Marty Brennaman’s Titanic Struggle
If he was the soundtrack of your youth, he was my soundtrack, my newspaper-in-the-driveway, my Encyclopedia Britannica, my baseball whisperer all rolled into one.
“Ask me, and I’ll tell you how I remember like it’s yesterday, the trip down Interstate 71 on a sweet summer evening lo those many years ago. A moment you wish you could bottle up and save for … well, forever. A moment a young man never forgets, scarce removed from eighteen glorious holes on a beautifully manicured tract of earth with his favorite golfing buddy—his Dad. How the subject of baseball arose I can’t recall. What I do remember is reminiscing on the great Al Michaels; how crushed I was when Al left to become the voice of the San Francisco Giants, and how nobody would ever take his place. I’ll never forget what my father said next: “And then Marty came along and made us forget all about Al Michaels.”
Thus began my walk down Memory Lane, through the Marty of my salad days. Franchester Martin Brennaman wasn’t just the voice of the Reds, he was the sound of baseball in Cincinnati — every bit as much as the bat’s crack or the ball’s thump plugging into a well-worn mitt on a bright Saturday morning. So, as the voice changed, became more pointed, bitter, even angry, I couldn’t help but ask, Anybody Here Seen My Old Friend Martin?
Ask me now and I’ll tell you how I remember it like yesterday, the trip across Interstate 70 heading back to NYC on a sweet summer afternoon just a year ago. A moment that left me shaking my head with an all-too-familiar recognition. Marty was doing his usual second inning interview with a beat reporter. Upon learning that Williams had shared a piece of player information with the reporter before first informing the Hall of Fame announcer, the Voice of the Reds proceeded to take aim at President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams, going on a “And I Will Strike Down Upon Thee With Great Vengeance and Furious Anger” rant, ending with a clear threat: “Two can play that game.”
To his credit, Brennaman would apologize to Williams soon after, but it was another shake-your-head moment, another moment when I could only mouth the word “why?” Another ink-stained mark on the wrong side of the ledger of a wonderful career, a career that deserved a better ending than what was on the horizon, as far as I was concerned.
As I wrote four years ago, his disregard for analytics, the almost sneering tone whenever the subject came up, would shock and sadden me. When Brennaman criticized Bruce for being a poor hitter with runners in scoring position, how could Marty not know that Jay was actually hitting twenty points over his career average with RISP? Marty was as prepared as anyone who ever slid behind the microphone. What the heck was going on?
A great announcer was saying decidedly un-great things. As I often like to say to people when they ask why I’m so hard on the greatest voice the Reds have ever had, I say, “Look, Marty Brennaman is no bar mitzvah singer. How would you feel if you went to a Springsteen concert only to hear him sing Born to Run off-key?
If he was the soundtrack of your youth, he was my soundtrack, my newspaper-in-the-driveway, my Encyclopedia Britannica, my baseball whisperer all rolled into one. From transistor to car to satellite radio, he told me all I needed to know about the Cincinnati Reds, day-in, year-out.
How great was Brennaman? Well, unbelievably, baseball may not have been his best game. I fancy myself a fairly serious Kentucky Basketball fan, having nurtured my love of Big Blue at the knee of my father; the crackling airwaves that brought me Cawood Ledford drifting over the nighttime Kentucky hills; the worn pages of Oscar Combs’ The Cats’ Pause newsletter, passed hand-to-hand in Ken’s Barbershop in Newport, KY, giving me the news.
For two glorious years during the Eddie Sutton era, Marty was the play-by-play announcer on the UK Men’s Basketball Network alongside color man Larry Conley. Can you imagine that, Reds fan? For two Novembers, it was Christmas a month early to these ears. The baseball season would end, but my time with Marty would not. It would roll on, uninterrupted through the falling leaves and into the winter frost, with barely enough time for him to pop a throat lozenge before catchers’ mitts would pop again.
“Of all the people I have worked with (in broadcasting basketball games), and there have been 100s, Marty would be on the short list of the best I ever worked with,” Conley says. “One of the things I greatly appreciated, Marty has great knowledge about the history of college basketball.”
“I thought the job (Brennaman) did on calling the Laettner shot for the NCAA Tournament (Network) was one of the great calls I have ever heard in my life,” Lexington broadcasting icon Jim Host once said.
