I have a friend that thinks Marty Brennaman is a jerk. I’ll admit, Marty can be a polarizing figure. Generally speaking, Reds fans love him, whereas, Cubs and Cards fans do not. His audacity turns some people off. I like it. I always have.
Like many of us, I started listening to the Reds as a youngster. With my Walkman, I could get the Reds broadcast clearly from my bedroom in Bloomington, IN. The 1982 Reds lost 101 games. I didn’t care. There are some sounds that just soothe the soul. Crickets, classical music, ocean surf, gentle rain, and Marty Brennaman’s voice.
What makes the sometimes cantankerous Brennaman such a lovable character? It’s his authenticity, I believe, that adds so much to his popularity among baseball fans. He’s true to himself and he rarely apologizes for it. He’s two parts Ted Williams and three parts Red Barber.
Like Williams, Brennaman’s talent and charisma are sometimes overshadowed by his temperament. Williams wanted to be the greatest hitter who ever played the game. Marty Brennaman wanted to be one of the best play-by-play men in the country. Both men studied their craft and worked hard to excel. Like Williams, Brennaman doesn’t feel any need to apologize for his candor. For example, Marty once gave his thoughts about the Designated Hitter rule by saying “Many people don’t know what DH stands for. It stands for dumb as hell.” In the face of direct pressure from his peers, Brenneman used his Hall of Fame induction speech as a platform to express support for Pete Rose’s HOF eligibility.
He is not afraid to criticize Reds players when they play selfishly or make frequent mental mistakes, especially base running blunders. He does not discriminate when it comes to his targets. He will rip you if he feels you deserve it. He would rip Johnny Bench for failing to play a day game after a night game. “I always say that if I praise you, I reserve the right to be critical of you,” he said. “Thankfully I work for people who understand that.”
Red Barber, the “Old Redhead”, was the radio voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Barber, a native Mississippian, possessed a distinctly Southern cadence. Brennaman, a native of Portsmouth, Virginia, does not have Barber’s deep southern twang. He delivers play-by-play, however, with a similar down home rhythm. It is quick. It is familiar. Against the sounds of the game, it sets listeners at ease. In a moment of excitement, Barber would exclaim “Oh Doctor!” He would declare a mound visit by saying, “hold the phone.” Brennaman employs his own time-honored expressions such as “titanic struggle” and “this one belongs to the Reds.” Like Barber, Brennaman is precise and scholarly. Recently, I heard Brennaman refer to Jay Bruce as “mercurial.” I had to go look up “mercurial” in the dictionary. Marty was right. Bruce is mercurial.
You can’t write about Marty Brennaman without mentioning his broadcast partner of 31 years, Joe Nuxhall. When you listened to a Reds broadcast featuring this duo, you detected a chumminess that is difficult to describe. On the surface, they could not be more different. Joe was a large man, a former major big league pitcher, who left high school and went straight into professional baseball. Marty was a diminutive UNC graduate with a passion for theatre. Greg Hoard, in his book Joe, Rounding Third and Heading For Home, describes their second Spring Training broadcast together. Marty goofed up the opening of the broadcast by saying “Hi everybody, it’s the Reds and White Sox from Al Michaels Field.” The game was being played at Al Lang field, however, Brennaman’s legendary predecessor loomed in his mind. Joe wouldn’t let it go. From that day, they teased each other mercilessly – - laughing and celebrating with their listeners.
Curt Smith, in his book Voices of Summer, wrote that: “Red Barber was white wine, crepes Suzette, and bluegrass music.” For me, Marty Brennaman is barbecued ribs, homemade ice cream, and “Don’t Be Cruel”. Marty turns 70 years old this year. I know he can’t broadcast forever. Until he hangs up the microphone, however, I look forward to hearing Marty call it the way he sees it.
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