Jack Buck (1924–2002) maintained a sports broadcasting career that spanned five decades until his death in 2002. He covered eight World Series and 17 Super Bowls, and worked St. Louis Cardinals baseball games from 1954 to 2000. His list of memorable calls is long, and he is a member of the Baseball, Football, and Radio Halls of Fame. "By reputation, Buck put forth irony, a fluent phrase, and a brave front under pressure. Expert at social intercourse, he was always ready with the beguiling gesture and hospitable word," Curt Smith wrote on the website ESPN.com.
Began Broadcasting at Ohio State
Buck was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, the third of seven children of Kathleen and Earle Buck. He grew up rooting for the Boston Red Sox and listened to such radio broadcasting greats as Red Barber and Mel Allen. He even heard games broadcast from Havana, Cuba, at night. "Our diet was simple," Buck said, according to Smith. "Cereal for breakfast, soup for lunch, bakery leftovers for dinner." When Buck was 15, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. As a teen he worked on iron ore boats on the Great Lakes and variously at other odd jobs. He graduated from Lakewood High in January of 1941 and was drafted into the Army during World War II at age 19. While crossing the Remagen Bridge into Germany in March of 1943, Buck suffered arm and leg injuries and received a Purple Heart. Hall of Fame broadcaster Lindsay Nelson, ironically, was also injured in that battle.
Buck returned home in 1946 and enrolled at Ohio State University, commencing his broadcasting career at the campus radio station in Columbus. "When I went on the air to do a sports show at WOSU, I had never done a sports show before," Buck wrote in his autobiography, That's a Winner. "When I did a basketball game, it was the first time I ever did play-by-play. The same with football. I didn't know how to do these things. I just did them." A broadcasting teacher at Ohio State actually told Buck to "find something else to do for a living," Smith said.
Buck persisted, however, got minor league assignments, and in 1954 landed a job announcing St. Louis Cardinals games on radio with Harry Caray. Caray himself went on to a Hall of Fame career, as did the man whom Buck beat out for the job—Chick Hearn, who called Los Angeles Lakers basketball games for 42 years. Buck's low-key style blended with that of the boisterous Caray. "The Falstaffian Caray treated reserve like leprosy. By contrast, Buck evoked Casey Stengel telling a player, 'Not too hard, not too easy,'" said Smith.
At his Baseball Hall of Fame inauguration speech in 1987, Buck was self-effacing, even making fun of his profession. "You golf, swim, and shoot pool during the day, go the park and b.s. a little before the game, do it, and go home. It's real tough," he said, according to Smith.
Passed on Monday Night Football
He left the Cardinals briefly in 1960 to work with ABC when that network carried baseball and the fledgling American Football League. He left that network after a dispute, and did not return the network's phone call when it considered him as play-by-play man for the inaugural year of Monday Night Football in 1970, when the AFL merged into the National Football League. Buck instead worked Monday night games—and 17 Super Bowls—on CBS radio from 1978 through 1995 with Hank Stram, who had coached the Kansas City Chiefs to the championship of Super Bowl IV. Buck also worked National Basketball Association and college basketball games, professional bowling, and was host of At Your Service shows on KMOX in St. Louis, considered one of the first call-in talk shows in the United States.
He was best known, however, as the voice of the Cardinals. "My dad was the kind of guy who went to bed thinking about the Cardinals, and when he woke up, the first thing he thought about was how the Cardinals played the night before," his son, Fox broadcaster Joe Buck, wrote in Sports Illustrated magazine. "The Cardinals set his daily mood. He used to say how they could give him a bad belly no matter how they played." The younger Buck recalled his mother telling him that when he was three or four, he saw his dad on television and thought he was "stuck inside it, somehow jammed into that little box."
Took Over in St. Louis
The Cardinals fired Caray in 1969, and while Caray prospered elsewhere—most notably with the Chicago Cubs—until his death in 1998, Buck emerged as number one in St. Louis. "For 15 years, he was the No. 2 guy in Harry Caray's shadow, but he was able to shine brightly through that shadow," New York Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen said on Major Leaguer Baseball's MLB.com website. "When Harry moved on, Jack took over the town, which sometimes meant speaking to 15 banquets a week," former Chicago White Sox announcer John Rooney told MLB.com. Buck even broadcast a radio show live from the top of the Gateway Arch upon its completion in October of 1965.
"Say Mel Allen, and you recall his boom box of a voice. Howard Cosell changed the parameters of his profession. Curt Gowdy evoked Jack Webb's 'Just the facts, ma'am.' Buck recalls how humor can best life's absurdities, improbabilities, and preposterous cant," ESPN's Smith said. Buck's appeal paralleled that of the team, whose network spanned as many as 124 stations in 14 Midwest states.
