The voice from 59 ballparks

As birthday parties go, it would have been a huge turnout. For a major league baseball game on a weekend, it was a small gathering. The number in question is 17,291. That was the head count at Minute Maid Park last Sunday to see an afternoon contest between the best (the Reds) and the worst (the Astros) of the National League Central—and to celebrate broadcaster Milo Hamilton’s 85th birthday.

It would have been nice to see more people on hand for Hamilton’s big day, but the same would be true for just about any other Astros game this season. The Astros had a sellout against Colorado on April 6, the last National League Opening Day in Astros’ history. They had another sellout on May 19 for a game against the cross-state rival Rangers. No other game has been close.

As of Milo Hamilton’s birthday, the Astros were averaging 20,605 per game, which is just a smidgen over 50 percent capacity, last in the National League and 27th out of 30 in major league ball. It’s interesting to note that if Houston were already in the American League, the bottom eight slots in attendance would all belong to American League teams. If the American League still had a president, he would doubtless be concerned.

After last year’s 106-loss season, expectations were low this year in Houston. Respectability would have been a big step forward, and at the season’s outset, it appeared .500 ball was a possibility. As late as May 26, the Astros were 22-24.

Then the wheels came off. The Astros made nationwide baseball news when they lost 34 games out of 38, the worst showing for a National League team over such a span since 1899! And that team, the Cleveland Spiders, was a special case, as the team was purposely gutted by the owners, who also owned the St. Louis franchise and transferred the best players there. True, the Astros have sold or traded their most recognizable players, but at least they got prospects in return.

Predictably, manager Brad Mills was fired and Tony DeFrancesco, manager of the Oklahoma City Redhawks, the Astros’ Triple-A affiliate, was named interim manager. That’s a backhand way of saying that the Astros have kissed off the season but wanted to look as though they are doing something. My guess is that the Astros will go with a new manager for their American League debut in 2013 and DeFrancesco will be back at Triple-A or be offered another job in the organization.

The Astros stood at 41-92 on Milo Hamilton’s birthday. With another month in the season from that point, another 100-loss season is all but assured. Surpassing last season’s 106-loss season—the worst in franchise history—is likely. Even in the franchise’s earliest years as the Colt .45s (1962-1964), a Houston team never lost 100 games.

On Hamilton’s big day, the first 10,000 fans received a Milo Hamilton bobblehead, and Hamilton received a birthday cake. Also, he was granted a place on the Houston Baseball Media Wall of Honor. A plaque honoring him will hang in the press box at Minute Maid Park.

Of course, it would have been nice if the Astros could have come up with a victory to cap off the festivities. Not that Hamilton hasn’t seen plenty of losses. After all, he has broadcast more than 4,000 games, counting spring training and postseason contests.

Actually, victory was within the Astros’ grasp. Starting pitcher Bud Norris held the Reds scoreless for six, José Valdez added another scoreless inning, and the Astros were up 3-0 after seven. Then the bullpen melted down, and the Reds scored five in the eighth inning off Hector Ambriz, Xavier Cedeño and Wilton Lopez. The big hit was a three-run homer by Jay Bruce. And so the score remained Reds 5, Astros 3. It was a come-from-behind win for a team hoping to win 100 or more, and a late-inning loss for a team looking to lose 100 or more.

In fact, the Houston Chronicle is monitoring the Astros’ losses daily. The paper tracks the number of losses, the projected total at the end of the season, and how far the team is from tying the 1962 Mets’ record of 120 losses.

“Not with a bang but with a whimper” is the way the Astros are going out—and 2012 season marks the end of an era in more ways than one. It’s the conclusion of the first half-century of major league ball in Houston, the conclusion of the team’s National League history, and the end of Milo Hamilton’s 28 years of broadcasting Astros’ baseball.

Unfortunately, the team’s losing ways make it difficult to celebrate anything, and all the games in throwback uniforms, all the giveaways—bobbleheads, retro jerseys, caps and T-shirts, et al.—can’t take away the stigma of the current season. In a sense, a 100-loss season would bring Milo Hamilton full circle, as the St. Louis Browns went 54-100 in 1953, his first year broadcasting major league baseball.

Now for those of you keeping score at home, Hamilton is actually a little older than Vin Scully (Hamilton DOB: 9/2/27; Scully DOB: 11/29/27). Scully got an earlier start and has spent his entire career with the Dodgers, starting in 1950. His 63 seasons with one team is another of those baseball records that may never be broken.

Scully’s 63 seasons with more than one team is also unlikely to be equaled, but Hamilton’s record isn’t too shabby. After breaking in with the Browns during their last year in St. Louis, Hamilton went to work for the Cardinals, among other teams. He had a few years when he wasn’t doing baseball, so his baseball career stands at 57, not 60 years.

Perhaps most remarkable, Hamilton’s longevity in the broadcast booth has come despite being fired from a number of his jobs. There aren’t that many broadcasting jobs in big league baseball, so if you can readily find another job after being canned, then you must be pretty good at what you do.

