Thank You, Mr. Martin – A Tribute
By Shaun Kelly
His distinct tenor, reassuring and cerebral, was the second-most heard male voice of my childhood. Only my father’s fixed baritone surpassed his as the soundtrack of my years growing up in the greater Boston area. For thirty-two summers, with discernable sagacity and style, Ned Martin served as the principal voice of the Boston Red Sox.
In an age where humility and grace slowly receded from our national character, Martin’s modesty and elegance separated him from a host of other announcers – and people. He never intentionally developed a defined signature call for a homerun. The ball was simply, gone.
And yet, he used words as a composer uses the notes on a scale. He seemed to embrace the notion first put forth by Emerson “that every word was once a poem”. There was nothing ever “programmed” about Ned Martin. Cogent phrases seem to tumble from his mouth like falling stars.
Unlike most sports announcers of any era, Ned Martin was able to frequently quote from the most gifted bards of English literature – Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Hemingway – in order to put the narrative of baseball into its proper context. He was a reader, and he brought a reader’s sensibility to each and every broadcast.
Ned Martin was also a deeply-rooted theorist and philosopher. Because he had dipped into the bonfires of hell as a Marine at the close of the Second World War, Ned described each game as an inherent existentialist. Like his beloved Frost, he had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
But Ned Martin was more than just a Red Sox announcer. To me, he served as a personal captain, steering me through the choppy waters of both youth and adolescence – guiding, nurturing, and instructing me as I listened intently, his most loyal and devoted student.
Twelve seasons have passed since he last broadcast a Red Sox game. And yet, when I turn on a ballgame these days, it is Ned’s voice that still echoes. Two years ago, he appeared to be his vigorous, cordial self as he participated in the Ted Williams Tribute at Fenway Park. Less than twenty-four hours later, he was dead.
While hundreds of players have come and gone since he first began to broadcast for the team in 1961, Ned Martin remains for many of us the most indispensable Red Sox figure of them all. As Globe columnist, Bill Griffith wrote in a notable eulogy a week after Ned’s passing, “Today’s broadcasts are slicker and technically superior, but those bygone days were a wonderful time to be a baseball fan in Boston. Long before there was ‘Morgan Magic’ on the field in 1988, there was Martin Magic on radio.”
In a storeroom of searing play-by-play moments, the “magic of Ned Martin” was most evident at the culminating moment of the most beloved team in Boston sports history – the Impossible Dream Red Sox. His celebrated broadcast that afternoon of the last game in the most competitive pennant race in American League history remains the Gold Standard for sports announcers to this day.
To appreciate the wizardry of Ned Martin, one only has to review his lucid play-by-play of the final out of a closely-fought contest between the Sox and the mighty Minnesota Twins in order to demonstrate his obvious luster. Leading 5-3 with two outs in the ninth inning, the Twins harried manager, Cal Ermer, sent up pinch-hitter Rich Reese to face Red Sox ace Jim Lonborg.
As always, Ned Martin provided the scene with absolute precision… “Jim Lonborg is within one out….of his biggest victory ever….,” he began, with a slight tremor in his voice, “….his twenty-second of the year….and his first over the Twins.” Efficient, accurate, to the point.
He then paused – letting the listener take in the scene. Silence was always one of Martin’s most laudable broadcasting attributes.
“The pitch……is looped toward shortstop….”
A living and breathing thesaurus, Martin could have used any of a host of words from his prodigious vocabulary, but he chose, “looped”. My father later described Reese’s popup as “a little squirt from the hose”. Looped was an inspired choice, impeccably capturing the bending flight of the ball.
While the Red Sox announcer was also able to inform the listener where the sphere was heading, there was, at first, no intimation in Martin’s tone whether the ball was going to be caught…..or fall in for a hit. Ned Martin would never impulsively rush to judgment. He was, first and foremost, a patient man. To him, accuracy was the antonym of hyperbole.
However, as the ball began to topple, Ned’s voice hurriedly changed; his tenor commenced to soar as he exclaimed, “Petrocelli’s back….” A hint of expectation in Martin’s voice could now be detected. Because Red Sox fans were so used to Ned’s understated demeanor, thousands and thousands of New Englanders began to raise their arms in joyous expectation.
“He’s got it! The Red Sox win!”
Even in the clutches of euphoria, Martin maintained praiseworthy integrity. The Red Sox win…..win, what? For with that last out, the Red Sox had just tied for the pennant; they would have to wait for the final result of the Tigers-Angels game to determine whether the team would win the AL flag outright – or be forced to play in a one-game playoff against the Detroit nine the following day. Thus, Martin could not really confirm anything official…. except that the Red Sox had won a most critical ball game.
