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Curt Gowdy (right) was the voice of the Red Sox for 15 seasons. Among those who helped him in the booth were Mel Parnell (left) and Ned Martin.
Curt Gowdy (right) was the voice of the Red Sox for 15 seasons. Among those who helped him in the booth were Mel Parnell (left) and Ned Martin. (The Boston Globe/ File 1965)

Sportscaster Curt Gowdy dies at 86

A big-game voice that defined an era

Curt Gowdy, who went from being the voice of the Red Sox for 15 seasons to becoming America's premier sportscaster in the late '60s and early '70s, died of leukemia yesterday at his Palm Beach, Fla., home. He was 86.

Mr. Gowdy was ''one of the greatest sports broadcasters in history," NBC Universal sports chairman Dick Ebersol said yesterday. Mr. Gowdy, who spent most of his career at NBC, also broadcast for ABC and CBS Radio.

''He was in a class with Mel Allen and all those great announcers," Johnny Pesky of the Red Sox said of Mr. Gowdy yesterday. ''You always go by the voice, and when they got that good voice, you could listen to them all day."

Mr. Gowdy's voice was a warm, mellow twang. With it, he called Carl Yastrzemski's first at-bat -- and Ted Williams's last. ''It was one of the big thrills of my life," Mr. Gowdy said in a Globe interview last August about announcing Williams's last home run.

''He hit that ball, and I saw it start to soar and get some distance. I got all excited and I said, 'It's going, going, gone!' and then I stopped and said, 'Ted Williams has hit a home run in his last time at bat in the major leagues.' "

The winner of 13 Emmy Awards, Mr. Gowdy was the first sportscaster to win a Peabody Award, a prestigious honor in broadcasting. He broadcast 16 World Series, nine Super Bowls, eight Olympics, 12 Rose Bowls, and 24 NCAA Final Fours. As ESPN's Chris Berman told The New York Times in 2003, ''When Curt Gowdy called a game, it was big."

Mr. Gowdy was a member of some 20 halls of fame, including those of baseball, professional football, and basketball. For seven years, he served as president of the Basketball Hall of Fame; and the hall's annual sportswriting and broadcasting awards bear his name. He was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 1995.

Perhaps Mr. Gowdy was proudest of his membership in the International Game Fishing Association Hall of Fame. A passionate outdoorsman, he hosted ''The American Sportsman" on ABC for two decades. His native Wyoming named a state park for Mr. Gowdy in 1972. He owed his nickname, ''The Cowboy," to his background and love of the outdoors.

Curtis Edward Gowdy was born in Green River, Wyo. His father, Edward Curtis Gowdy, was a dispatcher for the Union Pacific railroad. His mother, Ruth (Smith) Gowdy, was a housewife.

An excellent high school athlete, Mr. Gowdy started on the University of Wyoming basketball team and played varsity tennis.

A bad back led to a medical discharge from the Army in 1943. In fact, back pains would plague him throughout his career. Mr. Gowdy's back was so bad, he missed the entire 1957 Red Sox season. To seek relief, he often slept on the floor of his hotel room. ''The maids thought I was nuts," he told The Palm Beach Post in 1999.

Mr. Gowdy made his first broadcast in 1943, of a high school football game featuring six-man teams, in Cheyenne, Wyo. There were 15 fans in the stands. The temperature was below zero, and Mr. Gowdy stood on an orange crate to get a better view of the action. ''Nobody wore numbers," he told the Post. ''I made up the name of every player. I had to guess where the goal line was."

Other than a public speaking course in college, Mr. Gowdy had no preparation for broadcasting. But the station manager liked what he'd heard.

Mr. Gowdy read news headlines and commercials, called local sporting events, and delivered telegraph re-creations of major league games.

In 1946, Mr. Gowdy was hired as a sportscaster by a CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City. He did his first national broadcast from Oklahoma, which earned him a telegram from broadcast legend Edward R. Murrow. ''The message said I'd done a great job with the game," Mr. Gowdy told The Denver Post in 2002. ''I wish I had kept it."

