05/24/08 6:14 PM ET
Niehaus makes it to Cooperstown
Mariners broadcaster visits Hall of Fame for first time
By Bruce Markusen / Special to MLB.com
Taking a short break from the Mariners' weekend series in New York against the Yankees, Niehaus ended the longtime Cooperstown drought by participating in the Hall's "Voices of the Games" series.
Introduced as "The Ageless Mariner" by author and broadcasting expert Curt Smith, Niehaus talked to fans for more than an hour in the Bullpen Theater. The "Voices" program served as a forerunner to the events of July 27, when Niehaus will formally accept the Hall's Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence as part of Induction Weekend.
"I've always wanted to come here," said the high-spirited Niehaus, dressed in a tie and tan sports coat during his session at the Hall. "The Mariners played in the Hall of Fame Game here several years ago, and I was supposed to come along. The team had just wrapped up a series in Chicago, and went from Chicago to Cooperstown. I got sick and went right to Milwaukee, which was our next stop on the road trip. I spent 24 hours in bed in Milwaukee, while the team visited Cooperstown. Now that I'm here, I know that I've died and gone to heaven."
During a wide-ranging interview that covered much of the Mariners' history, Niehaus fondly recalled a number of highlights -- and even a few lowlights -- from Seattle's baseball lore. First offered the job as the Mariners' No. 1 radio voice at the Winter Meetings in 1976, Niehaus initially turned down the position. A follow-up phone call from the Mariners' first ownership group -- headed by actor Danny Kaye -- convinced him to leave the California Angels' broadcast booth.
So when the Mariners played the first game in franchise history on April 8, 1977, Niehaus found himself in Seattle's broadcast booth. Coincidentally enough, the Mariners played the Angels, his former team.
"Frank Tanana shut us out the first night," Niehaus recalled without hesitation. "And then Nolan Ryan shut us out the second night. Not only was I wondering if we would ever win a game, I was wondering if we would ever score a run."
The early editions of the Mariners struggled on the field, while playing home games at the Kingdome. As Smith pointed out in the Saturday afternoon program, the Kingdome was a place that Niehaus nicknamed "The Tomb."
"I broadcast there for 22 1/2 years," Niehaus said before introducing another intriguing piece of terminology. "The Mariners played 'laboratory baseball' there. There was no sun, no rain, no moon. There was no grass. On a beautiful day like this, you went inside. You were always entombed in the Dome."
In those early years, some of the Mariners' more unusual moments were provided by Maury Wills, who became the franchise's second manager in 1980 after the dismissal of Darrell Johnson.
"I'll never forget his first game," said Niehaus, drawing from his memories of Wills. "He got away with something that I've never seen anyone else get away with. He went out to the mound twice in the same inning -- and didn't take out the pitcher. For some reason, the umpire didn't make him take out the pitcher. Somehow he got away with it."
Other Wills hijinks followed.
"One time, we were playing an exhibition game in Yuma, Ariz.," Niehaus said. "In the middle of the game, Maury left to go visit a friend of his. He just left the game right in the middle. A couple of times, he asked for a left-handed pitcher to come into the game -- only there was no left-hander warming up in the bullpen. And one time, Maury actually asked me to write out a lineup for him; I didn't!"
The colorful antics of the Wills era eventually gave way to more promising signs in the late 1980s. By the end of the decade, Niehaus had enjoyed his first glimpse of the franchise's first superstar.
"I first saw Ken Griffey Jr. as a 17-year-old in Spring Training," said Niehaus. "You knew he was a thoroughbred who would become a Triple Crown winner. Junior is the greatest player I've ever had a chance to describe.
"He's two away from 600 home runs. I wish he'd get there, because it's been about a month since his last one."
Griffey became the centerpiece to the first successful teams in franchise history, beginning with the 1995 edition.
"That year, 1995, was like a year out of dreamland," Niehaus said. "It started with replacement players in Spring Training because of the strike. We ended up playing 145 games, including the tiebreaker."
The tiebreaking win over the Angels launched the Mariners into the AL Division Series against the Yankees, which culminated with Edgar Martinez's two-run double in the 11th inning of the decisive fifth game.
"I was fortunate to be able to broadcast that as it developed," Niehaus said humbly. "When Griffey scored on Edgar Martinez's double, that was the seminal moment in Mariners history."
Without the success of 1995, Niehaus believes the Mariners' days in Seattle would have come to an eventual end.
"The entire Northwest went 'bonzo' after that series with the Yankees," said Niehaus, recalling the rejuvenation of the team's fan base. "Without 1995, the team was on its way to Tampa Bay. The franchise would have moved. That season saved baseball in Seattle."
Prior to joining the Mariners for their inaugural season in 1977, Niehaus broadcast Angels games, beginning in '69. He would eventually team with Dick Enberg and Don Drysdale, who rotated between the television and radio sides of the broadcast booth.
"They became two of my best friends," said an emotional Niehaus. "They were so professional, so good. We made a heck of a team."
Twenty-four years after Drysdale earned induction to the Hall of Fame for his efforts on the mound, Niehaus will be sharing his late friend's Cooperstown experience during Induction Weekend.
"As I was driving into Cooperstown today, I thought I was looking at a cover of the Saturday Evening Post or a Norman Rockwell painting," Niehaus said. "I was taken aback by the houses in all of the small villages around here. So many of them display the American flag. This is a place of real patriotism and pride in this country. You're really in Americana here."
Prior to his participation in the "Voices of the Game" event, Niehaus embarked on a whirlwind tour of the Hall of Fame and Museum, including the storage areas located on the basement floor.
"I've just scratched the surface of what's here," said Niehaus, seemingly overwhelmed by the enormity and scope of the exhibits. "When I come back in July for Induction Weekend, I'm going to spend a lot more time researching baseball history, looking at the artifacts."
The experience of Cooperstown left Niehaus wanting to impart one piece of advice.
"If you're a fan of the game, you've just got to make a pact with the devil to get here," Niehaus said.
Notes: Several fans dressed in Mariners attire attended the Niehaus program in the Bullpen Theater. One jersey featured "Niehaus" on the back, above the words: "My Oh, My." Another fan wore a Mariners jersey that said "Iraq Veteran" above the No. 77. The fan explained that No. 77 referred to 1977, his year of birth, which happened to be the first year of the Mariners franchise. ... The next "Voices of the Game" program scheduled for the Hall of Fame will take place on June 15, when Ferguson Jenkins visits Cooperstown. On July 24, former Mariners batting coach Paul Molitor, a 2004 inductee, will be the featured guest in the Hall of Fame's Grandstand Theater.
Bruce Markusen is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.