One of Washington state’s legendary sports broadcasters had a humble career beginning: re-creating American Legion baseball games for KGVO in Missoula, MT.
By David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman
In his recap of the first official home game in Seattle Pilots history (April 12, 1969), Seattle Times columnist Georg N. Meyers used two dozen paragraphs to describe the pageantry that escorted the new team to its initial American League test. The festive preliminaries, in a Sicks’ Stadium ballpark still undergoing renovation, included tributes to Emil Sick, the man who built the facility, and Fred Hutchinson, who had once helped fill it.
Meyers listed many of the political and sporting pooh-bahs on hand, including the ceremonial Opening Day battery of U.S. Senators Warren Magnuson (pitcher) and Henry (Scoop) Jackson (catcher), Gov. Dan Evans, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and saddle weary Gene Autry, who found gold stuffed in an old guitar.
“All emerged from the woodwork to speed Seattle to its destiny in the American League, whose president, Joe Cronin, was also on hand for a paternal push,” wrote Meyers.
Among the several dozen luminaries who helped the Pilots launch what was to become a single season of exasperating existence was a tall gentleman well known to most, if not all, of the 15,000 fans at the park.
Rod Belcher, who cannot decide whether he is a sportscaster, public relations tycoon or roving minstrel, sang “Go, Go, You Pilots” –” and the Pilots Went, Went,” Meyers wrote.
At the time of his Opening Day songfest on behalf of baseball’s newest expansionists, Belcher actually toiled in the advertising business, not as a public relations man, which provided him the opportunity/impetus to write both music and lyrics – he did a remarkably bang-up job — for the teams official fight ditty.
But fans at Sicks Stadium that April day knew Belcher not as an ad man, or a roving minstrel, but as one of the Northwest’s great broadcast legends, a man who had described for them the feats of many a local sporting icon, and a peer of Leo Lassen, Ted Bell, Pat Hayes, Clay Huntington, Bill OMara, Bill Schonely, Bob Robertson, Keith Jackson and Bob Blackburn, among others.
Belcher brought to Seattle listeners and viewers, in his own memorable style, the University of Washington football exploits of Hugh McElhenny and Don Heinrich and the numerous Husky basketball highlights generated by Bob Houbregs.
More famously, perhaps, Belcher described for listeners the basketball dazzlings of the OBrien twins, Johnny and Eddie, and later Elgin Baylor, when Belcher worked a Seattle University microphone.
Listeners also knew Belcher as a conduit to the Seattle Rainiers. More than a decade earlier, he had introduced fans to a young Maury Wills after replacing Lassen.
Fans had also listened to hundreds, many hundreds, of Belchers broadcasts and re-creations – not only of football, basketball and baseball games, but boxing matches, track and field meets and, of course, hydroplane races (Belcher logged more hours on the barge on Lake Washington than Bill Muncey did in the water).
By the Pilots’ opener, Belcher had been most visible for the decade he’d put in as radio and television sports director at KING-TV, but it was still his great voice and knowledge of his subjects that was most familiar to the audience. What Georg N. Meyers could not have known April 12, 1969, was that Belcher still had a couple of careers to go.
Born Nov. 4, 1920, in Berkeley, CA., Belcher was one of two sons (also John) of Merton and Janet Belcher of Humboldt County, CA. Merton worked in banking, eventually owning his own business, Belcher Abstract and Title Company.
Now nearing birthday No. 92 and a Wayback Machine unto himself, Rod Belcher spent his first 21 years in California, mostly in the Bay Area. He attended three high schools, in San Francisco and Oakland, graduating at age 16 in 1937.
Belcher enrolled at what is now Humboldt State University, where he became a letter winner in basketball, baseball and track and field, all sports he would later broadcast with distinction. Belcher’s best sport as an athlete was probably basketball, given that he was a three-year starter at point guard and made the All-Far Western Conference team in 1942 when he helped Humboldt State to the first championship in school history.
”We won the championship and were invited to go to the NAIB tournament (NAIB preceded the NAIA). But we couldn’t afford the trip to Kansas City. I’m the last man standing of all the players on that team,” said Belcher.
In addition to participating in athletics, Belcher also involved himself in school drama productions – thus his flair for performing in front of a crowd (he had once he even crooned privately for Duke Ellington) — and worked on the school’s newspaper and yearbook staff.
Belcher hooked on as sports editor of The Humboldt Times and did some general reporting that went with the job, but determined after about four months that he probably wasn’t cut out for newspapering.
