There was a jovial electricity in the air of St. Louis on the night of Monday Oct. 14, 1985.
Cardinals’ shortstop Ozzie Smith had just won Game 5 of the National League Championship Series with a solo home run in the bottom of the ninth inning. The city was alive: shouts of joy filled the streets, car horns blared.
Inside the car of legendary team announcer Jack Buck, however, you’d never know the difference. There was no hooting and hollering, no postgame show blaring from the speakers. Instead, classical music filled the vehicle as Jack, smiling from ear to ear, quietly drove home with his youngest child, Julie.
Nothing was said for much of the ride home, Jack enjoying the music, his 13-year-old daughter’s eyelids heavy from another late night at the ballpark.
That night, as Smith’s shot cleared the right-field fence at old Busch Stadium, Buck bellowed across the airwaves, “Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!” The phrase became so enmeshed in the fabric of St. Louis’s baseball-crazed culture that it may as well be engraved across the Gateway Arch.
Finally, Dad broke the silence. “Kid,” he said, his smile shifting to a skeptical grin, “go crazy? I don’t know if that was the right thing to say.”
Therein lay Jack Buck’s charm. He was real, an Average Joe who lived his life in an above-average way.
For millions of baseball fans across the Midwest, Jack Buck was more than just the voice of their favorite baseball team; he was the voice of their childhood. As much a part of the soundtrack of their homes as the ring of the telephone, the bark of the family dog, or the shout of their parents calling them to dinner.
Known for his deep, gravelly voice and razor-sharp wit, Buck was the radio play-by-play man for the St. Louis Cardinals and was a beloved fixture in the community for nearly half a century.
“He loved, more than anything, just meeting people,” says Julie Buck. “As much as people would come up and say, ‘Hey, I’m sorry to bother you, but can I take a picture?’ if there’s ever been anybody that loved doing that, it was my dad.”
His Childhood Dream
Buck was the ultimate self-made man. Born in 1924 in Holyoke, MA, John Francis Buck wanted to be a baseball announcer. Not a baseball player like most boys of his era or even a sports announcer. Buck always dreamed of being up in the booth looking out over a diamond on a warm summer afternoon.
During pickup games as a kid, he would announce the action as he played. Chasing a fly ball he would shout, “Hickey hits a line drive. Buck goes back!” It drove the neighborhood kids crazy.
When he was 15, his family moved to Cleveland, where Jack and his brother Earle would take the streetcar to Indians games. In the bleachers at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, Jack would announce as if on the radio, much to the ire of his brother, who would yell at him to “stop!” Sometimes, Earle would get so fed up that he would ditch Jack and go sit in another section. The irony: as a kid, Jack couldn’t seem to find anyone who wanted to listen to his baseball commentary.
After his father died, the teenage Buck took a slew of jobs, working as a porter, cook, baker, deck hand, crane operator, and iron-ore worker to support the family. He nearly dropped out of high school in 1941 to work more and would have done so had one of his teachers not come to his house to plead with his mother.
He was drafted and fought in the European theater of World War II, his tour of duty ending prematurely when he was struck in the leg and forearm by shrapnel. He was lucky to survive: somehow, the strike just missed the exposed grenade clipped to the chest of his jacket. Buck received a Purple Heart and was in a Paris hospital when fighting ended.
After returning from the war, Buck enrolled at Ohio State, where he called Buckeyes basketball games on the campus radio station, WOSU, while paying his way through school by working the graveyard shift at a 24-hour gas station in Columbus.
‘Find Something Else To Do for a Living’
The first night Buck sat behind a real microphone, his classmates were assigned to listen and jot down critiques on his play-by-play skills. The next morning, he was roasted. Taking things in stride, Buck recalled that most of the critiques “were honest and helpful.” Except when his professor shrugged his shoulders and said, “You’d better find something else to do for a living.”
Instead, Buck became a fixture at WOSU and soon was hired at Columbus-based WCOL. He broke into television in 1952 at WBNS-TV.
In 1954, his childhood dream became a reality when he joined KMOX radio in St. Louis, calling Cardinals games with another broadcasting legend, Harry Caray, before teaming up with analyst Mike Shannon in a pairing that would last nearly three decades. He became the team’s top announcer in 1969, punctuating each victory with his signature expression, “That’s a winner!” It wasn’t long before he became a St. Louis icon.
