Thank You, Mr Ned Martin

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This past December, when the Baseball Hall of Fame announced that Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson, the antithesis of Ned Martin as a broadcaster, was the 2019 recipient of the prestigious Ford C. Frick Award and would be inducted in Cooperstown this July, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I ended up smiling, knowing that Ned Martin, the voice of the Boston Red Sox from 1961-92, would have delighted in the irony.

You see, I got to know Mr. Martin very well – despite the fact that I only met him twice in person. His distinctive tenor, reassuring and cerebral, was the second-most heard male voice of my childhood. Only my father’s fixed baritone surpassed his as the soundtrack of my years growing up in the greater Boston area when he broadcast games for 32 seasons in the Hub. 

In an age where humility and grace slowly receded from our national character, Martin’s modesty and eloquence separated him from a host of others. He never intentionally developed a defined signature call for a home run. The ball was simply “gone.” 

And yet, Ned Martin used words as a composer uses the notes on a scale. He embraced the notion first put forth by Emerson…“that every word was once a poem.” There was nothing ever programmed about him. Cogent phrases seem to tumble from his mouth like falling stars. 

Ultimately, Ned Martin was able to frequently quote from the most gifted bards of English literature – Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Hemingway – in order to put the narrative of baseball into its proper context. He was a reader – and he brought a reader’s sensibility to each and every broadcast.

Ned Martin was also a deeply-rooted philosopher. Because he had dipped in the bonfires of hell as a Marine in World War II, Ned described each game as an existentialist. And yet Martin was more than just a baseball announcer. To me, he served as my personal captain, steering me through the choppy waters of both youth and adolescence – guiding, nurturing, and instructing me as I listened intently, his most loyal and devoted student.  

28 seasons have come and gone since he last called a Red Sox game on the air. And yet, when I turn on a ballgame these days, it is Ned’s voice that still lingers. On July 22, 2002, he appeared to be his vigorous, cordial self as he participated in the Ted Williams Tribute at Fenway Park.

Less than 24 hours later, he was dead. 

While hundreds of players have come and gone since he first began to broadcast for the team in 1961, for many of us, Ned Martin remains the most indispensable Red Sox figure of them all. As former Globe columnist, Bill Griffith, wrote a few years ago: “Today’s broadcasts are slicker and technically superior, but those bygone days were a wonderful time to be a baseball fan in Boston. Long before there was ‘Morgan Magic’ on the field in 1988, there was ‘Martin Magic’ on radio.”

In a storeroom of searing play-by-play moments, the “magic of Ned Martin” was most evident at one of the most culminating historical moments of the 119-year-old franchise, the 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox. To appreciate the wizardry of Ned Martin, one only has to review his lucid play-by-play of the final out of a closely-fought contest between the Bosox and the mighty Minnesota Twins in order to demonstrate his luster. Leading 5-3 with two outs in the ninth inning, the Twins manager, Cal Ermer, sent up pinch-hitter Rich Reese to face Red Sox ace Jim Lonborg.  

As always, Ned Martin provided the scene with absolute precision…  “Jim Lonborg is within one out….of his biggest victory ever…his twenty-second of the year….and his first over the Twins.”  Efficient, accurate, to the point. 

He then paused, letting the listener soak in the scene. Like the ancient Greek philosophers, silence was always one of Martin’s most laudable broadcasting attributes.  

“The pitch…is looped to shortstop…”

A living and breathing thesaurus, Martin could have used any of a host of words from his prodigious vocabulary, but he chose, “looped.” My father later described Reese’s popup as “a little squirt from the hose.” Looped was an inspired choice, impeccably capturing the bending flight of the ball.

While the Red Sox announcer was also able to inform the listener where the sphere was heading, there was, at first, no intimation in Martin’s tone whether the ball was even going to be caught. Ned Martin would never impulsively rush to judgment. He was, first and foremost, a patient man. To him, fidelity was the antonym of hyperbole. 

