Column: Dick Enberg is rounding third and heading home after a glorious career
He flips his scorebook to a blank page, then gazes at the empty ballpark in front of him, his daily moment to dream. After eight decades on this planet and six in front of a microphone, he still arrives four hours before game time, still tickled by the anticipation of a new game and what it might bring.
He has little patience for a new wave of broadcasters prone to diverting the spotlight from the game to the person calling it. That is what has made these past few weeks so awkward for Dick Enberg. He is retiring at the end of the season, and the spotlight has found him, as it should.
“Everyone loves a good funeral,” Enberg said. “All these people want to talk to me now because I’m about to leave. What I’m going through is an in-life obituary.”
When the Dodgers return home, the week will be devoted to Vin Scully, the final homestand for baseball’s greatest broadcaster. But Enberg, perhaps the most versatile broadcaster of his era, is richly deserving of a retirement tribute too, as he closes his career with the San Diego Padres.
“He’s just a marvelous announcer,” Scully said. “I have the utmost respect and admiration for his abilities.
“With Dick, his brilliance spread over a number of sports. It didn’t make any difference whether he was doing the French Open or the Super Bowl. Whatever he did, I just thought he was outstanding.”
Scully is ours forever, the only voice of the Dodgers that Los Angeles has ever known. Enberg is ours too, born in Michigan but raised during World War II in the San Fernando Valley.
“On the corner of Parthenia and De Soto,” Enberg said. “Two dirt roads.”
He is an accidental broadcaster. He needed money as a student at Central Michigan University, so he took a job as a janitor at a radio station. The general manager heard Enberg’s voice and put him on the air, but Enberg earned his doctorate in health sciences and pursued a career in education. San Fernando Valley State College – now Cal State Northridge – hired him as a professor and assistant baseball coach in 1961.
“I get to listen to Vin Scully every night,” Enberg said. “I get to hear Chick Hearn in basketball. And, for a quarter, I get to read Jim Murray three times a week. How good is that?”
Enberg parlayed an audition at KTLA into stints as a nightly sportscaster on the station and as the voice of the Angels, Rams and – this was huge in Los Angeles half a century ago – the Thursday night fights at the Olympic Auditorium.
It was a ridiculously golden era for Southland sports fans. In the mid-1970s, you could hear Scully on the Dodgers, Enberg on the Angels and Rams, Hearn on the Lakers and Bob Miller on the Kings, and you could read Murray in The Times. Today, all five are Hall of Famers.
Scully treasures the one picture he has with Enberg, Hearn and Miller, at a long-ago event honoring Miller. He remembers talking with Hearn about how the Dodgers and Lakers always won, and how Miller’s job must have been so difficult because the Kings never did.
Enberg laughed at the story. The Angels never won when he called their games, but he called UCLA basketball too.
“Nine years there, and they won eight national titles,” Enberg said with a broad smile. “Was I ever good!”
Enberg moved on from the Bruins – and all the local teams – to national jobs that enabled him to call the Olympics, the NFL, college football and basketball, baseball, tennis, golf and horse racing. He remained good friends with John Wooden, last seeing him two months before the venerable UCLA coach passed away in 2010, at age 99.
Baseball, not basketball, was Wooden’s favorite sport.
“We talked about our all-time, left-handed hitting outfield,” Enberg said. “He loved [Stan] Musial and I loved [Ted] Williams. And you’ve got to put [Babe] Ruth in there, right? And then we argued about all the rest.”
After two hours talking baseball, Wooden tired. Enberg kissed him on the forehead and told him he loved him.
“I walked outside, half-trembling,” Enberg said. “It felt like I had just kissed a god. He was a man of greatness and goodness. God doesn’t make them perfect, but John Robert Wooden came mighty close.”
Scully did a fair share of national assignments, but he never left the Dodgers. As Enberg’s career wound down, he wanted to get back to baseball.
In 1969, when he was offered the Angels job, he was not sure whether to take it. He would have to drop some other assignments, and he would lose some time with his family. The boss had a question for Enberg.
“Don’t you want to be known as a great sportscaster some day?” the boss said.
“Of course,” Enberg said.
“Name me one man that you think is a great sportscaster that did not do baseball,” the boss said.
Enberg took the job. Baseball is the best sport for announcers, with the relaxed pace of a game without a clock, with the unfolding of 162 chapters of the season. With the retirements of Scully and Enberg, we are losing the best storytellers, the ones who came of age when radio was the way most fans followed their team.
“Television, in any sport, we’re just docents,” Enberg said. “We just guide the audience through the experience, and hopefully we can point out the hues and notes and make it a more interesting experience.
“But, as Vin has said, and it’s so true, radio is a plain canvas. We have to paint everything. I think we have a tremendous advantage over the generation that followed. We used our minds and our imagination to see the pictures. I think that helped form a base for what we do now.”
In 2002, on the last Sunday of October, Enberg was flying home after calling an NFL game. It had been 24 years since he signed off as the Angels’ radio voice, and yet he was overcome with emotion when the pilot announced that the Angels had just won the World Series.
“I got shivers thinking about it,” Enberg said. “I broke out sobbing. This hefty woman sitting next to me, she couldn’t understand why this grown man was crying. She thought we were going to crash. She had her crucifix out. I couldn’t get myself together.
“That’s why this is such a beautiful game. It’s generational. Once it’s in your soul, you can’t get it out.”
Now he has invested seven years in the Padres. He will surrender his microphone, but he will not surrender his heart.
Enberg is 81 years old. The Padres are 48 years old. Their next parade will be their first.
“These fans care, just as much as the Dodger fans care,” Enberg said. “We just don’t have as many of them. Hopefully, some day, they will be rewarded.
“And I want to be in line when they hand out the World Series rings, even if I have to be in a wheelchair to get one.”
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