Sportscaster, outdoorsman Gowdy dies at 86
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Curt Gowdy was such a prized and versatile sports broadcaster in his prime that the NBC and ABC television networks simultaneously shared his talents. And he was such a professional that he made the arrangement seem routine. Casual, even.
That was the fly fisherman in him, and the Wyoming, too.
For all of the great sports moments he narrated to the nation, from World Series drama to Super Bowl fireworks to the slippery slope of the Olympic ski jump, Mr. Gowdy never sounded like anything more than a close and trusted friend at the microphone, or felt to a generation of armchair fans like anything less.
"I tried to pretend that I was sitting in the stands with a buddy watching a game, poking him in the ribs when something exciting happened," Mr. Gowdy said in 1984 at the time of his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. "I never took myself too seriously. An announcer is only as good as yesterday's performance."
Mr. Gowdy, 86, died at 3:10 a.m. Monday after a long battle with acute leukemia, surrounded by family in his Palm Beach home.
"He was the first superstar of sports television because he did all of the big events," veteran NBC broadcaster Dick Enberg said. "He's the last of the dinosaurs. No one will ever be the voice of so many major events at the same time ever again."
Mr. Gowdy had lived in Palm Beach since 1988, trading in the eyewitness energy of play-by-play for the soothing day-by-day charms of retirement with Jerre, his wife of 56 years.
The phone number of their lakeside home was passed around by area charity organizers. Mr. Gowdy had an endless supply of stories to tell, and the grace to put them to work at all sorts of fund-raisers around Palm Beach County.
Mr. Gowdy served as master of ceremonies at banquets for the Lou Groza Football Award and the Palm Beach County Sports Hall of Fame at various times, and was honored in recent years for work with the Gulf Stream Council Boy Scouts and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Palm Beach County.
For so revered a sports celebrity, a pal of Ted Williams and a TV fishing partner with Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, Mr. Gowdy was consistently approachable.
Tom Twyford, executive director of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club, remembers inviting Mr. Gowdy, the winner of 13 Emmy Awards for television broadcasting excellence, to consider coming on his local, five-minute fishing show on WPTV-Channel 5. Gowdy did, several times, and with the same enthusiasm he brought to American Sportsman, the ABC outdoors show he created and produced for 20 years until his retirement in 1985.
"He joined the Fishing Club, sent in his dues and everything, soon after moving here," Twyford said. "I took him to a few spots around here in his flats boat. At the time, he was well-known on his show for going after western trout, Atlantic salmon and bonefish in the Keys, but whenever we talked he would say, 'Hey, let's go snapper fishing.' He liked to eat fresh fish and was always looking to put something on the dinner table."
Curtis Edward Gowdy was born July 31, 1919, in Green River, Wyo. When he was 6, the family moved to Cheyenne, where his father, Edward Curtis Gowdy, taught him an appreciation for fishing and hunting in America's wildest and most beautiful regions.
From his mother, Ruth, Mr. Gowdy learned the importance of education when she gave him a library card and required him to read one book a week.
"She said, 'You must build up your vocabulary, and the only way to do it is to read,' " Mr. Gowdy once recalled.
He has been honored in his home state with a park named after him and an honorary law degree from the University of Wyoming.
Cheyenne also was where he called his first sports event, a six-man high school football game on an unmarked lot. The year was 1943 and Mr. Gowdy, recovering from a spinal operation that ended his goal of becoming a fighter pilot, was stunned to find only a pair of soapboxes at the field, one with a microphone on it and another for him to sit on. There were no rosters or uniform numbers, so he made up the names of the players, using those of guys he knew in college or the Army Air Corps.
His pay for the day was $5, but the job led to a $30 weekly salary at a Cheyenne radio station and later an opportunity to call University of Oklahoma football for a station in Oklahoma City, where he met his future wife, Geraldine Ophelia Dawkins, a graduate student at the university.
While in Oklahoma, someone heard Gowdy calling Texas League baseball and forwarded his name to New York, where he became Mel Allen's broadcast partner on Yankees games in 1949. He would go on to become the radio voice of the Boston Red Sox, from 1951-65.