The Sox radio announcer then took in a breath of air, mostly to observe the players and fans who had instantly enveloped the jubilant Lonborg to the right of the pitcher’s mound. Chaos ensued, but Ned Martin was well-equipped to describe it. He immediately punched out, “And there’s pandemonium on the field!”
He could have used havoc, mayhem, commotion, hubbub – but he chose – pandemonium. >From the least-used word for bedlam, pandemonium is, according to Webster’s, “An utterly lawless, riotous place or assemblage.” A toss-off line by Ned Martin – “there’s pandemonium on the field” – immediately entered the general lexicon of an entire region of baseball fans.
The last ingredient of Martin’s call contained just one word – and a cacophony of elation. Mindful that he was describing the action to a radio audience, Ned paused, and then called out, “Listen!”
An opus of horns could be heard – the air-kind that were allowed at the time by management – instruments of exultation that always gave out a piercing glee as they resounded throughout the old ballpark. The fans’ collective primal-shouting verified Martin’s precise account. The resulting din, deftly recorded by WHDH engineer, Al Walker, was nothing less than the single greatest moment in modern Red Sox history. In the end, Ned Martin wanted all of his listeners to join in and swig from the nectar of jubilation.
>From this lens, there were two miracles that occurred that long-ago Sunday afternoon: the 100-to-1 shot Red Sox securing the American League Pennant, and Ned Martin’s flawless, twenty-three second description of the final out of the game.
I first became aware of Mr. Martin in 1964 when I received a new transistor radio for my ninth birthday. As the Red Sox began Spring Training in Scottsdale, Arizona in early March, I began to tune in to the local flagship station at the time, WHDH 850 AM Boston, in order to listen to the handful of Red Sox radio broadcasts emitting from the desert. At the time, Ned was the team’s second broadcaster behind the venerable Curt Gowdy, who was already receiving national exposure as NBC’s chief baseball and football broadcaster.
>From the moment I first heard Martin’s recitations, his unique style was dissimilar in both tone and approach to any other baseball broadcaster at the time. He was cerebral, ironic, expressive, low-key. Even as a nine-year-old, I recognized that Ned was a minimalist in a profession where over-the-top enthusiasm was becoming the norm. Fidelity – not exuberance – seemed to be his modus operendus. And yet, despite his calm overtones, it was also evident that he had a genuine affection for the game.
Like many of us, Ned Martin had fallen in love with baseball at an early age. In an interview conducted with the esteemed Joe Fitzgerald of The Boston Herald, Martin remembered, “One morning when I was about ten, I got up and noticed two cocktail coasters my parents brought home the night before. I looked closer and saw that they’d been autographed by Johnny Marcum and Jimmie Foxx. Foxx! He was like God to me because the Philadelphia Athletics were my team. My folks had seen them in the lounge and my father later told me he was tempted to come home, wake me up and bring me with him but my mother wouldn’t let him, so he got the autographs for me instead. I’ve never forgotten what a thrill that was, or the thrill I later felt when I stood outside Shibe Park and collected the first one on my own, from Skeeter Newsome.”
Ned Martin’s resulting love affair with baseball would last a lifetime. When Fitzgerald asked him about his thoughts on the game, the Red Sox announcer responded, “Red Smith used to say he loved `the music of the game.’ What a great line. There is a music to it, whether it’s the first crack of the bat at Winter Haven, a full house on Opening Day, the murmuration of a meaningless game in July, or the buzz you feel at a World Series.”
“There’s orderliness to it as well, with batting practice, fielding practice, all of the things that take place right up to game time. Yet you can still see something in almost every game that you’ve never seen before. That’s the beauty of baseball, I guess. It’s never predictable, even though it never changes.”
It was clearly evident even at first glance that the unspeakable elements of baseball were what mattered to Martin the most. From his eyes, the game was melodious, elegant, and impeccably graceful. In the end, Martin seemed like a gifted violinist, playing each and every note with both exactitude and poise. After I began listening to Ned’s broadcasts, my father stated, “You know, son, you are listening to a genuine master.”
As I continued to soak in each and every one of his broadcasts, Ned Martin’s imposing array of words and phrases that colored each game left a prevailing, tangible impression on me. Spewing forth from my tiny transistor, Ned’s lucid descriptions provided a landscape that depended not on rank sentiment but on radiant terminology.
