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Being Buck

As he gears up to cover the All-Star Game in his hometown, Joe Buck discusses life beyond the broadcast booth.

Photograph by Dilip Vishwanat

The cameras are off now. The suits hang neatly pressed in the car. The next game is more than a week away. For now, Joe Buck’s only call is what to order. Jack’s Burger: medium-well with pepperjack cheese, no bun, side of creamy coleslaw.

Tucked in a corner of the downtown J.Buck’s, the 40-year-old sports announcer is Clark Kent to his TV Superman persona, wearing glasses, a black-and-white polo, jeans, and Nike Shox with ankle socks—more soccer dad than broadcast personality. The voice, though, is unmistakable.

“First of all, forget if it gets you fired,” he says, leaning back. “It’s all over YouTube or rerun on 94 different sports shows.”

He’s discussing the fundamental difference between today and the heyday of sports radio, when his legendary father, Jack Buck, called games. He mentions an incident that fellow St. Louis announcer Bob Costas often recalls, a blooper from a 1977 Cubs-Cards game. During the fourth inning, the president of the National Dairymen’s Association entered the broadcast booth with an attractive woman in heels and a “Miss Cheesecake” sash. Jack leaned over to fellow announcer Bob Starr and asked, “So, Bob, do you like cheesecake?”

“Yes, very much,” he replied.

“What do you think of Miss Cheesecake?”

Thinking Jack had said “this cheesecake,” Starr responded, “I’ll tell ya, I’d like to try a piece of that right there.”

It’s a classic line—but Buck knows it would be more than a laughing matter today. “Those are all funny banquet stories, but if it happened on-air now, you’d get fired.”

He adds, “You have to have so many filters in your head, you have to think ahead, and it almost affects your everyday life.”

Being Buck, in a sense, is a lifelong tightrope act.

***

The spotlight burns bright—it always has, even when he was a kid.

He grew up in an adults’ world: broadcasters and ballplayers, race tracks and Vegas casinos. He roamed Busch Stadium at will, getting ragged on by players and shagging balls before games. Christmases involved more than presents, when stars like Ozzie Smith visited the Bucks’ home for live broadcasts. At dinners out, Jack, always the extrovert, never turned away an eager fan.

“I was always scared to death of getting in trouble because I knew it would become a public issue right away,” Buck admits.
He recalls one memorable Little League game, when his father offered him pitching advice as the crowd gawked. On the next pitch, the young Buck beaned the batter in his oversized helmet, the “thoomp” echoing across the field, the crowd spinning around to see his father’s reaction.

“I knew as a kid that eyes were on us when we were out,” he says. “On a local level, it was pretty intense.”

***

After lunch, Buck climbs into his Land Rover and merges onto Highway 40. “Every time I get on this highway, I think of my dad leaving the ballpark,” he says. “It takes me back to being in his car, his Lincoln Mark VII, and listening to a tape-recorded broadcast from that night.”

Years later, while Buck was in middle school, the two would dissect the youngster’s recordings on the drive home—though the relationship wasn’t always about sports.

“It would be me really revising history to say I was paying attention to either a) the game, b) my dad, or c) the art of broadcasting,” he says, adding that the reason he spent so much time at the ballpark was because it’s where the two could be together. “Of everything I learned from my dad, if you listed them all in order of importance, somewhere after 10 would probably be how to broadcast.”

Buck steers through a wooded neighborhood in Richmond Heights and pulls in the drive of a home with an attached greenhouse. Gazing out the window, he says, “That’s where I did all my pitching with my mom when I was growing up.”

With Jack at work, Carole Buck taught her son to sidearm a baseball and punt a pigskin. She was the disciplinarian, the second half of “the ultimate good cop, bad cop routine,” says Buck, with Jack gone for days before heroically returning home. “The perception is privilege this and privilege that,” he says. “We were really fortunate growing up, but my dad worked really hard.”

Often playing hooky to spend time with his dad at the ballpark, Buck still managed high marks at Saint Louis Country Day School. “He was very quiet and sensitive,” recalls his sister, Julie, now a radio show host for 103.3 KLOU-FM. “He was like a parent’s dream come true. He was so good, he made me look bad.”

