BY Mike Gastineau 03:36PM 09/08/2020

The man who never had to buy his own drink

Generations of Washington State fans grew up and old with Bob Robertson, who seemed to have befriended every one of them. He liked being Bob, and they loved him for it.

Sports broadcaster Bob Robertson was beloved by generations of Northwest fans, nowhere more intensely than the Palouse, where he was synonymous with Washington State football.

In 1992, KIRO radio lured away Dave Grosby from KJR-AM with a package that included the opportunity to work on broadcasts of Washington State University football games.

“You’ll be the analyst at first,” management told him. “But Bob Robertson is an old guy and he’s almost done. You’ll be doing the games before you know it.”

Grosby took the deal and looked forward to eventually becoming the new voice of WSU football. He never got his shot.

“Turns out, Bob only had 26 more years left in him,” Grosby said, laughing.

What Grosby got instead was a chance to spend time in the company of a legend. Robertson died on Labor Day at 91. His broadcast career had a staggering longevity and included a 52-year run as the voice of Cougars athletics during which he was on mic for 589 football games.

About half of those games were in Pullman. Those weekends always began the same way. Robertson would set up shop in a corner booth in a watering hole at the University Inn in Moscow, ID, and spend the evening visiting with an unending line of fans.

“Like an emperor from ancient Rome, he would welcome his supplicants one at a time,” Grosby said. “Everyone wanted to meet him, take a picture with him, and invariably buy him a drink.”

At one point, Grosby wondered aloud about how many drinks Robertson would wind up buying on a typical Friday night in Moscow. He said Robertson looked at him and arched his eyebrows.

“Buy?!?” he said incredulously, a humorous but accurate tone meant to convey the truth: The voice of the Cougars did not pay for drinks when Cougars fans were around.

Jeff Aaron worked with Robertson for several years as the sideline reporter on Cougars broadcasts. One year in Phoenix the night before a game against Arizona State, Robertson spotted Aaron leaving their hotel. Aaron’s friend (and WSU alum) Kenny Beyersdorf was in town for his bachelor party, which was happening at a nearby restaurant.

“They are all Cougar fans,” Aaron told Robertson. “If you want to come, they’d love to meet you.”

Aaron thus arrived at a bachelor party with a surprise that elated the groom-to-be. Not a case of booze or a busload of Las Vegas show girls, bu the septuagenarian voice of the Palouse.

“Kenny looked like Ralphie in the movie ‘A Christmas Story’ when he finally gets his Red Ryder BB gun,” Aaron said. “Bob was great. He sat and drank wine and regaled everyone at the party with Cougar stories. He was so gracious. He loved being recognized and loved talking to fans.”

As he aged, Robertson would occasionally make mistakes on broadcasts. While they were noticed by some fans, they were forgiven by the fans who mattered most.

“People who weren’t alums of WSU would sometimes say, ‘He sounds older. He doesn’t sound as good,'” Grosby said. “Alums would look at people who said that like they were crazy.”

Robertson built unique credibility with WSU fans, many of whom remembered him from their days as students. When they came back to Pullman as alums, they heard that same voice.

“He remained your friend from college, and he’s just like you remember him as opposed to your other college friends who all seem to change,” Grosby said. “You come back for a game or a reunion and there he was, looking the same and sounding the same.”

Robertson’s voice had a unique and familiar feel, so much so that just about anyone who has heard it has tried to imitate it. No one did that better than veteran Seattle sports broadcaster Bill Swartz.

“I was a communications student at WSU, and I adored his broadcasts. I would mimic him calling touchdown passes from Jack Thompson to Mike Levenseller. Then, I became part of the Husky broadcast crew and we would poke fun at the Cougs.”

His impersonation of Robertson became a go-to gag on the broadcasts. Swartz would put the voice of the Cougars in all kinds of odd and humorous situations. Occasionally, he’d hear from fans who didn’t see the humor. Swartz didn’t know how Robertson felt until one day when they shared an elevator at Husky Stadium.

“I was petrified. I introduced myself and told him I was a huge fan, that I had grown up listening to him and really admired his work.”

“Hey! You’re that guy who imitates me,” Robertson said. Swartz figured he was about to get a blast of disapproval.

“Listen, Swartz,” Robertson said. “If I go down in the fourth quarter, and I pass on, nobody will know the difference. You come up from the sideline, grab the microphone and start talking.”