“I didn’t like what I was producing, said Belcher. ”I leaned more to becoming a radio type of guy. I had done a lot of PA system work on regional track meets and college football games.”
In 1942, Belcher landed his first radio gig in Missoula, MT., where, on radio station KGVO, he received his baptism in the now-lost art of telegraphic re-creations.
“I was 21 years old, and the first thing I had to do was a series of re-created American Legion games,” Belcher recalled. ”Missoula had a hot-shot team and my break-in game was a playoff between Missoula and a team from Los Angeles. Missoula didn’t win, but I had a great time with my first shot at the mysteries of telegraphic descriptions. A couple of those 17-year-olds for Los Angeles even advanced to long careers in the majors, Gene Mauch and Nippy Jones.”
The job lasted from July through October, at which point Belcher entered the military, on his 22nd birthday. At various times, the Air Corps based Belcher in Salt Lake City, at Paine Field in Everett, and in Kingman AZ., where he spent a year (a terrible place, Belcher said).
Belcher worked mainly in public relations capacities during his 39-month hitch, the last six on Guam, where his job included sending home boiler-plate news releases on home-town boys to their home-town newspapers.
Throughout his time in Air Corps, Belcher continued to play basketball. In one game, at the Sand Point Naval Air Station, Belcher had a notable encounter with Fred Hutchinson, the former Rainiers great (and also the property of the Detroit Tigers) who played for a Navy service team.
“We were guarding each other and he threw an intentional elbow at me,” recalled Belcher. “I said, ‘I don’t care you who are. I’ll deck you if you do that again.’ Hutch didn’t say anything.” He also didn’t throw another elbow.
When Belcher played service ball during his year in Kingman, his team played for a championship against another club that featured Don Barksdale, who would become famous as the first African American named consensus All-America (1947 at UCLA), the first to make the U.S. Olympic basketball team (1948) and the first to play in an NBA All-Star game (1953).
“He’d scored 30 points in the game before he played us and none of our guys wanted to guard him,” said Belcher, who volunteered for the task and, despite giving away four inches to the 6-foot-6 forward, held Barksdale to eight points, the main reason Belcher’s team won the championship.
Belcher also played against Snohomish’s Earl Torgeson, who had a long, fight-checkered career in major league baseball and was a good enough basketball player that the Bellingham Fircrests of the Pacific Coast Professional Basketball League signed him to a contract in 1946.
“Torgy played for Fort Lawton when I went against him and he was a helluva player,” said Belcher. “Great athlete and he could run like a deer, a great base stealer in baseball. Torgy was about 6-foot-3 and we guarded each other. I remember one time I had 18 points against him, but he lit me up for 23 (see Wayback Machine: The ‘Earl Of Snohomish’ 2.0).”
Following the war, Belcher returned to his job in Missoula and in 1946 relocated to Tacoma where he worked as a sports and news announcer for four years at radio station KMO. Among his assignments: Pacific Lutheran and University of Puget Sound basketball, University of Washington football, and lots of high school sports.
”It was a plum to be chosen to do those Washington football games, Belcher said. “I saw the first year of (Hugh) McElhenny and (Don) Heinrich, and I did my first game Sept. 17, 1949. That was my first play-by-play of Husky football at home.”
Belcher recalled the date — Sept. 17, 1949 — instantly, no thought involved.
Belcher still possesses remarkable, even encyclopedic, recall, illustrated best, perhaps, by Don Duncan of The Seattle Times in his “Driftwood Diary” column published March 3, 1968. Duncan gathered, for what seemed to be a prolonged lunch, several nostalgia nuts, of which Belcher was one, and tossed out “names and remember-whens — old songs, radio personalities, movie bit-players, sports heroes. All that is required of a nostalgia player is instant recall,” wrote Duncan.
For this particular game, Duncan assembled, in addition to Belcher, Times columnist John J. Reddin, Bob Roberts of KVI; Frank Nolan, vice president of Puget Sound Mutual Savings Bank, and Mel Anderson, KVI promotions director and peerless press agent.
“Belcher’s phenomenal knowledge of Hollywood bit players enabled him to list 48 actors and actresses left out of the book Who’s That? an exhaustive compendium of filmland’s most famous nameless supporting stars,” wrote Duncan.
“Belcher also recounted vividly the acting mannerisms of Mona Barrie, Toby Wing, Rochelle Hudson, Lilyan Tashman, and Miriam Hopkins in that garish technicolor epic ‘Becky Sharp.’And Belcher stopped us all by asking who played Doc Doremus in the old Philo Vance movies which starred William Powell.”
