Promise me one thing. Promise that at the end of this you won't feel sorry for Jack Buck.
As square as a pan of corn bread, as American as a red Corvette, Buck has been doing what he loves in the St. Louis Cardinals' radio booth for 47 years, which makes him just about the exact center of this country. The last thing he wants is sympathy.
Yeah, Buck has Parkinson's disease, which makes his hands tremble and his arms flail. He also has diabetes, which means poking needles into himself twice a day. He also has a pacemaker. And cataracts. And vertigo. And excruciatingly painful sciatica. And a box of pills the size of a toaster. But all that only gives him more material to work with.
"I wish I'd get Alzheimer's," he cracks. "Then I could forget I've got all the other stuff."
Luckily, you can still find the 76-year-old Buck at the mike during every St. Louis home game, broadcasting to the Cardinal Nation over more than 100 radio stations in 11 states. Herking and jerking in his seat, his face contorting this way and that, he still sends out the most wonderful descriptions of games you've ever heard.
"I've given the Cardinals the best years of my life," Buck says. "Now I'm giving them the worst."
That's a lie. Despite enough diseases to kill a moose, Buck has gotten even better lately. "I have no idea how," says his son and radio partner, Joe, "but his voice has been stronger lately. It's like he's pouring every ounce of energy God can give him into those three hours of the broadcast."
Yet Buck makes it all sound effortless, like talking baseball with the guy across the backyard fence. He's natural, simple and unforgettable. When Kirk Gibson hit his dramatic home run for the Los Angeles Dodgers and limped around the bases in the 1988 World Series, Buck, calling the game for CBS Radio, said, "I don't believe what I just saw!" When St. Louis's Ozzie Smith hit a rare lefthanded home run in Game 5 of the 1985
playoffs, Buck said, "Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!" When Mark McGwire hit No. 61 in 1998, Buck said, "Pardon me while I stand and applaud!"
Like thousands of other eight-year-old boys in Middle America in 1966, all I had of baseball most nights was Buck. If I fiddled enough with my mom's old radio in our kitchen in Boulder, Colo., I could pick up Buck doing the Cardinals' games on KMOX. Bob Gibson. Tim McCarver. Curt Flood. I worshiped Buck then. I respect him now.
He was a kid whose family couldn't afford toothpaste; who didn't go to the dentist until he was 15 (and immediately had five teeth pulled); who worked as a soda jerk, a newspaper hawk, a boat painter, a waiter, a factory hand; who was the first person in his family to own a car; who took shrapnel in an arm and a leg from the Germans in World War II; who danced in Paris on V-E Day.