The days when he would take aim at Joey Votto were the worst. No matter what disappointment we might have with the Reds and their fortunes on the diamond, we always had Votto. The Yankees might have Jeter. We have Joey MVP. When Bob Castellini decided he was too important to the city to lose to free agency, he extended Votto to what became the largest contract in Reds’ history. The Reds’ first baseman was now making New York money in a conservative, working-class town that valued chili over chateaubriand. But, Joey was no cog on a beloved Big Red Machine. Nor was he a court jester on a wire-to-wire fun bunch. He was a quiet, thoughtful baseball player on a team many viewed as underachievers. He led with his play, not with his voice, as many insisted, given the size of his wallet. And he didn’t have Marty’s stamp of approval.
Votto needed Marty. He needed the Voice of the Reds and all those fifty-thousand watts of radio power in his corner, the kind of juice he gave to Pete, the kind he withheld from Adam Dunn.
Instead, Marty turned his ire on Votto. Perhaps he saw the best hitter in the National League as passive, not heroic enough to turn pitches outside the strike zone into game-winning hits. Joe Morgan could walk a hundred times, helping turn his ability to get on base into 2 MVP awards. That was Cooperstown stuff—while Votto’s plate discipline was dismissed as sabermetric hogwash. Selfish. Misguided. The cognitive dissonance was generational.
Or maybe Votto, who had become Major League Baseball’s standard-bearer for the analytic revolution, challenged too many long-held beliefs. Maybe Marty couldn’t accept the direction the game was going. Near the end, he said he’d miss the people, but not the game. Maybe that was it.
Or, perhaps it was more prosaic than that. Perhaps it was about the dollar bills:
BRENNAMAN: If I were owner of a baseball team, I would say to him, if I could trade him, I would trade him yesterday. And I would say, hell, I can lose 94 games without you just as easily as I can lose 94 games with you. I don’t care about the O-P-S. I don’t care about none of that. This club made a bad deal when they signed Joey Votto to a ten-year contract, and he’s gonna make 22 million dollars this year and either next year or the following year, he’s going to make 25 million dollars. There is no sanity on God’s earth that justifies this being a good contract.
CALLER: Okay, well, Bryce Harper is probably going to make thirty ….
BRENNAMAN: I don’t give a damn about Bryce Harper! You’re talking about Washington, D.C. Why don’t you bring up Mike Trout in Los Angeles?
CALLER: Well, okay …
BRENNAMAN: We’re done with this guy. We can argue all night long, and you’re dead wrong and you’re never gonna convince me that this contract is a good contract.
This was 2017. Votto would go on to finish second in the MVP voting, two points behind Giancarlo Stanton, the 4th closest vote in MLB history, despite the Reds winning a paltry 68 games. But, according to Marty, the Reds’ first baseman was stealing the silverware.
Whatever the reasons were, it had long ago become a pattern. We loved it when he stood up to ownership, whether it was Marge or Carl Lindner. The famous “I was here before you and I’ll be here after you” row with Griffey, Jr. was understandable. You could see how each might have had more than a dash of self-importance about them; but the verbal takedowns of Homer Bailey, Bruce and now Votto felt badly misplaced. And you knew from all the stories from those who worked with Marty and the fans who crossed his path that he could be generous to a fault when he was so inclined.
It must be difficult to become so well known, to be first name recognizable. Ringo. Madonna. Marty. All of us average Joes face moments in our lives when we must tame the monster within when ego rises into the throat. For Marty, it must have been a titanic struggle on some days.
You’d keep coming back because the play-by-play was as gold-plated as ever. Where Vin Scully was lyrical and gentlemanly, Marty was incisive and direct.
Someone wised-up and changed the rules or the by-laws of the Reds Hall of Fame to admit the finest voice radio will likely ever have in Cincinnati. Now, some other good folks should smarten up and get Marty’s signature phrase in lights on the west side of Great American Ball Park, just past home and heading for first. Marty and Joe, together again in lights.
There will be one more speech next April when Franchester Martin Brennaman is inducted. I won’t see it. But, some midsummer evening soon, I’ll park my car in a secluded spot. I’ll toss a well-worn Reds hat on the seat next to me, in honor of my dad, who sat with me in the driveway so many times so many years ago, as we listened to Marty paint Riverfront red. I’ll fire up the internet and find some calls from days gone by. I’ll roll down the windows and let the voice out into the Kentucky night one more time.
Browning ready with his payoff. There goes Ozzie. Swung on, drive, deep left-center field. Eric Davis going back to the wall …. Swung on, a looper, left-center field, a base hit, here comes Chaney, the throw to the plate. …. He levels the bat a couple of times, Show kicks and he fires. … And a high drive, hit back into deep right field …
… and this one belongs to the Reds.