For instance, in Martin’s lexis, a baseball might rocket, balloon, soar, sail, glide, dart, float, sputter, plummet, plunge, bound, skip, hop spring, or dribble. A ferocious swing of the bat by Harmon Killebrew could create “a crosswind in the box seats.” Cleveland’s young pitcher, Luis Tiant, “uncoiled” when he delivered “the confused sphere.” Centerfielder Gary Geiger might “coax the ball down to his glove as if by supplication.” Sox reliever Dick Raditz invariably raised his hands in exultation “after setting down a gaggle of Yankees!”
Longtime Red Sox fan Michael Burns remembers, “Growing up as I did in Worcester, Massachusetts, I’ll never forget some of Ned’s beautiful and apt descriptions such as, ‘hung a frozen rope, ‘pool-queue shot’, ‘pealed foul’, ‘maypole dance’ and “the threat goes by the boards,” – phrases that filled so many of his broadcasts over the years. Like many of our fellow Red Sox fans of that era, our family would turn the TV sound down and tune in Ned’s radio play-by-play.”
Ned Martin’s eloquence had a profound affect on my own emerging language. My neighborhood in Wellesley, the embodiment of the Baby Boomer explosion, would often be the setting for gargantuan baseball games sometimes involving forty or more children.
Loquacious and impulsive, I invariably broadcast each game even as I participated in it. Ned Martin’s choice in both syntax and vocabulary slowly became part of my word arsenal. If someone “blistered” the ball between third and short, “skied” to center, or threw a “laser” to home, my voice would invariably echo Ned’s phrases. As Martin’s words began to fill my summer days and nights with the sounds of the game, the Red Sox announcer began to transform me into nimble speaker without me ever realizing it.
As the seasons passed like shuffling cards, I slowly began to absorb a host of literary allusions that made Martin’s episodic brushstrokes even more compelling and influential in the end. One evening, a low-hanging fog shrouded eastern New England, causing the well-lit Fenway Park to appear as a huge firefly in the Back Bay horizon. When the fog continued to encircle the Fens, Ned sighed, “Fog comes/in little cat’s feet.” I glanced up at Mum who was listening intently to Martin’s words. “Sandburg,” she smiled.
Later that year, during a re-cap of a doubleheader with the White Sox in which Boston impossibly came back to win the first game only to lose the second in heartbreaking fashion, Ned began, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
After I looked at the radio in puzzlement, my father explained, “Mr. Martin is referring to the opening passage of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.”
When the cerebral Elston Howard joined the Red Sox for the pennant drive in 1967, Ned perfectly captured Ellie’s prowess as a catcher by quoting Wordsworth: “Wisdom is sometimes nearer when we stoop then when we soar.”
Martin particularly loved to use the words of Shakespeare to help paint the scene for his listeners. Once, when describing the vigorous Dick Williams’ shrewd managerial moves that had resulted in a dramatic victory for the Boston nine, Ned quoted from The Merry Wives of Windsor: “Why, then the world’s mine oyster/which I with sword will open.”
After some blatant luck – a bad bounce – had afforded the Red Sox with a fortunate victory during the 1972 season, Martin used the Bard’s words to summarize the game: “And so, ladies and gentleman, as Shakespeare once wrote, ‘Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.’ Good evening from Fenway Park.'”
Three years later, when he was teemed with the legendary Jim Woods, the two announcers found themselves in an extra-inning contest in Oakland in which both bullpens were outwardly spent. Martin ended up citing Macbeth, much to the astonishment of the blustery Woods: “If you can look into the seeds of time and say, which grain will grow, and which, will not, speak then to me.”
Ernest Hemingway was a particular favorite of Ned’s; he seemed to recognize the pathos that swathed the writer’s work. After a series of managerial movements by Don Zimmer seemed to fall flat for the team in a contest with the Orioles in the late seventies, Martin used a noted Hemingway line as the focal point at the conclusion of a post-game summary. “Never confuse movement with action,” Ned confirmed as he signed off for the evening.
As longtime listeners to his broadcasts eventually discovered, Ned Martin’s obvious passion for words and phrases was instilled in him early on growing up in Upper Merion, Pennsylvania. Later, he would major in English literature at Duke. When he broadcast a game, Martin seemed to personify the very essence of Hemingway’s text that the illustrious wordsmith penned when he finally accepted a deserved Nobel Prize for Literature: “The individual, the great artist when he comes, uses everything that has been discovered or known about his art up to that point, being able to accept or reject in a time so short it seems that knowledge was born with him – rather than that he takes instantly what it takes the ordinary man a lifetime to know. And then the great artist goes beyond what has been done and makes something of his own.”
When we listened at the beach, in our bedrooms, or from our cars to the sage commentary of Ned Martin, we intrinsically recognized that he was truly making “something of his own”. From a personal standpoint, he was also serving as something of a role model, the cerebral reader-baseball fan, who relished Willie Mays as much as John Steinbeck. In the end, Ned’s music became the vinyl for my own developing interest in timeless literature. While I struggled as a reader early on, I soon began to tackle the classics, thanks to the inspiration provided by the “the Voice of the Red Sox”.