He performed in musicals and sang in the school glee club. (He still performs the occasional karaoke tune. His specialty? “Ring of Fire.”) Although never a standout athlete, Buck was decent—until a dislocated shoulder in college ended any on-field aspirations.

“If I wasn’t going to start on my Legion baseball team,” Buck says, “then I had a much better shot at broadcasting.”

***

It sounds scripted, Buck has told the story so many times.

April 1987, Shea Stadium, Buck’s 18th birthday. As the fourth inning came to a close, Jack announced, “Here to take us through the fifth is my son, the birthday boy, Joe Buck.” Having only broadcast alone into a cassette recorder since he was 13, with no one except his father to critique him, the wide-eyed teen waved his hands and mouthed “no.” But left with no choice as Mike Shannon and his father exited the booth, he took his place behind the mic.

“It was the worst inning of play-by-play in the history of broadcast,” Buck recalls. “Thankfully, it was a 1-2-3 inning, and nothing happened.” When it was over, he sat down beside an engineer. He asked nervously, “So how was it?” The man responded simply, “It lacked description.”

***

Buck found his voice in Louisville.

During his first two summers of college, he broadcast Triple-A baseball with the Louisville Redbirds. “I know that my dad wasn’t sure I was really all that into broadcasting until I did those two years,” Buck says. He served as the team’s traveling secretary, handing tickets to players at airports and calling games with veteran announcer Jim Kelch.

“You knew he was going to get his opportunity,” says Kelch. “You just hoped he was ready for it when he did.”

***

He’s heard the criticisms.

Just short of a degree from Indiana University, Buck returned to his hometown in 1991 and moved in with his parents. He began calling Cardinals games on KMOX alongside his father and Shannon. “I was smart enough to be really, really in the background,” he says. “The harder thing was to consider them contemporaries and not be either one guy’s kid or the kid of a colleague, in the case of Shannon.”

Cries of nepotism sprang up almost immediately, with Post-Dispatch columnist Dan Caesar writing, “The burning question is why is Joe Buck, at age 21, being force-fed to Cardinals fans? The reason is simple, and it’s spelled B-U-C-K.”

“I was 21, and I’d never been criticized really,” Buck recalls. “But then here I am in my hometown with everyone reading this. I cried like a baby.”

He can joke about it now, sometimes telling college students, “The best advice I can give you is to go out and get yourself a famous father.” But he sees the whole picture: “I think you get opportunities in life, especially when you’re somebody’s kid, but if you’re not willing to put in the work or not willing to trust yourself, you’ll be out of the business twice as fast as anyone else because people are waiting to see through you.

“I think that was probably my fear in the beginning—am I really any good, or am I just doing this because I’m Jack Buck’s son? Eventually, when you do it long enough and you get enough opportunities, you realize you can do it. I don’t know when that realization hit me, but it was a lot later than what people would believe.”

Decades later, his mother keeps a poem that Buck wrote. The last line reads: “Confidence must boil inside my rather timid heart; to prove to those who shake their heads that I can play the part.”
 
***

Having inherited his dad’s voice and mom’s stage presence (Carole at one time performed on Broadway), it was only a matter of time.

“Unlike my dad, I grew up in the television era,” Buck says. “When he was a little kid, no one was watching games on TV. That was kinda Fantasyland for me, when the Game of the Week guys would come in here. That was the ultimate job.”

Like his play-by-play radio debut, Buck’s maiden voyage on television was a lesson in improvisation. Filling in for former Cardinals sportscaster Ken Wilson at a double-header in New York in 1990, Buck caked powder on his face. The problem? It was 100 degrees, and at one point, when he tried to pass the broadcast to Al Hrabosky on the field, the producers informed him that Hrabosky was without a mic. “So now sweat is streaming down and smearing makeup on my shirt,” he recalls. “And I knew enough from watching The Brady Bunch that when the red light was on, then I was on TV. It was awful. But once the game started, it was easy.”