However, as the ball began to topple, Ned’s voice hurriedly changed; his tenor commenced to soar as he exclaimed, “Petrocelli’s back….”  A hint of expectation in Martin’s voice could now be detected. Because Red Sox fans were so used to Ned’s understated demeanor, thousands of New Englanders began to raise their arms in joyous expectation. Ned’s vigor at that instant was authentic. “He’s got it!  The Red Sox win!” 

Even in the clutches of euphoria, Martin maintained his integrity. The Red Sox win…..win, what? For with that last out, the Red Sox had just tied for the pennant; they would have to wait for the final result of the Tigers-Angels game to determine whether the team would win the American League flag outright – or be forced to play in a one-game playoff against the Detroit nine the following day. Thus, Ned could not confirm anything official … except that the Red Sox had won a consequential ball game.

The Sox radio announcer then took in a breath of air, mostly to observe the players and fans who had instantly enveloped the jubilant Jim Lonborg to the right of the pitcher’s mound. Chaos ensued, but Ned Martin was well-equipped to describe it. He immediately punched out, “And there’s pandemonium on the field!”

The broadcaster could have used havoc, mayhem, commotion, hubbub – but he chose – pandemonium. From the least-used word for bedlam, pandemonium is, according to Webster’s, “An utterly lawless, riotous place or assemblage.” A toss-off line by Ned Martin – “there’s pandemonium on the field” – immediately entered the lexicon for an entire region of baseball fans.

The last ingredient of Martin’s call contained just one word – and a cacophony of elation. Mindful that he was describing the action to a radio audience, Ned paused, and then bleated, “Listen!”

An opus of horns could be heard – the air-kind that were allowed at the time – instruments of exultation that always gave out a piercing glee as they echoed off the peeling walls of the ancient ballpark. The fans’ collective primal-shouting verified Martin’s precise account. The resulting din, deftly recorded by WHDH engineer, Al Walker, was the perfect call to a transcendent baseball moment.

In retrospect, there were two miracles that occurred that long-ago Sunday afternoon: the 100-to-1 shot Red Sox securing the American League Pennant, and Ned Martin’s flawless, 23-second description of the final out of the contest.

While Ken Coleman narrates it, Ned Martin’s calls dominate. His famous call described above can be found at 16:22 of the recording.

I first became aware of Ned Martin in 1964 when I received a new transistor radio for my ninth birthday. As the Red Sox began Spring Training in Scottsdale, Arizona in early March, I began to tune in to the local flagship station at the time, WHDH 850 AM Boston, in order to listen to the handful of Red Sox radio broadcasts emitting from the desert. At the time, Ned Martin was the team’s broadcasting partner supporting the venerable Curt Gowdy, who was already receiving national exposure as NBC’s chief baseball and football anchorman.        

From the moment I first heard Ned’s recitations, his unique style was dissimilar in both tone and approach to any other baseball broadcaster at the time. He was cerebral, ironic, expressive, low-key. Even then, I recognized that Ned was a minimalist in a profession where over-the-top enthusiasm was becoming the norm. 

Constancy – not exuberance – seemed to be his modus operandus. And yet, despite his tranquil overtones, it was also evident that he had an unadulterated passion for the game. In an interview with The Globe’s Ray Fitzgerald, Martin recalled: “Red Smith used to say he loved `the music of the game.’ What a great line. There is a music to it, whether it’s the first crack of the bat at Winter Haven, a full house on Opening Day, the murmuration of a meaningless game in July, or the buzz you feel at a World Series. There’s orderliness to it as well, with batting practice; fielding practice; all of the things that take place right up to game time. Yet you can still see something in almost every game that you’ve never seen before. That’s the beauty of baseball, I guess. It’s never predictable, even though it never changes.” 

It was clearly evident even at first glance that the unspeakable elements of baseball were what mattered to Ned. At first glance, Martin seemed like a seamless violinist, playing each and every note with a heady mixture of exactitude and grace. After I began listening to Ned Martin’s broadcasts, my father stated, “You know, son, you are listening to an authentic master.”  