The artistry of Ned Martin seemed to soar especially when he was “on the radio side” of the airwaves. Journalist Bill Griffith eloquently explained the culture of broadcasting in the pre-cable days in an ambitious Boston Globe remembrance on Martin: “TV production and replays were still in relative infancy in those days – and telecasts were mostly limited to weekends – so it was common for Sox fans to have the game on radio. Tales of being able to walk down the street and follow the game from the radios on people’s porches were true. Baseball was a game made for listening on summer nights and for youngsters to follow in the time-honored radio-under-the-pillow manner.” As the skillful Art Martone wrote in a poignant tribute to Ned in The Providence Journal two years ago, “Ned Martin’s was the perfect voice for the day-to-day flow of this sport.”
While Ned was both urbane and eloquent, brevity was at the core of his success, a quality that, except for Red Barber, has never been duplicated by any other baseball announcer I have ever encountered. Art Martone lucidly remembered that quality in Pro-Jo a few days after Martin’s death: “He frequently seemed detached from, rather than immersed in, the day-to-day workings of the team and the game . . . and thus was able to provide a context that other announcers could never hope to capture. My favorite Ned Martin call from the 1967 ‘Impossible Dream’ album was not the ‘pandemonium’ clip that everyone’s mentioning today, but from the day before. The Sox were leading the Twins, 3-2, in the eighth inning on Saturday afternoon — remember, they had to win both Saturday and Sunday to stay alive in the race — and Carl Yastrzemski put the game away with a three-run homer off Jim Merritt in the eighth inning. It wasn’t so much the call itself that I liked, but the postscript he added when the cheering began to subside.”
“‘If you’ve just turned your radio on,’ Ned said in a voice tinged with a tiny hint of disbelief, and then he gave just the slightest dramatic pause, ‘it’s happened again. Yastrzemski’s hit a three-run homer, and it’s now 6-2, Red Sox.'”
Martone concluded, “It was perfect. He captured the joy of the moment, the unbelievable, Superman-esque qualities of Yaz’s 1967 season, and the turning of the game in the Sox’ favor, in two brief sentences. He didn’t bellow, he didn’t scream, he didn’t trot out a forced, signature home-run call. Perfect.”
When I received The Impossible Dream album from my parents for Christmas in December 1967, chills literally flushed my cheeks and arms when I heard the Yastrzemski clip for the first time. While a score of team albums would subsequently be released by Fleetwood Records in Revere over the years, none would match the unspoiled quality of The Impossible Dream.
Another Martin cherished clip featured on the same disc – typically understated and sagacious – described Red Sox newcomer Norm Siebern making a triumphant pinch-hit to secure a late Boston rally: “Norm Siebern wastes no time as he raps a ground single in the hole between first and second, scoring Petrocelli with the go-ahead run.”
In 2003, Fleetwood released both The Impossible Dream and Super Sox ’75 in CD form. Not surprisingly, a recent mint-condition “Dream” album went for $108 dollars on E-Bay. Because the Red Sox won two rare pennants during the years that Ned Martin dominated the local airwaves, his memorable radio calls were happily preserved for all-time.
Interestingly, the one signature call he ultimately became famous for, “mercy,” was something that leisurely developed through the lens of time. While “mercy” was often stated after a particularly imposing homerun, strikeout, or fielding play, Ned also used it an interjection of remorse, regret, even pathos. Irony was always at play when Ned Martin broadcast a baseball game.
Red Barber once wrote, “Being on the air for three hours for half-a-year, demands patience, imagination, perspective, and intelligence.” Through the singular vehicle of radio broadcasting, Ned Martin found his true niche as an artist. While he would serve as the team’s television voice for well more than a decade, his work on radio with such partners as Curt Gowdy, Ken Coleman, and Jim Woods, defined him as a Hall of Fame sportscaster.
It should be noted here that until the explosion of cable television in the mid-seventies, radio play-by-play dominated the local sports scene. Each of the four local professional franchises were prominently featured on 50,000 watt stations back then; the teams’ announcers was as identifiable as the squads they covered. And while Ned remained with the Red Sox for over three decades, there was another local announcer who lingered as his team’s play-by-play man even longer than Mr. Martin – the most salient homer to ever describe sports action in the Boston area – the celebrated play-by-play announcer of the Boston Celtics, Johnny Most.
