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A Conversation with Mike Shannon

Moon man

Photograph by Dilip Vishwanat

The voice is gravelly, with that recognizable drawl and a frequent chuckle. After a lifetime spent in St. Louis—both as a player (last to hit a homer out of Sportsman’s Park, first to hit one in the old Busch Stadium) and as a broadcaster (now in his 40th year)—Mike Shannon is as much a fixture at Busch Stadium as the Clydesdales and pipe organ. A block away, fans grab drinks at his steakhouse. And by the end of today’s game, the last in an early-June series against the Cubs, after Albert Pujols hit a walk-off homer in extra innings the night before, Shannon will be shouting: “Swing and a long one! Has he done it two games in a row? You bet!”

What was it like growing up in south St. Louis in the ’50s?
My mother was a housewife, and my father was the prosecuting attorney here in St. Louis for 20-plus years. My friends and I used to play ball in the street, and the neighbors would call the police.

At Christian Brothers College High School, you were named Missouri Prep Player of the Year for both basketball and football in the same year.
No one’s ever done that before or since. I’m proud of that. But it was a lot different then as an amateur. If you did anything professionally, then you were out of business as an amateur in any of the other sports… I had a career where I could’ve played football or baseball as a professional. [Laughs.] Basketball was definitely out.

Former Mizzou football coach Frank Broyles once said you could’ve won the Heisman Trophy, had you played at MU longer. What made you such a standout quarterback?
There are certain things in life that you have a feel for, and I had a great feel for that... Being a quarterback in football is like being a catcher in baseball—you make a lot of decisions.

Instead the Cards signed you in 1958. What was that like for a St. Louis kid?
A dream come true. Holy mackerel! I had a little taste of it, because on our football team at CBC was Dick Musial. I’d been at his house, and of course everyone knew his dad. It was nice to see Stan come to the football games to see his son play.

What was it like playing in the minors just after marrying your high-school sweetheart, Judy?
I remember driving to spring training with a station wagon and a U-Haul trailer—a bunch of kids, dogs, cats, birds... And then you’d try to rent a place for a month, and people would look at you like you’re crazy. Nowadays, you go down, and you get a place on the beach. But when you don’t have any money—I can remember hawking my furniture for $1,000 to take my family down to spring training.

Do you recall the first time you played at Sportsman’s Park?
Oh yeah. I played center field. A guy hit a vicious line drive at me. I thought, “Whew, I caught that one. I must be all right.” I can also remember my first start. Bob Purkey was pitching for Cincinnati, and he shut us out. There were only three hits: [Ken] Boyer, Musial, and Shannon.

You’ve said your most memorable at-bat was in Game 1 of the ’64 World Series, when you hit a two-run homer off Whitey Ford.
I’m a pretty good dreamer, but I couldn’t even dream that good... I had my wife and kids at the game, and driving home we stopped at the drugstore. My wife came out with the Globe-Democrat and in big, 4-inch black letters: “Shannon’s Homer Sinks Yankees,” or something like that.

In Game 3 of that series, Mickey Mantle homered into the upper deck, and you sprinted to the warning track after it. When Bob Gibson asked whether you really thought you’d catch it, you said, “You never know, big boy, you never know.”
I think [ex–Cards general manager] Bing Devine said I might’ve been one of his best overachievers. I don’t really have “no” in my vocabulary.

Was that your mentality in ’67, when Red [Schoendienst] moved you from the outfield to third?
If you look at a baseball team, they only have one third baseman. It was a risky move, but if you made it, there was security once you got there. I love a challenge, so I says, “Bring it on.” There weren’t many people who agreed with me, though, that I had a chance to do it, switching positions at the big-league level from outfield to infield. It’s done a lot more nowadays.

Like with Skip Schumaker.
Right. There’d be some career moves, but not very normally in the big leagues. It was always in the minor leagues—like with Musial, he was a pitcher and they made him a hitter. Babe Ruth was a little different story. He did it at the big-league level. But everything he did was off the scale!

In 1970, you contracted nephritis. What was your reaction when the doctor told you?
I wasn’t really worried about me. I was worried about my wife and the five kids—what the hell were they gonna do if I didn’t make it? … I tried to come back, but I slid into second base one day, and the doctor said, “That’s it. You’re finished.” … And then Bing Devine gave me the opportunity to come back a year or two later, but I looked at the team and said, “I don’t think so. I’d screw your whole team up.”

Why did you turn down a gig as AAA manager and a big-league coaching job at the time?
I just didn’t think it was right after all my wife had been through when I was sick. I come back and now I’m gonna be gone twice as long? … Then [Devine] came to me a couple months later and said, “Some people have asked if you’d be interested
in broadcasting.”

