The Obit For Jack Buck

Voice of Cards dies; he was soul of city

He brought the game to fans for close to 50 years with his descriptive calls and keen wit. He also was a war veteran, father of eight and raised millions for charity, becoming one of St. Louis' leading citizens.

Jack Buck, one of America's great storytellers, died Tuesday (June 18, 2002) at 11:08 p.m. He was 77.

He succumbed to infirmities after having endured five operations -- including brain surgery -- and numerous infections that kept him hospitalized for the last 5 1/2 months.

Mr. Buck often was asked to sum up his life. He responded with a little story recalling the day his wife, Carole, asked what he would say to the Lord when they met at the gates of Heaven.

Responded Jack: "I want to ask him why he's been so good to me." His life was the stuff of dreams: a decorated war veteran, father of eight, inducted into 11 halls of fame, recognized as the radio voice of Cardinals baseball for almost 50 years, familiar with some of America's most popular celebrities and athletes, beloved as one of St. Louis' leading citizens.

Mr. Buck's recent health troubles started when an X-ray, given after the batteries in his pacemaker were changed, revealed a spot on his right lung. He had had surgery Dec. 5 to treat lung cancer, then went home.

"He was doing fine," said his son and fellow Cardinals broadcaster Joe Buck. "Everything was on track for him to be back in the booth this season."

Jack Buck developed an abdominal blockage about three weeks later and was hospitalized to have that cleared surgically. But he never was able to leave, spending all but the first two days of this year in Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

In the ensuing months, he battled several cases of staph infections and pneumonia, had surgery to install a device in his throat to help him breathe, had surgery to implant a device known as a deep brain stimulator to relieve the symptoms of Parkinson's disease and then had an operation May 16 in an effort to control the recurring infections. But his kidneys failed after that procedure and he was placed on dialysis. Although his kidneys later began functioning and he was removed from dialysis, his general health declined until he finally lost his long battle to live.

But Mr. Buck will be remembered for his vibrant life. Few people squeeze as much living into 77 years as did Jack Buck.

"I wouldn't change a thing about my life," Mr. Buck wrote in his 1997 autobiography, "That's a Winner." "My childhood dreams came true."

Actually, his life went far beyond even his wildest dreams. Maybe that's why Mr. Buck always managed to impress people immediately with his humility and regular-guy attitude.

"They talk a lot in football and baseball about not beating yourself," Mr. Buck said in an interview a couple of years ago.

"The same thing applies in life: Don't beat yourself. Don't smoke. Don't take drugs. Don't drink and drive. Don't shortchange yourself. Give yourself a chance. Enjoy yourself. If my work demonstrates that -- I can say without qualification that if I can do what I've done, anybody can do it.

"I believe we're put on this Earth to work, to help others and to find time for enjoyment. I think I've done all right."

"The Voice of Summer"

On Aug. 30, 1998 -- a few hours before Mark McGwire's 55th home run of the season traveled 501 feet -- a large crowd gathered outside Busch Stadium for an even greater historic moment. The Cardinals unveiled a bust of Mr. Buck, smiling, left hand cupping his left ear, poised as he usually was seen in radio booths across America.

"This statue features Jack in his favorite spot -- behind the microphone," the plaque reads. "'The Voice of the Cardinals' has broadcast more than 6,500 games. Member of 11 Halls of Fame, including shrines for baseball, football and radio. One of the all-time greats, he has broadcast all sports. St. Louis' top emcee is known for his great sense of humor and charitable work. 'The Voice of Summer,' he was the ticket to the game for those who could not be here."

Mr. Buck considered it one of the proudest moments of his career. An even greater one came an hour or so later, on the field at Busch Stadium. The day before, umpires had ejected McGwire from the game. In his remarks on the field, Mr. Buck asked Cardinals fans to act out of their typical sportsmanship and not boo the umpires when they appeared. Sure enough -- as much a tribute to Mr. Buck as anything else -- fans greeted the umpires with warm applause.

Mr. Buck would reflect on his 48 years of life in his adopted hometown and consider all he accomplished. What struck him most was the appreciation and affection shown him by St. Louisans wherever he has gone. A man who made a living speaking, he would find himself unable to give words to his reaction.

He never was sure if he deserved all the fuss.

"I have enough family and friends to keep me where I'm supposed to be," Mr. Buck has said. He added with a laugh: "Somebody told me the other day that I'm a very humble person with much to be humble about. I know where I stand. I know who I am. I know none of the things measure up to some of the things that others have done."

He was more than the "Voice of the Cardinals," of course. Mr. Buck ascended to hold a reputation as one of the country's top sportscasters, including years as a key football play-by-play man on radio and television. He was one of the most polished masters of ceremonies, locally and nationally, and emceed banquets honoring some of the greatest athletes of the last half-century.

He associated with the likes of Neil Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Johnny Carson and several presidents. He claimed friendships with Gene Autry, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Red Schoendienst and Robert Hyland.

He interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt, broadcast from the top of the Gateway Arch the day it was completed and was host to one of the first network studio shows on TV during football season. He was a big tipper, a poet, a workaholic, a sensitive man given to tears at the plight of others, a major fund-raising force.

Mr. Buck adopted fighting cystic fibrosis as his highest profile of causes and raised well over $30 million. "Finding a cure would be the greatest thing to happen in my lifetime," he said.

That from a man who had diabetes, shook noticeably from Parkinson's disease, had a pacemaker for almost a decade and finally had to deal with cancer.

"My ailments don't bother me," he once said. "I have a firm grip on who I am, what I'm doing and where I'm going. That's no different now than it's been throughout my life."

A tough beginning

John Francis Buck was born Aug. 21, 1924, in Holyoke, Mass. He was the third of seven children born to Kathleen and Earle Buck, a railroad accountant who spent considerable time away from the family working in New Jersey. "Jackie" grew up a big fan of the Boston Red Sox, especially slugging first baseman Jimmy Foxx.

The family moved to Cleveland in 1939, when Jack was 14. His dad died a year later, at age 49, after having trouble with high blood pressure. Kathleen Buck had to go to work, but all the children had to pitch in. Jack, developing his work ethic early, held a number of jobs during that Depression era to help the struggling family -- holding as many as three jobs at once for a while in high school.

Mr. Buck graduated from high school in January 1942, about a month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He got a job on an ore boat on the Great Lakes at age 17 and decades later recalled how he developed a great love for life on the water thanks to that job. If he hadn't become a broadcaster, Mr. Buck speculated, he would have pursued a career on a boat.

The Army drafted a 19-year-old Jack Buck in June 1943. After basic training, he was made a corporal and instructor. Eventually, Mr. Buck saw combat in Germany with K Company, 47th Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, early in 1945 and on March 15 was wounded when shrapnel hit him in the left arm and leg. He received a Purple Heart. Years later, he still was amazed that he lived through the attack, considering he was carrying a hand grenade on his chest. Mr. Buck was about to be sent from a French hospital back to Germany when, while on a pass in Paris, the war ended.

Though his time in service was relatively brief, those years had a profound effect on Mr. Buck. He visited the Normandy site of the D-Day invasion in 1995 and was reminded how easily it could have been him buried in one of those graves. Emotionally, he penned this poem:

They chatter and laugh as they pass by my grave

And that's the way it should be

For what they have done,

and what they will do, has

Nothing to do with me.

I was tossed ashore by a friendly wave

With some unfriendly steel in my head.

They chatter and laugh as they pass by my grave

But I know they'll soon be dead.

They've counted more days than I ever knew

And that's all right with me, too.

We're all souls in one pod, all headed for God

Too soon, or later, like you.

Turning to the microphone

Mr. Buck worked at several jobs after World War II but knew he wanted to be a sports broadcaster when he enrolled at Ohio State, in something of a spur-of-the-moment decision, in September 1946. He began working at the university's radio station in 1948, then got his first professional radio job doing a sports show on a Columbus, Ohio, station.

His first play-by-play effort came at that station, WCOL, when he called an Ohio State-DePaul basketball game. After graduating in December 1949, Mr. Buck stayed at WCOL to work Ohio State football and basketball. The station also had picked up broadcast rights for the Columbus Redbirds, one of the Cardinals' two Class AAA minor-league teams, which allowed Mr. Buck to grow familiar with future Cardinals stars as well as watch young prospects such as Mickey Mantle.

WCOL dropped sports in favor of music the next year, but Mr. Buck landed work with a Columbus TV station, where he worked with Jonathan Winters. Television still was in its infancy in the early 1950s, certainly not established enough to keep Mr. Buck from giving up on his desire to broadcast sports.

Missing play-by-play during his year away, Mr. Buck took a job as radio voice of the Rochester Red Wings -- the Cardinals' other Class AAA team -- as well as with the Rochester Royals of the NBA in 1953.

Mr. Buck found himself doing advertising work for Anheuser-Busch that year and, as such, gained some attention from the new owner of the Cardinals. He auditioned for a spot in the Cardinals' broadcast booth by doing a Cardinals-Giants game from the Polo Grounds that year and got the job to be Harry Caray's broadcast partner for the 1954 season.

After being hired, he got a copy of a tape of Caray with a note telling him that was how his new bosses wanted Mr. Buck to sound.

"I listened to that tape, and I knew I was in trouble," Mr. Buck wrote in his autobiography. "I could no more broadcast a game in Caray's style than I could any other announcer's. I wasn't going to try to broadcast a game like Caray. If the people in St. Louis didn't like my style, I'd have to go elsewhere."

Mr. Buck didn't need long to realize just how different he was in style and personality from Caray, who didn't much care for Mr. Buck in the beginning. In time, they developed an abiding admiration and fondness for each other.

And the people in St. Louis loved Mr. Buck's style.