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Milo's rise was a uniquely American story

Longtime announcer got his start while in the Marines in WWII

Milo Hamilton knew almost from the moment he sat behind a microphone that first time seven decades ago: he was going to be one of those lucky people who got to spend his life doing something he loved. He was blessed in that way. He knew it, too.

So were all of us, the millions of people who listened to that deep, distinctive voice take us to Major League ballparks across this country -- 59 of them in all -- to describe the games and the players he loved so much.

Hamilton's long, remarkable life ended Thursday, when he died in Houston after several weeks in poor health. He was 88.

How it all happened -- how Hamilton came to spend 60 years doing baseball and rise to the highest ranks of his profession and be an iconic part of baseball -- is a uniquely American story. While serving in Guam during World War II, a Marine lieutenant asked for volunteers to do play-by-play of the Pacific Servicemen's Baseball Tournament.

"It changed my life," Hamilton said during a 2013 interview.

Thus began a path in which Hamilton would be the voice of six Major League teams and make one of the most famous calls ever -- Hank Aaron's 715th home run. He received his peers' highest honor in 1992 by winning the Ford C. Frick Award in conjunction with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Video: [email protected]: Cubs' booth reflects on career of Milo

"I've been privileged to be associated with baseball," Hamilton said. "I was a fan who had a chance to tell everybody what a great game it is."

Now about that first job …

"I told the lieutenant I'd played in an old country hardball league around my home in Iowa," Hamilton remembered. "He said, 'You're it.' I had to make a scorecard, and I tried to remember everything I'd ever heard Bob Elson say doing the Cubs.

"The bug bit me. It's as simple as that. I thought this might be a way to go home and use the G.I. Bill to go to the University of Iowa, which had a good journalism school and a good on-campus radio station."

Remembering Milo: Many share memories

During those early years, Hamilton did a little bit of everything -- from hosting music and interview shows to covering hundreds of sporting events that included Golden Gloves boxing, high school basketball and Three-I League baseball.

"The first night, I did 16 fights, and I'd never seen a fight," he said. "I did the boys' state high school basketball tournament about three weeks after I got there. Did it alone -- 16 games in five days. And then baseball in the summer and football in the fall.

"There were high schools all over the place in the Quad Cities -- St. Ambrose College, Augustana College. I was doing 35 football games in the fall, and also the University of Iowa, my alma mater. And then basketball.

"I was the first guy to do 100 basketball games, and I did it for about three years. The joke in the Quad Cities used to be, 'If a ball's in the air and a guy blows a whistle, Milo will be there with a mic.'

"I got what amounted to a master's and a Ph.D by working night and day. Doing record shows, too. That was one of the keys to my success. I graduated in 1950, and three years later, I was in the big leagues. I was prepared enough to be ready."

Hamilton also did dozens of recreations of games for the radio, some of them after his Major League career had begun.

"We made it sound like a game -- clapping, vendors," he said. "The guy on the [sound] board, he wanted to be part of it. He'd stick a waste basket over his head and give the lineups to make it sound like a PA. When I recreated the Roger Maris 61st [home run] on the White Sox network, the greatest compliment I could have gotten is the next day I get on the elevator in Chicago, and someone said, 'You must have flown all night to get back here. We heard you do the Maris home run yesterday.'"

Hamilton's first big break came from a couple of executives with the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company. He'd interviewed them, and they apparently were impressed both by the richness of his voice and his knowledge of his subject.

They recommended Hamilton to a new St. Louis television station, and that gig included some play-by-play for the Browns. From there, he did the Cubs, White Sox, Braves, Pirates and Astros.

Video: [email protected]: Pirates' TV booth reflects on Milo's passing

Hamilton's signature phrase was "Holy Toledo!"

"My dad and his pals would stand around a big pot kettle stove telling stories," he said. "Whenever they were going to use a profanity, they'd say, 'Holy Toledo!' I never heard a cuss word out of any of those guys, including my dad. I heard him say 'Holy Toledo' a lot. I started using it in April 1950. I'm not sure why I said it, but it has stuck."

As for the Aaron call, Hamilton said, "I had all winter to think about what I was going to say."

Hamilton decided not to prepare anything, to just be spontaneous.

"Plus, the fact that the home run barely made it," Hamilton said. "Aaron did not hit Ruthian home runs. [Dodgers left fielder Bill] Buckner almost caught the damn thing, you know. Anything I would have prepared would have gone out the window anyway. I always felt spontaneity was my long suit anyway.

"The only conscious thing that I did was not to say 'Holy Toledo.' I felt it was Aaron's moment, not the broadcaster's moment. People knew what my saying was. I didn't need to put that in there. And I didn't."

Video: Milo Hamilton's most memorable calls

When Hamilton would hear the call in the later years of his life, he would reflect, "It takes me back. I go on a lot of talk shows around the country, and I think the guys feel obligated to introduce me with the Aaron call."

One of Hamilton's first broadcasting heroes was Ronald Reagan, whom Hamilton met during a trip to Dodger Stadium. Reagan was Governor of California at the time.

When they were introduced, Hamilton repeated the line that Reagan had closed his radio show with -- an ad for Kentucky Club Pipe Tobacco.

"I shook his hand and said, 'Look for the blue pack with the red-coated rider'" Hamilton said. "He looked at me and said, 'How did you remember that?'" I told him I was 8 or 9 years old when I first heard that, and it would be hard for a little kid to forget that."

When asked why the game is so appealing on the radio, Hamilton didn't hesitate.

"People have memories and ties to the game they just don't have with other sports," he said. "It's an imagination game. Guys that have the ability to paint a picture can whet the imagination. I think that's the real secret to it. I think the fans enjoy the kind of [things that are] interwoven among the balls and strikes and hits, some memories and stuff. Don't get me wrong. I love the NFL and the NBA. But they don't have the long memories of baseball."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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