That day, a friendship began. Robertson recognized that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and always got a kick out of Swartz. Robertson thought enough of his mimic that in 2002, when the Cougars needed a sideline reporter for the Apple Cup broadcast, they hired Swartz, who was no longer on the UW sideline.

Another time, Robertson invited Swartz over to his table at the University Inn. He was sitting with his wife, Joanne, and wanted Swartz to do his impersonation. Joanne Robertson laughed when she heard it and said it sounded just like Bob . . . when he was 35.

“He was such a good sport about it,” Swartz said.

Robertson was the last broadcaster in America to do live radio re-creations of baseball games. Owing to an ownership group that didn’t want to pay for him to travel, he did Tacoma’s Pacific Coast League road games for years by getting telephone reports from the road ballpak, then re-create what had happened in a studio in Tacoma using sound effects and an incredible flair for storytelling. Here’s a 1991 story from si.com that explains Robertson’s wizardry.

He was also thought to be the only broadcaster who used an abacus to keep track of stats during games. The abacus dates back to at least 2700 BCE. Robertson figured if it was good enough for the Mesopotamians. it was good enough for him. The first time Grosby did a game with him, he was stunned as he watched Robertson slide the beads of the ancient machine back and forth.

“How?” was the only word he managed to get out. Robertson explained his system in detail. Grosby said he gave his brain about a minute to try and figure it out and then just “stopped thinking about it.”

Robertson kept working after Joanne died in 2011, but those who knew him best say that was a blow from which he never recovered. “She traveled with him all the time,” Grosby said. “She was a fierce protector of him.”

Finally, in 2018, after broadcasting a Cougars game, he felt dizzy and disoriented. He decided to call it a career at 89 after almost 70 years of broadcasting college, pro and high school sports.

“He was the hardest-working guy I ever saw in this business,” Aaron said. “He would take any assignment; do any game broadcast he was asked to do. When he had a microphone in his hand, that was the happiest place in the world for him.”

 


YourThoughts

  • coug73

    Thank you Mr. Gastineau for the enjoyable read of Bob Robertson’s professional life. Rest in peace Bob Robertson. GO COUG!

  • Archangelo Spumoni

    Let’s hope Bob is up there right now regaling fellow Coogs with stories they had forgotten. Or heard only a few times.

    What a fine man!

    Many thanks to Mr. Gastineau for a delightful column.

    • GuyBird

      “Cougs,” not “Coogs.”

  • DaveinSeattle

    As a longtime Husky diehard, I can’t call myself a Bob Robertson fan… but even I recognize what he meant to the faithful. I feel the same way about Bob Rondeau… there’s no replacing that voice, the one you heard when you were a kid and worshipped your team. It was huge blow when those two Bobs stepped away from the mike, at around the same time. Both are greatly missed by the fans. Thanks for the remembrance, Mike.

    • art thiel

      There’s is a remarkable affection for longtime team broadcasters in the hearts of many sports fans. Bob Rob knew that, loved it and respected it.

  • SeattleSince57

    As a kid i watched a couple Tacoma PCL TV games he called.
    Until today i had no idea he did road games remotely.

    They were on non-national network channels like 11 or 13, locally at the time.
    The home plate camera was behind the back stop netting, showing its silhouette on screen, in front of the game action.
    .
    I don’t remember if it was the Tacoma Giants, Tides, Tugs, Twins or ..?
    RIP

    • Husky73

      In order— Giants, Cubs, Twin, Yankees, Tugs, Tigers and Rainiers.

    • art thiel

      All minor league games were on local TV, and the clubs rarely could afford to send a broadcaster on the road. I was stunned when I learned of the trick.

  • jafabian

    A great column Gasman. On a great piece of Washington sports history. Having grown up in Western Washington my exposure to Bob’s work was few and far between but I really learned to appreciate his work when worked as the sports director for KSTW from 1976-1983 as well as calling Sounders matches ( During their NASL days in ‘74) and a few Mariners games. The Palouse was blessed to have such a man be a part of WSU football and Washington is that much lesser without him. Thoughts and prayers to the Robertson family at this time.

    • Husky73

      “Always be a good sport, Be a good sport all ways.”

    • art thiel

      Bob was remarkably versatile, and a quick, intense study.