‘Etienne Girardot,’ Belcher said smugly.
“Belcher also came through with the name of the movie in which Dick Powell sang. ‘By A Waterfall’ to Ruby Keeler: ‘Gold Diggers of 1935′.
“After Belcher recalled by name every Southern California Trojan quarterback for several decades, he brought up Ted Husing’s famous crack about Harvard’s ‘putrid punting’ on the airwaves. Somebody (another nostalgia nut) said Husing was rapping Harvard’s All-American Barry Wood. But no, Belcher knew better. It was Jack Crickard.
“Anybody remember Jack Crickard? Belcher does. So we crowned him king of the nostalgia nuts and left him to tip the waitress.”
“As for the Sept. 17, 1949 game, Belcher said, ”I remember it because Hank Tiedemann (Belcher recalled Tiedemann’s name instantly) replaced McElhenny (injured) and ran back a punt 80 yards for a touchdown to win the game (UW 14, Utah 7). I also saw McElhenny’s famous 100-yard punt return TD (Oct. 6, 1951) against USC (see Wayback Machine: McElhennys 100-Yard Return).
Belcher got his first shot at a big-time job in 1950 when, while visiting brother John in California, his sibling informed him that Bud Foster, a legendary Bay Area announcer, had left the San Francisco 49ers, not because Foster wanted to, but because a change in beer sponsors forced him to choose between the 49ers and the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks.
“In those days, the baseball job was a helluva lot better job than the football job,” said Belcher. ”There were about 200 PCL games to 12 NFL games, and it was a lot more money.”
Belcher interviewed with the 49ers and sent them some them some recordings he had made of his UW football broadcasts.
“The 49ers tried another guy out, and he got the job,” said Belcher. “But he flopped in the preseason and the 49ers called me. Two days later, I was in Pittsburgh doing a game.”
But not as Rod Belcher.
“I had to change my name because the beer sponsor (Acme) didnt like the name Belcher,” Belcher explained.
Since Belche’s middle name was Hugh, he became Rod Hughes and agreed to a five-year contract. But after doing 49ers games for just one year, Acme, a popular local brand, dropped its sponsorship of the club, effectively hanging Belcher out to dry. The new beer sponsor wanted Foster back in the booth.
”They said they were sorry about that, Belcher explained. “Once burned I became twice shy, and I came back to Tacoma and eventually moved to Seattle.”
Reverting to Rod Belcher, he found no shortage of work (glut would be more accurate) after hooking on with KOL in 1951 as the station’s sports director. Belcher, who had become acquainted with Seattle U. basketball in the late 1940s, when he broadcast PLU and UPS games for Tacoma’s KMO, started calling Seattle U. games, and his arrival virtually coincided with that of two brothers from New Jersey, the OBrien twins, Johnny and Eddie.
For two decades preceding the OBrien twins and for nearly two decades afterward, radio re-creations of sports events were standard fare. A sportscaster sat in a studio — Belcher worked out of KOL on Harbor Island — and took the barest play-by-play data from telegraphed wire reports and, with imagination and ingenuity, turned it into what many listeners swore was a live broadcast.
To pull off a re-creation required considerable knowledge of the teams involved, but primarily a great deal of creativity. Lassen (see Wayback Machine: Leo Lassen, The Voice) pioneered re-creations in the Puget Sound area, and was followed by masters such as Belcher, who re-created, among other events, a basketball game in Madison Square Garden in which the OBrien twins led Seattle U. to a 102-101 win over NYU, a 1953 UW football 50-0 drubbing by Michigan in Ann Arbor, and a Harry Matthews-Don Cockrell boxing match in London. Belcher never left Harbor Island.
As Belcher noted in a 1979 Seattle Times article on the art of re-creations, most sportscasters of that era did them as a matter of course since their radio stations did not have the financial means to travel announcers to live events.
According to Belcher, some of Bob Robertson’s earliest broadcasts were as a teenager in Bellingham doing bush-league baseball from wire reports. Robertson also did Washington State football and Western Hockey League re-creations, and Blackburn, who spent years as voice of the Sonics, broke in doing re-creations of Portland Beavers baseball.
When the OBrien twins starred, Tidewater Oil, known for its Flying-A branded products and gas stations, was closely linked with college football and basketball on the West Coast, and Play Ball With Flying A! became a familiar slogan to sports fans. Tidewater owned radio broadcast rights to Pacific Coast Conference (now Pac-12) football and basketball and also sponsored Seattle U. broadcasts, on which Belcher became a leading voice.
