am fully aware that this is only adding meaninglessness to this already incomprehensible time, but if you’d like to listen, it’s a free country (I’m pretty sure). You can also find it on

Stitcher

Podbay.fm

Spotify

The Athletic (no ads)

  1. I mentioned this in the last update, but that was so long ago I thought I’d mention it again: Dan McGinn and I and the whole gang with Passions in America had one heck of a summer. We got to be part of two absolutely amazing Centennial Celebrations — one commemorating the birth of the Negro Leagues and one commemorating the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.

Please check the Negro Leagues Celebration here.

And you can find the First Woman Voter celebration here — take some time and watch a few of the videos if you can. They’re simply spectacular.

First Woman Voter

Or "How I spent my summer vacation."

A few of you have reached out to check on me since it has been a little while since I posted here. Thank you for that. I’ve been entirely swamped on this project I’m about to tell you about — and it has been wonderful and exhausting and inspiring and, mostly, all-consuming. But I also have been writing some baseball over at The Athletic, so please check that out.


You might know that a couple of years ago, I partnered with my friend Dan McGinn on a project we call, Passions in America. What is Passions in America? That’s a very good question … and one we have spent a long, long time trying to answer.

The inspiration behind Passions is a simple idea: Our passions — which is to say the activities and pursuits and collections and pastimes that bring us joy and well-being and a sense of purpose — are more important now than ever. We deeply believe in that idea, deeply believe that our passions connect us, they energize us, they give our lives balance, they bring out our best selves, they help us see each other in entirely new ways.

But where does that idea lead? How do we use Passions in America to bring a little more joy, a little more unity, a little more creativity into the world? How do we encourage people to embrace their passions? How do we tell more stories about people through the prism of passion?

I can tell you: These are all pretty sticky questions. Over the last couple of years, we’ve gone down numerous paths, some with more success than others. But none of them seemed exactly the right path.

Then, this summer, we came upon something. We asked people if they would send in a photo of something bringing them joy during this pandemic. It was just this simple idea, but it led to something wonderful: Most than a thousand people sent in photographs … and they were all so stirring and marvelous and, especially, happy. We got photos of dogs and sunsets, magic tricks and board games, puzzles and delicious foods, books and lawnmowers, coffee mugs and picnic tables, bicycles and guitars. We all felt like just looking at those photos was, somehow, like having some of the passion and happiness that people felt transferred to us.

Not long after that, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick approached us with the idea of creating a virtual celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Negro Leagues. And in a whirlwind few weeks, thousands of people across America — including the four living former Presidents, 20 Baseball Hall of Famers, sports legends like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and Billie Jean King, celebrities like Paul Rudd and Rob Lowe, more than 40 U.S. mayors, politicians and musicians and countless kids on baseball teams — tipped their caps.

It is one of the most inspiring and wonderful things I’ve ever been lucky enough to be a part of.

And then came First Woman Voter. Talk about a whirlwind. Over the last month, in celebration of 100 years of women’s suffrage and in conjuction with numerous women’s groups and too many amazing people to name, Dan and I have played a small part of this incredible celebration of women honoring the First Woman Voter in their families. I can’t really describe it well enough, I mean, just watch this video from CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux:

And this one from Bernice King celebrating her mother Coretta Scott King:

And this one from Lynda Bird Johnson Robb about her mother, Lady Bird Johnson.

And this one from my friend, ESPN’s Mina Kimes:

There are more than 120 of these videos on the site — including the four former First Ladies and every woman who has been Secretary of State — each of them so personal, so moving, so unifying. In a time when everything feels so hopelessly divided, these videos from Democrats and Republicans, hard-line liberals and conservatives — from those who trace their voting rights back to 1920 to those who go back to the 1965 Voting Rights Act to those first-generation Americans like myself and Mina — have lifted my spirit continuously.

They remind me every single day that there is a bond that ties us together as Americans, and even if that bond seems frayed it is not torn.

The Washington Post so loved this project that they asked us to share our videos for them to display in a wonderful package they put together called “Why She Votes.” Others have asked us to share these videos for projects we will unveil as time goes on.