  • Husky73

    I would walk up the stairs into the little, creaky press box at the old Cheney Stadium with a couple of pieces of pizza from the Cloverleaf Tavern (his favorite) for Bob. The best part of the broadcast was when Bob was off air during commercials and the likes of Stan Naccarato, Clay Huntington, Ron Zollo, Art Popham and Bruce Cannon would be regaling Bob with stories and jokes. We never really knew if anyone was listening on KLAY. And then, exactly on cue, Bob would be back with the play by play. While broadcasting, Bob had that head bob, as did Bob Blackburn.

    • coug73

      The Cloverleaf Tavern, now that brings back memories. Ice cold beer in a heavy glass goblet. Cheers, Bob.

    • Archangelo Spumoni

      My favorite analyst was Coog games with Coach Walden. You could hear Walden go ARRGGGHHH during a 47-yard run that was going to be called back because of a hold or something.
      Walden always let you know exactly who he was rooting for and it seemed like Walden and Bob got along just fine.
      I always switched back and forth between Husky radio and Coog radio during the Apple Cup. Sometimes you couldn’t tell it was the same game.
      Finally, one time he was especially disgusted was right after a 100-yard INT return for TD against the Coogs. He mentioned that the only good thing about that play was in college, the end zone yardage is NOT added to the interception return yardage, while the NFL adds it on. So it was “only” a 100 yard play, not 107.
      Fond memories listening to Bob.
      Still have never heard anybody say a bad thing about Bob.

      • Husky73

        Bob Robertson: “it’s a crucial fourth and seven from the Cougars on the 27, closer to the 28, no- we’ll call it the 27 yard line. The fans are standing– remember it’s seat cushion day today, sponsored by the Washtucna Kiwanis Club— it’s a big call here. What’s the Cougars’ best option, Jim?”…Jim Walden: “I like potatoes.”

        • art thiel

          I hear his voice as I read this. Fun.

      • art thiel

        He and Walden were intentionally AND unintentionally funny. Made for a hoot.

    • art thiel

      There were times when Bob would hold court at the ‘Leaf. Sat in once. Quite the hoot.

      • Husky73

        Ya know, it seems like…well, maybe not yesterday….but, everyone of those folks I mentioned is dead. Dust in the wind.

  • Kirkland

    Robertson also called soccer. He was the voice of the NASL Sounders in 1983 for KJR before they were all-sports, and provided the morning sports reports in their news segments. He also called the MISL Tacoma Stars for what was then Northwest Cable Sports or Prime Sports Northwest.

    I’ll always remember his signature sign-off, “Always be a good sport, be a good sport always.”

    • Husky73

      all ways…not always

      • art thiel

        It was so long mis-heard that Bob years ago had to issue an explainer.

    • art thiel

      I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he did bocci in Rome.

  • Howie Stalwick

    Great piece, Mike. Lots of stuff I had not heard about this great, great man. Thank you.

    • art thiel

      I remember telling Groz once that it was going to be tough being Bob’s sidekick because Bob draws one enormous breath around Labor Day and is done at the Apple Cup. No room for anyone else.

  • Parts

    Once again Gas, thank you for a fitting tribute to a Northwest Icon. I spend a lot of Saturday afternoons listening to Bob call Cougar games. He was a favorite of mine.

    • art thiel

      52 years with the Cougs. Think about that.

  • wabubba67

    We felt so honored to have him call University of Puget Sound mens’ basketball games in the mid 1990s when I was on the coaching staff as an assistant. Head coach Bob Niehl was a former Cougar and I believe that he was able to get Robertson to agree before I joined the staff. The players loved having him around…so many great stories on those long bus rides to Lewiston, ID. He was simply a good man.

  • TheDrake

    Great story Gastineau! I am an ARDENT UW fan sitting on the 50 yardline but I have to admit I loved Bob Robertson and let’s not forget that he was a Husky announcer for a few years. But what I really appreciated was his ability to call a college BASKETBALL game which he also did for 20+years. I have never heard any announcer deliver so much precise detail about who had the ball the defense around him and how the play ensued. Listening to him call the game was amazing. The man could talk quickly and accurately and with a wry sense of humor. Also very happy for him when he got the opportunity to call the 1997 Rose Bowl against Michigan. Even though he’s a Coug he is a legend.