From his bony knees right up to his protruding ribs and his pebble-sized shoulders, his form was perfect—even if emaciated—as he crouched to dive. Many years before he had been a collegiate swimmer, and he was proud of it. Now, when a man had offered to bet him $20 he could not make this dive, he had snapped up the wager without a moment's hesitation. By rights he should have been given odds, for it is a tough dive into the pool of the Chase Hotel in St. Louis when you are making it from a third-story window.
"He had to clear about 12 feet of pavement," recalls Danny Whelan, the Pittsburgh Pirates' trainer, who along with the Pirate team had been staying at the Chase that day. "It was strictly a blotter job, believe me."
The man perched up there on the window sill was Bob Prince, announcer of Pirate games. It is safe to say that had the scene been broadcast back to Pittsburgh it would have evoked three reactions. At least a dozen radio and television men would have raced to apply for Prince's job, which along with sidelines pays him approximately $70,000 a year. Secondly, prayers for his safety would have been offered by bankers to whom he has owed money for 12 years. And third, a sizable number of baseball fans who bristle at his rambling, didactic, partisan prattle would have cried, "Miss!" One of Prince's longtime friends, recalling a boisterous party at which a burly sportswriter seized Prince bodily and threatened to hurl him out a 17th-story hotel window, remarks, "I guess if you'd have taken a vote, half the people in the room would have been for it and half against."
At any rate, there he was, poised to dive. He sprang and then his body stiffened beautifully as he descended straight and skinny as a spear. "I cleared the concrete by four or five feet," Prince says today. Thus baseball's most incorrigible exhibitionist, a man who in his home territory dwarfs the athlete celebrities he chronicles, lived to see another and yet another birthday. His 49th, celebrated July 1, was called to the attention of Forbes Field patrons by the public-address announcer and was, as might have been expected, thunderously booed.
For a variety of reasons, the popular five-word expletive—"Why doesn't he shut up!"—enjoys public usage far above the nationwide norm during Bob Prince's broadcasts. Dining not long ago with Kap Monahan, a Pittsburgh drama critic, Prince arose from the table and said, "I've got to get to the booth. A million people are waiting to turn me off." As it happens, the jest was needlessly modest, for the very people who can't stand him usually listen to him right through the last out, when—if the Pirates have won—he insufferably crows, "We had 'em all the way!"
Part of the fascination of listening to a Pirate broadcast is waiting to hear Prince's next high crime against the English language, which he occasionally mangles in earnest pursuit of elegance. "Our booth," he has stated from Philadelphia's Connie Mack Stadium, "must be more than 100 feet high, according to my metric calculations." Intending to explain why he does not trifle with batting averages, not even metrically, in the opening weeks of the season, Prince has informed his audience: "They don't mean a thing at this time of year, so we deign to use them."
Another stimulant of audience fascination lies in Prince's propensity for jamming his foot into his mouth, to wit: "I know what I gotta do here, I gotta walk Mr. Frank Robinson.... Don't get me wrong now—I'm not the manager, they don't pay me to manage.... Strike one!...Well, that's all right, let's get Robinson out of there.... You gotta pitch to him.... Nothing else you can do here."
Although Prince is adequately supplemented by Co-broadcasters Jim Woods and Don Hoak (the ex-Pirate), listeners frequently get four or five voices for the price of three. Cries of "Shut up, Prince!" hurled by nearby spectators pierce the play-by-play. Nonetheless, when Prince is not carrying on a running argument with his hecklers, he is—and this surely is a third reason for his ability to retain his audience—one of the most effective play-by-play men in the business. For all his faults, he possesses a sharp vocal quality that cuts through crowded saloons and can be heard distinctly from the patio next door. As unjaded as the day he broadcast his first game, he makes difficult plays and tense games come alive with excitement. "He's controversial," says Jack Berger, the Pirates' public relations director, "but he's one of the very best."
In the final analysis, the main reason for Prince's vast, if disgruntled, audience is that Prince is an individual, a larger-than-life figure who dives out of third-story hotel windows and is shaped so distinctly in his own mold that every listener feels that for better or worse he knows him. Tall, bespectacled and so scrawny that the Pirates suggested rather strongly that he cease wearing Bermuda shorts to the ball park, Prince lopes about in outrageously loud sports jackets said to have been cut from blankets taken from the backs of Pirate Owner John Galbreath's Thoroughbreds. Conspicuous as Prince manages to be, it is no wonder that he easily is Pittsburgh's most recognizable personality. The nature of baseball broadcasting being what it is, however, the rewards are mixed. On the one hand, Prince can say, "I'm privileged to be able to call the presidents of all the major corporations in Pittsburgh by their first names, and they'll do anything for me within reason." On the other hand, he is accustomed to having sideburned punks pull alongside his Lincoln Continental and shout, "Hey, there's Bob Prince!" So saying, the sideburned punks pass him with a roar, slow down to a snail's pace and, as Prince tries to pass them, cut in front of him.
"This happens quite often," says Prince. "I've ridden them off the road. I nosed my car bumper to bumper with one wise guy and rammed my pedal to the floorboard and took him as fast as I could through stop signs, stoplights, everything I could take him through. I put another guy into a culvert and watched the sand fly out."