If the walls of a great stadium could talk, one can only wonder the stories they might be able to tell. A place that has seen the likes of Mickey Mantle or Jackie Robinson, of Joe Namath or Len Dawson, of John Wooden or Howard Cosell – if one place had seen so much history, you just might be able to learn a thing or two from it.
Talking to Merle Harmon might be the next best thing.
As the former broadcaster of the Chiefs, Jayhawks, Kansas City A’s and many others, Harmon has seen it all, and has met and worked with many of the most famous people ever to grace a playing field, a sideline, a typewriter, or a microphone.
Now retired and living in Texas, Harmon was back in Kansas City this weekend for a reunion of the old Kansas City A’s, which was held by the T-Bones at Community America Ballpark.
The baritone that once boomed across the airwaves of the Midwest once again addressed the baseball fans of Kansas City, introducing all of the players before Saturday night’s game.
But could that voice explain just how it’s possible that one man could be a part of so much history and have so many prominent and accomplished people call him a friend?
“Well, Scott, I planned it,” he said.
A tall, thin young man from Salem, Ill. walked the campus of the University of Denver over 60 years ago, dreaming of being a baseball player like everyone else.
“When I went to a tryout camp,” Harmon said, “the scouts pulled me aside and said, ‘you’ve got three problems: you can’t run, can’t hit, and can’t throw.’ So I decided to get into radio.”
He called football and basketball games during his senior year, and on the recommendation of a professor, headed to Topeka during his search for a job.
And so, in the summer of 1949 he arrived in the Sunflower State, not even sure where Topeka was. He parked his car on the street, which just so happened to be where a group of men were carrying radio equipment up some stairs.
He went and talked to them, and they also just so happened to need a guy to do football and basketball games.
Brilliant planning like that can get a man hired.
Five days into the baseball season, Harmon’s supervisor unexpectedly had a hole to fill for his baseball broadcasts and approached Harmon.
“Can you do the game tonight?” he asked.
“Well...” Harmon responded, not even knowing much about the situation. “What’s the name of the team? Where’s the ballpark?”
Page 2 of 4 - “The Topeka Owls. I think it’s on North Topeka Boulevard.”
“Well I’d better get out there and find out what’s going on.”
“Oh by the way, the game is in Muskogee, Okla. tonight.”
“Well how am I supposed to get down there?”
“You’re not. You’re going to recreate the game by Western Union.”
That was Merle Harmon’s introduction to baseball: reading the tickertape from a telegraph line and making the whole thing up as if he were there.
You might say things took off quickly after that.
Within five years, Harmon had started the University of Kansas Radio Network, was broadcasting both football and basketball games for them, and in baseball had moved up to the Kansas City Blues, the AAA affiliate of the New York Yankees.
When the A’s moved to Kansas City from Philadelphia in 1955, Harmon got the call to announce their games with Bill Grigsby, which he did for seven years until Charlie Finley bought the team.
Finley was renowned for his antics that included threats to move the A’s everywhere from Oakland, Calif. to Peculiar, Mo., and he so insulted the sponsor of the broadcasts, Schlitz Brewing Company, that they canceled the broadcasts altogether.
Harmon wasn’t out of a job, though, as he had already been freelancing for ABC. He called their baseball Game of the Week on Saturdays with Jackie Robinson and Leo Durocher, and Howard Cosell himself hired him to broadcast the Jets games on ABC Radio with Hall-of-Fame quarterback Otto Graham.
“[Cosell] was the sports director at ABC,” Harmon said. “We were very good friends. My wife asked me, ‘why do you and Howard get along so well?’ I said, ‘probably because we don’t have anything in common. He can’t do play-by-play and I can’t do boxing.’”
He leans in and does his best Cosell impression. It’s easy to tell that he loves to do it because it really does sound like the real thing.
Enter Muhammad Ali.
“I don’t know, Howard. It might be with you.”
