Few radio sports broadcasts are as popular as those of Red Sox games when Boston is in a pennant fight. More than 50 stations carry the team to homes, cars, bars and beaches in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, Long Island and other assorted states and provinces. And rarely have the games had a wider audience than right now. The youthful 1975 Red Sox have been causing so much excitement in New England that if the light were to go on in the Old North Church again, it probably would signal: one if by Rice, two if by Lynn.
The Sox have two lucrative broadcasting packages worth $1.6 million a season for television rights and $400,000 a year for radio. The new TV crew of Dick Stockton and Ken (Hawk) Harrelson has received mixed reviews (one critic says, "'Harrelson is doing for instant replays what the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmen"). But the radio team of Ned Martin and Jim Woods is surely one of the finest in the country.
Even so, Martin and Woods may be missing in 1976 if flagship station WHDH fails to renew its contract after 30 years of carrying the Sox. When a new station picks up rights to a team's games, it often prefers to bring in its own announcers.
If that happens, Sox fans will be the big losers. Martin has long been one of New England's most able reporters, and teaming with Woods has brought out the best in him. Woods is baseball's peripatetic "second" announcer, a 58-year-old who has worked for a quarter of the clubs in the majors. Now, after almost 23 big-league seasons and seven in the minors, he still isn't sure he's found a permanent home.
Woods has been second man to such famous broadcasters as the Yankees' Mel Allen and Red Barber and the late Russ Hodges of the Giants. He has teamed with Lindsey Nelson on the Game of the Week, with Jack Buck on Cardinal broadcasts and with Bob Prince on Pirate games.
Woods has been called Possum ever since Enos Slaughter got a look at his burr haircut one day in 1954 and said, "I've seen better heads on a possum." Often during Woods' tenure in Pittsburgh, Prince's wife Betty would introduce Woods' wife Audrey as "Mrs. Possum."
As a youngster Woods was a bat boy for the Kansas City Blues and later studied journalism at the University of Missouri. He quit school to cover local sports on a 100-watt station in Mason City, Iowa. Two years later he began announcing University of Iowa football games, when a young sports-caster named Ronald Reagan left that job to sign a Hollywood contract.
In 1948 Woods benefited from what may well have been baseball's most bizarre trade. Branch Rickey was running the Dodgers then, and when Barber was taken ill, Rickey phoned Earl Mann, the president of the Atlanta Crackers. Rickey wanted to hire Cracker Announcer Ernie Harwell to replace Barber. Mann and Rickey struck an agreement that sent Catcher Cliff Dapper to the Crackers for Harwell. Woods, sort of the sportscaster-to-be-named-later in the deal, moved into Harwell's job. When the Crackers sold their TV rights for $100,000 the next year, he became the first announcer to do an entire home season of play-by-play on television.
Woods joined the Yanks and Allen in 1953. "I was a little awed by New York at first, but Mel was a tremendous pro and really helped me," he says. "He kept reminding me to complete my sentences. If I said, 'A foul ball back,' he would whisper, 'Back where?' One day I walked into Mel's suite and he was on the phone talking to Joe DiMaggio about Marilyn Monroe. I knew then I was in the big leagues. But the one thing about doing Yankee games was that George Weiss, the general manager, had a hot line into the booth. He would monitor the broadcasts, and often a light on the phone would go on and George would say, 'Too much levity in the booth,' or, 'You aren't promoting the forthcoming White Sox series enough.' "
When Phil Rizzuto retired from shortstop to the broadcasting booth, Woods was eased out of his position with the Yankees and moved over to the New York Giants. The year after that, the Giants went to San Francisco, and Woods heard that the Pirates were looking for an announcer to work alongside Prince. Prince wears remarkable sports jackets, says what he pleases, roots openly for the Pirates and is indeed one of a kind. "A lot of people told me not to work with him," Woods says, "but I finally decided that I wanted to try him on for size. What followed were the best and zaniest 12 years of my career."
In 1970 Woods went to St. Louis for two seasons, but found he liked neither the city nor the Cardinal organization. Charlie Finley was Woods' next employer, and for two years they got along fine. But according to Woods, Finley likes the "Midwestern style of announcing, where the announcer screams on pop flies. At the end of my second year he said to me, 'Jim, you're one of the best announcers when something is happening, but when nothing is going on you don't make it very exciting.' "
In the winter of 1974, not long after Woods had agreed to do the Red Sox games, Finley called. "Jim, I've thought this over and I'd like you to come back."
"Charlie," said Woods, "I've obligated myself to do the Red Sox games for the next two years."
"Jim, everybody knows those contracts aren't worth the paper they are written on," said the man who then was tightening the screws on the contract he had with a manager named Dick Williams.
Of course, Woods honored his Boston commitment, to the delight—hopefully not temporary—of Red Sox fans.
JIM WOODS HAS BEEN NO. 2 FOR 22 SEASONS