by Doug Howard.
Weekend before last I was watching the Tigers game against the Padres. The game was being played in sunny San Diego, and my old Indiana University grad school friend and Tigers fan Bill Wood, who now teaches at Point Loma, was texting me from his seat on the third base line. Some guys have all the luck, I was thinking, and then Dick Enberg joined Rod Allen in the FSD booth for the fourth inning.
Old broadcasters don’t die, they become wild bores, so I typically hit MUTE on such occasions. This time, however, something about the way Rod said that Mr. Enberg had Michigan roots made me want to listen.
Mr. Enberg had way too many weird crossed paths with my life. I basically just followed him around. After growing up in Armada, yet another Michigan small town I’d never heard of, Mr. Enberg had gone to Central Michigan University, in Mount Pleasant, where I was born. My father enrolled there the year Mr. Enberg graduated. I once thought about Central’s broadcasting program because I wanted to be a rock-n-roll DJ. The survey I took in high school said my interests were closer to a librarian’s. Okay. For Mr. Enberg it was on to Bloomington for grad school, where I showed up twenty years later. He did play-by-play for Indiana Basketball and it was he who broadcast the first Little 500, a bike race held annually since 1951 at the university.
Mr. Enberg told the story of how he got his first job in broadcasting. During his student days at Central a custodian’s job opened up at the radio station in town. He had swept floors at an auto plant in high school, so he applied for the job. In the interview he told them, “I know how to clean up! I can handle a mop! I am your custodian!” They said, “Well, Enberg, you have a pretty good voice…” Next day they called him back. He went ready to mop up, but they said no, no, we want you down the hall in the studio—you’re our Saturday DJ.
And in that moment, Mr. Enberg said, “My life changed.” Sixty years later, it is still a wonder to him. “What if they’d said to me, ‘Here’s the broom closet’? How would things have been different for me?”
Rod Allen asked him, “Mr. Enberg, what advice do you have for young people who want to get into sports broadcasting, and do what you’re doing?”
“I get asked that a lot,” Mr. Enberg said. “And here’s the first thing I say: Take all the writing courses you can.” Wow. Yet one more unexpected profession in which writing skills turn out to be important. “The best sportscasters in our profession,” he went on, “are all good writers.” He gave some examples. Take football, he said. Every game is a four-act play, first quarter, second quarter, half time, third quarter, fourth quarter. Each game a story unto itself. The broadcaster has to find that plot, and no two stories are alike.
He added a couple of other remarks. Get some experience away from sports. Go to the opera. Travel, go see other parts of the world and observe how other people live. Not everyone is like you. Read a lot of books and sharpen your critical skills. Some games are just dead boring, but you still have to entertain your audience. You better have something to say.
Dick Enberg is nearly eighty. He still has his stentorian voice, and still does play-by-play for the Padres. He has hung onto his skills, it is true, but more than that, he doesn’t wish he had someone else’s luck. He exudes gratitude for the gift of life he’s been given. “Every day,” he said, “I come to the ballpark to do my work. I get to do what I love.” That never gets old.
Doug Howard is a professor of history at Calvin College. He’s almost finished writing a history of the Ottoman Empire.