Dave Niehaus was the play-by-play voice of the Seattle Mariners baseball team for its first 34 years, from before spring training in 1977 through the end of the 2010 season. He was so popular with his radio and television audiences that he was selected to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the inaugural game at Safeco Field when the Mariners' new ballpark opened in 1999. He was so respected by the Major League Baseball community that his name was added to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. And he was so beloved by fans that when he suddenly died at home from a heart attack five weeks after the season's last game, thousands came to the ballpark to grieve and honor his memory. The team extended that salute throughout the 2011 season with commemorative signs at the stadium and patches on the players' uniforms, culminating with the September unveiling of a statue of him. No other person in franchise history had been so honored, or so fondly remembered.
Indiana Born and Raised
David Arnold Niehaus was born on February 19, 1935, in Princeton, Indiana, a town of about 7,000 in the southwest corner of the state. He was the only child of Leonard (Jack) and Delena Niehaus. Jack Niehaus was a baker who developed an allergy to flour, prompting him to become an insurance agent. Dave's first job, when he was 12 or 13, was pulling the tassels off corn. "The pollen got in your neck and itched like the dickens," he recalled (Sitt).
His first love was baseball. He was "mesmerized" watching line scores being posted by hand, in chalk, in the Palace Pool Room (Blanchette). He grew up listening to legendary broadcaster Harry Caray doing play-by-play of St. Louis Cardinals games on the radio, imagining the scenes Caray was describing. Niehaus played the game too; he was a pitcher on his high school team.
Jack Niehaus wanted his son to become a dentist, and Dave dutifully enrolled in dentistry at Indiana University. But he soon realized that drilling teeth was not for him. He visited the university's broadcast studios and found his true calling, describing sports over the airwaves. His first broadcast was a basketball game between Indiana and Ohio State. He graduated in 1957 with a degree not in dentistry but in radio and television.
To California, the Army and the Airwaves
Niehaus had a tentative job offer in Hollywood, California, so he drove west after graduation. But he meandered a bit, and by the time he arrived the job was taken. Instead he became a page for NBC, working on television shows such as "Truth or Consequences" and "Queen for a Day."
He soon was drafted into the U.S. Army, where his broadcasting degree helped get him assigned to the Armed Forces Network. His duty station for nearly two years was New York City, where he described sports events over the radio for troops around the world. "He served his country in a broadcast booth in Yankee Stadium, that's what he always said," his wife Marilyn recalled with a laugh (Drosendahl interview).
His Army experience gave Niehaus a running start on the civilian career he craved. After he was discharged, he returned to Los Angeles, where he continued to work for the Armed Forces Network, doing play-by-play for a variety of sports.
Starting a Family and Joining the Angels
In 1962, he met his wife-to-be, Marilyn Story (b. 1940), the daughter of a grocer who had moved the family to California from Utah when she was 10. She and Dave were both living in the San Fernando Valley when they met at a party. "I thought he was really good looking," she said. "He walked up to me and said 'Do you like baseball?' That was the first thing he said to me. I said no and I think that kind of threw him off. It's not that I didn't like baseball. I just thought it was an odd question to ask me" (Drosendahl interview).
Despite that awkward start, they began dating and were married in 1963 in Las Vegas. They had three children -- Andy (b. 1964), Matt (b. 1967), and Greta (b. 1970).
Niehaus got a toehold in civilian sports broadcasting by hosting a five-minute Saturday morning segment on radio station KMPC. That led to a fulltime job with the station, which kept him busy covering a wide array of professional and college sports in the Los Angeles area. He began broadcasting Los Angeles Rams football games in 1966 and became part of the California Angels baseball broadcast team in 1969 along with Dick Enberg, who would become a respected national play-by-play announcer for NBC, and Don Drysdale, a retired Dodgers star.
A Big Move up the Coast
The city of Seattle had landed an American League baseball franchise and was in the process of forming a team in 1976. The team needed broadcasters. One of the owners, entertainer Danny Kaye (1913-1987), had heard Niehaus doing play-by-play accounts of Angels games. Kaye didn't know Niehaus but he liked his voice, so he suggested to another of the owners, Les Smith (1919-2012), that the Mariners encourage him to apply. They did.