As I continued to soak in each and every one of his broadcasts, Ned’s imposing array of words and phrases that colored each game left a prevailing impression on me.  In Martin’s lexis, a baseball might rocket, balloon, soar, sail, glide, dart, float, sputter, plummet, plunge, bound, skip, hop, spring, or dribble. A ferocious swing of the bat by Harmon Killebrew could create “a crosswind in the box seats.” Cleveland’s young pitcher, Luis Tiant, “uncoiled” when he delivered “the confused sphere.” Center-fielder Gary Geiger might “coax the ball down to his glove as if by supplication.” Sox reliever Dick Radatz invariably raised his hands in exultation “after setting down a gaggle of Yankees!”

Longtime Red Sox fan Michael Burns remembers: “Growing up as I did in Worcester, Massachusetts, I’ll never forget some of Ned’s beautiful and apt descriptions such as ‘hung a frozen rope,’ ‘pool-queue shot,’  ‘peeled foul,’ and “the threat goes by the boards” – phrases that filled so many of his broadcasts over the years. Like many of our fellow Red Sox fans of that era, our family would turn the TV sound down and tune in Ned’s radio play-by-play.”    

Ned Martin, along with partners Ken Coleman and Mel Parnell in 1967.

Martin’s eloquence had a profound affect on my own emerging sense of language. My neighborhood in Wellesley, the embodiment of the Baby Boomer explosion that was most visible in the early 1960’s, would be the setting for gargantuan baseball games occasionally involving forty or more children. Loquacious and curious, I normally broadcast each game even as I participated in it. Ned Martin’s choice in both syntax and vocabulary slowly became part of my word arsenal. If someone “blistered” the ball between third and short, “skied” to center, “scalded” the ball by the first baseman’s glove, or threw a “laser” to home plate, I would echo Ned’s phrases. As Martin’s words began to fill my summer days with the sounds of the game, the Red Sox announcer began to transform me into a more nimble speaker without me ever realizing it.        

As the seasons passed like shuffling cards, I slowly began to absorb a host of literary allusions that made Martin’s narrative brushstrokes even more compelling. One evening, a low-hanging fog shrouded eastern New England, causing the well-lit Fenway Park to appear as a massive firefly in the Back Bay horizon. When the fog continued to encircle the Fens, Ned sighed, “Fog comes/in little cat’s feet.” I glanced up at Mummie who was listening intently to Martin’s words. “Carl Sandburg,” she smiled.

Later that year, during a recap of a doubleheader with the White Sox in which Boston impossibly came back to win the first game only to lose the second in heartbreaking fashion, Ned began, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

After I looked at the radio in puzzlement, my father explained, “Mr. Martin is referring to the opening passage of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.”

When the cerebral Elston Howard joined the Red Sox for the pennant drive in 1967, Ned encapsulated Ellie’s prowess as a catcher by quoting Wordsworth: “Wisdom is sometimes nearer when we stoop then when we soar.”

Martin particularly loved to use the words of Shakespeare to help paint the scene for his listeners. Once, when describing Dick Williams’ shrewd managerial moves that had resulted in a dramatic victory for the Boston nine, Ned quoted from The Merry Wives of Windsor: “Why, then the world’s mine oyster/which I with sword will open.”

After some blatant luck – a bad bounce – had afforded the Red Sox with a fortuitous victory during the 1972 season, Martin used the Bard’s words to summarize the game, “And so, ladies and gentlemen, as Shakespeare once wrote, ‘Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.’”

Three years later, when he was teamed with the legendary Jim Woods, the two announcers found themselves in an extra-inning contest in Oakland in which both bullpens were outwardly spent. Martin ended up citing Macbeth: “If you can look into the seeds of time and say, which grain will grow, and which will not, speak then to me.”

Ernest Hemingway was a particular favorite of Ned’s; he seemed to recognize the pathos that swathed the writer’s work. After a series of managerial movements by Don Zimmer seemed to fall flat for the team in a contest with the Orioles in the late seventies, Martin used a noted Hemingway line as the focal point at the conclusion of a post-game summary. Never confuse movement with action,” Ned whispered as he signed off for the evening.     

When we listened at the beach, in our bedrooms, or from our cars to the sage commentary of Ned Martin, we intrinsically recognized that we had in our midst a cerebral reader-baseball announcer, who relished Willie Mays as much as Ernest Hemingway. Over the expanse of the seasons, Ned’s music became the vinyl for my own developing interest in timeless literature. While I struggled as a reader early on, I soon began to tackle the classics, thanks to the inspiration provided by the man behind the Red Sox mike.

