Touch 'em All: Denny Matthews and Dave Niehaus on Cooperstown, the problem with kids today and grown men crying
This sit down was done a few weeks back when the Mariners were in town. Around the Horn wanted to wait for the right moment to post it and today seems very fitting. We had the extreme privilege of sitting down with two Hall of Famers during the Seattle series, our very own Denny Matthews, the 2007 Ford C. Frick Award winner and the 2008 Frick winner, Dave Niehaus, the Voice of the Mariners.
Niehaus entered the 2008 season having missed just 82 Mariners games. He had broadcast 4,817 of the Seattle’s 4,899 games, missing 21 in 1996 for medical reasons. He threw out the first pitch during the inaugural game at Seattle’s Safeco Field and his expressions for home runs like “My Oh My” and “It will fly away” are recognized throughout the Northwest and across the country. He was also an inaugural member of the Mariners’ team Hall of Fame.
With Cooperstown induction ceremonies happening today, we figured it would be the perfect time for the roundtable interview we held. Around the Horn grabbed Matthews and Niehaus before the Friday night game of the Mariners series and found a quiet, secluded space in Kauffman Stadium (the mail room, an hour and 15 minutes before game time and 15 minutes before Dave had to be on-air). Once we had them together, we let the Hall of Famers do their thing.
Around the Horn: What does it mean to be a Ford C. Frick Award winner and be honored at the Hall of Fame, the same place that so many players you’ve covered and watched are honored?
Dave Niehaus: Well, first of all, I don’t know about Denny, but I never expected it. It came out of the blue to me. As a matter of fact, it happened on my birthday, February the 19th, and I didn’t even know that was the day they were giving out the award. I’d known that for several years, I’d been one of the finalists. But if it happens, it happens, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
As far as what it means to me – it means everything. Denny was the 31st, I’ll be the 32nd. There are only 32 guys who have won this award. After all this is our Oscar, our Academy Award.
I’d never been to Cooperstown until Memorial Day weekend and I went there to talk to Curt Smith on a “Voices of the Game” show. It was an epiphany for me. It really was – not only Cooperstown itself, but going up there that particular weekend and seeing all those American flags. But for me as a kid growing up in Southern Indiana, wash out on the line with real wooden clothes pins; it was right off of a Saturday Evening Post magazine cover. It was Norman Rockwell-ish.
When I got there and was taken in and taken to private places that Denny’s been but few people get to go downstairs and put the white gloves on and touch artifacts that nobody else gets to touch. It’s unbelievable. Then, when you get in the actual place where they have the plaques. You walk in there and it’s like going to church. I mean people speak in whispers there. You can almost hear the echoes in there because it’s a really holy place. I mean after all Christians have Rome. And Jews having the Wailing Wall. And I suppose Islam has Mecca. Baseball fans have Cooperstown. And that’s exactly the way I felt. I felt like it was a holy place. So that’s a very short answer for you.
Denny Matthews: It buckles you really. I’m with Dave. I started to think the day after they announced it for me, if there was a higher award for baseball/broadcasting. And I thought about it for three of four minutes and you know what, there isn’t. There’s none higher. It’s just one of those things that, it’s a once in a lifetime obviously.
I asked George Brett because George went in, in 1999. He was prepping me and I was trying to pick his brain, what to expect and everything. And he said it will be four of the fastest and most unforgettable days of your life. And he said “Slow it down as best you can. Soak it all in and just enjoy the heck out of it.” And that’s pretty good advice.
I tried to do that. I think I did a pretty good job. But it does go fast because there’s so much going on. It will go by in a flash. But if you can slow it down and just kind of soak in every moment, talk to all the guys and hear the stories. The way that they embrace you, it’s a quite a deal.
Niehaus: I’ve been told about exactly what you said. As a matter of fact, that weekend, Memorial Day weekend, we were in playing the Yankees and I took the one game off to go up there and do this. And Reggie Jackson and I went up there on Saturday, so Friday night I was standing around the batting cages as the Yankees were taking batting practice and I went up to him and said “What’s it like when you get up there to talk.” And he said “Let me give you some advice.” And I said “What’s that?” And he said “Don’t turn around and look behind you.” (Denny starts laughing)
He said “You’ll see all those Hall of Famers up there and it will be intimidating.” He said, “You’ll break down.” So I don’t know whether I will or I won’t. But that’s good advice right?
Matthews: Oh absolutely. And what’s really cool after you’re done with your speech, they’ll come over and shake your hand and say “Oh, that was fun,” or “Great stories,” or you know “Good job.” These guys slapping you on the back and telling you what a good job you did, it’s like “Wow.” You feel like you’re 3,000 feet in the air. It’s really amazing.