Niehaus enjoyed doing Angels broadcasts, but it was a long drive to Anaheim where the home games were played and he was low man in the booth. He decided to go for the Mariners job and was chosen from an estimated 100 candidates. The team introduced him as its top broadcaster on December 18, 1976. He turned 42 around the start of the Mariners' first spring training.
His first broadcast partner with the Mariners was Ken Wilson, who had worked with Niehaus calling Pacific Coast League games from 1970 to 1972. They quickly found themselves being compared to the late Leo Lassen (1899-1975), who did radio broadcasts of Seattle Rainiers games from the 1930s through the 1950s. The Rainiers were a minor league team (in the Pacific Coast League) and Lassen hadn't been on the air since 1960, but fans cherished his memory. "All we heard about was Leo Lassen," Wilson said. "It was, essentially, that you guys will never be as good as Leo Lassen" (Stone, 2008).
Settling In with the Mariners
The Mariners played their first game on April 6, 1977, in the Kingdome against the Angels. The M's didn't even score in that game or in the next, ominously beginning an unusually long slog to competitiveness. Fortunately for the M's, they had an announcer who could entertain his listening audience despite the ineptitude on the field. Niehaus had a healthy streak of optimism that helped him and his listeners avoid being worn down by years of defeats.
"In the early days, it was fun just to be the first announcer," he said in 2008. "But I always looked at every game for exactly what it is -- 1/162nd of a season. I always look forward to coming to the ballpark and telling a different story every day. … It was never a downer to me to do losing baseball because you always think every night might be the start of a winning streak" (Blanchette).
While the Mariners were losing, Niehaus was winning fans. His affection for the game was contagious. His blue-sky, green-grass descriptions tapped into the nostalgic vein that makes baseball this country's most poeticized sport. "I'm not trying to be ridiculous, but to me, it means a rebirth of life. For everybody, it means hope," he said in 2004 about the significance of each season's first game. "Opening Day portends great things for families. Warm weather, vacations, the beach and most importantly baseball. Once Opening Day happens, you know the greatest time of the year is coming around. It's the beginning of the real great part of the year. Here it comes, baby. Bring it to us, and we're gonna enjoy it" (Andriesen, 2004).
A Winning Style in the Booth
His delivery was smooth and soothing, a meandering blend of stories, facts, and descriptions -- until something significant happened. Then he kicked into a higher gear, his volume soaring and his cadence racing. The excitement of the moment was palpable to his listeners.
Niehaus's catch phrases -- "My oh my!" for a spectacular play and "It will fly away!" for a home run -- became part of Seattle's lexicon. "My oh my!" was an extension of Enberg's trademark "Oh my!" "Fly away!" was preceded at the crack of the bat with "Swung on and belted! Deep to left" (or right or center, wherever the ball was headed). Niehaus also had a special delivery reserved for the rarity of a bases-loaded homer, a "grand slam" in baseball terms. As the ball left the park, he would yell, "Get out the rye bread and the mustard, Grandma! It's grand salami time!"
Part of Niehaus's appeal was his honesty. Despite working for the team and wanting it to win, he didn't shy away from lamenting its foibles. When Mariners pitchers couldn't throw strikes, Niehaus would express with a sigh or a growl the frustration fans were feeling. At the same time, he knew the players as people and identified with their highs and lows.
When the Mariners won their 81st game of the year in 1991, it meant that finally, for the first time, they would not have a losing season. It was a modest achievement, yet Niehaus had tears in his eyes after the game as he went to talk with the players. Looking back, he often said he expected it would take five years for the team to reach that point. Instead it took 15.
Rising to the Occasion
The Mariners were stumbling along in the summer of 1995, trailing the division leading California Angels by 13 games in mid-August. Then, surprisingly, they began to win. By September, they were in a pennant race. A city that had never seen such a thing watched and listened with mounting excitement. By the third week of September, the M's were in first place and Kingdome crowds were topping 50,000. Niehaus rose to the occasion, giving voice to the daily drama.
The season ended with Seattle and California tied for the division lead. That forced a one-game playoff in the Kingdome, which the Mariners won easily to capture their first division championship and send them into the American League Division Series against New York. Seattle's frenzied fans were temporarily deflated when the Yankees won the best-of-five series' first two games, played in New York. One more loss and the M's would be eliminated.
