Jack Buck, whose gravelly baritone was the voice of the Cardinals for nearly half a century, often joked about how the news of his death would be received by his listeners.
"Did you hear Jack Buck died in the booth?" asks the first.
"That's too bad," responds the second. "Did the Cards win or lose?"
When Buck, 77, died on June 18 after a lengthy illness, fans were far more somber. It was a reaction Buck never would have expected, because self-deprecation was one of his many admirable traits. At the dedication of a statue in his likeness outside Busch Stadium in 1998 he quipped, "I've given the Cardinals some of the best years of my life. Now I'm going to give them some of the worst."
Remarks like that were what made him so charming. He was unquestionably famous, but he didn't revel in the spotlight. "Jack never turned his back on the idea that you can use recognition that comes from broadcasting to do something besides help your career," says Bob Costas, who got his break at KMOX radio when Buck was the sports director.
To Buck that meant being the emcee at scores of charity events a year, writing a book of poetry to benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation or simply brightening the day of a group of his fans by hanging out with them. So beloved was Buck that his passing was front-page news in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the paper ran a 10-page commemorative section on the day he was buried. Flags flew at half-staff all over the city. A public viewing of his casket at Busch drew 10,000, the biggest baseball send-off since Babe Ruth lay in state at Yankee Stadium for two days in 1948.
Buck, whose son Joe is the lead baseball announcer for Fox Sports and a Cardinals announcer, did the radio broadcast of Monday Night Football for 16 years and spent two seasons as the lead play-by-play man for CBS's baseball broadcasts in the early 1990s. Most of his work in St. Louis was for KMOX, which has a nighttime signal that can reach 42 states. For those fans unlucky enough to live in a city without a major league team in the days before cable TV, Buck's voice was often the only option--and a pretty good one, at that.
By the time he had called his final game, last October, it was hard to find a sports fan in America who couldn't recognize his voice. In St. Louis they remember the great calls that hailed the great Cardinals moments. Take your pick between Ozzie Smith's homer to beat the Dodgers in the 1985 National League Championship Series ("Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!") and Mark McGwire's 61st homer in '98 ("Pardon me while I stand and applaud").
At services last Friday, Buck's daughter Christine said, "He never really got it. He never understood what he meant to this community. He always said, 'I'm a modest man with a lot to be modest about.' We would beg to differ." --Mark Bechtel
COLOR PHOTO: TOM GANNAM/AP
B/W PHOTO: ALLIED PHOTOCOLOR WORD OF MOUTH Buck (left) and Harry Caray were a formidable one-two punch on early Cardinals broadcasts.