The artistry of Ned Martin seemed to soar especially when he was “on the radio side” of the airwaves. The Globe’s Bill Griffith eloquently explained the culture of baseball radio broadcasting before television became king: “TV production and replays were still in relative infancy in those days – and telecasts were mostly limited to weekends – so it was common for Sox fans to have the game on radio. Tales of being able to walk down the street and follow the game from the radios on people’s porches were true. Baseball was a game made for listening on summer nights and for youngsters to follow in the time-honored radio-under-the-pillow manner.”  

As the venerable Art Martone wrote in a poignant tribute to Ned in The Providence Journal after Ned died, “Martin’s was the perfect voice for the day-to-day flow of this sport.”

While Ned was both urbane and eloquent, brevity was at the core of his success, a quality that, except for Red Barber and Vin Scully, has never been duplicated by any other baseball announcer. Art Martone lucidly remembered that quality in The Providence Journal:

“He frequently seemed detached from, rather than immersed in, the day-to-day workings of the team and the game . . . and thus was able to provide a context that other announcers could never hope to capture. My favorite Ned Martin call from the 1967 ‘Impossible Dream’ album was not the ‘pandemonium’ clip that everyone’s mentioning today, but from the day before. The Sox were leading the Twins, 3-2, in the eighth inning on Saturday afternoon — remember, they had to win both Saturday and Sunday to stay alive in the race — and Carl Yastrzemski put the game away with a three-run homer off Jim Merritt in the eighth inning. It wasn’t so much the call itself that I liked, but the postscript he added when the cheering began to subside.”

“‘If you’ve just turned your radio on,’ Ned said in a voice tinged with a tiny hint of disbelief, and then he gave just the slightest dramatic pause, ‘it’s happened again. Yastrzemski’s hit a three-run homer, and it’s now 6-2, Red Sox!’”

The one signature call Ned ultimately became famous for, “mercy,” was something that leisurely developed through time. While it often was stated after a particularly imposing homer, strikeout, or fielding play, he also used it an interjection of remorse, regret, even pathos. Irony was always at play when Ned Martin called a game.         

In early each Red Sox broadcast, even the most casual of listeners could discern a hint of melancholy in Ned Martin’s voice. While he obviously rooted for the Red Sox, he served as the antithesis of the over-the-top terrain inhabited by the Celtics’ Johnny Most, who called each game as if it were describing the Passion Play. There were even times when Ned would gently hint to his listeners about the possibilities of defeat just as it seemed as if the team was on the cusp of victory.

After 14 seasons broadcasting Red Sox baseball, Ned Martin gained a new broadcasting partner in 1974 with the arrival of Jim “The Possum” Woods. Pugnacious, impulsive, and anecdotal, Woods would serve as a brilliant converse to Martin throughout their five celebrated years together. In Woods’ hale hearty, good fellow world, Ned became Nedly and every topic under the heavens was open for discussion.

Martin especially took great delight in bantering with “The Possum” over his days as the number-two announcer to the longtime Pirates broadcaster, the legendary Bob Prince. Because “The Possum” and the brash Prince were two of the most legendary beer connoisseurs in Major League history, Ned once asked, “Did Budweiser sponsor you, or did you two sponsor Bud?” (My favorite Woods moment occurred in a rain delay in Oakland, when The Possum gushed, “And here into the booth comes six great friends of mine – all of them named Bud!” Martin’s sustained laughter was heard all the way into the commercial break).

Animated and spontaneous, Woods inevitably seemed to always bring out the best in Martin. Listening to two such erudite yet disparate men night after night made the summer months seem more fleeting. Even then, I recognized then that we were steadfastly ensconced in a provisional Golden Era, where names like Martin, Woods, the Gold Dust Twins, Yaz, El Tiante, Rooster, Pudge, and Dewey were firmly embedded in both the hearts and minds of Red Sox Nation.