Things changed when the series moved to the Kingdome, with the Mariners winning two games to tie the series. But in Game 5, even though they had rallied to force extra innings, the M's were on the brink of elimination. The Yankees had a 5-4 lead in the eleventh inning. The M's had two runners on base -- Joey Cora was on third and Ken Griffey Jr. on first -- with Edgar Martinez at bat.
"My Seminal Moment"
The most famous description of the most famous play in franchise history was about to happen. Niehaus delivered it, starting matter of factly, then shouting to be heard over the crowd's epic roar:
"Right now, the Mariners looking for the tie. They would take a fly ball, they would love a base hit into the gap and they could win it with Junior's speed. The stretch . . . and the 0-1 pitch on the way to Edgar Martinez . . . swung on and LINED DOWN THE LEFT FIELD LINE FOR A BASE HIT! HERE COMES JOEY, HERE IS JUNIOR TO THIRD BASE, THEY'RE GOING TO WAVE HIM IN! THE THROW TO THE PLATE WILL BE . . . LATE! THE MARINERS ARE GOING TO PLAY FOR THE AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP! I DON'T BELIEVE IT! IT JUST CONTINUES! MY, OH MY!" (LaRue).
Niehaus's rip-roaring account would be played for years at future Mariners game, inevitably drawing cheers and coaxing goose-bumps. Niehaus called it the greatest game he ever saw. "A defining moment," he said nine years later. "It kept baseball here. It brought the new stadium (Safeco Field in 1999). It made Seattle a baseball Mecca. It changed everything" (Andriesen, 2004). In retrospect, Niehaus called it "my seminal moment" (Stone, 2010).
Celebrity Status and Heart Trouble
The Mariners lost the ensuing American League Championship Series to the Cleveland Indians. They stayed contenders for several more seasons -- notably winning another division title in 1997 and tying the American League record for victories with 116 in 2001 -- but then returned to mediocrity or worse.
Niehaus's popularity, however, continued to grow. How much was dramatically demonstrated to Marilyn Niehaus in 1996. Dave was at the Kingdome preparing for a game that night when he began to feel ill. He called his wife and told her team officials wanted him to go to the hospital. She was given a code name to get through security and ushered in and out of the building through back routes. A bogus patient name was posted by his door, another ruse to ensure privacy.
"That was my first clue how important he was to so many people. You'd think he was the President," Marilyn Niehaus said (Drosendahl interview).
Angioplasties opened two blocked arteries in his heart and Niehaus was soon back at work. He had been a heavy cigarette smoker, favoring Marlboros, but the heart attack convinced him to drop the habit.
Honors Roll In
On July 15, 1999, the Mariners paid their broadcaster a high and unexpected compliment. The occasion was the opening of Safeco Field, a $425-million baseball-only stadium in Seattle's SoDo district. Niehaus knew he had a part in the pregame ceremonies and he dressed accordingly, donning a tuxedo. What he didn't know was that the team had chosen him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Team president Chuck Armstrong told him just moments before the game was to begin. "He broke down then. He was so touched. But he really was the only choice," Armstrong said (Brewer).
More recognition of his public stature followed. He was inducted into the team's hall of fame in May 2000, with a pregame ceremony that lasted 35 minutes and included three standing ovations from the crowd of nearly 43,000 at Safeco Field. Among those cheering was outfielder Jay Buhner, who said Niehaus "is more popular than anyone who has played here" (Sherwin).
In 2004, the Washington Council of the Blind gave Niehaus a citation he considered his most meaningful award. "They said they could see the game through my eyes. When you can accomplish that, paint a picture with your words, that's something to be proud of," Niehaus said (Arnold, 2008).
Niehaus reached the pinnacle of his profession on July 27, 2008, when he was awarded the Ford C. Frick Award for outstanding broadcasting during induction ceremonies at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. The award meant that his name and picture would go in the Hall of Fame. "It's the biggest thrill of my life," he said (Arnold, 2008).
A Sudden End
Niehaus broadcast his last game on October 3, 2010, his 5,284th with the Mariners, moving back and forth between radio and television as usual. And then it was time for a break. He was 75, but he had no thoughts of retiring. He was as popular as ever and looking forward to spring training in February.