***

It was Carole—not Jack—who helped Buck catch his break.

While at a Super Bowl convention in 1994, she slipped a broadcast tape of her son to the wife of Ed Goren, now president of FOX Sports. “See if he doesn’t hear something great,” she said. The network heard loud and clear. FOX called Buck shortly after to tell him he had three weeks to prepare for an audition as a football announcer.

Jack—who did his share of telecasts over the years for baseball and football games—staged a crash course in the differences between radio and TV sportscasting. “It’s like the great Greg Maddux says,” explains Buck. “His pitching philosophy was the tighter the situation, the less he did, because the batter is expecting more. That’s what you do when you’re broadcasting—the less you do, it comes off a little more relaxed and a better listen as opposed to wall-to-wall talk.”

Always a quick learner, Buck landed the position at 25, becoming the youngest announcer ever to host a regular NFL slate.

The stage was set.

***

Life moved quickly for Buck.

Four days after Ann Archambault—whom he had dated off and on since middle school—graduated from Ole Miss, he invited her to join him at Mike Shannon’s for the KMOX postgame show. It had rained throughout the afternoon, and Ann was ready for a drink with friends. Buck had other plans. He called her into a side room with Shannon and others while doing the broadcast and, on live radio, asked her to marry him. She said yes, and the restaurant burst into applause. Only later did she discover the ring had been in a pocket of the coat Buck had lent her during the game.

Through much of the ’90s, he was on the road constantly. He covered baseball, football, fishing, horse racing, the Cotton Bowl. He spent days and nights with the Cardinals, relaxing in the same hotel lobbies, sharing the players’ lounge during games, catching red-eyes out of empty airports. “He was gone a ton when we were first married,” Ann recalls. “Because I was so young and we didn’t have kids, it worked out.”

In 1996, the same year he became the lead baseball announcer for FOX and called his first World Series (the youngest announcer ever to do so), Buck earned a more important title: Dad. A few years after the birth of their first child, Natalie, came the couple’s second daughter, Trudy. Suddenly, when not at the ballpark surrounded by men, Buck was surrounded by women at home.
“Now I think back on how lucky I am that he’s home for their soccer games or swim team,” Ann says. “They’ll hear him one night, and he’s here the next day.”

***

Preparation is perpetual.

Buck scans newspapers on his Kindle and surfs sports websites every day, closely following the teams he’ll be covering soon. He often visits with Steve Horn, an editorial consultant who could pass for a Ramone and provides an immense off-camera resource—a walking encyclopedia of sports info, “the ultimate phone-a-friend,” as Sports Illustrated once described him. Together, the odd couple huddles in hotel rooms before games to chat and assemble boards with facts, figures, trends, personal reminders. “It’s good for me because I’ve verbalized it before going on-air,” says Buck. “I can cut out a lot of the clutter.”

Calling football inherently follows a different set of rules than baseball. Football is like clockwork: A play happens, Buck relays the names on the play, the yardage, the upcoming down and distance, co-announcer Troy Aikman makes a few remarks, and another play unfolds. In baseball, there’s no way to know how long an inning will take: A pitcher could take four minutes to set up, a batter might foul off five pitches, the game can go into 15 innings. There’s far more time for banter and observation. To lighten the mood, Buck often slips in a witty remark. “One critic said Joe tries to be funny,” says fellow baseball announcer Tim McCarver. “Not true. He is funny. There’s a big difference.”

***

For a career still in progress, the milestones are many:

October 20, 1996—Buck’s World Series debut: “I called my dad afterward, and I asked, ‘Well, what did you think?’ He says, ‘When’s the game on?’ Like he’d missed the whole thing. There was a pause, and he said, ‘That was great, Buck.’ Then he handed the phone to my mom. She told me the next day that he was crying.”

September 8, 1998—Mark McGwire’s record-breaking 62nd home run: “It’s still the single greatest moment I’ve ever had in a baseball stadium. I think we’re all a little wiser now as to what was going on back then, but it doesn’t take away from the memory of that season… McGwire sat down with me and Sosa before the game, and when he was walking out, he said, ‘I’m gonna hit it tonight, so you better be ready.’”

