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Lyell Bremser

Fred White Retires, Passes Away

empty mic

Updated May 15, 2013

“You go through a lifetime of being around sports. If you ever question whether or not it’s worth it, all you need to do is sit and look down at the scene at Royals Stadium and see the joy this game has brought to the fans in Royals Stadium. Yes, there are more important things on this earth than sports I guess, but I dare say tonight, nothing can bring more joy to Kansas City than a little single into right field to get this thing to game seven. This improbable little team, doing improbable little things, now has pushed this thing to the brink.” — Fred White following Royals’ 2-1 win of St. Louis in the 1985 World Series Game 6

Sad news coming out of Kansas City, when longtime broadcaster and Royals media liaison Fred White retired Tuesday and died Wednesday due to complications of melanoma.

I’ve said numerous times the reason I wanted to get into broadcasting (make that sports broadcasting) as a career was one inning of listening to White and Hall of Fame broadcaster Denny Matthews back when i was 9 years old. At first, it was simple fascination with baseball that drew me to the field, and it didn’t hurt that KC was playing my beloved Orioles on a hot August night. Later on, it was the narrative, the capture of baseball’s ebb and flow, the staccato bursts and legato, luxurious meanderings of each individual game and season that captivated me and drew me closer to what has turned out to be a significant part of my current career.

I have no idea why I gravitated to the Matthews-White partnership as quickly as I did, but I think (aside from the fact they were the only game in town, in a manner of speaking) it was because they brought complementary views and approaches to the broadcast. Matthews had the largely journalistic, almost newslike delivery. White was less shy about rooting for the Royals, perhaps less inclined to painting a verbal picture than Matthews, but he never overdid it like a lot of broadcasters have done throughout time. They didn’t interact as much as some crews — each set of innings seemed like it belonged to Matthews or White as their handiwork — but when they did talk amongst themselves, it struck of two friends talking to each other. Nothing forced.

fred and denny
Royals broadcasters Denny Matthews (left) and Fred White captured the franchise’s heyday in the 1970s and ’80s. teamleaks.com photo.

For sports, broadcasters are the soundtracks for rabid and casual fans alike. They set the tone for what’s happening on the field of play. That soundtrack can be histrionic, hyper, bloated, unintelligible…and regardless of the style, somebody will say that’s the best way games should be called. Both individually and together, White and Matthews brought an understated approach to their craft. In essence, they let the game dictate how they emphasized the game’s peaks and valley without ego or hype.

Between listening to White and Matthews and following Nebraska football through the voicings of Lyell Bremser, I quickly developed my broadcast philosophy (although I never truly thought of it until my current job): let the game’s moments or the ebb and flow dictate how to punctuate. Don’t hype. Catchphrases are OK, if used in moderation. Criticize judiciously, balancing that criticism with an understanding of the situation and thus adding possible mitigating factors.

That’s not to say I follow my philosophy consistently, but that’s how I feel about the profession.

Anyway, those lessons were supported by other broadcasters. Frank Adkisson did a wonderful job calling Omaha Royals and Lancers games in the 1980s and early 1990s, basically because he used that exact philosophy. Nationally, the voices of Dave Barnett, Al Michaels, Keith Jackson and the now-silenced vocal cords of Pat Summerall and Jim Durham could all capture the moment in their own ways without going diving into the cesspool of hype and blather.

And regionally, it was Denny and Fred. Not Harry Caray. Not Mike Shannon or John Rooney or Hawk Harrelson.

I only met White a couple times, back when KVOE was a regular attendee at the Royals’ special daylong festivities for the Kansas Association of Broadcasters. I can tell you that what you heard for over two decades on the air was what I found to be true in person: a down-to-earth, unpretentious, smart, funny, inquisitive man who had time for everybody — even if he really didn’t have time for anybody because of his schedule — and was more than willing to lend his advice and experienced ear to broadcasters like me seeking advice.

It was maddening when the Royals replaced White, and Ryan Lefebvre didn’t get a fair shake for years from fans like me simply because he was Fred’s replacement even though he was worthy of the job. It was sobering to hear health issues forced White away, this time from life itself. Frankly, it was depressing. You know days like this are coming, the days when your childhood idols have to go on, but it doesn’t make things any easier.

For Royals fans, White’s death is eerily similar to the passing of fellow broadcaster (and White’s longtime college TV basketball partner) Paul Splittorff in that they both ultimately succumbed to cancer, although this was seemingly a much more sudden transition from life to death. Splittorff’s status was in limbo for several months before his diagnosis was revealed two years ago, but by that time he didn’t have long to live.