Nedly and The Possum

When two such unswerving iconoclasts were subsequently ordered to promote the sponsors’ products more vociferously on the air, Martin and Woods ultimately balked, resulting in their collective dismissals at the end of the 1978 season. While Ned was eventually rehired as NESN’s principal baseball announcer, Jim Woods was not. As Art Martone reflected in The Providence Journal: “Ned Martin’s strengths became less and less important to the radio industry as it evolved from what it was in the 1960s to what it is today. ‘Quiet and intelligent’ doesn’t play over the airwaves these days; modern radio execs like shrillness and hysteria. His profession changed, and Ned Martin couldn’t — or wouldn’t — change with it.”

Ultimately, Ned Martin would serve as the Red Sox television announcer for another 14 seasons before being summarily dismissed at the end of the 1992 season. While there were pockets of brilliance throughout his telecasts, his discreet eloquence often fell flat in the visual realm of television. He sometimes seemed confused as to whether he should fill the silence with prose. It was as if Bobby Orr was restricted from ever crossing the red line. 

By his last year with the Sox, 1992, baseball and television had resolutely entered the age of Sportscenter, in-your-face journalism, and enduring union-owner-agent greed. At the time, Ned seemed slightly anachronistic, a gentleman in a society of “me-firsts.” In Bill Griffith’s accolade to Martin in The Globe, his last TV partner, Jerry Remy, talked about Martin’s contentious dismissal: ‘“Ned was sad the last week of that season because he’d learned that NESN wasn’t going to bring him back for the next year. And I knew they were afraid he might say something on the air. There was no chance of that. Not surprisingly, he went out with dignity and class.’”

Ned Martin subsequently retired to Clarksville, Virginia where he spent time with his beloved wife, Barbara, a bevy of dogs, and his cat, Emily. While we in Red Sox Nation occasionally heard his tranquil, reassuring voice from his new outpost via the talk show circuit, he seemed at peace in his new surroundings, a fitting closing act for a serene man.         

In 2001, Ned Martin was both astonished and stirred when he was named to the Red Sox Hall of Fame. At the reception that year, he received the most vigorous and sustained ovation of any recipient. On July 22, 2002, Martin attended the Ted Williams Tribute at Fenway Park, where he interviewed old friend, Carl Yastrzemski, the other Sox legend who debued with the team 41 years previously. The next afternoon, Ned died of a massive coronary at the Raleigh-Durham airport, a few miles from his home. 

Serendipitously, his last public appearance had been on the infield at Fenway as a blinding sun sheltered the park from the unforgiving dimness of night. The night after he died, I was reminded of a broadcast that Martin made two decades previously on the last day of the 1989 season. As dusk descended over the field, Ned ended the broadcast thusly: “The game is over, the lights are dimming, winter is approaching, and it’s time to go home. And so from Fenway Park this is Ned Martin, farewell for now.”

In the final analysis, the great Ned Martin incessantly stressed the enduring narrative of life through the potent medium of sports broadcasting. From his lens, the seasons ran together like an impressionist painting. Over time, they became chapters in a book that seemed to accentuate the same recurring theme over and over again even as hundreds of players entered and exited the tale like apparitions in a drawn-out war.

But Ned Martin was more than just an invaluable bard – he was also a master-teacher. Ultimately, he served as a mentor to thousands of New Englanders who faithfully listened to his broadcasts year after year. Without knowing it, he not only vastly extended our vocabularies, but instilled in many of us an infatuation for language that stuck with us long after he broadcast his last game for the Boston nine. Mr. Martin provided countless baseball fans with a landscape of metaphor and simile that enabled us to apply the gift of comparative language to own lives as both speakers and writers.

For me, Ned Martin gave me a focal point, a purpose, a sense of the possibilities, a future. Over the past 40 years, I have entered my classroom each and every day as his undisclosed yet grateful apprentice, efficiently equipped to provoke and kindle my students with the same elixir of perspicuity and insight that he first used on me four decades ago. After all, I became an English teacher because of Ned Martin. Early on in my professional career, my first headmaster asked me, “Shaun, who most influenced you to become an educator?”

I gazed out my classroom window as the trees began to sway in rhythm. I looked back at him and whispered, “Ned Martin.”

