Bill Littlefield has discovered and told countless compelling stories in his 25 years as host of “Only A Game,’’ National Public Radio’s only national sports show.
As it turns out, there’s a notable plot-twist developing in his own story, one certain to draw emotion from the program’s thousands of listeners.
Littlefield will announce Thursday that he is retiring from the program.
“It just seemed a good time,’’ said Littlefield Thursday. “I’ll be 70 in July. It’ll be 25 years. There’s a certain symmetry to the whole thing.’’
Has this been planned for a while, or was there a recent moment where he told himself, you know what, this is the time?
“A little of both,’’ he said. “I certainly had been thinking about it. And in many ways, it does feel like the right time.
“We’ve made some changes in the program. And the thrust of the program now is narrative storytelling, now to the exclusion of some of the things that we used to do. It’s probably time for somebody else to host the show and go forward from there.
“It has been over the course of a couple or three years that we’ve made these changes, and [WBUR, Boston’s NPR station from which ‘Only A Game’ originates] got the show where they want it to be. It’s a nice time to bring in somebody with a new voice and somebody with the enthusiasm and energy that maybe at 70 I don’t have quite as much as I used to have.’’
WBUR is currently conducting a nationwide search to find his successor. Semantically speaking, successor is the appropriate word there, because it seems impossible to find a replacement for Littlefield.
It was never about him, but in a sense Littlefield was the show. He was the host when “Only A Game’’ launched in 1993, the familiar voice as it built an enormous following through the years of listeners who desired more from sports than scores and conjecture.
“Only A Game’’ airs on more than 250 stations nationwide, with the hour-long weekly program reaching more than 400,000 listeners each week. It remains the only nationally-syndicated radio sports program based in Boston.
“What we had in mind when we first began was to create a show that would be informative and entertaining and that there are great stories in sports and great people to talk about sports beyond scores and predictions,’’ he said. “So much of what we get is, ‘Here’s why I think the Cleveland Cavaliers might win Game 3,’ and that stuff is very ephemeral and goes it way as soon as the prediction is proved to be wrong or right. Because there’s a new game the next day anyway.
“We sort of said, ‘Let’s tell sports stories well enough that even people who aren’t crazy about sports will recognize that this is a terrific place to find good stories about people. We made a commitment to talk about youth sports and women’s sports and soccer and all sorts of things that the mainstream sports media don’t cover very much.’’
While the tale of Zippy Chippy – the horse that holds the record for the most races without a victory – is one that is most well-known to “Only A Game’’ fans, Littlefield’s memories and favorites are myriad.
“I generally don’t take on stories that don’t intrigue me in one way or another,’’ he said. “We were welcomed into places that reporters and broadcasters are rarely welcomed into. It was great fun to spend time talking to athletes who may not get a lot of attention but certainly deserve it.’’
He spent much of the 2000-2001 season with total access to the Roxbury Community College men’s basketball team, telling their individual and collective stories. He was seated between Revolution players Alexi Lalas and Mike Burns when Major League Soccer had its inaugural draft. He tried out to be the public address announcer for the Boston Breakers women’s soccer team, even making it through a round of cuts.
“I explained to the general manager at the time, ‘Look, if I win this, I can’t take the job because there would be a serious conflict of interest,’’’ said Littlefield. “I made it through the first cut and he called me back and said, ‘We have to have you come back.’ I said, ‘Don’t you understand, I can’t take the job? I’m just doing it for fun.’’’
Before hosting “Only A Game,’’ Littlefield wrote weekly commentary on NPR’s Morning Edition beginning in 1984. In retirement, he’ll still contribute a commentary from time to time. He has authored several books, and said he’s “carrying one around in [his] head’’ that he plans to write. He’ll work with young adults in the “More Than Words’’ program, which collects book and teaches young adults how to operate a business.
“Feels to me like the trick is to retire to something,’’ he said, ‘’not entirely retire from something.’’