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March 20, 2009
  
The Man in Plaid
by: Alex Nelson on Mar 20, 2009 8:20 AM | Filed under: Articles

There’s a famous story about legendary radio broadcaster Bill Stern that’s told a couple different ways, but I’m going to give it to you the way Time reported it in 1949, because I like their version best.

Stern was calling a Notre Dame football game in the late 1940’s, and he announced that a tailback named Zilly broke free for an 80-yard run. As Stern was describing the run, his spotter (someone who keeps track of which players on the field are involved in the action) started signaling that Stern had called the wrong player—it wasn’t Zilly but Sitko who had the ball! To remedy this, Stern turned to an old standby: just before crossing for a touchdown, he had Zilly lateral the ball to Sitko, who had really possessed it all along. This was radio, and there was no telecast, so Stern figured none would be the wiser.

Word leaked anyway and, later on, Stern was about to begin broadcasting horse races from Belmont. He turned to an old rival and veteran horse racing broadcaster, Ted Husing, for advice. Husing only had this to say: “There’s no way to lateral a horse, Bill.”

* * *

Over at Amazin’ Avenue, James Kannengieser has been running a March Madness-style tournament to determine the best Mets announcer of all time. One of the first-round matchups pitted original broadcaster Lindsey Nelson against the more recent Gary Thorne, and I was surprised when I checked midday to find Nelson with a relatively narrow eight-point lead. Reading the comments below, it occurred to me that virtually nobody casting their ballots had ever really heard Lindsey Nelson call a Mets game. Many had never heard him call a game of any kind.

Mets fans have been lucky that the other two originals, Bob Murphy and Ralph Kiner, remained active for forty years. Nelson “only” made it 17 and quit broadcasting the Mets five years before I was born. I fear the man and the announcer are slowly fading from Mets fans’ collective memory in a way that Murphy and Kiner never quite will. So I figured I might as well do some small part to remind fans who he was and what he meant to the organization.

* * *

The game’s the thing.

I love that story about Bill Stern, because it perfectly demonstrates how Bill Stern is the perfect counterpoint to Lindsey Nelson. I had called Stern a legendary radio broadcaster, and that’s precisely what he was, calling the action of nearly any sporting event fluidly and colorfully, never missing a beat with his flowery, vivid prose. He had an incredible imagination—both his gift and his bane—that made him one of the great storytellers of radio’s heyday.

Imagination is a great boon on radio, but television has little patience for it. All the flowery language is somewhat superfluous when the listener isn’t just a listener but a watcher, too. He was never willing enough to take a step back and let the audience merely view what was happening, and it didn’t quite work. The viewer chafes if he is told what he can plainly see, and when your imagination runs a little wild, as Stern’s did that day, the viewer knows. Nelson once remarked that an announcer has to be careful, because

the man at home has a better seat than you do. He can see the play better and closer than you can. And there’s nothing more irritating than to have someone tell you something happened that you know damn well didn’t happen.

Nelson, on the other hand, understood this basic difference between radio and television, and unlike Stern he thrived with the changing medium. On radio, Nelson saw the need for imagination in a baseball broadcast:

[There is] no radio sport better than baseball to do stream-of-consciousness—the slow pace, the time to improvise…You just let yourself roam. And you’re the entire show—you paint the picture.

But at the same time, he also knew the importance of holding back. Former Knoxville Journal sports editor Ben Byrd relates this story from Nelson’s days at the University of Tennessee, where he served as an aide of sorts to legendary football coach General Bob Neyland:

General Neyland called him in one day to praise his work and added a few words of advice.

“If you go to Howard Johnson’s,” said Neyland, “you’ll have a choice of 27 different flavors of ice cream. I always get plain vanilla. And that’s the way I like my football broadcasts. Plain vanilla.”

Lindsey never forgot. Throughout a 35-year span of covering major league baseball, college and NFL football, college and NBA basketball, and PGA golf, he always gave the listeners and viewers a straight vanilla account of the action. Although he was a brilliant and witty raconteur, he saved that for after-dinner speeches.