As fragile buds of crocuses began to peer through the rock-strewn soil of Massachusetts each spring, a fan could easily switch from Ned’s evocative eloquence to the rat-a-tat-tat of Most’s unyielding, theatrical narrative – an ongoing saga in which the good guys were forever attired in the green and white. For nearly forty seasons, Johnny Most was able to describe in excruciating detail the heroic plight of a “warranted championship team” that even malevolent referees and hooligan thugs couldn’t conquer. As one Boston sportswriter once commented, “John didn’t broadcasting a basketball game; he thought he was narrating the ‘Passion Play’.”
Unlike the sedan-like quality of Ned Martin, Johnny Most’s voice sounded like a car crash. He would sit, emperor-like, in his haughty perch just below the rickety third balcony at the old Boston Garden, inhaling non-filter after non-filter, creating a minefield of smoke that shrouded him in a perpetually dimming stupor. For more than two hours, Johnny would inexorably describe the proceedings taking place on the historic court below, whining over the inequalities of life even as his team won a gaudy sixteen championships in thirty years.
Amidst Buick-sized rats, plastic beer cups, and drunken louts, his grating voice and discriminating commentary became the adhesive to which legions of Celtic fans embraced in what might have been the most flourishing Off-Broadway production in history. There were very few critics; nearly every Bostonian seemed to warm to his antics like a tepid southerly breeze. An absolute original, Johnny Most made even the most irrelevant game in November seem important.
It is also certain that Johnny’s exaggerated storylines knew no bounds if he was into it that night. His habit for glorious overstatement would invariably be replicated the very next day in countless schoolyards across the Boston area: “Big Red snags the rebound, and gets absolutely cuffed in the stomach by Kareem! Oh my goodness! But, of course, Jake O’Donnell isn’t calling anything because there’s no blood on the court! Do you believe that?”
Even the immortals wore black hats in Johnny’s unambiguous world: “Oscar gets the rebound…… and puts his left elbow right in the face of Satch Sanders! Right in the face! And Manny Sobel has the nerve to call a foul on ‘The Lord!’ The audacity! Well, ladies and gentlemen, those of us who have been blessed to see him in the flesh know that Oscar Robertson would never, ever commit a foul!”
One night, I actually heard him bawl: “Gene Shue just gave his Bullets’ players an armful of tire irons so that they may attack anything out there in green and white….knowing that Mendy Rudolph will call it ‘justifiable homicide!'”
Some of the more unique Mostian broadcasts occurred away from Boston, when opposing fans learned to unmercifully bait such a polarizing figure with aplomb. Inevitably, after being peppered by coffee cups and cigarette butts throughout much of the game, Johnny would growl, “I just got hit by a bagel! They’re throwing things at me, ladies and gentlemen, because the fans here at the Civic Center are frustrated that their shabby, mediocre team always loses to the Celtics!”
It’s not to say that John didn’t have a sense of humor. His recurrent cackle sounded like an old Dodge Dart attempting to start on an arctic January morning. When veteran NBA guard Dave Bing was traded to the C’s, Johnny couldn’t wait to sing out, “The ball goes out to Dave Bing. He backs up to the right of the key as Dynamite Don clears the way. It’s Bing from the corner – Bing……..bang!”
In the end, though, Johnny Most’s calls were both original and extraordinary. His signature phrases became compulsory axioms for an entire region of basketball fans:
“This is Johnny Most high above courtside.”
“Cousy fiddles and diddles – now he daddles.”
“Outside to Sudden Sam – swish!”
“Russ gets the rebound – what a play by Bill Russell!”
“Jarring John tricky-dribbles with the ball…”
“The Celts are fast-breaking to victory as Tiny dishes it off to Larry!”
And, of course, his nightly signoff, “This is Johnny Most – bye for now.”
Indeed, Johnny Most was the Puck to Ned Martin’s Hamlet.
We must remember, however, that the revered Mr. Most was not the only game in town after Ned Martin signed off for the last time each fall. Sharing the radio booth on Causeway Street each winter were the two most proficient play-by-play men to ever broadcast the Boston Bruins, Fred Cusick and Bob Wilson. Both announcers were meticulously prepared, inherently cogent, and naturally engaging. A contest described by either announcer was both compelling and unblemished. Ultimately, Bob Wilson and Fred Cusick served as admirable bridges to Ned Martin each and every year.
However, this did not mean that the local hockey team was always in the capable hands of adroit announcers. When TV38 began to broadcast all seventy Bruins games each season at the pinnacle of the Bobby Orr era, the station named the inane Don Earle and his incoherent sidekick, Pat Egan, as the television voices of Boston’s storied hockey franchise.
Earle, a native of Philadelphia, never knew a clich