ST. LOUIS — The news that came late at night a decade ago Monday left St. Louis in mourning, led to an outpouring of emotion perhaps never seen before in the region and a funeral fit for a beloved head of state.
Jack Buck, the benevolent man with the friendly voice who became a father figure, trusted companion and surrogate family member to countless people who never even met him, had died. Buck, who was so much more to the community than a Cardinals broadcaster in his 47 seasons in their radio booth, had lost his bout with a long series of ailments that kept him hospitalized for the final 5 1/2 months of his 77 years. He had endured five operations — including brain surgery — and battled numerous infections.
KMOX, the longtime Cardinals radio home for which Buck ran the sports department for decades, went to nearly round-the-clock coverage, much commercial free. Television stations interrupted programming for long-form remembrances. Fans came in droves to Busch Stadium to lay flowers and hand-made signs at the bust of Buck outside the ballpark. Public displays of affection and grief went on for days. The mourning — and celebration of an astounding life — included Buck lying in repose on the field before a Cardinals game, followed the next day by a funeral in a packed church, a service carried live by many local broadcast outlets.
“It’s hard to imagine a St. Louisan — Stan Musial might be someone who would be in that category — whose life and whose passing would have as much an impact on such a wide swath of the community,” recalls Bob Costas, who has become perhaps America’s top sportscaster after having his start at KMOX in 1974 when Buck was its sports director. “Just about everybody felt in some sense they knew Jack Buck. Even people who weren’t avid baseball fans had some memories or experiences surrounding the Cardinals. But also in truth a huge number of St. Louisans actually did over the years have some personal encounter with Jack Buck.
“He was a fixture in the community for so long, and he did so many charity things, that a huge percentage of St. Louisans are probably able to say, ‘Yeah, when I was in high school he spoke to my class,’ or ‘I ran this charity auction, and he did this for us’ or ‘He came to this event,’ or ‘My father used to play cards with him,’ or ‘I ran into him at the racetrack,’ or ‘I saw him at Al Baker’s (restaurant).’ Wherever it was, he was a famous St. Louisan, but he also was person people actually felt like they knew.’’
From treating total strangers like friends, to giving a ride to a fan in need, Buck was a guy people related to in a manner unlike any other celebrity.
“The thing that was so special to me was to see how he treated people from ticket takers to guys pumping gas to dignitaries, there was only one Jack, and that was someone very special,” his longtime broadcast partner Mike Shannon said then.
And Buck had a hard time saying ‘no’ to good causes. Tony Rejent Jr., who at the time of Buck’s death was 29 and living in Warson Woods, knew all about that.
“I met Jack at a cystic fibrosis banquet in 1996,” Rejent said at the time of Buck’s passing. “He gave the first Jack Buck Award to my father.”
Fighting cystic fibrosis was one of Buck’s favorite charitable endeavors, and he helped raise well over $30 million to battle the disease.
While many grieved, it also was a time of solace for the Bucks.
“As a family, I think there was some measure of relief that the long journey was finally over,’’ recalls his son Joe, who has followed in his dad’s broadcasting steps. “He was finally at peace, because he had such an awful time in intensive care. He just kept fighting ‘till he gave out. It was time.’’
From near and far
While Buck related to the common man, he also enjoyed his time with well-known people, some of whom went the extra mile — or, more appropriately, the extra thousands of miles — to attend his funeral.
One was entertainer Tony Orlando, who knew Buck for many years and admired him greatly. Orlando went to extraordinary lengths to be on hand. He had a performance the night before in Las Vegas, then quickly headed to the airport to fly to Los Angeles to connect to a red-eye flight to St. Louis. He attended the service, then went straight to the airport to return to Vegas in time to be on stage that night.
It made for a very long 24-hours.
“I just felt the need to be there,” Orlando recalls. “It was a worthy trip. ... I was tired, but mostly what tired me out was that it was draining to see the hurt in everybody. ... There was a solemnness, it was an amazing reaction from a city. I know this may be a stretch for some people, but not for people in St. Louis: It reminded me of when (President) John F. Kennedy died, the tremendous weight that was on the common person on the street. Everybody was feeling his loss. I could tell the people were hit hard by his passing. It was a sad day, but an interesting lovefest of a funeral.