ATH: The two of you have probably seen more games for your respective ball clubs than anyone else associated with your franchise. Denny, you’ve been with the Royals since their inception in 1969 and Dave you’ve been with the Mariners since they began in 1977. What does it mean to be the guy that is sort of a walking history book for your organization?
Matthews: It carries some responsibility with it doesn’t it?
Niehaus: Yeah, it does. First of all, I’m sure Denny, as well as I have probably had chances to go other places. Once you have your taproot in a place, its tough to go somewhere else. He’s from the Midwest and I’m from the Midwest, but I ended up in Seattle. I was with the Angels for ten years before that. But I was the No. 3 guy there and I got to go to Seattle and be the No. 1 guy and become a part of the community. We didn’t win too many ballgames. We weren’t a .500 ball club until 1991.
But you become a part of the family up there. People look forward to hearing you every spring. You become a part of their life. I think the things that are important to me are the people that listen to you are the people that don’t necessarily buy the tickets. These are the people that are the shut-ins, the people that can’t come to the ballpark. One of the highest awards I’ve ever received is I was honored by the Washington State Society for the Blind because people said they could see the game through my eyes. And that tells me that you are doing your job when you do that.
So that means a lot to me to be able to have done almost every Mariner game. We’ve had more downs than ups. But I do the games for exactly what they are, one through 162 every season. And they say, “Do you ever get down?” No, I never get down. I’ve never been paid to go to work in my life for crying out loud. I go to the ballpark everyday and if you love the game, that’s not work.
Matthews: One of the common questions and I’m sure you get it too is, when the team is bad, how do you keep your enthusiasm and so on. I’ve always said if the team is not playing well, I’ve got to be even better.
Matthews: If I’m only as good as the team is playing, I ought to try another profession.
It’s a special thing to be with one team now. With all the cable and everything, it’s very rare now for a guy to be with one team exclusively. And that was kind of the neat thing about the class of last year with Tony Gwynn and (Cal) Ripken and Rick Hummel from St. Louis who won the writer’s award and myself, all four of us had been with one organization…period. That probably will never happen again.
Niehaus: Yeah. Not only that. Denny was brought up and I was brought up on radio. Kids today are being brought up watching television, probably more than listening to the radio. I think being brought up on television perhaps takes away from some of the skill in being able to describe ballgames and use the English language. Gene Autry – and I might even use this in my speech, I don’t know – but Gene Autry, my first boss who owned the Angels said “David, you call a hell of a game. Not the game I’m watching but a hell of a game.” (Denny starts laughing again)
So I might be representing some of the guys who put a little bit of whipped cream and a cherry on top of the game. But you’re able to expand a little bit on radio. Whereas on television you’re a slave to what the producer and director put on that box and tell you to say. I was brought up listening to the radio. I grew up in southern Indiana and on a night like this when the fireflies are out, you’ve got the watermelon floating in the No. 10 washtub and I had this old floor model Zenith radio and I heard this voice coming from a distance out there, “It might be, it could be..” I’d rise off my seat three or four inches every time. Harry Caray put this game on such a level for me that they were gods. I went to my first Major League game at old Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis and I was never so disappointed in my life. I found out they were just normal people and not gods.
Matthews: (turning to Dave and totally forgetting about Around the Horn to start his own interview, which is what we were hoping) Did you ever take your radio and twist the dial at night and try to get different games?
Niehaus: Yeah, yeah. Especially back here (in the Midwest). Yeah, you could get Chicag (apparently, growing up in southern Indiana, you leave the “o” off of Chicago). You could get Pittsburgh, you get Cincinnati, you get Kansas City.
Niehaus: Yeah, you could get Detroit.
Matthews: Yeah. That was fun. That was the deal when you were growing up. I had fun. My dad was a Cardinal fan so from the time I’m three or four years old, the game was on at the house. I could care less obviously. I kind of knew what was going on. But now you’re seven, eight, nine years old and now you begin to pay attention and you want to play. Playing is all you want to do at that age. I didn’t know about broadcasting. I never thought about technology.
ATH: I’ve gotten so wrapped up in what you guys were talking about; I’ve forgotten what my next question was going to be.
Matthews: Well, it was a good one.
ATH: Denny, what kind of advice do you have for Dave in making his speech?
