added 2/22/2006 by
Late night TV host Johnny Carson used to quip that women would come up to him and say "I went to bed with you every night."
Carson's response was "Was I good?"
For many a young Houston baseball fan in the 60s and 70s, we went to bed with Gene Elston every night. And he was very good. So much so that he will be recognized this summer with the 30th Ford C. Frick Award, honoring the top broadcasters in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
As the news broke, many shared their stories of growing up in Texas or Louisiana listening to the voices of Gene and his sidekick, Loel Passe, call Astro games on the radio, often past our bedtimes. I was one of them. After the 24-inning marathon with the Mets in 1968 that lasted past 1 a.m., my friends at school swapped stories of how long we hung in there listening before we were forced to sleep. For me, slumber came in the 16th inning.
Gene and Loel were a perfect ying-yang for Astro fans back in those 90-loss days. Gene had the smooth delivery reporting the game like a traffic cop giving you the details of an accident. Precise. Factual. Little opinion and little hype. Some tension to the voice for drama but not enough to make you think he was exaggerating the moment. When Gene raised his voice, you knew something important was going on in the game. Gene let baseball itself be the star of the show.
Loel, on the other hand, reported with boundless optimism, enthusiasm and a southern drawl. He was a favorite of Judge Roy Hofheinz when he called minor league games and that became Loel's ticket to the big leagues. Loel was "hot ziggetty dog and sassafras tea", "now you chuckin' 'em in there" and "he breezed him one more time". A diving catch by Jimmy Wynn would be "the greatest catch you'll ever see in the fabulous Astrodome" coming from Loel's microphone. If the truth wasn't exciting enough, Loel would sometimes embellish as he went along. Loel took care of the postcards, letters, well-wishers and glad-handers all with the charm of a southern gentleman. He was the homer and the huckster which blended well with Gene's no-nonsense style.
It's cliche to say "it was a simpler time then", but it was. The Astros appeared on tv only on road Sundays so if you wanted to actually see the Astros you had to go to the ballpark. If you couldn't, Gene and Loel were the next best thing. There was no internet, no SportsCenter. No fantasy leagues or sabermaticians. There was just live baseball and if you missed it the first time, you missed it. That's probably one reason why Gene has such a loyal following today (as do many of the broadcasting greats of his generation). We needed Gene to describe what we couldn't see, to explain what we didn't know and provide context when needed. Gene did that superbly. Astro fans like me are immensely thankful.
To really understand Gene, the broadcaster, you have to understand Gene the baseball historian. Baseball is a passion for him and getting facts right is an obsession for him. When the strike of 1981 took two months out of the middle of the season, Gene came up with historical recreations of famous games so baseball fans could still have their fix (and affiliates would still have programming). Gene could have taken a box score and a newspaper write-up then ad-libbed his way through the recreation - aware that nobody could fact-check him. He didn't. He researched these games as much as he could, getting multiple sources when possible and a play-by-play rundown that he'd retell with great accuracy. He did all of this before the vast resources of the internet were at his fingertips. That's a man who is dedicated to his sport.
If the trademark of a good umpire is not to be noticed, Gene's trademark was also not to draw attention away from the game. I think this is why some thought him colorless or bland. Gene didn't think of himself as an entertainer. He was an informer. Doubling as the team's statistician for many years, Gene deftly inserted stats into the broadcast but wasn't heavy-handed about them the way some others are. The stats were there to inform us, not to fill time. They weren't belabored. They were mentioned and then it was back to the action. That's how it should be.
In radio, you have to talk constantly but you also have to give the listener a moment to digest what you've said. Few handled the pace of a baseball broadcast better than Gene. If you get the chance to listen to a full game of Gene's work (and, sadly, there's not many available), you'll understand what I mean. Patient. Methodical. Never in a hurry to say too much yet rarely caught with "dead air".
Gene had no signature call. The closest he would allow is the phrase "It's all over" after the final out was made. That was Gene: short, sweet and straight down the middle. Leave the fireworks to the big Astrodome scoreboard.
In today's world of glamour and hype, of ballplayers as investment portfolios instead of young men wanting to play a game, Gene's style might never have made it into the booth. Baseball would have missed out on one of its best friends. And so would we.
While some Astros have made it to the Hall of Fame, none so far were inducted "as an Astro". Joe Morgan entered as a Red, Nolan Ryan as a Ranger. Robin Roberts, Eddie Mathews, Nellie Fox and Leo Durocher all with the teams they spent the bulk of their careers with. So, Gene, I hope you'll do us fans the honor of wearing an Astro cap when you give your speech in Cooperstown. The navy one with the orange star and the white H that you helped design. In a poetic sense, it is fitting that you'll be the first one to do so because, to many of us, you were Astros baseball as much as Turk, Rusty, the Toy Cannon or the Red Rooster ever were. Just like our first World Series, it's been a long wait for all of us.