In 1962, a big-time New York producer told Harmon that someday, some form of paid television would rule sports. If only we could all have such brilliant foreshadowing, perhaps we could plan out our lives that well, too.
But for the time being, Harmon continued to take many of the short-term opportunities that came his way. He called games for the Chiefs, Milwaukee Braves and Minnesota Twins throughout the remainder of the 1960s, and when the Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee in 1970 to become the Brewers, Harmon made a return trip to Milwaukee.
Page 3 of 4 - You may have heard of his boss there, Bud Selig. You may have also heard of his broadcast partner starting full-time in 1973, Bob Uecker.
Harmon and Uecker were renowned for their wild stories during the broadcasts, some of which may even be true, during their eight years together in the press box, where they would sometimes be spotted broadcasting the games shirtless on hot sunny days at County Stadium.
In 1980, NBC signed Harmon to cover the Summer Olympics in Moscow.
“My venue was watersports: water polo, swimming, and diving,” said Harmon. And I knew nothing about any of them. I had two weeks to learn.”
The only problem was that the Brewers didn’t want to let him get away from their television broadcasts. They forgot, though, that their games were on NBC and would be preempted by the Olympics.
“They said, ‘we don’t we can let you get away because we’re in a ratings period. We don’t want to interrupt the television broadcasts.’ I said, ‘television? NBC’s got it...you’re the NBC station! You’re not going to have any baseball!’”
Harmon stuck with NBC after the Olympics, announcing exclusively for the network and calling football and college basketball. After a couple years, though, the mundane nature of working for a network and not have a rooting interest wore on him.
“I really missed being around the players, and the batting cage,” he said.
When a friend approached him about working for the Texas Rangers, he thought back to the time when a producer told him about paid television ruling sports, and wanted to see if he could turn that into a reality.
“I said I wasn’t really interested in anything else,” said Harmon. “There was no new challenge.”
His friend informed him, though, that they were working on starting a cable network to air the Rangers games. Since that was what the whole project was about, Harmon was on board.
Things started out slowly, with only a few homes picking up the broadcasts and the network losing money. By 1987, though, they were making money instead of losing it, and in 1989, Harmon said they were, “like gangbusters.”
He had helped turn cable into a success, and there was nothing left to conquer. It was finally then, after 40 years in broadcasting that he retired.
At the age of 82, Merle Harmon can still be found all over the country, giving motivational speeches to businesses and teams alike. He published a book called “Stories: that I know to be true, that might have been true, and that probably weren’t true but were darn good stories anyway.”
He is still married to his wife Jeanette, and his son Bruce is in Beijing filming the Olympics for NBC.
Page 4 of 4 - Finally, though, he may be starting to slow down a little.
“I don’t want to travel as much anymore,” he said.
Why would he need to, after all? He can look back on broadcasting the Super Bowl, World Series, All-Star Game, three no-hitters, two perfect games and the 5000th strikeout of Nolan Ryan, and working with the likes of John Wooden, Bud Wilkinson and Dick Young, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a sportswriter.
After all these years, Merle Harmon still carries himself tall. As he and I were walking up the stairs to the reunion, we just so happened to catch the attention of my old summer baseball coach, Dave Gershon.
I introduced the two, and Dave’s eyes lit up and he said, “I remember. I used to listen to you back a long, long time ago.”
Later on, when Merle was talking to former A’s pitcher Chuck Dobson, Dave leaned over to me.
“What a voice, huh?” was all he said.
Indeed it is, and how fortunate that it was a voice brought to so many people. But I do wonder, thinking back on his story, just how much of it he could’ve planned, and how much of it was just good fortune. The good fortune that allowed him to run into those radio workers in Topeka, 59 summers ago, and the same fortune that allowed me to run into my old coach on this day.
The only man who could answer that is the man himself. And unlike all the walls of those old ballparks, this source of wisdom can talk.
And what a voice he has.