“It was a privilege to know him, it was an honor to be there at his funeral,” Orlando says. “It’s a privilege to know his wife and son Joe, whom I adore.”
Former Cardinal Jack Clark also went to great lengths to attend. He was the Dodgers’ hitting coach at the time of Buck’s death and flew from Los Angeles after the team’s game the night before the funeral, then flew back shortly after the service. He said all the travel was worth the effort to pay respects to Buck, who received a Purple Heart for a combat injury he suffered in World War II.
“He fought for his country, he was a hero,” Clark said then. “He was bigger than baseball. I’m just glad my kids got to know him. I’m a much better person for having known Jack.”
Former St. Louis University basketball coach Charlie Spoonhour, who at the time was coaching at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, also took long flights to and from St. Louis in a short span to pay his dues.
He was a huge Cardinals fan who has been friends with Buck for more than a decade and once did a radio show with him.
“I just felt I should be here,” Spoonhour, who died in February, said then. “I think it was pretty clear today (at the funeral) and all week that Jack belonged to a lot of people. Even in Vegas, he was all over the radio and TV — and not just the national stuff, there was a lot of local coverage out there.”
The emotional reaction
The magnitude of the outpouring was astounding. Joe Buck broke the news of his dad’s death at — almost eerily — 11:20 p.m. on June 18, 2002, on KMOX during John Carney’s show.
The time and the spot on the AM dial of the station for which Buck had worked for so long corresponded exactly. Carney remained on the air till dawn taking calls from listeners who expressed not only their grief but told stories about personal remembrances of Buck.
“In 30 years of broadcasting, for me it is the one thing that more people say that was just incredible, the thing they remember most,” Carney said.
He said someone from KMOV (Channel 4) set up a camera outside Carney’s studio to carry coverage of his show, and unbeknownst to him all major local stations picked up that feed into the wee hours.
And Carney, son of another legendary KMOX broadcaster — Jack Carney — said it was an honor to have known Buck.
“My dad died six months into my career, so I didn’t learn a lot from him but I learned an awful lot of radio from Jack even though I didn’t do sports,” Carney said. “He was such a class act in an industry full of people like me, who just want to hear about themselves.”
Tributes dominated the airwaves and newspapers — and general conversations around St. Louis — for days.
“It was unbelievable,” says Joe Buck, the Fox network’s lead baseball and football announcer. “To this day, I’m still grateful to all those people who called in to KMOX and shared stories about him, things that he had done that we as a family didn’t even know about. I think that’s what made him so special, he did so many things because they were right, so many things he did because they felt good. He wasn’t the kind of guy to come home and say, ‘Hey guess what I did today?’ He just did it, it gave him satisfaction, and he knew it was something that uplifted somebody else. That was good enough for him, he didn’t need to be patted on the back.”
The prime of Buck’s career and the golden age of baseball on the radio coincided, a time before most games were televised, before cable and Internet existed, leading to a special bond between announcer and fan.
“When he died, people really felt a part of their lives had left the scene,” Costas recalls. “It’s always been true, even the greatest baseball players even before free agency, maybe they played 20 years and a great announcer can last longer than that. But now especially, in an era when players move around a lot more, very often the fans’ most enduring connection to a team is a great announcer.
“Jack was part of that breed of announcers who even with the advent of a lot of games on television still primarily was a radio guy in a market where radio always was more important than television. That was unusual, if not unique, in that in St. Louis radio really mattered. All the circumstances came together to make him more than just (an announcer). Someone who’s great at their craft you admire and respect, and he had that. But then he had personal qualities that made people love him, which is harder to quantify but is there.”
Making a connection
Costas said Buck’s special ability to relate with listeners, plus the way he handled himself in public and his many charitable deeds, led to his special relationship with St. Louis.
“One of the great things about him as a broadcaster — which is not true of every broadcaster who has a very high level of skill like he did — is he connected with people because in the big moments like when he said, ‘Go crazy folks! Go crazy!’(on the Ozzie Smith’s homer in the 1985 playoffs), he wasn’t just calling the play, he was spontaneously sensing what the reaction of everyone listening would be,” Costas said. “He was articulating what they felt, and that’s what he did extremely well. You can’t just put that down to skill. Yeah, you need skill to do it, but you also need a human quality of connecting with people that way.”