Sadly, however, I never had the chance to say “thank you” to him. “Regrets are as personal as fingerprints,” sighed Hemingway after the death of Scott Fitzgerald. Because Mr. Martin seemed eternally vigorous, I always thought that there would be time to drop him a note that would convey to Ned how much he meant to me – and to us. Unfortunately, this little essay will have to suffice.

In a lovely piece entitled, “A Day of Light and Shadow,” first published 42 years ago in Sports Illustrated, acclaimed musicologist Jonathan Schwartz wrote, “Ned Martin is as articulate and creative a sportscaster as there is in the country. He is often poetic and moving. ‘The Yankee score is up,’ Ned observed late last in September from Toronto, where scores remained only momentarily on the electric board. ‘Soon it too will be gone,’ he continued in his usual quiet tone. ‘It will flash away like a lightening bug into the chilly Canadian night.’”

In my mind, the poignancy – the vulnerability – that sometimes crept into his broadcasts, made Ned even more endearing in the end. Perhaps this was all because he had experienced the horrors of war as a Marine in the South Pacific. Three days after Martin died, ESPN’s Keith Olbermann wrote: ”He was a subtle, controlled, educated man, from Duke via Iwo Jima. His favorite on-air expression of surprise or delight was `Mercy,’ and in a summer in which we have lost Jack Buck, Darryl Kile, Irv Kaze, Ted Williams, and Jim Warfield, that quote from Hamlet, which Ned Martin always invoked in times of crisis seems all too tearfully appropriate: ‘When sorrows come, they come not as single spies, but in battalions.”’ 

An unfussy romantic, Martin often used musical allusions to describe the choreography of baseball. The game had a certain rhythm and Ned was most cognizant of its nature, the season, and the fixed beat that seemed to slowly dissipate as fall began to envelop our region. 

During an extended rain delay in Cleveland in the mid-seventies, Ned and his compadre, Jim Woods, impulsively began to discuss their own favorite musical numbers over the years. Suddenly, as if on a dare, Martin began to croon out the old Kurt Weill classic, “The September Song,” a standard that his beloved Sinatra had once sung so well. As Martin began to sing, I instantly recognized that I was getting a rare glimpse into the soul of an introvert:

     For it’s a long, long time

     From May to December

     And the days grow short

     When you reach September

     And the autumn weather

     Turns the leaves to flame

     One hasn’t got time

     For the waiting game

     As the days dwindle down

     To a precious few

     September, November

     And these few precious days

     I’ll spend with you

     These golden days

     I’ll spend with you.

From 1961 to 1992, we were fortunate to have spent a plethora of golden days with Ned Martin as we listened to him artfully describe the daily episodes of a team that truly mattered to us all in the end. Despite the dark clouds that sometimes rolled inside of him, Martin was able to emit a prevailing luminosity that was able to cut through the shadows of our own lives. The best Boston sportscaster of them all showed us the way even as he guided us through the haze of the seasons. 

There is an old proverb that states, “Power lasts ten years; influence not more than a hundred.” While no Baseball Hall of Fame induction seems in the cards for him – he would surely love the incongruity of that – Ned Martin’s influence remains a part of me every time I teach. More importantly, the music that he made for millions of Red Sox fans who came to depend on his illuminating, lyrical voice is worth far more than any bronze plaque hung in some squared, dimly-lit hallway in Upstate New York.  

As Ned Martin would surely exclaim, “Mercy.”

  

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5 thoughts on “Thank You, Mr Ned Martin

  1. Jerry Katz says:

    What a fantastic story! I had the privilege of growing up with the Martin family as good friends. His son and I played little league in Wellesley. Your tribute to Ned is way overdue.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Howard Breslau says:

    Thank you for this terrific piece! It is a poetic, poignant, and eloquent tribute to a master. I was truly fortunate to have grown up listening to him.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mark says:

    Ned is so under appreciated by the national media. Maybe because we are biased, but hearing his voice today as ESPN played Clemens’ 20 strikeout game in ‘86 brought back so many memories! Great tribute article from you!

    Liked by 1 person

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