Robert Ferris Prince (
July 1 1916- June 10 1985) was an American radioand television sportscasterand commentator best known for his 28-year stint as the voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates Major League Baseballclub, with whom he earned the nickname “The Gunner” and became a cultural icon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Prince was one of the most distinct, colorful and popular voices in sports broadcast history, known for his gravel voice, unabashed style and clever nicknames and phrases, which came to be known as "Gunnerisms." His unique manner influenced a number of broadcasters after him, a list that includes
Pittsburgh Penguinsvoice Mike Langeand Pittsburgh Steelerscolor analyst Myron Copeamong others.
Prince called Pirates games from 1948 to 1975, including the
World Serieschampionship years of 1960 and 1971. Nationally, Prince broadcast the 1960, 1966, and 1971 World Seriesand the 1965 All-Star Game for NBC.
Early life and career
Prince was born in Los Angeles. His father was a former
West Pointfootball player and a career military man. An Army brat, he attended many schools before graduating from Schenley High Schoolin Pittsburgh. An athlete himself, he lettered in swimming at the University of Pittsburgh. Prince worked for radio station WJAS, then landed a sports show on KDKA-TV. Prince joined Rosey Rowswellin the Pirates' broadcast booth as a commentator in by|1948, and he was promoted to the top spot shortly after Rowswell’s death in February 1955.
As a result of his unmistakable voice, fertile baseball mind, and high-profile persona, it wasn't long before Prince would be king among Pirates supporters everywhere. Perhaps more than any Pirates player, Prince was responsible for the conversion of an untold number of fans in the
Baby Boomergeneration. His voice was a fixture on team broadcasts that aired continuously for seven decades on KDKA-AM, a clear channelradio station that could be heard well beyond the tri-state area after sundown.
A regular smoker, who was known to have a drink or two off the field and keep late hours, Prince lived much like the way he broadcast. In 1957, on a dare by Pirates third baseman
Gene Freese, Prince jumped from the third floor of the Chase Hotelin St. Louis into a swimming pool below.
Pairing with Jim Woods
Many veteran observers believe Prince did his best work while paired with longtime sidekick Jim "The Possum" Woods and vice versa in the 1960s, which coincided with the rise of the Pirates as a championship-caliber team. It was Woods who first referred to Prince as the "The Gunner." However, it was not because of his staccato style but rather the result of an incident, during Woods' first spring-training with the Pirates in
Fort Myers, Florida(1958). As Woods recounted, two decades later, to an interviewer in Cleveland, Prince had a narrow escape from an encounter with a jealous husband who was packing a gun.
To be sure, no one bled black and gold like Prince did before or since. Invariably, when his Buccos were trailing in the late innings by two runs, he'd say, "We need a bloop and a blast!" His partisanship slipped over into Woods' style as well, and by the mid-'60s, The Possum would be announcing the presence of pinch-hitter (and reserve catcher)
Jesse Gonderwith, "Let's go up yonder with Jesse Gonder." (The two would continue working together through the by|1969 season, after which the flagship station KDKA refused to match a higher salary offer from KMOX in St. Louis for Woods to join Jack Buckin the Cardinals' booth; that partnership only lasted two seasons.) Prince was more of a rooter than a homer, in that he always showed respect to opponents and the game alike. Like the vast majority of broadcasters of his time, he rarely second-guessed players or managers. He was especially close friends with Milwaukee Bravespitchers Warren Spahnand Lew Burdette.
"The Green Weenie"
In 1966, Prince popularized a good-luck charm known as the
Green Weenie, a plastic rattle in the shape of an oversized green hot dog that Pirates fans used to jinx opponents. ("Never underestimate the power of the Green Weenie," he liked to assure listeners). The hex symbol had started in the dugout with trainer Danny Whelan. Prince picked up on it and began talking about it on the broadcasts. No one thought to trademark the Green Weenie, so tens of thousands were sold in 1966, but Prince, Whelan and the Pirates didn't profit from it.
Departure from the Pirates
Soon after control of the broadcasts changed from
Atlantic Richfieldto Westinghouse Broadcastingin 1969, Prince had numerous conflicts with Westinghouse management. His conflicts with Westinghouse executives Edward Wallisand A.B. "Bill" Hartmanbecame personal. Pirates management often interceded to quell tensions between Prince and KDKA executives. Finally, in 1975, Prince and sidekick Nellie Kingwere fired, a decision that Pirates management did not try to reverse. Pirates fans, shocked by the news, did not react well. Egged on by competing radio station WEEP, hundreds of supporters held a parade and downtown rally. Several Pirates players also went to bat for him, but rehiring Prince was never a consideration. KDKA hired Milo Hamiltonin December and distributed press kits at a news conference that had a cover sticker proclaiming, "The New Voice of the Pirates."