In 1949, Mr. Gowdy was chosen from 300 applicants to become Mel Allen's partner on New York Yankees broadcasts. He became the Red Sox play-by-play announcer in 1951.

''In the 1950s and '60s, his was the voice that told the stories of the Red Sox to a generation of fans," Red Sox executive vice president Charles Steinberg said in a statement yesterday. ''His was the voice under the pillow."

''It was the greatest spot in the American League," Mr. Gowdy said to the Times in 2003 of the old broadcasting booth at Fenway Park. ''You could reach out and just about touch the players. It was the happiest 15 years of my life, here in Boston."

Although Mr. Gowdy left the Red Sox job after the 1966 season to broadcast NBC's game of the week, he maintained his local ties. He lived in Wellesley Hills, and later Boston, and had a summer home in Sugar Hill, N.H. The team held a tribute to Mr. Gowdy at a pregame ceremony on Aug. 28.

Mr. Gowdy's years in Boston were not the best for the Red Sox. His tenure largely coincided with the team's feckless Country Club era. But he voiced no complaints. He and Williams became close friends, and he professed great admiration for the man who'd hired him, team owner Tom Yawkey.

''Everything I did in Boston worked out great," Mr. Gowdy said in that August interview. ''Mr. Yawkey was great to me, and [general manager Joe] Cronin was like a father to me. They were top people. I hated that they couldn't get a better team, but I was lucky."

Mr. Gowdy's favorite sport was basketball, and in his Red Sox stint he broadcast Celtics games.

If Celtic great John Havlicek is to be believed, he made a far greater contribution to the team than any he made to the Red Sox. According to Havlicek, coach Red Auerbach once asked Mr. Gowdy which player had most impressed him when he broadcast the 1962 NCAA Final Four. He said Havlicek, and Auerbach proceeded to draft the future basketball Hall of Fame member.

His biggest sports moment, Mr. Gowdy told The Denver Post, was announcing Super Bowl III, when the New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts. ''In the fourth quarter, I delivered a little editorial in which I said this would change the map of football in America. . . . I was accused of rooting for the [American Football League]. But I was just telling the facts."

Mr. Gowdy's willingness to go his own way got him in trouble in 1971. When the AFC divisional championship game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins went into overtime, Mr. Gowdy started referring to ''sudden victory" rather than ''sudden death."

His attempt at being upbeat drew criticism, but it was consistent with his style.

Pesky, who was a player and later the manager when Mr. Gowdy did Red Sox games, said of him yesterday, ''I don't think he ever embarrassed anybody. He was always a class act."

Mr. Gowdy, who also did some sportswriting during his early broadcasting days, wrote two books: ''Cowboy at the Mike" (1966), with Al Hirshberg, and ''Seasons to Remember: The Way It Was in American Sports, 1945-1960" (1993), with John Powers.

In 1963, Mr. Gowdy purchased the first of what would eventually be seven radio stations in his portfolio, WCCM, in Haverhill.

His all-time broadcasting thrill, he told The Palm Beach Post, involved sports only tangentially: it was ''Doing 'Casey at the Bat' with the Boston Pops, in1998. The music, the children, the summer breeze at Tanglewood. Yes, that has to be the greatest."

Mr. Gowdy leaves his wife, Geraldine ''Jerre" (Dawkins) Gowdy; two sons, Trevor of Boston, and Curt Jr. of New York; a daughter, Cheryl Ann of Palm Beach; and five grandchildren.

A funeral is scheduled for Saturday at Trinity Church in Boston.

Dan Shaughnessy of the Globe staff contributed to this obituary.

Curt Gowdy went from the Red Sox to the national stage.
Curt Gowdy went from the Red Sox to the national stage. (Getty Images/ File 2002)
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