White was a broadcaster who has the respect and admiration of a lot of sportscasters across the Midwest. Based on how he was behind the microphone and how he was away from it, he earned it. Broadcasting needs more Fred Whites. In this day and age, it’s unlikely we will see that happen.

Rest in peace, Fred. I know you have a good starting lineup to talk about — and from what I hear, the bench is pretty good, too.

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Frozen in YouTube: Sports Moments to Remember

Sports fans have games — and sometimes moments — that they remember vividly until they can’t remember anything. Here’s my list:

Baseball

1983: The O’s Finally Get It Done

The Orioles were giants of the 1970s — basically everywhere except in the title column. The Pirates denied them in 1971 and 1979 (the year I just about woke up crying because Game 7 went well past my bedtime…and, well, Baltimore lost). They were stuck fighting the Red Sox and Yankees (where have we heard that before?) for primacy throughout the decade. The 1983 team wasn’t supposed to be a contender, at least not that I can remember, but it got sultry steamy summery hot at the end of the regular season before steamrolling Tony La Russa’s White Sox and then Philadelphia. That wry grin of relief on Scotty McGregor’s face at the end of the World Series Game 5? Likely a result of the torture of losing the Pirates in Game 7 four years earlier.

1983: Pine Tar

I really wish I could find the Royals broadcast of this. By 1983, our family religiously listened to the Royals radio broadcasts — simply because, well, we could get three or four TV broadcasts every year. All I remember was pandemonium. Basically what you saw when George Brett was called out. Good thing the umps herded together like musk oxen. Otherwise things could have gotten really ugly.

1985: One Call

I missed the last few innings of the 1979 World Series. That didn’t happen this time. Dad never pushed his love of the Cardinals or Reds onto us, which made it convenient for the rest of us to root wholeheartedly for the Royals. And, matter of fact, Dad may well have cheered for the underdog KC because we all have a special place in our hearts for underdogs — unless they are a hated rivals. Any way you look at it, Don Denkinger will go to his grave as persona non grata in StL, but it didn’t help matters that Jack Clark misjudged Steve Balboni’s foul pop and a wild pitch pushed runners to second and third with one out. And once the Royals’ comeback was complete in Game 6, of course the underdogs flattened an unraveling Cardinals team in Game 7.

1988: Kirk Gibson

Another sports moment missed, but not because of bedtime. I was nasty sick for Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, but i made it through 8 1/2 before I finally zonked out. Of course, you know what happened. Vin Scully’s call was pretty cool, come to think of it, but Jack Buck nailed it.

2011: David Freese

I know. Wrong announcer reference. But holy cow.  And the upper-deck shot is a true YouTube moment to end an amazing baseball game.

Football

Since I really don’t have a true favorite team at the professional level, my moments surround Dear Old Nebraska U.

1970: Game of the Century I

OK, you didn’t have to be born yet (I wasn’t for another month or so) to realize this was one of the best games college football has seen. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Huskerland, Sooner Nation or anywhere. And Lyell Bremser’s call of the Johnny Rodgers punt return will stand the test of time for generations.

1984: Heartbreak in Miami

The Huskers were robbed. But they never would have been in a position to need a two-point conversion if they got off to a good start and Mike Rozier stayed unhurt.

1996: The Run

OK, find me a more impressive football run. Yeah, the game was in hand. Yeah, the Gator defense looked like it was on the boat with a Discovery Channel crew. But this…this was flat-out amazing.

Hockey

1980: I Believe in Miracles

No backstory needed.

1996: A 3-OT Cup Winner

Colorado wound up sweeping, and truly dominating, the series, but what a classic game. Regulation and four minutes into a third overtime before anyone scored. Chance after chance for both teams denied by John Vanbiesbrouck and Patrick Roy. Poo-poo the low-scoring games if you want, but this was desperation hockey on both ends by the time it finished and Stanley’s holy grail was handed off.

2006: Alexander the Great Undresses An Entire Team

I’ve seen amazing goals. I was looking for Chris Drury’s goal in the playoffs against the Kings in the 1990s for a case in point (one where he effectively sticked his way through both defensemen and scored on the backhand). Guess I’ll have to settle for this one from Alexander Ovechkin.  Just one of the most amazing feats of individual hockey ever. And, on a totally separate note, I really miss hearing Curt Keilback.

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Free Samples of a Sleep-Deprived Brain

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