By Dennis D’Agostino
Bob Wolff corrupted an entire generation.
Because of him, because of his enthusiasm, knowledge and passion, there are thousands of New Yorkers of a particular vintage who can’t even begin to recall the preamble to the Constitution, or the first lines of the Declaration of Independence, or the opening to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. What our parents and grandparents had to know by heart, we have no shot at whatsoever.
But, boy, we know every word, every line, every inflection, of a certain sequence that begins with, “New York would like to have this ball looped in for the chance, at the steal. . .”
That was only one contribution to our lives, his unforgettable, replayed-forever TV call of the final half-minute of the Knicks’ then-record 18th straight win on November 28, 1969, the frantic last-ditch comeback against Cincinnati that — after the Knicks had scored six points in the final 16 seconds — climaxed with Bob’s breathless final benediction, “What a game! What a game!”
Bob Wolff’s charmed, magical, magnificent life ended on July 15 at the age of 96, and there is no way, really, to do it any sort of justice, just as it is impossible to comprehend the breadth of his career. He interviewed Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. In Washington, he worked for Clark Griffith and broadcasted games managed by Connie Mack, two Baseball Hall of Famers born in the shadow of the Civil War. He was one of the very first to appear on commercial TV with any regularity, in the nation’s capital, years before Lucy and Uncle Miltie.
He was, in deed and fact, the nation’s longest-running active sportscaster (a few years ago, he received official certification of that fact from the Guinness World Record folks). He, Curt Gowdy and Dick Enberg are the only individuals honored with the annual broadcasting award by both the Baseball and Basketball Halls of Fame.
So many of America’s greatest sports moments belong to him. His masterpiece, of course, was Don Larsen’s World Series perfect game in 1956, which he did on national radio. But there were so many others, too numerous to count. The Giants-Colts overtime championship game in 1958. Bob Cousy’s final game, in which the Cooz shook off a sprained ankle and capped a Finals clincher against the Lakers in 1963. Jackie Robinson’s last hit, a walkoff winner against the Yankees barely 24 hours after Larsen’s perfecto (“Brooklyn wins!!” he shouted). The 1962 Giants-Dodgers Playoff, in which Game Two went so long (four hours and 18 minutes for nine innings. . .today, that gets you about five innings of Red Sox-Yankees) that Bob spent most of the last hour apologizing for cancelling the NBC prime-time schedule on the East Coast.
And amid all the biggest moments on the biggest stages, Bob Wolff was part of the very fabric of Madison Square Garden.
He did the Knicks on TV, off and on, for almost 30 years, starting in the early 1950s on channel 11. He did the Rangers for nearly 20. He was the Garden’s PR man during the move from 49th Street to 33rd. He did the NIT and the Holiday Festival and the Millrose Games and, yes, even the dog show (one of George Kalinsky’s most famous photos, which fit Bob’s offbeat side perfectly, involved the clever cropping of Bob donning a tux, mike in hand, interviewing a prized pooch one-on-one).
So it was Bob on the TV side during all those magnificent Knicks moments. . .the 18th straight win over Cincinnati, the Jerry West shot in 1970 (“He makes it! West threw it up and makes it! Over half-court!”); the 1972 comeback against Kareem, Oscar and the Bucks; the lockerroom celebration at the Forum in 1973, which he worked for ABC. . .and the Christmas 1985 double-overtime comeback win against the Celtics, when Marv Albert had to leave the radio booth to do his 6 p.m. report on ch. 4, and Bob, a courtside spectator, was tapped on the shoulder and asked to fill the seat next to John Andariese as the game approached the three-hour mark. Glad to oblige.
Bob worked with a series of partners on Knicks games, going back to Bud Palmer, Sonny Hertzberg and Tommy Byrnes, all NBA pioneers. But no partner was ever more identified with him — indeed, few broadcast teams have been as successful — than Cal Ramsey, the former NYU star who joined the TV team in 1972.
