Spirit at the mic: A chance taken favors Hamilton
Work ethic, last-minute decision leads to 25-year career in Tribe's broadcast booth
CLEVELAND -- Somebody pulled out the cassette recently and played it for him. A lifetime love of sport, a style hewed in otherwise empty sections of prep gyms and an innate excitement boiled down to three minutes' worth of magnetic tape.
He heard it and cringed, the sound of his own voice piercing what few pretensions might have built up in the 25 years since this résumé reel was recorded.
"Oh my God," he thought to himself. "How bad were the other guys if this tape got the job?"
Yes, this is the humility of Tom Hamilton, the man whose voice has been piped into our homes, our cars, our patios lo these many years, filling the empty hours and bringing us into the ballpark alongside him.
He hears that voice and can't stand it.
We hear that voice and know it's the sound of summer.
"Hi again, everybody, Tom Hamilton with you ... and we are underway at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario."
The voice is cordial and welcoming and gentlemanly, its Midwestern accent unmistakable. This is a pleasing voice, and yet the potency of this particular voice is in its ability to suddenly bust out, to bowl you over.
"Swung on and BELTED!" it will yell, squashing the silence and rattling your radio. "A-waaaaaaaay back! GONE!"
"I don't consider it distinct," Hamilton says of this voice, his voice. "I never felt I had one of those voices that certain guys have, guys who are like the voice of God. I knew if I was going to make it in this business, it was going to be by work ethic, outworking people."
And so there was the voice, up in the seats where no one sat. Hamilton would grab a tape recorder he bought for a few bucks at a Walgreens and head to basketball games in remote high school gyms in his native Wisconsin. He'd sharpen his skill out of audible distance of the others in the crowd, and one of his college professors would critique the cassettes.
After graduation, Hamilton worked his way up the Wisconsin radio ladder until opportunity arose at WBNS in Columbus, Ohio. He was offered the job hosting morning drive sports, broadcasting Ohio State basketball and handling the Buckeyes' football pregame and postgame shows. Hamilton asked his new bosses if he could help out on Triple-A baseball, for no extra pay.
"I knew if I was ever going to have a chance at a Major League job," he says, "I had to get some experience."
Hamilton would be at the ballpark of the Columbus Clippers, a Yankees affiliate at the time, until the wee hours, come home, sleep until 3:30 a.m. and then head back to the station for his morning host gig. He did, however, find some wiggle room for a personal life, and a relationship blossomed with a WBNS co-worker named Wendy.
Flash forward to the fall of 1989. Now married, Tom and Wendy's first child was due to arrive just before Thanksgiving, and Tom saw an article in The Plain Dealer about Paul Olden leaving the Indians' broadcast booth and the team conducting a search for his replacement. Hamilton was interested but busy with Buckeyes football. He procrastinated and didn't send in a tape.
By Christmas week, the football season had ended, and with a 1-month-old -- a boy named Nick -- to attend to, Tom and Wendy opted not to travel to their respective hometowns for the holidays. Hamilton read another Plain Dealer update that WWWE, the Tribe's flagship station, had narrowed down the pool of candidates to three.
Hamilton kicked himself.
His wife, however, was more optimistic.
"Hey," she told him, "it's not too late."
The WBNS program director, Ed Douglas, and the WWWE co-program directors, Bob Tayek and David George, had a long-standing working relationship, so Hamilton had an "in" to get his tape heard. And with no relatives in town, Hamilton's lone Christmas responsibility was morning Mass.
So Wendy encouraged him to get to work.
"I whittled down all the tapes I had saved to put together a three-minute audition tape," Hamilton recalls. "It literally took eight hours to do."
After much prodding, Douglas got Tayek and George to listen to the tape, even though he'd already heard about 200 others.
Two weeks later, Hamilton was offered the job.
"I was lucky," he says now. "If my wife doesn't say, 'Just go,' or if we don't have Nick, we're in Pittsburgh or Wisconsin for Christmas. So the good Lord works in strange ways."
In Hamilton's mind, he was just a "dumb farm boy from Wisconsin" sharing the mic with a baseball lifer and icon, Herb Score. But the two formed a perfect yin and yang, Score's even-keeled delivery blending well with Hamilton's affective approach. And Hamilton succeeded in the difficult task of getting Score to open up and share stories from his five decades in and around the game.
It was in their first Spring Training together, in 1990, when Score gave Hamilton a piece of advice he carries with him to this day. The Indians were not very good. And they hadn't been very good for, oh, pretty much the entire time Score had been calling their games, dating back to 1964.
Hamilton, though, didn't know any better. He and another newbie to the club, public relations man John Maroon, were sitting in the backseat of Score's rented Cadillac and naively asserting that the 1990 team was going to be pretty darned good, based on what they had seen at training camp in Tucson.
That was a desert mirage, as Score knew well.
"Listen," he told them. "We are [terrible]. And we will be [terrible]."
Then he pointed directly to Hamilton.
"And it will never make a difference on how you do a game," Score continued. "The game is the game. And that might be the biggest thing [the listener] has to look forward to all day."
Hamilton has heeded that advice, building up a level of trust that remains intact, 17 years after Score left the booth. Whether the Tribe is contending or rebuilding or something in-between, Hamilton has been a companion to anybody with a love for the ballclub.
"You have to be yourself," he says. "You hear guys that try to imitate Vin Scully. Well, God almighty, he's the best there ever was. There will never be anybody as good as Vin Scully. Ever. So why would you imitate him? I'm a firm believer that you have to work your way up. That's how you develop a style without it costing you your job."
Hamilton's job has remained secure, and he and Wendy have raised Nick, who is now an outfielder in the Indians' Minor League system, and three other children -- Kelsey, Bradley and Katie -- in the area. When Nick made his first appearance in a Major League game in Spring Training this year, it was an emotional moment for father and son, made all the more special because it came in a Tribe uniform.
Hamilton's calls have added another layer of greatness to the many magical moments at Progressive Field. But an essential part of Hamilton's art is the ability to simply shut up when the situation calls for it.
"As you get experience," he says, "you realize, 'I'm not the moment. The moment is the moment.'"
Respect for the moment. Respect for the audience. Respect for the game. These have been the hallmarks of Hamilton's career with the Indians, a career that has ventured into a 25th season and counted many a "Ballgame!"
And to think it all started with a three-minute tape, made by a panicked procrastinator on a Christmas day. Hamilton can't bear to listen to it, but that tape gave rise to the voice of the Tribe.