"When I would be doing the Rose Bowl, the Super Bowl or the World Series," Mr. Gowdy later said, "I would think back to that vacant lot and those two soapboxes and realize how lucky I was to get started in broadcasting."
For 10 years beginning in 1966, Gowdy was NBC's top announcer on the Baseball Game of the Week, a Saturday afternoon national telecast that for millions was the only way to see a game in the days before cable-TV overkill and satellite-dish saturation.
He worked American Football League games, too, with Al DeRogatis at his side. At the time, the AFL was a start-up proposition, considered inferior to the NFL. All of that changed in 1969 when Joe Namath guaranteed the New York Jets would beat a powerful Baltimore Colts team coached by Don Shula in Super Bowl III. The Jets won in Miami's Orange Bowl, and Mr. Gowdy got a further career boost because of the ratings. Soon the leagues merged, and Mr. Gowdy got in on that, too.
"That game really changed the outlook of pro football and was probably the greatest upset of all time," he said.
Many Miami Dolphins fans remember the epic postseason game Mr. Gowdy worked on Christmas Day 1971. The Dolphins and Chiefs played into the second overtime at Kansas City before Garo Yepremian's field goal won it for Miami at 82 minutes 40 seconds, the longest game in pro football history.
Mr. Gowdy recalled it years later with the same matter-of-fact style that framed all of his work.
"There was a full moon and when Yepremian's kick tumbled through the goal posts, it was the quietest I ever heard a packed stadium," Mr. Gowdy said. "It was eerie.... They just packed up their seat cushions and left."
Another of Mr. Gowdy's TV gems was the Heidi game of 1968. The New York Jets led the Oakland Raiders 32-29 with 1:05 remaining when NBC cut away for the national telecast of the family movie about a Swiss orphan girl. The Raiders scored two touchdowns in the space of nine seconds to win the game, a bit of information that was lost to the world amid all that yodeling. Mr. Gowdy was hurriedly directed to re-create the touchdown calls on tape for use later that night, a makeup call of sorts for angry callers to NBC.
No problem for Mr. Gowdy, of course. Early in his career, he mastered the art of re-creating baseball games on radio using bits of information transmitted by teletype to the studio.
Mr. Gowdy wrote an autobiography in 1966 titled Cowboy at the Mike. It tells of his days riding trains with the Yankees and taking part in their card games. There is much about Ted Williams, too, who had a hostile relationship with almost every media member but Mr. Gowdy. The two of them hit it off talking about fishing and were enshrined in the International Fishing Hall of Fame in Dania Beach.
That's one of 20 Halls of Fame to include Mr. Gowdy. He received the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Pete Rozelle Award in 1993 and only last month was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. Additionally, in 1970 he became the first sportscaster to receive the Peabody Award for Outstanding Journalistic Achievement.
"Hey, I had a time," Mr. Gowdy told The Palm Beach Post in 2000. "So wonderful. I can't find words. I married the most beautiful girl in Oklahoma. Three wonderful kids, Yankees, Red Sox, presidents, Olympics, champs and championships, movie stars, Bing Crosby, fishing the Florida Keys, New Zealand, back home in Wyoming. What a time. Can't beat it."
In addition to his wife, Mr. Gowdy is survived by his daughter, Cheryl Ann, of Palm Beach; sons Curt Jr., of New Canaan, Conn., and Trevor, of Beverly Farms, Mass.; and five grandchildren, Taylor, Katie, Grace, Alexa and Trevor Curtis.
A wake will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesday at Bethesda-by-the-Sea Church, 141 S. County Road, Palm Beach. On Friday, the family will receive friends from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Trinity Church in Boston's Copley Square.
The funeral will be at 1 p.m. Saturday at Trinity Church, followed by a private burial.
Contributions can be made to Curt Gowdy State Park, 1351 Hynds Lodge Road, Cheyenne, Wyo. 82009, or the Jimmy Fund in Boston at www.jimmyfund.org.