Matthews: It will be four of the fastest days of your life. What George told me was great advice. Cal Ripken – they have a big party on Saturday night with the families all there and big round tables – Ripken’s family and my family were side-by-side. And after everybody had finished eating, I thought it was kind of a classy move. He took his chair and maybe he was tired of talking to everybody in his family, but he came over to our table. He just turned his chair around and started talking to everybody at our table.
And I said to him, “So when do we start to get nervous about our speeches?” And he said “How about now?” I said, “Well yeah.” And he said, “The thing is, I’ve got two places in my speech where I know I’m going to have to back off. It’s going to get very emotional.” And I said, “Yeah, I’ve got a couple of places in mine too and I know where they are.” He thought for a second and he said, “You know what, if we’re not excited and emotional about tomorrow, then we have no business being here.”
Niehaus: Maybe the most impressive speech ever made there lasted about 30 to 45 seconds and that was in 2001. It happens to be a friend of mine. Bill Mazeroski got up there and was overcome with emotion. I’m not sure he even spoke one moment – started crying, sat down and received maybe the biggest ovation ever received. It showed how much he loved the game. I’m sure I’ll be very emotional. That’s the way I am now, even thinking about it and I tear up.
I haven’t written one word yet. I have an idea of what I want to say. But I haven’t written one word and probably won’t until I get to Cooperstown. It’s really overwhelming to me to think that I am even there. The only thing I can relate this to is there’s a popular kid’s show that comes on every Christmas, The Polar Express. You know what I’m talking about? Where these kids go up to the North Pole and they all go up there with belief. And Santa Claus is there and he gives this one kid a bell. And they go back and drop him off at his house. And he wakes up on Christmas morning and the bell is not there. He’s disappointed and he goes downstairs. He opens a present and there’s the bell. Well, this is my bell.
Matthews: Tom Seaver and I were talking a couple of days before the induction and he said “How do you feel with the build-up to this.” And I said “Well, I’ve got a good analogy. When I was in college and I played football, the game is on Saturday, but the build-up begins on Monday. And as the days go by -Wednesday, Thursday – now the adrenaline is starting to build, the excitement is there and all of a sudden, it’s Saturday and you’ve got a game that afternoon.” And I said to Tom, “Hey, Sunday is game day.” That’s the way I felt. There’s a tremendous build-up and I hadn’t experienced that since college.
Niehaus: I’m going to feel the same way. I can’t wait for the Monday after to get here because it will all be over. And yet, I’m so anticipatory with it coming up, that you can’t wait for it to come also. Monday is going to be a (heck) of a day for me. After the ceremonies, I’ve got to drive to Albany to catch a flight the next morning at seven o’clock to Dallas to do a ball game the next night. So it’s going to be a very busy day. But Sunday is going to be a day that’s chalked full of memories you’ll never forget the rest of your life.
Matthews: Game day.
Niehaus: Game day. That’s right.
Matthews: Sunday’s game day.
ATH: One more question because you’ve both got to run to get on-air. Denny I’d like you to critique Dave’s work and Dave you to critique Denny’s work and just talk for a few seconds about what you hear in the other’s voice.
Niehaus: We don’t get to listen to each other.
Matthews: Exactly. If he had been on in the Midwest when I was a kid, I could probably give you a pretty good run down or vice versa. I do know this: tremendous knowledge, tremendous passion, tremendous excitement, always in the game, great concentration – that’s what it takes. And he brought it up earlier; you have to have a feel for the game, you have to have the language there at your fingertips, to be able paint the picture for the blind person that’s 93-years-old out in Hutchinson, Kansas. As she’s sitting there, that’s the biggest deal of her day, is sitting down and turning on the radio to listen to the Royals or the Mariners as I’m sure Dave can tell you. If you can paint the picture for those people then you are getting your job done.
Niehaus: I feel the same way. I think the number one thing that people who listen to Denny or listen to me, come across with is “These guys are real fans. They love to do what they are doing.” It comes across in your voice. We were talking about bad games, I’ve always thought, just because it’s a bad game, doesn’t mean it’s a bad broadcast. Quite the contrary, I think that’s when you are really challenged, in an 11-1 blowout, a 13-4 game or something like that – to be able to talk and tell stories.
I have great admiration for this man, for anybody who’s in our business and certainly for anybody who’s up on that wall. I’ll be number 32. Let me tell you something, there will be a lot more famous guys than myself or Denny, but as far as I’m concerned and as far as he’s concerned, there will never be anybody more appreciative.
ATH: Thank you both so much for your time. Dave, good luck in Cooperstown. You’ve made a fan out of Around the Horn. We’ll see you again in September and maybe catch back-up with you then. Again, thank you both so much for your time.