Cal may have been, to borrow Walt Frazier’s words, a precocious neophyte. And the relationship got off to a rocky start. . .to this day, Ramsey delights in the memory of Wolff making his first visit to Cal’s uptown apartment, and promptly sitting on his cat. But they became one. . .Bob-and-Cal. It was Bob who guided, prodded, encouraged and taught Cal the broadcasting ropes. . .and in that very first year together they presided over a Knicks championship on ch. 9 and Manhattan Cable while making a cult hero out of the last man on the bench, Harthorne Nathaniel Wingo, Junior.
Ramsey’s blossoming from a basketball gypsy to a renowned announcer under Wolff’s guidance is a prime example of what will surely endure as Bob Wolff’s greatest legacy, now and forever.
Cut away all the years and all the awards and all the accomplishments, move past Larsen and Cousy and Alan Ameche and that incredible Knicks comeback in Cleveland, and remember this. . .
Bob Wolff was, without question, the most accessible big name that sportscasting has ever known. There is no way to tell how many young people he mentored, how many fledgling announcers whose careers he guided, or, most important, how many thousands of on-the-street fans he would meet, chat up, share his life with.
It didn’t matter who you were, how big or little you were, or how much you could or couldn’t do for him. It didn’t matter if you were the head coach of the Knicks, or a Westchester high school athlete honored on his longtime radio show, or just one of thousands of youngsters dreaming about a career in sports. Bob Wolff had the time for you, and his interest in you, your life, your hopes and dreams, was genuine. And for those who could help him, his appreciation knew no bounds.
We all shared him, but none more than his life partner, his beloved Jane, the Navy nurse who was his wife for a staggering 72 years.
Wherever you saw Bob, Jane was never far behind. Last year, when a friend called Bob to wish him a happy anniversary, he said innocently, “Oh, is today something special?”, which was the instant cue for Jane to chime in, loudly, “It’s our anniversary, you dummy!”
Jane was his main accomplice in his final major broadcasting gig, his nightly (and then weekly) commentaries on News 12 that ended earlier this year. Jane would faithfully drive him to the studios in Long Island and Westchester, since, in Bob’s words, “I’m a terrific driver, I’m just a bad navigator.”
As detail-oriented and buttoned-down as he could be — he kept meticulous files and cataloged nearly every piece of film and tape he could — Bob also had a mischievous side. In Washington, his musical depreciation group, the Singing Senators (which included the likes of Albie Pearson, Jim Lemon and Roy Sievers), made it all the way to the NBC Today Show. He once did a typical fan-in-the-stands interview and asked his subject where he worked. A fellow named Richard Nixon replied, “Well, I work for the government.”
Bob titled one of his memoirs, “It’s Not Who Won or Lost the Game —- It’s How You Sold the Beer.” He wrote the last of his shelf-full of books at age 90, yet still stressed that he had at least one more in him.
It may have been easy, in the later years, to take Bob for granted for the simple reason that he was always there, always active, always on the other end of the phone.
From this corner, two days were always earmarked for a call to the Wolff home. One was his birthday, the same date as fellow Hall of Famer Vin Scully’s, only seven years earlier. (The mere thought of anyone actually predating Vin Scully in sportscasting is mind-boggling enough, but Bob did just that with a decade to spare). The other would be on Cinco de Mayo, otherwise known as Bob and Jane’s anniversary.
The last time we spoke, Bob admitted that he was having a tough time getting around. “If the Rockettes call and offer me that job,” he said sheepishly, “I might not be able to accept.”
It was a concession to his years, to be sure. But the voice — ah, the voice — was still there, even in his mid-‘90s. Along with everything else Bob Wolff meant to so many of us. . .friendship, and loyalty, and humility, and longevity, and excellence.
He left us all that and so much more, including that night in Cleveland, the one we can still recite, word for word.
What a game, indeed. What a voice. What a life.