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Oh, my! Enberg a sublime romantic

Special to MLB.com

There was a grand symmetry to Dick Enberg's life, which shockingly ended on Thursday with a heart attack at 82. As a 4-year-old, teethed on a baseball bat, he said his swing meant "being Ted" Williams, even then Dick's hero. Enberg died before the 2018 publication of his book, "Being Ted Williams," a tribute to the "Splendid Splinter," still Dick's beau ideal.

Airing every sport and event imaginable, winning every honor from a Lifetime Emmy Achievement Award to the Baseball Hall of Fame Ford C. Frick Award or being the first sportscaster to visit the People's Republic of China, Enberg never changed: Tom Mix, meet Andy Hardy; a romantic in a cynical age; a gentleman in an often ruthless craft. "Oh, my!"

There was a grand symmetry to Dick Enberg's life, which shockingly ended on Thursday with a heart attack at 82. As a 4-year-old, teethed on a baseball bat, he said his swing meant "being Ted" Williams, even then Dick's hero. Enberg died before the 2018 publication of his book, "Being Ted Williams," a tribute to the "Splendid Splinter," still Dick's beau ideal.

Airing every sport and event imaginable, winning every honor from a Lifetime Emmy Achievement Award to the Baseball Hall of Fame Ford C. Frick Award or being the first sportscaster to visit the People's Republic of China, Enberg never changed: Tom Mix, meet Andy Hardy; a romantic in a cynical age; a gentleman in an often ruthless craft. "Oh, my!"

Enberg's baseball bond set him apart | Enberg turned sports into a symphony

As anyone worth his catchphrase knows, "Oh, my!" was the television trademark of the man born in pre-TV 1935 in Mount Clemens, Michigan, the year the Tigers won their first World Series. His grandfather owned a small grocery store.

"I can remember him saying, 'Dickie, come in here. If you can answer this baseball question, you can pick out some Superman bubble gum,'" Enberg said. "I would study by baseball because I knew grandpa would give me some free bubble gum."

Video: Costas remembers Enberg, his love for baseball

Dick grew up on a farm, begged Dad to drive him to Detroit when the Red Sox were scheduled to watch his real Superman hit in Briggs (later Tiger) Stadium and fell in love with baseball on radio. In 1957, he began working as a $1-an-hour student janitor at Central Michigan University's radio station, then left for an adjacent state to get $35 a game to announce football and basketball and receive two degrees in health sciences at the University of Indiana.

At 26, Dr. Dick took his doctorate, left for a school now named Cal State Northridge and began a teaching and coaching job -- his dream "to be the best professor around -- that, and never give the same test twice." Enberg's other trademark, "Touch 'em all!," then meant not a home run but extra jobs, "especially sportscasting, to supplement my salary." Gradually, Dick moonlit as a boxing and Western Hockey League Voice, soon leaving seminars and blue books for unblue play-by-play, now "in my blood."

In 1969, Enberg added Angels radio/TV baseball to NFL radio and UCLA basketball. "Never in contention," he said, unbothered since "baseball had been in my DNA since I was in diapers. There is so much more that gets deeply into the soul of me than the other sports." Finally, in '72, the Halos got a pitcher worthy of its Voice: Nolan Ryan, from the Mets, for Jim Fregosi. Through '75, Ryan no-hit four teams, including Detroit.

"I'm in the booth where I'd visited as a kid," Dick said of 1973, "and Nolan's on a tear." Norm Cash thrice went hitless. Next up, he ditched his bat. "He had a leg from the clubhouse chair as a substitute," Enberg recalled. "The home-plate umpire didn't notice" till the first pitch was thrown.

"Get a bat," huffed the umpire.

"Why?" Cash huffed. "I'm not gonna hit Ryan anyway."

Video: Mark Grant discusses working alongside Dick Enberg

By now, Dick had hit the big time with TV's syndicated "Sports Challenge," starring ex-athletes turned panelists. "These people were idols to me as a kid," the self-styled "farm kid" said. "Now, I'm asking them questions." Enberg produced PBS' "The Way It Was," aired the game show "Baffle" and joined NBC in 1975. Curt Gowdy was then its apotheosis. Enberg replaced him on NCAA basketball, the Super Bowl and the Rose Bowl, and he called the Breeders' Cup, the Olympics and Wimbledon, always making the analyst look good. Not even Gowdy kept so many balls in the air.

Enberg's frenetic schedule left no choice but to leave the Angels in 1978, hating it: "Here I am, doing other network sports, and I don't have time locally for my favorite sport," he rued.

In 1982, Enberg finally called NBC's baseball "Game of the Week" -- for Dick, nirvana -- and Milwaukee-California American League Championship Series, "recalling the fifties, when Milwaukee was everything." The World Series followed. Dick was warm, kind and open, unlike network dominoes.

"There was no room for me," Enberg said on Vin Scully's hiring in 1983. "'Game' now had too many voices."

In 1985, Enberg rejoined Angels TV for a year, even friends asking why. "I miss the game." Touch 'em all? Dick did, again, except for baseball. In 2002, learning of the Angels' first pennant on a plane, he quietly began to weep. Fearing trouble, a woman in the adjacent seat caressed her crucifix and held his hand. Laughing, Dick explained. "I told her why it meant so much -- the Angels -- after all these years!" One religion, meet another.

Video: Dick Enberg reflects on his Hall of Fame career

Five years later, Enberg made his maiden trip to Cooperstown -- again, his schedule -- for a "Voices of The Game" Hall of Fame salute. By then, Dick had 14 Emmy, nine National Sports Media Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters National Sportscaster of the Year and pro football's and basketball's equivalent of the Frick awards -- yet reacted like the kid from Michigan. Visibly moved, he returned to baseball's Valhalla in the final decade of his life.

In 2010, Enberg began airing the Padres -- near his La Jolla home -- in the San Diego of Ted Williams's birth, with a grand baseball bloodline, and in a stunning new park of individual grandstand sections and two-tiered bleachers almost as intimate as Briggs Stadium. In '15, the Frick committee, including this voter, named Dick that year's honoree.

"I sank to my knees when I learned of this award," Enberg said. More than needing to air baseball professionally, the little boy inside still needed to personally.

Enberg's poignant Hall induction speech proved that from teething on a baseball bat to a life of photographs and memories, first loves almost never die. Few Voices anywhere wore so well for so long for so many of millions of admirers.

Lucky us.

Curt Smith is the author of 16 books, including the classic "Voices of The Game, Pull Up A Chair: The Vin Scully Story." He is a Gatehouse Media columnist, Associated Press "Best in New York State" radio commentator and senior lecturer of English at the University of Rochester. This spring his newest book, "The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House," will be released. You can also follow his pro blog curtsmith.mlblogs.com.

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