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What a broadcaster! Bob Wolff had fun and was a joy to fans

Sportscaster Bob Wolff is honored by Joe Girardi

Sportscaster Bob Wolff is honored by Joe Girardi for his entrance into the Guinness Book of World Records for his longevity before a game against the Seattle Mariners at Yankee Stadium on Thursday, May 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

“Pull up a chair,” Vin Scully would say, and so the world did for two-thirds of a century. But his signature phrase suggested a master storyteller inviting an audience to have a listen.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, in Scully’s case. But consider a guy who had an even longer career but received less national acclaim — and on whose seventh birthday Scully was born.

Bob Wolff rarely is mentioned among the greatest of play-by-play men, despite a resume as long and as rich as any of them. Longer, actually, having begun in 1939, when Scully was 11 and TV still was an experiment.

But for the generations that grew up with him, especially Washington Senators fans of the 1950s and Knicks fans of the championship era, he was something rare and valuable: a friendly, familiar voice seemingly as happy to be there as we were.

That is what most announcers aim for. Curt Gowdy used to say he would pretend to be sitting in the stands with a friend, poking him in the ribs to punctuate an exciting happening in the game.

The best achieve that goal, to a point, but years sitting in comfy booths, collecting generous paychecks and been-there, done-that jadedness often take a toll on celebrity media people.

Wolff, who died July 15 at age 96, never lost his youthful, fan-centric enthusiasm. Hence his determination to keep working until earlier this year, as an essayist for News 12 Long Island.

As he put it to me in October, “I enjoy it. If I didn’t do it, what would I do to have fun?”

There you have it: Sports are supposed to be fun, and Wolff never lost sight of that, even as he never stopped being a hardworking, well-prepared pro.

He is best known for his calls of two iconic events: Don Larsen’s perfect game for the Yankees in the 1956 World Series and the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Colts and Giants.

But New Yorkers remember smaller stages. Like one of his favorites: the Knicks’ comeback from down 20 points against the Bucks in November of 1972, in which they scored the final 19.

Check out Wolff’s excited call on YouTube, including what everyone watching was thinking: “What a ballgame!”

About that interview last fall: It mostly was about Scully’s retirement and the 60th anniversary of the Larsen game. Thirty minutes into it, I thanked Bob and told him people would enjoy reading what he had to say.

“That was an interview?” he said.

Well, yes, that was the idea. Wolff thought I simply had called — interrupting dinner — merely to chat, and he was happy to do so. He invited me to call again anytime, interview or no interview.

That was Wolff, a gentleman and a gentle man.

He always seemed pleased to be wherever he was. But before you joke that folks in their 90s should be happy to be anywhere, check out some of the 1,000 of hours of material he donated to the Library of Congress a few years back. He had the same attitude in his 20s.

They illustrate the disarming, amiable approach that landed him chats with the likes of Ty Cobb, Jim Thorpe and Babe Ruth. His greatest achievement: Taming the famously irascible Ted Williams with firm but fair insistence and persistence.

There is an interview on YouTube from 1946 in which Wolff, all of 25, chats with a Senators pitcher and fellow World War II veteran named Ray Scarborough, for a disc designed personally for Scarborough’s wife and infant daughter back home.

The two discuss a bad movie they saw the night before, how little there is to do at spring training in Orlando and plans for them and their wives to go out when they return to Washington.

Wolff had been married only the year before to Jane, a nurse he met during the war. They would spend 72 years together.

When I visited Wolff in his apartment in South Nyack, New York, in 2006 to talk about the 50th anniversary of the Larsen game, I got a tour of old recordings he had kept and preserved.

One might call it history, but that might have prompted an eye roll from Wolff. The magic of it was his ability to talk to a Ray Scarborough about seeing a bad movie the night before, and have it sound no different from talking to you or me.

New York Sports