Dave Niehaus was not the Mariners’ only broadcaster, but he was the most beloved.
He’s the one most people remember when they think about listening to Ms’ games. It was his voice that created thousands of fans and millions of memories. His death from a heart attack on November 10 caused the kind of grief throughout the Pacific Northwest usually reserved for close family members. Come to think about it, Niehaus was family to his listeners.
Niehaus was born and raised in Indiana. Growing up there he found a role model in Cardinals’ (later Cubs’) broadcaster Harry Karay. Niehaus had wanted to be a dentist when he started attending Indiana University, but before long he decided that a lifetime of staring into people’s mouths was not for him. After a visit to the university’s broadcast studio he changed his career plans to broadcasting.
Niehaus started out with the Armed Forces radio and television networks before going to work for the California Angels in 1969. When the Mariners were preparing for their first season, movie star Danny Kaye, part-owner of the expansion team, recruited Niehaus to be their radio voice. From the first pitch in the Kingdome on April 6, 1977, to the final out of the 2010 season on October 3rd, Niehaus was behind the mic for more than ninety percent of the Mariners’ games.
On Dec. 13, more than 3,500 fans came together at Safeco Field for a celebration of Niehaus’ life. It was cold and rainy, but there was plenty of warmth spread around during the nearly two-hour event. Niehaus’ long-time broadcast partner Rick Rizzs was the emcee. He was joined on the podium near the pitcher’s mound by two of Niehaus’ three children, Greta and Andy, along with Ron Fairly, Dan Wilson, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez and long-time Mariner president Chuck Armstrong. Many other family members, close friends, and Mariners’ employers were seated between home plate and the pitcher’s mound. Several others, including Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, Brewers’ broadcaster Bob Uecker and former Mariner Ken Griffey Jr., sent video messages.
Rizzs led off the program by talking matter of factly about how irreplaceable Niehaus had been to the team as well as to baseball. But the memories of over 25 years of working together soon overwhelmed him and he had to stop to compose himself, which proved impossible. “Tom Hanks was wrong,” he said through his sniffles, referring to Hanks’ role in the movie “A League of Their Own.” “There is crying in baseball.”
It took a group hug from Fairly, Wilson, Buhner and Martinez to get him back on track, able to deliver the remainder of his comments. Rizzs said that Niehaus was a great teacher who covered many bad games, especially in the franchise’s early years, but never did a bad broadcast. “He was always fair and told it like it was.”
Niehaus’ daughter Greta Niehaus Dunn thanked the fans for their support during the painful days following her father’s death. “His impact was far greater than we knew,” she said. “It was a gift to us to know this from fans who never met him. That has been a huge help to us.”
Andy, one of two Niehaus sons, said his dad was the same guy in person that he was as a broadcaster. He was an encyclopedia of baseball information who often used his catch phrases around the house, such as “My, oh my, where are my car keys?”
During the 34 years Niehaus worked for the Mariners, he called 5,284 games, missing only 101.
“He didn’t miss the first one until 1982 when I graduated from high school,” Andy recalled. Other graduations, weddings and the births of his six grandchildren were times when he also missed games.
Niehaus also missed a couple of games in 2008, when he was named the 32nd recipient of the Ford C. Frick award and was inducted into the broadcasters’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Andy mentioned that the only time his father lost his composure during his acceptance speech was when he thanked his wife Marilyn for all her contributions to his career. The Niehauses were married for more than 50 years.
Niehaus was the recipient of another award that gave him much pleasure. In 2004, the Washington Council of the Blind presented him with their One World Award. Council member Marlaina Lieberg spoke about why Niehaus got the award. “You didn’t have to see to know what was going on when Dave was on the air.” She added that all his listeners could feel the breeze and picture the field. She and all those who are blind or visually impaired could visualize Ichiro’s batting stance and the unique way Kazuhiro Sasaki threw his pitches, because when Niehaus was at the mike, “eyesight wasn’t necessary.”
Former Mariner broadcaster Ron Fairly, along with Ms’ outfielder Jay Buhner, brought a bit of humor to the proceedings when they discussed Niehaus’ sometimes gaudy wardrobe and his trademark brown leather sandals. Buhner said the combinations Niehaus wore to the park sometimes made everyone think he had gotten dressed in the dark.
Wilson, who caught for the Mariners from 1994 to 2005, thanked the Niehaus family for loaning Dave to the team and the fans. After Wilson retired from the team he eventually found his way to the broadcast booth. “I was more impressed with Dave’s work after I got to the booth,” he said, “especially how Dave would work descriptions of the scenery and weather into his play by play.” Wilson, who hit an inside the park grand slam homerun in 1998, said he couldn’t wait after the game to listen to a replay of Niehaus’ call because he knew it would sound even better than he remembered.
Mariner president Chuck Armstrong, who has been with the organization almost as long as Niehaus (1983-1989, 1992-present), said that Niehaus was, first and foremost, a story teller. “Each game is like a play and Dave would always see something different in each one.” Armstrong concluded the program by announcing that three memorials would be in place for the 2011 season. The players will wear Niehaus commemorative patches, his microphone will be retired, and there are plans for a statue of him. Details will be announced later.
Fittingly, the celebration ended with the crowd singing a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” But they all knew those future ballgames wouldn’t be as rousing without Niehaus behind the mic.
Although Niehaus called many significant games— two no-hitters (Randy Johnson and Chris Bosio), Ichiro breaking George Sisler’s 84-year-old single-season hits record of 257 (262, in 2004), and the Mariners tying the all-time number of wins for a season (116 in 2001)—his great unfulfilled dream was to be able to call a World Series featuring the Mariners. As close as he got to that was in 1995, when the team came from two games down in the ALDS to beat the Yankees three games to two, a series that concluded with Martinez’ famous double down the left field line, the play that produced what was probably Niehaus’ most famous call. The Ms’ were down, 5-4, in the bottom of the eleventh when Martinez stepped to the plate, with Joey Cora and Ken Griffey Jr. on base:
“Right now, the Mariners (are) looking for the tie. They would take a fly ball. They would love a base hit into the gap and they could win it with Junior’s speed. The stretch ... and the 0-1 pitch on the way to Edgar Martinez, swung on and LINED DOWN THE LEFT-FIELD LINE FOR A BASE HIT! HERE COMES JOEY, HERE IS JUNIOR TO THIRD BASE, THEY’RE GOING TO WAVE HIM IN! THE THROW TO THE PLATE WILL BE ... LATE! THE MARINERS ARE GOING TO PLAY FOR THE AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP! I DON’T BELIEVE IT! IT JUST CONTINUES! MY, OH MY!”
Martinez said that he watches the replays of this play over and over just to hear Niehaus’ call.
“He was better than anyone else I ever heard and he gave us a great gift to look back on years from now.”
After demolishing the Yankees, the Mariners went on to play Cleveland in the ALCS, but were beaten two games to four.
When the day comes that the Mariners do become world champions, there will no doubt be a resounding “My, oh my” from on high as Dave Niehaus finally sees his dream realized.