“He taught me how to treat the people behind the scenes the same way you would treat the executives that come into the booth,” says Jack’s son, Joe, himself Fox Sports’ lead play-by-play man on the network’s MLB and NFL packages. “I learned watching him. He didn’t talk about it; he just lived that.”
Buck’s most noted calls are like a “best of” album of iconic baseball moments. Some of them so recognizable that fans can recite them verbatim, dramatic pauses included. Like that call of Smith’s 1985 blast: “Go crazy, folks! Go crazy! It’s a home run … and the Cardinals have won the game … by the score … of 3-2 … on a home run … by the Wizard!”
Or the authentic euphoria of Kirk Gibson’s homer to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series: “I don’t believe … what I just saw!”
Or the simplicity of his words behind Kirby Puckett’s walk-off shot in Game 6 of the 1991 Series: “And we’ll see ya … tomorrow night!” A call that Joe poignantly reprised during Cardinal David Freese’s home run that capped an epic Game 6 of the 2011 World Series.
“He had genuine excitement, not manufactured excitement,” says NBC’s Bob Costas, whose first professional job in the business was serving as play-by-play announcer for the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis for KMOX. “You could tell when he was moved or thrilled by a moment, and it was genuine. That’s why I think he was so great in big moments.”
Buck was a wizard with the English language. Even Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway redrafted their best works. Not Buck. His classics were extemporaneous.
“He was brilliant at describing a moment in real time without a lot of forethought,” says Joe Buck. “When you’re always cramming it all back into the same home-run call, I think it becomes more about the broadcaster. When you do it the way he did it, it becomes more about the moment.”
Buck was a fixture among football viewers as well, providing the call on CBS NFL broadcasts, including the “Ice Bowl” in 1967. He also served as the CBS Radio voice on Monday-night games, teaming with former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Hank Stram for nearly two decades.
“I always considered him to be a baseball announcer,” Stram said once. “That’s how I remember him when I grew up. When we got together … it was amazing to see how alert he was and how much he knew about football.”
In all, Buck called 11 World Series, 18 Super Bowls, and four Major League Baseball All-Star Games in his storied career.
“He was someone who was very fluent, had a great sense of irony, and was someone that, when you think of the term ‘Renaissance Man,’ was as great a ‘renaissance broadcaster’ who ever lived,” says Curt Smith, an author on sports broadcasting, senior lecturer at the University of Rochester, and former presidential speech writer.
A Humanitarian, Too
As talented as he was behind the mike, Buck was known around St. Louis as much for his charitable endeavors. It was once estimated that he attended about 200 charity events a year, serving as master of ceremonies for a large majority of them. His favorite cause was the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, for which he served as the chief fundraising chairman for his local chapter. He never charged for a charity appearance.
“You would never have to worry when someone would come up to you and say, ‘Hey, I know your dad’ or ‘Let me tell you a story about your dad,’” says Julie Buck. “It was always a positive story about how he touched someone’s life. He always made us very proud.”
During the 1990s, Buck began to cut back on his number of Cardinals games, mostly because of health concerns.
He suffered from a variety of ailments, including Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, sciatica, and vertigo. As with most challenges in his life, he used humor to get through them, once joking to a crowd, “I wish I’d get Alzheimer’s. Then I could forget I’ve got all the other stuff.”
His wife, Carole, recalled that, when the two would lie in bed at night, he would tell her stories. On one such night, he announced a fake baseball game with teams made up of his medications: “Sinemat is up to bat with Mirapex on first.”
His death in 2003 was met with much sorrow in St. Louis and with tributes across the country. He’s honored at new Busch Stadium with his face on the outfield wall among the retired players; his statue sits outside. He has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, and the portion of I-64/US-40 that cuts through St. Louis was named in his honor in 2009. A member of both the American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame and the Radio Hall of Fame, Buck received the Ford C. Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.
All of the honors and awards, however, will never encapsulate who Jack Buck really was: a great father, a great humanitarian, and a great man. A man just as likely to be found smoking a cigar while shooting craps at a glitzy Las Vegas casino as he was to write poetry or be moved to tears by an ultrasound of one of his grandchildren.
Remembered fondly for his wit, he was loved for his sincerity. When his wife asked him what he would say if he met “the Lord,” he responded simply, “I’d ask Him, why were you so good to me?”