Thompson, Charles Lloyd (“Chuck”)
Thompson, Charles Lloyd (“Chuck”)
(b. 10 June 1921 in Palmer, Massachusetts; d. 6 March 2005 in Towson, Maryland), sportscaster for professional baseball and football teams who was enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York.
Thompson was the first child of Lloyd Stevens Thompson, a telegrapher for a New England–based railroad, and Maggie (Moon) Thompson. He had two siblings, one was a brother from his father’s previous marriage. When Thompson started grade school in 1927, the family moved to a middle-class neighborhood in Reading, Pennsylvania. At Reading High School he competed in baseball and football, but a recurring sports injury ended his junior-varsity gridiron activity. In 1938 he took a job as a dance band vocalist, earning $1 per night singing eight to ten songs. Upon his 1939 graduation, as urged by his high-school football coach, Thompson returned to sports, playing semiprofessional football for the Reading East Ends, earning $5 per contest as an assistant coach and player. On both offense and defense he never sat on the bench. However, a second-quarter ejection for fighting in a game against the Pennsylvania Gaenzle Green Jackets resulted in the termination of his professional career after six games.
The eighteen-year-old made his first foray into the radio business with the Reading station WRAW, where he acted as a substitute for vacationing announcers. His sportscasting break came when he called the 1939 football game between Albright College and Carnegie Institute of Technology, at Albright Stadium, in Reading, with a live feed going to Pittsburgh. On 15 November 1941 Thompson married Rose Heffner, a former high-school classmate, with whom he would have two daughters and a son.
On 5 October 1943 Thompson was inducted into the U.S. Army. He completed seventeen weeks of basic training at Camp Blanding, near Jacksonville, Florida, and then turned down an Officer Candidate School slot. A confrontation with a lieutenant who had harshly hit one of Thompson’s platoon mates led to another training stint at Camp Howze, in Texas. On 8 January 1944, aboard the Queen Mary, Thompson was shipped to the European Theater. As a sergeant in the Thirtieth Recon Division, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He received an honorable discharge in August 1945, with a service medal that included three bronze stars, for the Rhineland, Ardennes, and Central Europe campaigns.
Upon his postwar return, Thompson resumed his radio career with WBIG, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, earning more than $50 weekly. On the final day of the 1946 season, at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, he was given the chance to call his first Major League Baseball game, as the Phillies’ regular announcers were delayed in getting to the booth after being honored on the field between games of a doubleheader. Thompson later recalled, “The next thing I knew Whitey Lockman was coming to the plate... and I just started talking.” When the veterans finally returned, a station executive instructed them to “sit down and work with the kid.” For the 1947 season, Thompson partnered with those veterans, Byrum Saam and Claude Haring, for what he called “the best job in baseball.” Thompson noted, “We covered all the Athletics and Phillies home games at Shibe Park and never had to go on the road.” Thompson also did broadcasts for Temple University football and for professional football’s Philadelphia Eagles, basketball’s Philadelphia Warriors, and hockey’s Philadelphia Rockets.
In the autumn of 1948 Thompson accepted an expenses-paid trip to Baltimore for a job interview with an ad agency representing Gunther Brewing Co., the radio sponsor for the city’s minor league baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles. Thompson thought the interview went badly and believed that he would see no more of Baltimore, but the occasion led to his eventual hiring as the play-by-play announcer for both the Orioles and for the Baltimore Colts, of the All-America Football Conference. Thompson would come to have a long, happy relationship with Baltimore. Jim Hunter, a later Orioles announcer, remarked that Thompson became a “legend” in the city, especially in that only rarely would anyone “be identified so strongly with two teams.”
Major League Baseball’s St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954, taking the name of the Orioles, and Thompson became the team announcer the following season. However, in 1957 a dispute between the Gunther Brewing and National Brewing companies forced Thompson to leave the Baltimore booth to call games for MLB’s Washington Senators. During that time he was also hired by the National Broadcasting Company for its Game of the Week telecast. In Washington, D.C., Thompson worked with Bob Wolff.
Perhaps the most memorable game that Thompson announced was the 1958 NFL Championship, when the Colts defeated the New York Giants in what has been dubbed “the Greatest Game Ever Played.” The day before, Thompson and the Giants announcer Chris Schenkel had reported to the NFL commissioner Bert Bell, with a coin flip determining that Thompson would do the first half and Schenkel the second. However, the score remained tied at the end of sixty minutes. “We get overtime,” Thompson remembered with joy in a subsequent interview, “and it’s my turn.”
During the 1960 World Series, between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Yankees, Thompson had what he later called “easily the most embarrassing moment of my career behind the microphone.” Bill Mazeroski hit a walk-off home run against the Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry to win the series for the Pirates, with the game’s final score being 10–9. Thompson, however, announced that Mazeroski got the hit off Art Ditmar and gave the tally as 10–0. Given an opportunity to edit the error for a souvenir record of the sportscast, Thompson refused, remarking, “That’s what I said—leave it in.”
From 1962 to 1987 Thompson regularly announced Baltimore Orioles games. His signature on-air exclamations were “Ain’t the beer cold!” and “Go to war, Miss Agnes!” On 24 September 1988, Thompson, whose first wife had died of cancer in 1985, married Betty Kaplan. By 1991 he was broadcasting on a part-time basis for the Orioles, calling up to twenty-five games per season. In 1993 he became the seventeenth broadcaster awarded the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award. Failing eyesight, particularly macular degeneration, ended his play-by-play duties in 2000. Having painted pictures of Baltimore sports for over half a century, Thompson died of a stroke at the age of eighty-three.
For the story of Thompson’s life, see his autobiography, Ain’t the Beer Cold! (2002), written with Gordon Beard. A section is devoted to Thompson in Curt Smith, Voices of Summer: Ranking Baseball’s 101 All-Time Best Announcers (2005). Obituaries, as well as editorial remembrances, are in the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post (both 7 Mar. 2005).