Marty Brennaman, the radio voice of the Cincinnati Reds since 1974, has announced that he will be retiring after the 2019 season. Perhaps you’ve heard my initial reaction on the podcast. You’ve probably also read Doug’s piece on Marty’s retirement, or Mary Beth’s eloquent take.
I’ve had a few more thoughts about Marty’s retirement clanking around in my head. It seems like a good time to reflect on the guy who has been the soundtrack to my entire life. But first, watch Marty’s video announcing the big news.
A message from Marty Brennaman: pic.twitter.com/c66DFmyjQS
— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) January 16, 2019
It’s not surprising that Brennaman teared up in that video. After all, he’s an emotional guy. Of course, I can guarantee that he wasn’t the only person getting a little misty. For good reason: what a career Marty Brennaman has had. If you watched the press conference, you heard Reds owner Bob Castellini say that Marty has been a part of the Reds organization for more than thirty percent of the franchise’s existence. That’s almost unfathomable.
My earliest memory of Marty Brennaman is pretty hazy. It’s better described as a set of memories that all run together. Because there was never a time in my life where Marty wasn’t in the background. I vividly remember playing wiffle-ball games in the front yard with my brother, one on one, with our own created set of rules. Hit it past the end of the porch, it’s a double. If it goes past that tree, it’s a triple. Into the driveway next door, that’s a home run. If the pitcher catches a grounder before it stops moving, it’s an out.
We kept records; I was the all-time home run leader, despite the fact that my brother ended up being a vastly superior baseball player. Many of the games ended in bench-clearing brawls, as will happen with brothers. I remember those days fondly now…but in every memory, there is one constant. On the porch was a radio — always and forever — with Marty and Joe Nuxhall calling the games of those awful early-1980s Reds teams.
As I got a little older, I eagerly anticipated every single west coast road trip for the Redlegs. Sure, Cincinnati almost always went out west and played terribly. But there was something about laying in the dark, listening to Marty and Joe. Like many of you, I never made it to the end of those games, but slowly drifted away with the Reds in my head.
This is what I mean when I say that Marty Brennaman has been the soundtrack to my life. It’s not just a good turn of phrase. Marty has been there at every pivotal point in my life, in a very real sense (to me). How many thousands of kids over the last four and a half decades have a similar story?
I was a teenager in 1989, a cliched version of every teenager you’ve ever known. Awkward, often moody, trying to figure out where I fit in this world. One Thursday afternoon in early August, I was compelled to help with the construction of a deck on the home to which we had just moved. I had no talent for construction, to put it lightly. It’s also not an exaggeration to say that I wasn’t particularly interested in picking up a hammer on that fine summer afternoon. There were about a million things I would have rather been doing.
But there I was. As always, however, there was a radio and there was Marty Brennaman. Tom Browning retired the Astros in order in the top half of the first inning. Mariano Duncan walked to lead off the bottom half and stole second. Duncan advanced to third on a Luis Quinones bunt single, then scored when Eric Davis singled up the middle. Ken Griffey Sr. stepped to the plate next, and here’s where Marty takes over.
“…and Griffey swings, long drive, deep right-center field, going back to the walllll…gone!”
It was 4-0 Reds, and my mood had begun to turn around. I then listened in wonder as the Reds continued to hit. That homer was followed by singles from Rolando Roomes, Todd Benzinger, and Jeff Reed. Then a double by Ron Oester. Browning grounded out…then I listened in wonder as Marty described nine more consecutive hits. In the first inning!
“…and the inning is over, but one to be remembered. Fourteen runs, sixteen hits!”
By that time, I was deliriously happy. All of a sudden, a little construction work on a gorgeous summer day didn’t seem like such a bad way to pass the time after all.
A year later, I listened to Marty and Joe all year long as the Reds marched to a division championship. (You kids won’t believe this, but you couldn’t watch every Reds game on television in those days.)
When the playoffs rolled around, I watched every single pitch. The Reds were in the playoffs for the first time in my memory. (Which meant that I was a somewhat less-angsty teen for a few weeks.) During some of the games, I listened to Marty and Joe with the television’s volume down. After every game, I listened to the radio postgame show. Marty was right there in my living room as I celebrated one of the happier moments in my history as a Reds fan.
When the eighth inning ended in both Game 6 of the National League Championship Series and Game 4 of the World Series, I ran upstairs to my bedroom and popped a cassette tape into my cheap Emerson stereo system, the same system that permitted me to listen to all those west coast road trips. I turned on 700 WLW, then hit the “record” and “play” buttons simultaneously. (Again for the kids: you had to be there). I had to capture Marty’s call of the decisive innings in both series.
Sure, I was able to watch it downstairs, but I wanted to hear what Marty had to say about it. I wanted to be able to replay it over and over. And I’ll never forget the chills when the baseball settled into Todd Benzinger’s glove and Marty said:
“…and the 1990 World Championship belongs to the Cincinnati Reds!”
Marty Brennaman was 2,547 miles away at that precise moment, but he was also right beside me.