“Tidewater also sponsored Gonzaga, Portland University and the other major independents,” said Belcher. “Tidewater would buy time on stations and then hire the announcers. I was one of them.”
Sharing duties mainly with Ted Bell, one of Seattle’s pioneering broadcasters, Belcher delivered the call for many of the OBriens’ greatest games, including the night Johnny scored 51 points against Gonzaga.
KOL aired a constant variety of sports in those years, both local and national, with Belcher at the mike. The 1952 Final Four, won by Clyde Lovellette and Kansas, was held at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, but at that time no national contracts existed for broadcasting such events. KOL hastily set up a national network and Belcher delivered the games to listeners all over the country. He did it so professionally that United Press International gave him a nice national plug.
Later in 1952, after McElhenny left UW and joined the San Francisco 49ers, there was so much interest in him in the Seattle market that KOL elected to do re-creations of all 49ers games. Belcher provided telegraphic reports from KOL’s base on Harbor Island.
“When I worked for KOL in the 1950s there was a janitor at the station and he always had his little kid with him, Belcher said. ”The little kid later played football at O’Dea and his name was Charlie Greene.”
Belcher never saw – live anyway — Charlie Green become an Olympic sprinter and set a world 100-meter record, which he did in 1967, but he watched McElhenny and Heinrich come and go and witnessed the two greatest eras of Seattle U. basketball, those that featured the OBrien twins and Elgin Baylor.
Virtually concurrent with enthralling listeners with Johnny OBriens feats, Belcher was also a fixture on KOL from late 1952 through 1954 in an entirely different capacity, as a major league baseball announcer — even though Seattle obviously had no team.
After the collapse of the Liberty Broadcasting System, which provided re-creations of major league games to non-MLB markets, other stations such as KOL jumped into the breech, Archie Taft, station general manager, arranging for KOL to receive tele-typed feeds of games.
”I became an instant major league announcer, said Belcher. ”I finished out the 1952 season and then continued my broadcasts out of the KOL studios through 1953 and 1954, doing roughly 200 games a season (and sometimes two per day). The broadcasts were fed to stations in Washington, Oregon, and even Alaska.”
A man for all seasons, Belcher re-created the All-College Tournament that took place in Oklahoma City, in which Baylor led Seattle U. to wins over Tulane, Memphis State, and Oklahoma, and provided Seattle radio listeners a description of the 1958 Final Four, held in Louisville, KY., as Seattle U. defeated Kansas State before losing the NCAA title game to Kentucky. Belcher actually re-created that game on radio by watching KING-TV’s live television feed.
In 1957 and 1958, Belcher took on a more difficult assignment when he was hired as the Rainiers’ play-by-play broadcaster, replacing the legendary Lassen, who was pushed out temporarily over a contract dispute.
“The 1957 and 1958 Rainiers clubs were pretty bad teams,” said Belcher. ”Lefty ODoul (1957) and Connie Ryan (1958) were the managers. In 1957, Maury Wills was an upcoming star and they started grooming him to be a base stealer.”
Belcher found a long-time home at KING in 1960, when he was hired as its television and radio director. During his nine-year run with the station, he continued to voice Seattle U. basketball and stayed behind the microphone through the careers of John Tresvant and Eddie Miles in the early 1960s.
In 1966, with Texas Western en route to the NCAA title, the Miners stopped in Seattle to play the Chieftains. An El Paso station wanted to televise the game and paid KING to do the pickup on it, with Belcher broadcasting the action. It was the only game Texas Western lost all year and Belcher received numerous raves for not sounding like a Seattle U. supporter.
“I always tried not to be a homer,” Belcher said.
When Belcher reflects upon the thousands of athletes he’s watched, covered and known, the names of a few leap immediately to his mind.
“Johnny OBrien was the most un-basketball basketball player you ever watched,” Belcher said. ”He was the little guy playing the big man’s position, and he was absolutely something else. He had all the shots. A great foul shooter, offensively he was the most fun thing to watch in a basketball player.”
Belcher witnessed from the press box Jan. 21, 1952, as OBrien delivered a performance that sealed his local celebrity forever, a 43-point eruption that led Seattle U. to a shocking 84-81 upset of the Harlem Globetrotters (see Wayback Machine: Seattle U. Shocks Globetrotters) at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
“Hugh McElhenny is the greatest single player from a spectator view that the Huskies ever had”, said Belcher. ”The fans would start yelling the minute he got the ball. McElhenny was exciting every time he got his hands on the ball.
