John McGrath: Listeners can hear great sports broadcasts from area’s best

Staff writerJune 1, 2014 

Ten months after Clay Huntington’s death in 2011, Tacoma recognized its beloved civic icon with the dedication of “Clay Huntington Way” which feeds traffic into Cheney Stadium from South 19th Street.

The tribute was fitting: Huntington led the campaign for the 1960 construction of the ballpark that has served as home for the Pacific Coast League’s oldest continuously operated franchise.

While Huntington had obvious political skills — he was elected a Pierce County commissioner — his first love was broadcasting, a childhood hobby that became a 70-year occupation.

Marc Blau, director of the Shanaman Sports Museum of Tacoma-Pierce County, wanted Huntington’s legacy preserved more tangibly than with a street sign.

“It’s cool that the road into Cheney Stadium is named after Clay” Blau said last week. “But I thought we could take it a step further by recognizing Clay and the other sports broadcasters from this community”

If you’re familiar with Blau, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn his determination to “take it a step further” turned into an obsession with a formal name: The Clay Huntington Broadcast Center.

“A labor of love” Blau called the project, which found him embarking on the ultimate scavenger hunt for mementos of the men whose play-by-play descriptions have been as integral to local sporting events as the games themselves.

“Athletes are remembered by old bats, gloves and jerseys, and autographs they can sign on a photo” said Blau. “With broadcasters, the memory is their voice”

Beginning Wednesday, those voices can be accessed at the Shanaman Sports Museum’s web site, www.tacomasportsmuseum.com. Along with audio and video clips, biographies and photos have been assembled to recognize the work of dozens of local sports broadcasters, many of whom will participate in the Huntington Broadcast Center’s unveiling Wednesday night at the Pacific Grill Events Center in downtown Tacoma.

Blau is nothing if not tireless, but converting, say, a radio broadcast from a 1949 hockey game between the Tacoma Rockets and Seattle Ironmen into something available at the click of a laptop key requires rare expertise. Relying on the axiom of, “It’s not what you know, but who you know” Blau enlisted Kirk Isakson, retired from his job as Pacific Lutheran University’s director of multimedia services, to coordinate the transformation.

“The guy is a magician” Blau said. “Reel-to-reel tape recordings, vinyl record albums, eight-millimeter film clips, Super 8, it didn’t matter. Whatever I gave him, he made it work for the web site”

Blau, it turns out, gave Isakson a treasure trove that’s both nostalgic and illuminating.

Take Doug McArthur’s courtside call of the University of Puget Sound’s 1976 victory against Tennessee-Chattanooga for the NCAA Division II national championship. Before McArthur parlayed his considerable charm and wit into a successful public relations career, he was a skilled play-by-play man with flawless cadence.

It’s one thing to hear about how a good a broadcaster was, but it’s quite another to hear that broadcaster at the top of his game.

Speaking of those at the top of their game: Mike Curto’s ninth-inning description of the perfect game John Halama pitched for the Rainiers in 2001 could be an example for students in a Sports Broadcasting 101 class. Curto seized the moment, but he didn’t strangle it. He realized the perfect night belonged to the pitcher, not the broadcaster sharing precise details of the perfect night in a radio booth.

Blau’s favorite clip is a television feature story about the late Art Popham. The full-time voice for the Tacoma Tigers baseball team was on hand for only half of the Tigers’ games – the road games were called from a studio in Tacoma, where Popham would re-create information typed on sheet of paper (“line drive hit to right center, scores run from second base”) into the entirely plausible premise that Art wasn’t a thousand miles away from the line drive hit to right center.

Popham was curious and enthusiastic, two qualities essential for a radio interviewer and showcased by one-on-one session with boxer Pat McMurtry, whose career as a world-champion heavyweight contender ended with a single punch.

Popham introduces McMurtry, who replies: “I’ll give you the answers you want, I hope”

What follows is 45 minutes of sheer, raw honesty, an ex-prizefighter with a hundred stories and no regrets.

Well, one regret.

“I think I could’ve been heavyweight champion of the world” McMurtry, 21 minutes into the interview, tells Popham. McMurtry then spills his guts about his struggle to adjust to losing fame and fortune in one punch, and his words are more riveting than any heavyweight fight I’ve seen in 20 years.

As Blau was putting together his audio and visual clips for the Clay Hunting Broadcasting Center, something occurred to him: There wasn’t a lot of Clay Huntington.

“But Clay’s family gave me a few boxes of miscellaneous stuff” Blau said, “and at the bottom of one of boxes were four small canisters of Clay, in 1955, interviewing some Los Angeles Rams after a game. Those are pretty neat”

Huntington’s postgame chat with Rams quarterback Bill Wade is a classic, time-in-a-bottle depiction of our father’s (or grandfather’s) NFL. Wade is seen on camera wearing his Sunday best — he resembles Ozzie Nelson — and the first thing he says after Huntington introduces him is, “Thank you, Clay”

About 30 seconds into the interview, Huntington asks: “What’s the difference between college football and pro football?”

“In professional football” Wade answers, “there’s never a small man. In college football, a back doesn’t have too many large men to run into. But in professional football, a back will take a pass and run into a large man, and then there’s another large one 2 yards down the field”

The history of football, in three short sentences.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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