Seven decades of sports history
Max Smith, WTOP
WASHINGTON - The sound of Jackie Robinson talking about his experiences with racist teammates. Interviews with Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and heavyweight champions. Play-by-plays of some of the greatest football, baseball, basketball and hockey games ever played.
They are all now in the collections of the Library of Congress.
The recordings will eventually be available to the public thanks to the man who holds the Guinness World Record for longest career as a sports broadcaster. Bob Wolff began his career in radio in 1939, and he continues working today in the New York City area.
He is the only person to call championship games for all four major sports, including Don Larsen's perfect game in the World Series and the Baltimore Colts' NFL Championship win over the Giants in 1958, which was dubbed "the greatest game ever played."
Wolff had the foresight to keep recordings of many of his broadcasts and interviews years before it became a common practice. He has kept the discs, cassettes, VHS tapes and other recordings in great condition.
Wolff was in Washington Friday to celebrate turning over the seven decades of sports history he so carefully preserved to the Library of Congress.
Although the actual discs and other materials will be stored at the library's Packard Campus in Culpeper, archivists plan to digitize all of the recordings and make them available to the public.
Initially, each digitized recording will be available in the Library of Congress reading rooms on Capitol Hill. Eventually, the library also plans to post the recordings online.
"It all began in Washington. And that's why I treasure the fact that these tapes of mine will be in the Library of Congress. In Washington, I got my first break on TV, on professional radio. My kids were born here. I was married here. So Washington is like a second home," Wolff says.
In the D.C. area, Wolff worked at WTOP and WTTG. He called Washington Senators baseball games and games for the Washington Capitols, the basketball team that spelled its name differently from today's hockey team.
A front seat to history
Wolff was right in the thick of the nation's struggle with desegregation as Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the Major Leagues.
Players "couldn't wait to get on (the broadcast), but I wanted to give them something. So I gave them Countess Mara neckties in conjunction with one of my sponsors…and one day on the air, I had Larry Doby, who was the first American League black player, and I said I'm going to bring in one of the black youngsters who's playing in his league, 10 years old, to ask him questions as tips. So I gave the youngster and Larry both Countess Mara neckties," Wolff says.
But then he says he got a call from the sponsor, a department store in Washington, telling him not to give the ties to black players. Wolff says he dropped the sponsorship the next day.
"Jackie Robinson, to me, was the most electrifying player of anybody I've ever seen in the big leagues," Wolff says.
Among the first recordings of Robinson in the collection to be digitized, is a clip from an interview after Robinson's rookie season. The Dodgers star explains how he ended up getting along with players who were born in the South.
"I went to UCLA. USC is our archrival across town. Suppose I suddenly had to go over and root for USC during a crucial game between USC and UCLA. I mean, I think that's the same way that these fellas felt when they came up out of the South, where they have certain things instilled in them in the South. And they had to come up, and all of a sudden, it was please stand with me. At first, they didn't know just how to take it. But as the season progressed there was certain no feeling at all between us, and we got along swell," Robinson says in the recording.
Wolff ended up calling the last hit of Robinson's career: an extra-inning single that won Game 6 of the 1956 World Series.
Recalling the stars of the decades past
The broadcaster also kept recordings of his interviews with stars like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Joe Louis.
In an ironic twist given Ruth's notorious propensity for living life to its fullest, Ruth said in the interview, "I think baseball should be played all over the world for some reasons that it keeps the boys occupied, their minds occupied, and makes them live clean, and by doing so they turn out to be clean-living men."
Interviewed in his Washington hotel room, years after his career was over, Cobb recalls a 17-inning tie game in Philadelphia, and takes exception to being described as a player who would spike second basemen and shortstops as he tried to break up double plays.
When Wolff asks if he "played up to the rules" all the time, Cobb responds "well, a lot of the time."
"I learned along the way that there is no such thing as a greatest anything, because it all depends on which decade they played in," Wolff cautions when asked about all the great players he's seen across all sports.
At age 92, Wolff's career is still going strong today.
"I do a job that I enjoy so much, I'd pay to do it," Wolff says.
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