When you first moved to the radio booth in 1972, you were “raw, raw, raw,” as sportscaster Jay Randolph once put it. What did you learn during that first year?
When I walked in there, I didn’t have any idea about the technical part of the business, the signs they had for a station break. My signals were usually bunt and run.

Jack Buck once said you had a “player’s attitude.” How did that translate to the broadcast?
We have some great fans who really know the game, and I take a little bit of credit for that, because not only do I broadcast, but I try to teach while I’m doing it. I explain to you why a person would make this kind of a move, whether it was good or bad. I also like to say during the game, “OK, you be the manager. What are you going to do now?” … Everybody knows this game, but they don’t know it at [the Major League] level.

How would you describe your broadcast style?
First of all, you’ve gotta entertain people. And some of the games aren’t very entertaining. So things just pop into my head, you know, which they might not pop into the average guy’s head… Like one day, I looked up at the moon, and I said, “What kind of moon is that?”

Is it tough to strike a balance between being critical and supportive?
You don’t have to be critical. Everybody knows when the guy screws up. They can all see it. But to tell them why—“He took his eye off the ball ” or “He was trying to get the double play.” I don’t have to belabor that the guy made the error, but what I try to do is try to tell you why he made the error.

Whitey Herzog once said you and Buck used to play some cutthroat pinochle.
Whitey has a photographic memory. You ask Whitey about a play back in the 1950s, and he’ll say, “Oh yeah, I remember that guy diving. But before that, he fouled off two.” So when you play pinochle, he knows every card that’s been played. You’ve really gotta be on your toes.

You’ve had so many famous moments: all of the World Series broadcasts, Mark McGwire’s record home-run season, Bob Forsch’s no-hitters. Do you have a favorite?
Not really. I feel that I’m just an instrument of the fan, that I have to tell them what’s going on. Draw a picture for them. I’m not interested in me being a famous broadcaster. Like when McGwire was going for the [record-breaking] home run, they said, “What are you going to say?” I said, “Shit, I don’t know what I’m gonna say.” They said, “Well, are you nervous?” I said, “No, I’m not nervous! I’m nervous when I’m facing Koufax with the bases loaded. Why the hell would I be nervous over this?”

Why is it that St. Louis has turned out so many great broadcasters? Is it KMOX or the Cardinals?
I think it’s a combination. There’s always been great Cardinals clubs. Go back to the Gashouse Gang, and then it was the Musial era and then our era in the ’60s when we won and then the Gibson and Brock era and then the Ozzie and Whitey era, and now it’s the Albert era. The greatness on the field makes the greatness in the broadcast.

You have a lot of famous sayings: “Cold, frosty one.” “Get up, baby, get up.” “That’s right, big boy.” Do you have a favorite?
No, but the “cold, frosty one” is probably the best, because what goes with a baseball game? A hot dog and a cold, frosty beverage. Even if it’s a nonalcoholic beverage for the kids… I like watching these 2-year-old kids that are playing on the railing. There was a kid in front of us the other day—he ate for three hours. That kid ate every goddamn thing they had. I watched him. He ate a hot dog, nachos, cotton candy, ice cream, popcorn, peanuts, whatever. I had so much fun watching that kid, and I brought it into the broadcast. I said, “This kid’s gonna put on 10 pounds!”

Who are some of the most memorable people you’ve met beyond baseball while in the broadcast booth?
We’ve had an unbelievable amount of guests on our Live at Shannon’s show: generals, politicians, authors. We probably have more fun talking to guys like that—like Billy Bob Thornton, for instance… I remember having dinner with Gen. Hal Moore and asking him, “Do you ever forgive?” And he said, “Yes, I forgive, but I don’t ever forget.”

What’s the most significant way the game has changed in your 50-plus years with the Cards?
Economically. I asked some of these owners and they were scrambling to figure out how they were gonna make payroll. Now, their payrolls are over $100 million. And when you come to these ballparks, there’s not just a ballgame going on—it’s a freaking circus!

What’s your routine before games?
I play golf in the morning, then go the racetrack, then come to the ballpark.

Not a bad life.
No, if you can keep it up. I take little naps to keep myself fresh.

Whitey Herzog once said, “Mike almost died, and to him every day is like a bonus.” Is that how you feel?
I savor every day. I don’t want to miss a thing… I remember saying to someone about 20 years ago, “I’m getting to the age now where I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to go deer-hunting and climb up in those trees.” Ten years later, I said, “Well, you never know!” I was reading an article the other day: It’s not guns that kill hunters—it’s the trees that kill them, climbing up and down!

How long will you keep broadcasting?
I have no idea. I take it one day at a time.

What do you want people to say when they remember Mike Shannon?
That I entertained them, in some way or another.

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