”Much as I enjoyed watching Johnny OBrien, I realize that Elgin Baylor was the greatest college basketball player ever to step on a court in the state of Washington. Baylor was a great passer setting up guys for easy shots, and he could run like a rabbit. In fact ’rabbit’ was his own idea for a nickname: ‘Elgin Rabbit Baylor.’
”One game I remember Baylor played was against Portland University at Civic Auditorium. Seattle U. was behind considerably. Baylor scored 60 points and Seattle U. needed every one of those points. That win helped Seattles U.s run toward the Final Four.
“I’d have to put Bob Houbregs on the list for his absolutely amazing hook shots from distance. I also did some track announcing, and Gerry Lindgren (Washington State) was one of the most amazing athletes I’ve ever seen. As for a baseball player, I think for me, it would have been a visitor, Frank Robinson in 1969 (year of the Pilots). I thought he was the best major league player I’d ever seen.”
Belcher started at KING in May, 1960, after veteran Bill O’Mara suddenly resigned. KING also interviewed Keith Jackson for the position.
“Keith was working at KOMO then,” said Belcher. “He was fresh out of Washington State. They just hired me instead.”
The job allowed Belcher to expand considerably his personal portfolio of sports covered, which came to include golf, gymnastics, skiing (NCAA Championships at Crystal Mountain) rowing and many more. He also, with Husky football head man Jim Owens, hosted the coach’s TV show.
“I remember the skiing thing at Crystal Mountain,” said Belcher. “We had 14 cameras mounted all over the slalom and downhill courses. That was quite a feat in those days. Lee Schulman, who was KING’s production manager, was always trying to prove we could do different things.”
Belcher served as KING’s director of television and radio until 1969 when, with play-by-play opportunities vanishing, he quit and had a brief fling in the advertising business, which led to his penning ”Go, Go, You Pilots.” It took him about two hours to write it.
”Another guy and I had a small agency and we got the agency business for the Pilots advertising,” Belcher explained. “It wasn’t a big deal. We set up regular ads in the newspaper and an occasional TV ad. It was then I wrote the music and the words for the Pilots fight song. Dewey Soriano (Pilots general manager) liked ’Go, Go, You Pilots,’ and they did, as the saying goes. I had the honor of singing it on the field on Opening Day, 1969.”
It was not the first time Belcher had warbled one of his creations in front of an audience. When he was 20 years old, he heard an instrumental titled “Morning Glory” and decided to write lyrics for it.
“In my college days I used to write a lot of lyrics,” said Belcher.
In March, 1941, Duke Ellington came to Eureka, CA., (where Belcher lived) for a one-night stand. Belcher recited the lyrics he’d written for “Morning Glory” to an acquaintance, who knew somebody, who knew somebody else, who knew Ellington, and before Belcher knew it he found himself backstage in front of the big band legend.
“I met him at intermission,” said Belcher. “My heart was pounding, I sang him the lyrics. But nothing ever came of it.”
“Go, Go, You Pilots!” had instant traction for a fan base eager to welcome Seattle’s first major league team. These are the words Belcher sang (and you can listen to a rendition here):
Belcher eventually went to work for the State of Washington Department of Transportation (Sept. 1970) as a public affairs officer (Seattle-Bellevue district) and remained there for 10 1/2 years. But during his years with the state, Belcher continued to broadcast on a freelance basis. He even hosted a fishing show for a while.
Belcher, who worked as public address announcer for the first three Sonics seasons (1967-70), also did the same for Seattle U. basketball, and for University of Washington basketball games for an eight-year period, which included the early-to-mid 1980s, when Detlef Schrempf and Christian Welp starred under Marv Harshman (mid-to-late 1980s).
Belcher also notably had a 28-year run as the press box announcer at Seahawks games, starting in their inaugural season of 1976. That ended only because Belcher felt his eyes and ears were beginning to go.
Most who recall listening to Belcher, especially in his heyday, say his most distinguishing feature as a broadcaster, beyond his great, authoritative voice and on-air professionalism, is that he made it a priority to relay information as accurately as possible without calling undue attention to himself, as many broadcasters do today.
It must be true because Rod Hugh Belcher, three times the state’s Sportscaster of the Year and a 1999 Washington State Sports Hall of Fame inductee, obviously wore extremely well, across so many sports, for so many years, and with so many viewers and listeners.
Many of the historic images published on Sportspress Northwest are provided by resident Northwest sports history aficionado David Eskenazi. Check out Davids Wayback Machine Archive. David can be reached at (206) 441-1900, or at firstname.lastname@example.org