After his time with the Pirates, Prince had stints calling
Houston Astrosbaseball, Pittsburgh Penguinshockey and ABC's " Monday Night Baseball". However, Pittsburgh was clearly the place for Prince, as he never realized his previous popularity elsewhere. He was removed from the primary Monday night broadcast team during his first season and dropped after its conclusion. He also was released by the Astros after a one-year stay. His work with the Penguins was a cause of consternation for hockey fans. Prince didn't understand the game, didn't know the Penguins' personnel and thought he could get by on his reputation and popularity. Eventually he was taken off play-by-play and re-cast as an intermission interviewer.
Prince drifted from job to job, many of which were considered small for a celebrity who had been the hottest act in town. Eventually, he returned to baseball and called Pirates games for a cable station in the early 1980s. However, his exposure was limited and Prince was too far removed from the scene to offer many insights about the game or the team.
May 3, 1985
KDKA and the Pirates decided to make Prince a member of the regular broadcast team in 1985. Broadcaster
Lanny Frattaresuggested that KDKA should launch a campaign to have Prince recognized with the Hall of Fame's Ford Frick Award. Station executives Rick Starr and Chris Cross took it a step further and decided Prince should have a role on the radio broadcasts. The announcement came days after he had been released from a hospital for cancer treatments. Prince returned to the Pirates broadcast booth on May 3, by|1985 to announce three inningsof the game between the Pirates and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Weakened from mouth cancer, Prince was able to announce only two innings but was given three standing ovations by the crowd as pure magic occurred. The Pirates scored 9 runs in the first inning that Prince announced, one for each year of his absence from the booth. In the next inning Prince called for first baseman Jason Thompson to park one "so we'll have a little bit of everything", and Thompson promptly homered.
The 1985 Pirate team was not very talented and would lose 104 games.
Willie Stargellhad retired three years earlier, and most of the 1979 Championship Team had disbanded. Nonetheless, the fourth inning broadcast announced by Prince on May 3, 1985, was the fifth most runs scored in any one inning during the Pittsburgh Pirates long franchise history. One commentator on KDKA Television (Channel 2) referred to it on the 6:00 p.m. news as the "last revival of the Green Weenie," Prince's good luck charm from 1966. That turned out to be Prince's only appearance on the broadcasts. He reported to the park for another game, but his illness forced him to go home after waiting through a long rain delay. Prince was unable to report for work again and was re-admitted to the hospital. He died on June 10.
Honors and awards
Prince was posthumously awarded the
Ford C. Frick Awardby the Baseball Hall of Fameas a broadcaster in by|1986. Even today, his name remains synonymous with Pirates baseball. In 1999, Prince was selected for the Pride of the Pirates award, a lifetime achievement honor given annually to a member of the organization.
Prince used dozens of pet words and phrases that were often imitated but never duplicated in his profession. Here are some:
* "A bloop and a blast": A base hit and a home run, usually late in the game when the Bucs were down by a run.
* "There's a bug loose on the rug" or just "A bug on a rug": A ground ball that scooted between all the fielders on the defensive team, often skipping/rolling all the way to the outfield wall.
* "A dying quail": A bloop base hit, more commonly known as a "Texas Leaguer."
* "Can o' corn" or "A No. 8 can of Golden Bantam": A routine fly ball or popup which came straight down, from old-time grocery stores in which canned goods (including corn) were on a very high shelf and a stick was used to pull them off the shelf ... and be neatly caught by the clerk. Golden Bantam was a popular brand of corn.
* "Foul by a gnat's eyelash" and "Close as fuzz on a tick's ear": The difference between a ball being fair or foul or a player being safe or out.
* "Frozen rope": A hard line drive, often hit by Roberto Clemente.
* "Hidden vigorish": A call for help for the Pirates or for an individual player, as in, "He just needs a little hidden vigorish." (Vigorish, from a Yiddish slang term, is the somewhat hidden profit that bookmakers get for a bet, regardless of who wins or loses.)
* "Low hummin' riser": A fastball.
* "Rug-cuttin' time" and "For all the money, marbles, and chalk": The deciding moment; crunch time.
* "Runnin' through the raindrops": Escaping without serious damage, as when a Pirate pitcher gives up several hits and/or walks in an inning but the other team did not score.
*"He couldn't hit that with a bed slat": After a batter chased a pitch way outside.
*"A little bingle": A little hit (single); a way to get on base and start a rally.
*"Aspirin tablets": Fastballs so quick they seem that small.
*"Atem balls": A pun describing hard batted balls that went right to a fielder -- right "at 'em." When this happened a few times in a game, Prince would say that a Pirate pitcher "has his atem ball workin' tonight."
*"Babushka power": Prince would call on the power of the headscarves that women fans wore. At Prince's urging, the women sometimes would take off their scarves and wave them; Steelers announcer Myron Cope later adapted the idea into the "Terrible Towel." that Steeler fans still wave.
