BOSTON – When I grew up in suburban Cincinnati, I wanted to do really just one thing with my life. Call play-by-play for the Cincinnati Reds.
Franchester Martin Brennaman. Of all the influences in my childhood, there were my parents, my brother and sister. Then where was the voice of the Reds.
The 77-year-old broadcaster, inducted into the Ford C. Frick broadcasters’ wing of Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2000, will call his final game as the Reds play the Brewers at Great American Ball Park on Sept. 26. That will be the final game of an epic 46-year span broadcasting baseball’s first professional team. He said it was important to him that his final game be in Cincinnati. As always, Marty has a sense for timing and history.
My first memory of Marty was his call of Hank Aaron’s 714th career home run off Jack Billingham, the one that tied him with Babe Ruth. It happened on Opening Day at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium on April 4, 1974. It was also Brennaman’s first game in the Reds broadcast booth replacing Al Michaels, who would go onto a fairly successful career himself with ABC and NBC after staying in Cincinnati for just three seasons (1971-73).
But lucky for Reds fans and me, Brennaman would stick around for the long haul. Brennaman’s beginning in Cincinnati was a product of timing as much as anything else, and it couldn’t have been much better. He came to Southwest Ohio from the Triple-A Tidewater Tides and Virginia Tech football and basketball gigs, and started calling Reds games in midst of the Big Red Machine era.
Like the Cardinals in St. Louis, the Reds have always been a part of Cincinnati’s DNA. And baseball on the radio was the way the region had always followed along loyally to the action. From Waite Hoyt and Red Barber to Michaels and Ken Coleman, the game on the radio was a must-listen part of everyone’s summer nights.
Then came Marty and his beloved baseball partner Joe Nuxhall as the tandem voice of baseball’s most dominant force in the 1970s. It was the perfect marriage of radio entertainment and baseball drama. And I savored every single moment in my adolescence. Marty and Joe became an institutional part of not only my youth but the fabric of my hometown. The Reds starring Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Ken Griffey, Cesar Geronimo and Dave Concepcion were the Great 8 and the team of my youth. But Marty was just as much a part of that dynasty to Cincinnatians. And that’s not hyperbole.
I heard his voice on 700 WLW more than anyone’s in my house and in my dad’s 1970 GTO. And the words I hoped to hear from him more than any other were: “And this one belongs to the Reds!”
The first time he recalls using his trademark expression was when Atlanta’s Darrell Evans lined out to Joe Morgan to deliver the Reds a 7-5 win over the Braves on April 6, 1974, two days after his call of Aaron’s 714th home run. The Reds wouldn’t win their division that year despite 98 wins. But in 1975 and 1976, he provided the soundtrack of the best team in the best sport.
That’s the way I felt, and certainly most of the City of Cincinnati felt. When the Reds finally triumphed over the Red Sox in Game 7 at Fenway, it was Brennaman working the visitor’s clubhouse for NBC, interviewing Joe Morgan and Reds ownership on the dais. I remember this so vividly to this day.
I’ve covered the Red Sox since 1993. And truth be told, every single time I’m in the visitors’ clubhouse at Fenway I picture Marty standing on that platform, sporting his ‘70s wide tab collar blue suit interviewing jubilant Reds players. That night, Oct. 22, 1975, and his interviews of Reds players is something that always stayed with me.
He was equal parts happy and even a tad jubilant for the players, since he traveled with them all season, and professional in his questions and delivery.
He worked that World Series with the titans of the industry, Curt Gowdy, Ned Martin, Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek.
The Reds 1975 highlight album was appropriately entitled “… And This One Belongs To The Reds”. He had the good fortune of calling three Reds World Series victories in ’75, ’76 and ’90.
These are some of the other highlights that Brennaman has called in his hall of fame career:
• Tom Seaver’s only no-hitter in 1978 when Seaver was a member of the Reds
• Pete Rose’s record-breaking 4,192nd career hit in 1985
• Tom Browning’s perfect game in 1988
• Ken Griffey, Jr.’s 500th career home run in 2004 and his 600th in 2008
• Roy Halladay’s no-hitter (second in postseason history) in game one of the 2010 NLDS between Cincinnati and Philadelphia.
• Jay Bruce’s walk off home run to clinch the NL Central divisional title for the Reds in 2010.
• Homer Bailey’s no-hitters against the Pirates in 2012 and against the Giants in 2013.
But this isn’t intended to be as much a remembrance of his unparalleled career calling Reds games as it is a personal note of thanks.
The first time I met Marty was when I was a senior at Villanova in 1988. I obtained a press pass for a Phillies game against the Reds in April with the intent of interviewing the voice of the Reds. It was a sunny weekday evening and I nervously introduced myself as an aspiring broadcaster who wanted to learn the ropes. What were the keys to moving up the ladder in sports broadcasting and how to go about getting that big break? He suggested working in smaller markets, refining the craft of talking to people and measuring your excitement. That meant “don’t oversell every single play as the greatest thing you’ve ever seen.” Those words stuck. And you can apply them even more today in the incredibly reactionary social media culture.
A year later, when I was working my first job at a small station in Northern New York, I made the trek to Olympic Stadium in Montreal as the Expos were playing the Reds. I was hoping to catch up with Brennaman again. He remembered my name after just one meeting at Veterans Stadium. He wanted to know how the decision to enter the broadcasting world was going and I said it’s small market but it’s good.