“The game is the important thing,” he was fond of saying. “The announcer should never get in the way of the game.”

It was a philosophy that served Nelson well during his years on television.

One cup, and my life may have gone in a different direction.

Nelson’s roots were in Tennessee. He was born there, in Campbellsville and he went to school there, at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. It was there in 1938 that he worked for Neyland and began helping out during football broadcasts. He got his big break one day while spotting for the regular broadcaster, who had a sudden emergency: “Jack [Harris] had a second cup of coffee that morning, and it was too much,” Nelson later remembered. The booth was nearly impossible to exit, so it was up to the spotter to take over the broadcast. Nelson said: “One cup and my life may have gone in a different direction.” He did the half-time show and began broadcasting football games on a regular basis. Soon, he was recommended to NBC as a spotter for Stern (though not the spotter in the story above) and helped him during several events, including a Rose Bowl.

Nelson studied journalism, graduating in 1941, right as World War II was beginning. He served nearly five years in the army, chiefly as a public relations officer, and was wounded at Remagen about the same time as fellow broadcaster Jack Buck, who also served in the 9th Infantry. When Buck mentioned this to Nelson, Nelson exclaimed, “The same SOB got us both!”

Upon his return to the States, Nelson briefly became a reporter in Knoxville, but he didn’t like it—after his PR work during the war, which brought him into contact with names like Eisenhower, Churchill, Pyle, Hope, and Patton, local news just wasn’t interesting to him. He re-entered radio, first covering local football in Knoxville, and later falling under the employ of the Liberty Broadcasting System out of Dallas, serving as their director of football. Basically, it was his job to procure broadcasting rights, then jump on a plane and cover the games.

He also began covering pro baseball, albeit it in a rather unusual way. Instead of traveling to the event and broadcasting it live, Liberty announcers often used Western Union wire reports to construct their own broadcasts, and this Nelson found the most liberating. Being completely unable to see the action—the wire reports only contained vague play-by-play details—Nelson was able to summon his inner Bill Stern to recreate the action completely as he saw fit. When games were cancelled due to rain, the crew would recreate games from baseball’s infancy. When the wire reports got delayed due to technical difficulties—so as not to break the illusion—that damn dog would be out running on the field again, and nobody could catch him, or there would be an improbable streak of foul tips, 75 in a row.

Then, in 1951, Bill Stern struck again.

Best damned phone call I ever made.

Stern’s leg had been amputated following an auto accident in 1935. The pain was excruciating, and he became addicted to painkillers. By 1951 he was more than a little unpredictable. One time, in Dallas to broadcast a golf tournament, he locked himself in his hotel room, doped out of his mind. Tom Gallery, director of NBC Sports, needed someone in a pinch and asked a friend at Liberty if he knew anyone who could help. They sent Nelson. Gallery was so impressed he hired him as an administrative assistant.

Gallery would later call it the “best damned phone call I ever made.”

But Nelson desperately wanted to broadcast—which puzzled Gallery, who saw it as a step down from being an executive—and every time Gallery asked who Nelson thought they should get to broadcast an event, Nelson would always reply, “Me.” Little-by-little he got his shot before becoming the network’s principal college football play-by-play announcer in 1952.

By 1957 he began to branch out, getting the nod to work NBC’s baseball game of the week with Leo Durocher in the network’s attempt to win fans over from CBS’s popular Dizzy Dean-driven telecasts. Lindsey quickly gained a reputation for keeping the focus on the game, never making a mistake, saying only what needed to be said, and all around professionalism. In other words, he was the antithesis of Dean.

The broadcasts were a success, and Nelson found himself in demand. NBA games, golf tournaments, an expanded baseball and college football schedule, including the beginning of a 26-year run of Cotton Bowls. What was Lindsey’s response? Take more work.

Hello everybody, I’m Lindsey Nelson!

How do you describe how a broadcaster calls a game? Descriptions never do them justice, as the threads attached to the Amazin’ Avenue tournament can attest. How would Met fans describe Gary Cohen to someone who’d never heard him? Ralph Kiner? Fran Healy? They’d focus on a few details—well-informed, verbal gaffes, can o’ corn—and forget the rest. Still, I’ll try my best.