*"Arriba!": Spanish for above or aloft, used by Prince in reverential reference to Clemente and his astonishing skills. Fans adopted the word as Clemente's nickname. Prince was fluent in Spanish and helped mentor and translate for Hispanic players, including Clemente, a Puerto Rican who spoke English with a heavy accent.
*"How sweet it is!": Exclaimed whenever the result was sweet for the Pirates. The phrase apparently was also used by Rosey Rowswell, longtime Pirate announcer who Prince joined at the beginning of his career. It is originally attributed to entertainer Jackie Gleason.
* "Good night, Mary Edgerly, wherever you are": His trademark farewell, although he never explained on-air who she was. Prince admitted the phrase was a variation of comedian
Jimmy Durante's nightly good-bye to an unseen Mrs. Calabash on his television show. Mary Frances Smith Edgerly was, indeed, a real person, a dear friend of Bob and Betty Prince who resided at the Blue Waters Beach Club in St. Petersburg, Florida. "Mayme" was a lifelong baseball fan and used to spend hours in the stands during spring training watching her beloved Pirates. She was a lively and interesting lady who died at the age of 105, two weeks after attending an Old-Timers' game in Buffalo, New York. Clemente also loved Mary and gave her one of his record-setting bats.
* "Hoover": A double play in which the Pirates would "vacuum" runners from the bases, which happened often, as second baseman Bill Mazeroski holds the all-time record for double plays. Once criticized for "promoting" a vacuum cleaner company that was not a sponsor, Prince -- who did not like anyone challenging his sayings -- invented the explanation that he was referring to the tax relief policies of former President Herbert Hoover.
*"Pull out the plug, mother!": When the other team's rally went down the drain, often due to an inning-ending double play.
* "Kiss it good-bye!" or "You can kiss it good-bye!" or "You can kiss this baby good-bye!": legendary
home runcall and current broadcast standard.
* "Radio ball": A fastball thrown so hard it “could be heard but not seen.”
* "Soup cooler": A pitch delivered high and inside, so termed because it was up around the lips (which blow on soup to cool it).
* "Spread some chicken on the Hill with Will" or just "Chicken on the Hill": After a home run hit by Pirates slugger
Willie Stargellwho owned a fried chicken establishment in the Hill District of Pittsburgh and offered free chicken to any customer who was in line when Stargell homered.
* "Sufferin' catfish": Words of frustration after the baseball gods conspired against his team. A fairly common southern term.
* "The alabaster plaster": The rock-hard infield surface at Pittsburgh's
Forbes Field. An "alabaster blast" was the basehit that came off the hard infield, more commonly known as a "Baltimore chop."
* "The bases are F.O.B.": The bases are loaded (“Full of Bucs,” probably borrowed from
Red Barber's "Full of Brooklyns").
* "The House of Thrills": Forbes Field itself.
* "'Tweener": a hit to the left or rightfield gap and thus between the fielders.
* "We had 'em alllll the way" or "The Buccos had 'em alllll the way": A way to say that the Pirates never trailed in a game. Also used humorously and ironically after the Pirates scored an improbable, come-from-behind victory.
In addition, Prince created colorful nicknames for numerous Pirates players, a list that included:
Nelson Briles: "The Rainmaker"
Roberto Clemente: "Arriba" and "The Great One"
Donn Clendenon: "Clink"
Gene Clines: "Li'l Angry"
Roy Face: "The Baron (of the Bullpen)"
Dick Groat: "Double Dozen"
Harvey Haddix: "The Kitten" (reference: 1960 World Series Game 7 broadcast mp3 available at MLB.com)
Richie Hebner: "Puck" (Hebner played hockey as a youth in the Boston area).
Don Hoak: "The Tiger" (reference: 1960 World Series Game 7 broadcast mp3 available at MLB.com)
Ralph Kiner: "The Alhambra Kid"
Bruce Kison: "The Whip"
Vern Law: "The Deacon" (reference: 1960 World Series Game 7 broadcast mp3 available at MLB.com)
Bill Mazeroski: "Maz" and "The Glove"
Al Oliver: "Scoop"
Dave Parker"The Cobra"
Manny Sanguillen: "The Road Runner"
Bob Skinner: "The Dog" (reference: 1960 World Series Game 7 broadcast mp3 available at MLB.com)
Willie Stargell: "Pops" and "Willie the Starg"
Bill Virdon: "The Quail" (reference: 1960 World Series Game 7 broadcast mp3 available at MLB.com)
* [http://bioproj.sabr.org/bioproj.cfm?a=v&v=l&bid=794&pid=16008 Bob Prince bio by James Forr]
* [http://www.baseballhalloffame.org/hofers_and_honorees/frick_bios/prince_bob.htm Baseball Hall of Fame - Frick Award recipient]
* [http://bioproj.sabr.org/bioproj.cfm?a=v&v=l&bid=794&pid=16922 Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Bio Project]
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.
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