Some of the fans who listened to Buck as youngsters later interacted with him as players and broadcasters. "Jack was a big part of my life from the time I was 4 or 5, because my dad was a big Cardinals fan," Kansas City Royals announcer Denny Matthews said, also on MLB.com. "I don't think he ever realized what a big influence he was on my life at an early age. Later, I got to know him and did a few pregame shows with him. He makes you feel so relaxed, so much at ease." Jason Christiansen, an Omaha, Nebraska, native who pitched for four major league teams, including the Cardinals, added: "If you weren't a Royals fan, you were a Cardinals fan, and Jack Buck was one of those reasons."
Long List of Famous Calls
Buck's nearly five decades included several memorable calls. "Go ahead and remember him for a few calling cards," Chuck Finder wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Just don't short-change Jack Buck on his versatility. His ability to broadcast baseball and football. His ability to work in radio and television."
Among Buck's most noteworthy calls and one-liners: His signature conclusion to a Cardinals victory on a local broadcast: "It's a winner." The "Ice Bowl," the 1967 NFL championship game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, played in a wind-chill factor of about 50 degrees below zero in Green Bay, Wisconsin: "Excuse me while I have a bite of my coffee." Kirk Gibson's game-winning home run for the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, while playing on two bad legs: "Gibson swings, and a fly ball to deep right field. This is gonna be a home run! Unbelievable! A home run for Gibson, and the Dodgers have won the game, 5-4! I don't believe what I just saw…. I DON'T BELIEVE what I just saw." Light-hitting Ozzie Smith's walk-off homer for St. Louis in Game 5 of the 1985 National League Championship Series: "Smith corks on into right down the line. It may go! Go crazy, folks! Go crazy! It's a home run and the Cardinals have won the game by a score of 3-2 on a home run by the Wizard." Mark McGwire's 61st home run in 1998, tying Roger Maris's single-season record. "Look at there, look at there! McGwire Flight No. 61 to Planet Maris! Pardon me for a moment while I stand and applaud!"
Stirring Poem after 9/11
When baseball resumed its games one week after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Buck gave an emotional speech before 32,563 fans at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis before a game against the Milwaukee Brewers. Pregame ceremonies included about 500 police offers and firefighters lining the entire warning track. Buck, who wore a bright red jacket—the Cardinals' color—and a U.S. flag pin on his lapel, approached the microphone. Increasingly ill, and beset with the emotion of the moment, he shook as he read a poem in memory of the victims. His voice cracked and his eyes were watery as he finished the poem. Many fans and rescue personnel were crying. A 21-gun salute and fireworks display followed, then the game began.
'He Battled for His Life'
Buck's health continued to fade late in 2001. A heavy smoker, he underwent surgery for lung cancer that December. A month later he returned to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis to have an intestinal blockage removed. Buck underwent five operations in all. He went in and out of a coma for several weeks and died on June 18, 2002. "He made us proud every day," Joe Buck told the Associated Press. "He battled for his life."
Joe Buck called the June 18 game between the Cardinals and Anaheim Angels, realizing it would probably be his father's final day. After the game he rushed to the hospital and embraced his father eight minutes before he died. Jack Buck had worked Cardinals broadcasts while fighting diabetes, Parkinson's disease and vertigo, and while wearing a pacemaker. "It has been an amazing fight that he's put up," Joe Buck told Finder of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Throughout his illness, Buck listened to his son's broadcasts—he had ushered in Joe's announcing career by letting him work an inning on his 18th birthday at New York's Shea Stadium. A public memorial service was held at Busch Stadium two days after Buck's death. Buck left his second wife, Carole (Lintzenich). They had two children, Joe and Julie. Buck and his first wife, Alyce (Larson), had six children: Beverly; Jack Jr., Christine, Bonnie, Betsy, and Danny.
Son Carries on Family Tradition
Buck is honored along the St. Louis Walk of Fame, among many other accolades. His son, Joe Buck, has emerged as a top sportscaster in his own right. "I always knew he was something special," the younger Buck wrote about his father in Sports Illustrated."I wasn't the smartest kid, but I didn't have to be to realize people liked having him around. I did, too."
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 24, 2002.
Sports Illustrated, November 1, 2004.
"Buck a St. Louis Institution, Broadcast Legend," ESPN Classic, June 21, 2002, http://www.espn.go.com/classic/obit/s/2002/0618/1396508.html (November 20, 2006).
"Jack Buck Timeline: 1924–2002," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 19, 2002, http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/special/jackbuck.nsf/Jack+Buck/1BA671B73B96AC1686256BDD0066956C?OpenDocument (November 27, 2006).
"Jack Buck's Tribute to America," ESPN.com, http://www.sports.espn.go.com/espn/espn25/story?page=moments/98 (November 27, 2006).