Like many announcers of the time—think Red Barber, Mel Allen, Ernie Harwell, Russ Hodges—Nelson came from the south, and as such he had a southern drawl to his high-pitched voice. I think southern voices were seen as warm and welcoming, well-suited for baseball especially. In style, however, Nelson wasn’t really analogous to any of those guys. He was less folksy than Barber, less intrusive than Allen, less conversational than Harwell, less emotional than Hodges. He was straightforward. Unlike the other guys, his background was in administration and journalism, and it showed. He’d describe the action, tell a story if it didn’t interrupt the flow of the game and was relevant, and was always meticulous and precise. He didn’t trip over his words; he seemed to always know precisely what he wanted to say. Murphy later remembered, “He had no tolerance for mistakes. He was totally reliable.” His trademark—other than the sports coat thing—was his greeting: “Hello everybody, I’m Lindsey Nelson.” It was warm, friendly, to the point, effective. It was Nelson in a nutshell.

None of this is to say he couldn’t convey emotion; he could, and he did so without resorting to hysterics as many other broadcasters do. He’d do so through the rise and fall of his voice, his enthusiasm, a single sentence. He knew he never had to say much; emotional moments belonged to the fans anyway.

As for disappointing moments, there were many during his tenure. He would give his account of the Mets’ frequent ineptitude plainly, with neither sugar-coating nor mockery. One commenter at the Ultimate Mets Database remembers him once lamenting, “What do you say to the fans after you’ve said you’re sorry?” after a particular episode of incompetence. I have no idea if he actually said it, but—and this may just be the Bill Stern in me speaking—I’ll attribute it to him anyway, because it sounds like something he’d say. Simple and sincere; he always felt bad for those watching that the product wasn’t more successful.

The game has drama, tragedy, comedy.

In 1962, Nelson decided he wanted something more. He walked away from his national job doing baseball for NBC and became the third member of the Mets’ broadcast team, joining Kiner and Murphy. Why? Nelson always felt that being a baseball broadcaster was a dream job: “The game has drama, tragedy, comedy. Plus, you spend one month in spring training and six afterward. The rest of the year’s his own.”

Those early Met teams featured plenty of the last two but not much of the first. Nelson also wrote about those early Mets teams:

It was my job to set the broadcast policy. I told our broadcast team, ‘This is a very inept group of players, and we’re not going to try to hide their ineptness. We’re also not going to make fun of them.’ We simply described what they did, and what they did was hilarious.

The policy worked; the Mets became lovable losers, and the team surpassed the Yankees in ratings across the board by mid-1963.

He also decided that the trio would shadow manager Casey Stengel around during spring training. Stengel, in his 70’s, would keep them up to all hours of the night talking baseball; eventually it got so bad that Murphy, Kiner, and Nelson would hide behind the palm trees just to avoid him.

Stengel couldn’t tell reliever Bob Miller apart from Nelson; he’d call Miller Nelson and Nelson Miller frequently. One time, the bullpen phone rang and Joe Pignatano, the bullpen catcher at the time, picked up. Stengel shouted, “Get Nelson up!” Pignatano was obviously confused by this but knew better than to argue with Casey. So Pignatano hung up and briefly wondered whether he was supposed to call the broadcasting booth. Instead, he walked to the mound, dropped a ball to the rubber, turned around, shouted “Nelson!” and hoped for the best. Miller got right up.

The drama finally arrived in 1969 when the Mets escaped the cellar and won the World Series. Nelson called it the greatest game of his career and later remarked: “The Mets may endure a thousand years, as Churchill would say. They may win a dozen championships, but they can only do it the first time once, and the first time was incomparable.”

My father will wear anything.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the jackets. Nelson’s trademark was his choice in clothing, specifically his garish, gaudy jackets. They were his idea of a publicity stunt. When he came aboard, he knew the Mets faced stiff competition in the Yankees, and they needed some way to draw attention to the telecasts, which, he heard, would be broadcast in color. One night, he stepped into a clothing store and asked to see whatever coats the proprietor couldn’t sell. “I picked out seven that were gaudy, showy, awful, and I started to wear them to work.”