Orlando, who was friends with Buck for many years, looks back fondly for the same reason on his old buddy.
“There was a warmth to him that was unbelievable. I have not met a performer or ballplayer who ever met him who didn’t have the same feeling I did. That’s saying something about a man, I still miss him.”
Costas remembers Buck’s softer side, too.
“He had this interesting aspect to his personality that he was kind of a cool guy in a Rat Pack cool way because that was the generation he came out of, but he was also a sentimental guy — very sentimental, but it was genuine sentimentality,” Costas recalls. “That really resonated with people. If Bob Gibson retired and Jack Buck choked up over it, they knew that’s how he really felt. And that’s how they felt, too.”
In the booth
His most famous call locally was the “Go crazy” one, and his most notable national call was “I don’t believe what I just saw. I don’t BELIEVE what I just saw” when the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson, nursing a leg injury, hobbled off the bench to hit a game-winning homer in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
But how he handled the situation in 1998, when the Cards’ Mark McGwire was chasing Roger Maris’ single-sesaon home run record, summed up Buck’s everyman persona. Despite there being strong sentiment among fans and some broadcasters that he should be behind the microphone for the historic call, he insisted that the normal rotation remain in place and he not be given an inning of work that normally would go to Shannon.
“Whoever it befalls should have the call, “ Buck said as the momentous occasion approached. “That’s the way it should be.”
Shannon ended up with the big call of homer No. 62.
“Swing and a shot into the corner, “ Shannon said on the air. “It might make it! There it is, 62, folks! It just got over the left-field wall in the corner. And we have a new home run champion. A new sultan of swat. It’s Mark McGwire.”
Buck not only called it the right move, but praised Shannon.
“There is no jealousy here, “ Buck said after the call, which came on what was McGwire’s shortest homer of the season — one that barely cleared the wall, not one of his usual majestic shots that make it easy to broadcast. “I admire Mike Shannon for being able to get those words out.”
Sticking with the rotation led to Shannon also calling McGwire homers No. 69 and 70.
“That stuff doesn’t matter to me, I’ve had plenty of thrills in the booth,” Buck later said. “Sure, I would have enjoyed it. But it doesn’t matter.”
He was on the air for McGwire’s record-tying 61st homer, saying: “Swing and look at there! Look at there! Look at there! McGwire’s No. 61! McGwire’s Flight 61 headed for planet Maris! Home run McGwire, 61 ... Pardon me while I stand and applaud.”
And in typical Buck self-analysis, he didn’t like the way it came out.
“I thought it was rather ordinary,” he said of the call. “It was not spontaneous, it was a little contrived.”
Buck always was a quipster, sometimes at his own expense. For instance, at the dedication of the bust of him outside Busch Stadium in 1998 he talked about his plans to remain on the broadcast team even though he was 74.
“I’ve given the Cardinals some of the best years of my life, “ he said. “Now I’m going to give them some of the worst.”
There was more: “In the winter, if you want to meet me, I’ll be driving around and around the ballpark and I’ll be looking at this.”
A fitting finale
Buck’s funeral service and burial originally had been planned to be private, but the family decided to open both to everyone.
“We always shared him with the public, and this is what he’d want,” his wife, Carole, said then.
The funeral procession went from the Twin Oaks Presbyterian Church, near Valley Park, to Jefferson Barracks cemetery. Mourners lined much of the route, some displaying signs with words of affection, others waving, some standing solemnly.
“It was staggering,” Joe Buck recalls. “The day at Busch Stadium was incredible, that entire scene with people filing past his casket is something I’ll never forget. And then the funeral. When I got into the limo with my mom to follow the hearse, we were pulling out of the church parking lot and to see people standing and saluting and applauding on the way to Jefferson Barracks, almost all the way down the highway, it was breathtaking.
“It was a fitting end to an unbelievable life of great giving and never thinking of himself. I think he got it all back that day.”
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