In addition to the Browns and Cardinals, Hamilton has worked for the Cubs (twice), the White Sox, the Braves, the Pirates, and (since 1985) the Astros. Since 2006, he has worked only home games and select away games.

Hamilton’s lengthy career has enabled him to broadcast from 59 big league ballparks. Considering there were only 16 teams when he started and, even now, only 30 teams, that is an impressive career achievement. It encompasses the classic ballparks, the doughnut-shaped, multi-purpose stadiums, and the retro/modern parks of the last 20 years.

And Hamilton isn’t finished yet. He’s planning to visit the broadcast booth at Comerica Park in Detroit when the Astros play there next season. That will bring him to an even 60 ballparks—a Ruthian number for a man who was born the year Ruth set his record! In fact, at some point when Hamilton is on the air in Detroit, he should repeat the statement Ruth made after he hit his 60th home run: “Sixty, count ‘em, sixty! Let’s see some son of a bitch match that!” After all, it’s not like Hamilton has to worry about job security.

Ruth, of course has been matched, but I doubt that Hamilton will be. I don’t know if broadcasts from different major league parks is tracked by any of the game’s official record-keepers, but it’s hard to imagine anyone surpassing Hamilton. With new American League parks in the offing for Oakland and Tampa Bay, he may hit 62 if he can maintain his health to, say, his 90th birthday.

To put Hamilton’s role in baseball history in perspective, consider that he was already 35 years old when Jamie Moyer was born. Moyer didn’t quite make it to age 50 on the mound this year; Roger Clemens did, albeit for an independent league team. That’s impressive, but I think broadcasting baseball at age 85 is just as remarkable. Hell, just working—doing anything—at age 85 is remarkable. Now that I think of it, just living to age 85 is pretty good, though I might feel differently if I make it to 84.

Ideally, every major league team should have a long-term broadcaster like Hamilton to provide continuity. Some of the radio and TV announcers may change, but ideally every team should have one voice that is familiar to more than one generation. Players, managers, owners, and ballparks come and go, but good broadcasters go on … not quite forever but close to it. With all the unfamiliar names in the Astros’ lineup in September, 2012, the sound of Milo Hamilton’s voice on the radio must be reassuring to hard-core Houston fans.

As you might expect, Hamilton has been honored with more than a bobblehead and a birthday cake during his career. For starters, a street in downtown Houston has been named Milo Hamilton Way. Also, he has been inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame, the Texas Radio Hall of Fame, the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame, the Iowa Baseball Hall of Fame (he is a native of Fairfield, Iowa), and he is the recipient of the Ford Frick award presented by the National Baseball Hall of Fame. To give you an idea of how long he’s been around, that last award, which would be the ultimate tribute to any play-by-play announcer, was bestowed on him 20 years ago!

Like every legendary broadcaster, Hamilton has a pet phrase, namely “Holy Toledo!” When he goes to Detroit in 2013, he really should consider a side trip to Toledo. He owes the town that much and it’s only about 50 miles from Detroit. Besides, Hamilton has been so busy broadcasting major league ball, he’s missed out on a lot of minor league action—and if he’s never seen the Toledo Mud Hens in action, he really hasn’t touched all the bases!

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Comments

  1. Joe Pilla said...

    Compared to Mr. Hamilton, Vin Scully has been relatively lucky, broadcasting more winning seasons than losing ones with the Dodgers.
    When a team has an egregiously losing season—or run of seasons—like the Astros, it’s the broadcasters, especially the old pros like Milo, who I feel sorriest for. There they are, game after game, having to describe the Titanic sinking or the Hindenburg blowing up, and trying to be lively and entertaining.
    The late Bob Murphy had a 40+ year run calling play-by-play for the Mets. Murphy was often remarkably cheery when you consider the horrors he witnessed all too often during the Amazins’ (many) dire seasons. There were appalling moments, particularly in his later years, during another monotonous game in a hapless season, when I wished Bob would have said, “That’s it! Let someone ELSE do the ‘happy’ recap.” and bolt for the parking lot.
    But, he—like Milo and Vin—was a pro to the core, his welcome, familiar voice filling the nights with balls and strikes, and the simple pleasures to be found in even the humblest major league baseball.

    On another note, wasn’t Milo fired from his Atlanta gig (I remember listening to him when I lived there in the mid-‘70s. Talk about thankless jobs!) when he simply reported on air—a la Red Barber with the Yankees in the mid ‘60s—the paucity of a crowd (under 1000, I believe) at a game in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
    Milo—like Red—bless him, calls ‘em the way he sees’ em…and may he do so as long as he wants.

  2. Marc Schneider said...

    Milo burned a lot of bridges wherever he went.  In Atlanta,he got in a spat with Hank Aaron as I remember.  I also remember him chastising the Atlanta fans on air for not turning out after the Braves had had a good road trip early in the season.  But the Braves ended up in last place so his ardor may have been misplaced. 

    I always liked Milo as an announcer.

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