ASK for a memory of a sports icon or a legendary game, and Bob Wolff can provide dozens. Over a 71-year broadcasting career, he has interviewed Babe Ruth, befriended Ted Williams and called Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. He's handled play-by-play for the Baltimore Colts' famed overtime defeat of the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL title game, and both of the New York Knicks' NBA championships.
Still, the milestone he called the most meaningful was the surprise 90th birthday party that friends, family and co-workers threw him earlier this month.
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"I know of no night in my life, no day, no time, that's ever touched me as much as this evening," he said after a standing ovation at the party.
The broadcaster who has been inducted into multiple halls of fame later offered a behind-the-scenes look at his decades covering the sports world.
"Greatness fades when the next game comes," Wolff said from his home in South Nyack. "My job has always been to enhance the fun, the excitement for the viewer."
During Larsen's pitching performance in the Yankees' Game 5 win over the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956, Wolff said he gave himself pep talks to not mention the words "perfect game" and risk jinxing the effort. At the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which he broadcast for decades, he would deliver some of his commentary by singing.
"The dogs never had an unkind word for me," he said.
Early in his career, Wolff forged a bond with Williams, the cantankerous Boston Red Sox legend. The player known as the "Splendid Splinter," who had a notoriously hostile relationship with the hometown press, had vowed to never give another interview after a game in which he hit a home run, spat on home plate and thumbed his nose at the press box.
"I said, 'Ted, if you want to turn me down [for an interview], do it right now and our friendship will continue,' " Wolff remembered. "But I said, 'If you do go on, I've got to ask you about . . . [the spitting incident].' He ended up being one of my best interviews because he was so emotional. He told me how contrite he was."
As for Ruth, Wolff recalled catching him at an airport on his way to Mexico in 1946 or 1947. The Bambino was a "very pleasant man," he said.
Decades later, Wolff earned George Steinbrenner's respect in one of the two men's last conversations. A note from Steinbrenner expressed appreciation for the way Wolff slowly built to the tough question about rumors the Yankees would move to New Jersey.
"He wrote, 'Bob, I want you to know how much I enjoy your game,' " Wolff said. " 'I'm wise to your tricks . . . but you're always fair about the way you do it.' "
Since News 12 Long Island's launch in 1986, Wolff has been the television station's sports director, anchor and senior commentator. He continues in the latter role, recording segments from a studio near his home. News 12 is owned by Cablevision, as is Newsday.
Wolff began his professional career in 1939 when, as a Duke University baseball player, he broke his ankle and joined CBS radio station WDNC in Durham, N.C. He started in television in 1946 in Washington, D.C.
Among those who later crossed professional paths with Wolff and celebrated his life in prerecorded messages at the party were Yankees manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman, and former St. John's University men's basketball coach Lou Carnesecca.
Collaborating with Wolff for the play-by-play of last year's Yankees Old Timers' Day game was "an education at the feet of the master," said MSNBC television commentator Keith Olbermann, who cited Wolff's diligence and preparation, even for an exhibition game.
But Wolff said he owes much of his success to Jane, his wife of 65 years, who for decades drove him to and from the office, leaving him free to focus on coming up with ideas for sportscast segments.
"I believe in people," Wolff said. "I try to see the good in them, and bring that good out."