It was a signature Lindsey Nelson move. It was something that would jump out at you on screen—people would tune in just to find out what jacket Nelson was wearing and wind up catching a baseball game while they were at it—but it wouldn’t detract from the action. After all, you never see the broadcasters while the game is in session. Nelson would remember, ”I got in a cab and the cabbie turned around and said: ‘Hey, I know you. You’re the guy with all those jackets.’ I turned to my wife and I said, ‘You see, he doesn’t exactly know who I am, but he knows what I do.’ ”

After a while, it became a game, a running joke that would follow him around as he would go on to accumulate nearly 350 of them:

While cataloging the infinite varieties of losing ball games, Nelson improved his stock in trade. He stopped off in Honolulu, where he knew a tailor, and ordered a jacket made of silk. The tailor protested, ”But Mr. Nelson, sir, this is drapery silk,” and Nelson reassured him that it would show up very nicely on Channel 9, thank you.

To avoid hurting anybody’s feelings, Nelson and his search party would never reveal they were buying these jackets for their awfulness.

”It became sort of a project,” Nelson recalled. ”Sometimes Murph would find one. Sometimes Ralph would. My daughter found one at Shannon Airport in Ireland and tried to get it through customs in New York. The guy was a Met fan and he said to her, ‘Nobody would wear this jacket,’ but Nancy said, ‘My father will wear anything.”’

Unfortunately, the jackets seem to be all Mets fans remember anymore.

This looks like a tie game to me.

Nelson continued to do college football in the offseason. He became the Voice of Notre Dame football for 14 years. He did Monday Night Football for several seasons later on, and was at the helm for the first game with instant replay—he constantly found himself reminding folks at home that what they were watching was not live TV. He covered a staggering number of major sporting events, including the World Series, the All-Star Game, the Davis Cup, the Masters, the National Open, the Rose Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the NFL Championship Game, the NBA Championships, and the NIT Tournament. Once after doing six bowl games in ten days, a reporter asked Nelson if there was anything he didn’t do. Lindsey’s reply: “Rest.”

He was the most prolific announcer of his era, and he seemed to be everywhere, squeezing it all in around the baseball season. But eventually, it became too much. In 1978, he asked the Mets to release him from his contract. San Francisco caught his eye, and the Giants had an opening with Lon Simmons fleeing across the Bay. Bob Murphy recalled, “He left the Mets because he was so depressed with how bad the team had become. He always loved San Francisco. As a city, it was his cup of tea, but I don’t think he enjoyed it as much as he thought he would.”

The Mets’ losing always bothered him; as I mentioned above, he always felt sorry for the fans when the product was inferior. But I doubt it was the only reason for his departure. Nelson’s eldest daughter was born with Down’s syndrome, resulting in a physical and mental handicap. It couldn’t have been easy raising her, but the family bonded together over baseball, Mets baseball in particular. They talked it over breakfast, and his daughter would come to the park. Nelson insisted on the Mets providing a box close to the broadcast booth so he could watch her between innings. She loved the game, and he once boasted that she knew things about baseball even he didn’t.

However, Nelson’s wife Mickie died unexpectedly from a brain hemorrhage in 1973, and his youngest daughter moved out to California. Furthermore, he remembered Barber and Allen growing bitter from spending too much time with one team, and he felt it was time for a change. The Giants were willing to be more flexible with his schedule, so he packed up and moved west.

He stuck with the Giants until 1981 before returning to Tennessee—which he always said he’d do—to teach sportscasting at UT. The baseball stadium there bears his name. He briefly returned to broadcasting in the mid-80’s, and in a touching gesture the Yankees and WPIX also had him do the last half-inning of Tom Seaver’s 300th win in 1985. His career is nearly unparalleled. He won five National Sportscaster of the Year Awards. He won a lifetime achievement Emmy. He’s been honored by 12 Halls of Fame—including those of baseball, the NFL, college football, and the Mets—and he worked with an incredible roster of announcers: Stern, Gordon McLendon, Red Grange, Allen, Barber, Murphy, Kiner, Buck, Gowdy, Paul Hornung, Pat Summerall. He is the most distinguished man to ever broadcast the Mets.