I could’ve kept on my path to electrical engineering or some other path more stable and lucrative. While covering news and Syracuse University sports early on, I also served as play-by-play voice of the Watertown (N.Y.) Indians of the New York-Penn League, where I first met Don Orsillo (Utica Blue Sox). As it turned out, I stuck with sports, just not as a play-by-play broadcaster. I decided to ultimately find a voice in the written word and podcasting. And I’m totally fine with that.
What continued to stick with me was the passion I heard not only in his call of games but the remarkably genuine tone of the conversations he had with Joe Nuxhall or anyone else he welcomed into the booth over the last four decades. Ask anyone who has worked with the many, like his longtime radio engineer and producer Dave “Yiddy” Armbruster, Brennaman’s ability to make the game part of a conversation is what makes him so very unique.
Vin Scully, who retired after the 2016 season, is someone who painted a picture unlike anyone else in the game. Scully is widely regarded as the most elegant voice the game has ever heard. No argument from me on that one.
Brennaman was not that. Never pretended to be. He was, instead, the person who saw the game the way the fans saw the game. He would point out good and bad, funny and sad and everything in between and pull absolutely no punches. He remains to this day the most honest announcer I have ever heard in sports.
Which brings me to another suggestion he had for me: Always be fair but be honest because your audience (viewers, listeners or readers) can see right through it if you’re not. Brennaman has, over the years, caught significant heat from players who heard Marty’s criticism, often second-hand, and went to the source to voice their ire.
What was Marty’s response? “How many times have I praised you on the air for your performance? How many times have you heard me criticize you?” Those two questions almost always pacified the subject.
Did he occasionally push the envelope? Sure. It wouldn’t be Marty if he didn’t.
Speaking of 1988, that was the year Brennaman and Nuxhall appeared before National League President Bart Giamatti in New York City answering accusations that Brennaman incited the crowd to cause a delay of game after an altercation between Reds manager Pete Rose and umpire Dave Pallone. After Rose was ejected from the game and Brennaman criticized Pallone during the live radio broadcast, fans at Riverfront littered the field with debris, leading to a game delay. Marty wasn’t about to back down.
“I still maintain we were right”, Brennaman said. “I’ll never apologize for that. They accused us of inciting a riot. I don’t think we did then, and I don’t think we did now.”
He tore into the Cubs fans at Wrigley in April 2008 for throwing multiple balls back onto the field when Adam Dunn homered to the bleachers.
“This is the kind of thing, quite honestly, right now, that makes you want to see the Chicago Cubs team lose,” Brennaman’s rant began. “Among all baseball fans, and I can’t attest to the Yankees or Red Sox, because we don’t see them with any degree of regularity unless it’s inter-league play, but far and away the most obnoxious fans in baseball, in this league, are those who follow this team right here.”
Those words cut right to the heart of who Marty is. He was thinking what most Reds fans were thinking. And he didn’t hold back. Apparently, they forgive in the Windy City as the Cubs gave Marty the ‘46’ from the Wrigley Scoreboard as he called his final road game on Wednesday, a 3-2 Reds’ win in 10 innings.
Marty shared that bluntness with another very dear friend of mine, the late Carl Beane, the former Red Sox PA announcer at Fenway Park who passed away in 2012. I remember sitting in the front row of the Fenway press box in 2005 when the Reds visited Boston for the first time since 1975. I looked to my right and there was Marty writing with his left hand and just down the way from him in the PA booth was Carl, doing likewise. There was a true symmetry. It was one of the surreal moments in a career of them at Fenway.
I’ll always remember Ken Griffey Jr. sitting down with me once in the Great American Ball Park clubhouse before a Reds game in 2006. We chatted about everything including the Reds legendary announcer. Griffey told me that he respected Marty but sometimes the broadcaster just didn’t see things the way the player does. I replied along the lines of “… but his job is to see things the way the fan does.” The light went on. Understand that Marty not only called Junior’s games but his dad’s stint with the Big Red Machine. A thick skin wasn’t optional on that club. It was mandatory.
I’ve had the great fortune of staying in touch with Brennaman over the years and have even introduced my daughters Janie and Emma to their dad’s idol in the Reds booth at Great American (thanks Yid). Funny, I always thought the University of North Carolina would be a great landing spot for Janie since it was Marty’s school. She wound up choosing Miami (Ohio).
Hours after listening to his call of the Reds Opening Day contest, I remember getting a call from him minutes before the epic 2016 National Championship featuring our two alma maters. I was telling him it should be a great, close game and it would come down to the wire. Then he added, “All that’s great but who’s going to win?” “I think Villanova,” I said hopefully. It was very much his way of getting a direct answer. Don’t beat around the bush with vague generalities. Go out on a limb. Take a stance.
As for Emma, she shares the same birthday as Marty, July 28. What are the odds? If you believe in astrology, Marty and Emma share an unabashed passion for directness. You know where you stand with both of them almost immediately and they don’t hold back.
I’ll always be grateful to Jeff Horrigan, who covered the Red Sox for the Boston Herald in the mid-2000s. He knew of my appreciation for Marty and delivered a print of Marty and Joe that hangs in the “Big Red Machine” wing of my house to this day.
The irony of all of this might be the fact that Brennaman nearly landed in Boston, not Cincinnati, in the early 70s. But the Boston situation didn’t work out. Thankfully for me and millions of Reds fans, he found his home in Cincinnati and never left.
If you’re lucky, you get to meet someone outside your immediate family who inspired you in life. If you’re really fortunate, you get to know them and develop a friendship and bond. Those are the ones that stick with you for a lifetime. And that’s what I’ll remember the most about the last 46 years. And those memories will always belong to me. Thank you, Marty.