On the sunny afternoon of November 10, he and Marilyn were at their home in Issaquah. They were planning to grill some ribs, thinking it might be the last nice day of the year. Dave went out on the deck to clean the charcoal grill and she went downstairs to watch TV. After a while, she wondered why she wasn't hearing him moving around. She went upstairs and saw him through the kitchen window. He was face down on the deck, not breathing, felled by a massive heart attack.
Marilyn rolled him over, called 911, and began chest compressions. Paramedics and police quickly arrived, filling the house with strangers. One told her a chaplain was on the way, and she realized her husband was gone.
Word spread at astonishing speed, apparently from police and firefighter scanners. Within minutes, people were calling the Mariners offices, asking if it was true. After Niehaus's death was confirmed, fans began assembling outside Safeco Field, building a memorial of flowers and mementoes. Among them were salami and rye bread -- a reference to "grand salami time" -- and a pair of shoes with a note saying nobody would be able to fill Niehaus's.
After two days, as the memorial grew and fans lingered outside the empty ballpark, the Mariners let them in for a combination wake and remembrance. "They needed an outlet, somewhere to come together and be together and share their grief," Mariners spokesperson Rebecca Hale said (Rathbun). More than 3,600 attended, many waiting to file solemnly past home plate where a wreath of white roses was flanked by Niehaus photos and his Hall of Fame plaque. A more formal open house was held on December 13 with Rick Rizzs, Niehaus's longtime broadcast partner, serving as master of ceremonies. Even though it was a cold and drizzly day and Niehaus had died more than a month earlier, roughly 3,500 people were there.
Before spring training started in 2011, team officials announced that Niehaus would have no single successor as team broadcaster. Instead, for the first time, the Mariners would have separate radio and television crews, all manned by people who had worked with him. "The first thing we tried to do," said Randy Adamack, Mariners vice president of communications, "was get away from the idea that we were going to replace Dave Niehaus. That's not something that's doable …" (Arnold, 2011).
Yet another, more elaborate salute was held on April 8, 2011, prior to the Mariners' first home game after Niehaus's death. Outside the stadium new street signs designated a portion of First Avenue South as Dave Niehaus Way. "My Oh My" was written in the infield dirt. That phrase, with "DAVE" and a drawing of a microphone, was also on a sign on the right-centerfield wall and on patches the players wore on their uniforms for that game and the rest of the season. During a 13-minute pregame tribute, drapery across the top of the broadcast booth was pulled aside to reveal a banner-size sign that said "Dave Niehaus 1977-2010." When his face appeared on the big video board for the first time, the crowd of about 45,000 spontaneously stood and applauded for more than a minute. Marilyn Niehaus, beaming and with 11 family members fanned out behind her, threw out the first pitch.
In describing the scene, The Seattle Times columnist Jerry Brewer wrote, "The woe-whipped Mariners have done plenty wrong in their history, but for 34 years, Niehaus was their singular source of consistent excellence, and on this night, the franchise celebrated him with tear-inducing pride."
A Permanent Reminder
As extraordinary as all the salutes and memorials were, an unprecedented one would follow. Before a game on September 16, 2011, the first Mariners statue was unveiled. It depicted Niehaus seated behind a microphone, his scorebook in front of him, open to that historic game in October 1995. "It was him," Marilyn Niehaus said. "I was so thrilled to see the statue, I didn't cry or anything. It was just so wonderful. … I still sometimes shake my head and say, 'Is this real?'" (Drosendahl interview).
The statue is in the main concourse beyond the right field wall where it is accessible to all. Sculptor Lou Cella of Chicago included an empty chair, intended for fans who wanted to sit next to and have their photograph taken with the image of the man who became the face as well as the voice of the franchise.
"He's what you think of when you think of the Mariners," former first baseman John Olerud said. "Dave was baseball in the Northwest" (LaRue).
"He meant everything," Griffey said. "Everybody talks about the players who went there and the players who left, but he made the Mariners who they are. Without him, the guys out there are nothing. Day in and day out, he brought the excitement and drove thousands and millions of people to the ballpark to come watch us (Stone, 2010)."