In 1983, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which slowly robbed him of his movement before claiming his life in 1995. But it never took his wit. Byrd wrote in Nelson’s obituary:

The last time I saw him, he was served lunch at the assisted living facility where he was residing. The main dish was roast beef.

Lindsey had very little strength left, and using his hands was difficult because of the Parkinson’s. He attacked the meat as vigorously as he could with knife and fork, but it remained intact. After two or three minutes he leaned back in his chair and said:

“This looks like a tie game to me.”

References

Nelson’s 1985 autobiography is wonderful if you can find a copy. It’s alternatingly interesting, funny, and touching, especially when he discusses his family life.

In addition, Curt Smith’s Voices of Summer was a tremendous resource and the source of many of the quotes above.

Gordon McLendon: The Maverick of Radio included lots of information about Nelson’s two years at Liberty.

The Ben Byrd obituary can be found here.


6 Responses to “The Man in Plaid”

  1. Comment posted by Ed in Westchester, waiting for Opening Day on March 20, 2009 at 9:03 am (#939695)

    Alex

    Thank you for this. As one of the elder posters (born in 1969 in the midst of the World Series), I remember Lindsey. I was a wee lad at the time, but I remember the jackets quite well. While the team back then was bad, he and Ralph kept us interested and told a good story.

    Simpler days, simpler graphics, and better announcers.

  2. Comment posted by Danny, Best Shape of My Life on March 20, 2009 at 9:49 am (#939708)

    This article was long but worth every word. Absolutely wonderful, Alex. I know there is an older generation of Mets fans that swear by Lindsey Nelson, and after this article it’s abundantly clear why that is. Fantastic.

  3. Comment posted by eddie glynn on March 20, 2009 at 10:12 am (#939733)

    Great piece on Lindsay. I am 42 and remember him fondly. The 3 man rotation was great. The Yanks were of course better than us for much if the 70’s but they could never approach our broadcast team

  4. Gravatar
  5. Comment posted by Simons on March 20, 2009 at 11:08 am (#939775)

    Alex, I can tell how good this piece is because I had almost no interest in Lindsey before I started, but at the end I wanted to know more. Tremendous research and perfectly paced. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  6. Comment posted by Seavertheman on March 20, 2009 at 12:24 pm (#939833)

    As someone who just turned 50, I vividly remember Lindsey. Always entertaining in an understated way. A true professional. His book was also terrific–I remember reading it when it came out. Highly recommended.

    I still vividly recall his call of the Mets clinching the East in 1969: “AT 9:07 ON SEPTEMBER 24th, THE METS HAVE WON THE CHAMPIONSHIP OF THE EASTERN DIVISION OF THE NATIONAL LEAGUE!!”

    Rest in peace, Lindsey.

  7. Comment posted by WT Economist on March 20, 2009 at 8:44 pm (#940163)

    Speaking as a near 48-year-old, of course I remember Lindsay Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner, along with Phil Rizzuto, Frank Messer and Bill White. They’d rotate radio and TV.

    What young fans may not realize is what has been lost. Before there was cable, New York had three independent local television stations with local content and reruns of classic shows. Because the TV industry started in New York, many of those classic shows were set here.

    And, you got all the away games of the Yankees on WPIX and Mets on WOR, along with a whole lot of Knicks, Nets, and Rangers games free over the air. In summer there was a game on TV almost every night.

    My attitude is if cable is worth it, you are spending too much time watching TV. Now you not only have to get cable, but also have to pay extra for either the Mets or Yankees I believe. So I sometimes listen on radio, sometimes watch the rare Sunday games.

    People tend to talk about the “good old days,” and generally they weren’t quite as good as remembered. But here is a case where you actually could get more for less 30 or 40 years ago.

    At least with DTV, some of the extra channels are PIX and WOR, and PIX brought back the Yule Log.

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