A few years later, I went off to college. While my home on the Kentucky border was well within WLW’s “Reds Country,” Charlottesville, Virginia was a different story. We were still a couple of years away from online broadcasts of Reds games, so the fact that I wouldn’t be able to keep tabs on the Redlegs seemed like a big deal to me (it’s possible that I didn’t have a clear understanding of what college life entailed).
My birthday was a couple of months before I planned to move to Charlottesville. As a gift, my parents gave me something called a GE Superadio (here’s what it looked like). That thing was a beauty. Marty’s voice came in loud and clear even in central Virginia, at least at night. I was away from home for the first time, taking my first steps into becoming an independent adult…and Marty was there with me.
My last year in college, I interned with the Virginia Sports Network. My duties included helping out with radio broadcasts of University of Virginia football, soccer, and men’s/women’s basketball games, along with in-studio shows at an AM station, WINA. It was a fun experience, permitting me to get some time on the air (long before podcasts were a thing). I had to stick a microphone in Bobby Bowden’s face after his first defeat in the ACC, one of the biggest wins in Virginia football history. (Bowden could not have been more of a class act.) I interviewed players in the locker room at University Hall one year after they had advanced to the Elite 8. I was occasionally permitted to do some post-game analysis after basketball games. The first time I ever flew was with the women’s team on the way to the ACC tournament.
At the time, I was still unsure about my future career path. Among other options, it seemed like following Marty into sports broadcasting might be a fun way to make a living. After all, Marty was a fellow Virginian, right? (I decided to ignore the fact that he had been the voice of the Virginia Tech Hokies before moving to Cincinnati.) So I tentatively talked my boss into broadcasting a handful of Virginia baseball games that spring, with me doing play by play. To prepare, I sat in my apartment night after night, Marty on the radio beside me and a notebook in my lap, taking exhaustive notes about the way he called the game. I studied the way he approached his craft, and I came away even more impressed than before.
Ultimately, I took a different path (though another intern that year, Robby Robinson, still does play by play for VCU basketball). I wonder occasionally whether I could have made broadcasting my career. There’s one thing I know for certain: I couldn’t do it as well as Marty Brennaman. Then again, that’s not really a valid self-criticism. After all, almost no one has ever been able to do it that well.
Here’s a story I’ve never told publicly before. A couple of years later, after my second year of law school, I spent the summer clerking with in-house counsel at Eastman Chemical in Kingsport, Tennessee. By that time, you could listen to games online. So there I was, alone all summer in a strange town in east Tennessee, but Marty was there with me.
As the end of the summer approached, a couple of weeks before I was set to return to school, I made the momentous decision that I was going to propose to my girlfriend. As I tried to decide how I was going to pop the question, I decided to ask for advice on how to do it. I decided to Ask Marty, of course.
On a lark one evening, I dashed off an email, asking Marty whether I should propose marriage at an upcoming Reds game. If we’re being honest, I was never going to do that (my girlfriend would have killed me). But Marty read my question on the air. He gave very sound advice: the Reds were in last place, 17 games out of first at that time and playing terrible baseball. Marty thought it would be a bad omen to propose marriage under those circumstances, and he offered some kind words. It was good for a smile anyway.
In August, my wife and I will celebrate twenty years of marriage. She’s been listening to Marty for those two decades too.
As you know, I realized a dream last April when the book I wrote with Chris Garber — The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds — was published by Triumph Books. What many of you may not know is that the book was finished a year earlier, but publication was delayed for reasons outside our control.
In the meantime, the publisher urged Chris and I to find someone to write a foreword to the book. We put together a short list of dream names, and at the top of that list was Marty Brennaman. I reached out, there was some back and forth, we sent him the chapter entitled “Marty & Joe” and (thanks to the facilitation of Reds Director of Digital Media Lisa Braun and Amanda Brennaman) ultimately he agreed to provide the foreword to the book.
It will always be a thrill that Marty’s name is on the cover of our book. With perhaps just one exception (Vin Scully), I have never heard anyone that could describe the action in a baseball game like Marty can, and — whatever you think about the way he “tells it like it is” — he’s never lost his fastball when it comes to vividly painting a picture of what was happening on the field. When asked to describe what made him so good, his longtime partner Nuxhall said this: ”His voice is excellent, he’s smooth, he’s right on the ball with the action in the game. If you sit there listening to him at the stadium, you can follow the ball with him. That’s one of his biggest assets.” Indeed.
I can’t speak for all Reds fans, but I imagine that most will agree with me: we’ll miss Marty. And not just because he’s a legendary broadcaster (but make no mistake: Marty is a legend in his field). I’m going to miss all the ways he finds to laugh during his broadcasts, and I’ll try to remember what he always has always said: “You gotta have a little fun in this life.” As Garber noted, “any glimpse at his Instagram reveals that the man is living his best life. I can’t imagine anyone who will enjoy retirement more.”
I’m probably going to be sitting on the deck a lot more this summer, listening to “a good ol’ good one” on the radio broadcast rather than watching the games on television. When his final game gets here — in the 2019 World Series, of course — we’ll all be listening, just like we did when Nuxhall retired. We’ll probably get a little emotional.
And soon, Marty will be gone from the airwaves. Someone else will take his place. I’ll miss him, but I won’t be able to forget him. After all, Marty has been there, in the background, every step of the way.