It has all been amazing. I’m not sure how financially viable it is since right now the running money total on the two projects is $640 — that’s how much we SPENT on the websites and for video converting software — but the feeling of being a part of these projects and bringing some good into the world is indescribable.

The First Woman Voter campaign is still building online, particularly as we go into Women’s Equality Day on Wednesday. It’s really simple: Record a video celebrating the First Woman Voter in your family (or the woman in your family who first inspired you to vote), use a photo and a memento if you can, and post it to your social media with the hashtag #FirstWomanVoter. Would love for you to join in.

As for Albert Pujols officially moving into second place in RBIs even though Babe Ruth actually had more RBIs … I’ll save that for another day.

The George McQuinn Fiasco

Baseball in the time of COVID
(Writing Time: 20 minutes)

OK, so I found a few moments this morning to break away and write a little baseball — 20 minutes today. This isn’t about today’s baseball but about a little rabbit hole that Bill James unintentionally sent me down. It involves the 1947 American League MVP voting which, as you might know, is probably the most controversial in baseball history.

That was the year Ted Williams won the Triple Crown but lost the MVP award by one point to Joe DiMaggio, who was not nearly as good.

Williams: .343/.499/.634, 9.5 WAR

DiMaggio: .315/.391/.522, 4.6 WAR

I was well aware of the controversy that year, but I always assumed it was a straight-up vote between DiMaggio and Williams, and the writers idolized DiMaggio while generally loathing Williams. I’d always heard about the writer who left Ted Williams entirely off his ballot and blamed him most of all.

Tuesday, Bill tweeted this:

Well, that seemed an interesting question — Cory Schwartz responded by pointing out that DiMaggio was left off three ballots.

But it turns out that wasn’t the most interesting part of all. I’d never really looked closely at the 1947 MVP balloting before. And when you do look at it, you realize that it wasn’t exactly the writers’ love of Joe DiMaggio that cost Williams the vote. No, instead, it was the writers’ insistence that the MVP had to come from Yankees because New York had cruised to the pennant.

It simply didn’t make sense to the vast majority of them to give the award to Williams or anyone else who wasn’t a part of a Yankees team that moved into first place on June 20 and was never challenged after that.

This shouldn’t feel too foreign to us … there are still plenty of people who think that the MVP should go to the best player on the best team. Every year, you will hear those tedious arguments about how the Most VALUABLE Player is not the same thing as the Most OUTSTANDING Player or some such thing. It was simply canon in 1947 that the MVP should go to a player on the runaway Yankees.’

And in truth, most voters DID NOT vote for DiMaggio. Here are the first place votes:

DiMaggio, 8 votes
Joe Page, 7 votes
Ted Williams, 3 votes
George McQuinn, 3 votes
Eddie Joost, 2 votes
Lou Boudreau, 1 vote

Joe Page was the super-reliever for Yankees in ‘47. He appeared in 56 games, went 14-8 with 44 games finished. He alone got almost as many first-place votes as DiMaggio.

And then there’s George McQuinn. You are forgiven if you have never heard of George McQuinn. He was a solid enough player for the St. Louis Browns before and during World War II. He made a handful of All-Star teams. Then in 1946, he played for the Philadelphia Athletics, and he seemed finished — hit just .225 with three home runs. Philadelphia released him. The Yankees picked him up.

And McQuinn, at age 37, had a renaissance season. He hit .304/.395/.437 with 84 runs scored and 80 RBIs. It’s utterly laughable to compare that season to the one Ted Williams had … but there was a sense that McQuinn was the difference-maker.

The ‘46 Yankees without McQuinn had finished third.

The ‘47 Yankees with McQuinn won the pennant by 12 games.

So he got three first-place votes. If even one of those votes had gone to Ted Williams … but they didn’t. So when you think about the bizarre ‘47 MVP balloting, the full picture is larger than “Eh, the writers just loved Joe DiMaggio.” The writers loved winning teams.

Oh, and don’t get me started on Eddie Joost. Those two first-place votes — for a guy who hit .206 and led the league in strikeouts — are utterly inexplicable. THOSE might be for the writers who just hated Ted Williams.

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