September 17, 2001—Jack delivers his famous post-9/11 poem: “I think in a lot of ways his whole career led up to that moment… He was standing upstairs in the booth with me before, and he had Parkinson’s real bad, and he was worn out. We talked about how he was so emotional, and I said, ‘You can’t go down there. You’re gonna break down.’ He said, ‘I’m not gonna cry.’ And I said, ‘You’re gonna cry.’ So he pointed his finger at my face and said, ‘I. Will. Not. Cry.’ Then he said, ‘I’ll bet you $100.’ So I said, ‘Alright, fine.’ I didn’t have $100, but I knew he had $200. So he went down there and delivered the speech, and between the two of us, I was the one crying. I never did pay him.”

October 26, 2002—Game 6 of the World Series: Buck gives tribute to his father, who died that June, closing the broadcast by using Jack’s famous phrase from Game 6 of the ’91 World Series: “We’ll see you tomorrow night.”

February 6, 2005—Buck’s first Super Bowl: “It was a study in trying to remind myself I was doing a football game. I wasn’t fueling an F-16 in midair. The buildup, that’s the thing that gets you.”

October 27, 2006—The Cardinals win the World Series: “There was the whole thing that, ‘We know he’s from St. Louis and rooting for the Cardinals.’ So you let that whole thing start getting into your head, and it kind of takes some of the enjoyment out of it, which is unfortunate but human nature. But I’m always so proud of my city and the teams and the fans.”

Tony La Russa, who was close to Buck’s father and nicknamed him L.J. for “Legendary Jack,” says he always knew Buck had “those kind of genes flowing through him.” The question was whether he’d live up to his potential. “He’s done very well,” says the Cardinals manager. “So I call him
Almost Legendary.”

***

Steering along Manchester toward home, Buck begins to rank his favorite movies, counting down like Letterman. “Number five: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid...” His number one? “Rocky.

“So it’s 1976, and I go to see Sylvester Stallone at Six Flags,” he recalls. “I’m wearing this powder-blue shirt with an iron-on picture of Rocky. I’m like 7, a little chunky, but I am workin’ it. I get in line for the Log Flume, and there’s a 15-year-old girl giggling because she’s wearing the exact same shirt. She thought he was cute, but I just thought he was really cool.”

***

Like his favorite fictional boxer, Buck’s performance in the arena caused buzz beyond.

During an appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien before the ’07 World Series, he explained how friends sometimes make bets by texting him words to weave into the telecast. For $1,000 to the charity of Buck’s choice, O’Brien posed his own challenge: Work the phrase “Jub Jub” into the World Series. The next night, Buck squeezed it into the third inning, referring to correspondent Chris Myers as “our own little Jub Jub.”

Then there are the commercials: Budweiser’s parodies of sellout sportscasters and egotistical superstars; Bud TV’s The Joe Buck Show, featuring outlandish interviews with comedians in the back of a New York taxi; Holiday Inn’s ads depicting over-the-top sports fans harassing him at a hotel. To Buck’s chagrin, passersby frequently quote the ads when they spot him in public.

Last month, HBO launched Joe Buck Live, a sports show replacing Costas Now. A month before the first episode aired, he hinted, “It’s gonna be along the same lines, but it will be a little bit lighter, not quite as serious.” (A commercial of Buck strutting through the streets to a Shaft-like soundtrack indicates this might be an understatement.)

He acknowledges the role humor plays, but knows there’s a limit. “If there’s one thing I get knocked for, it’s doing that too much,” he says. “I think you can try to have fun with it when appropriate. I don’t think I would do it if I had to play everything serious.”

***

Buck occasionally escapes the spotlight.

“If it’s a Friday or Saturday night, his favorite thing to do is just stay home and watch TV or movies,” says Ann. “I think he kind of learned that from his mom and dad.”

Other times, he relishes being alone. While on the road, he’ll go to the theater by himself. He has no problem dining at an otherwise empty table. He keeps a journal in his SUV that he scribbles in while filling up with gas.

“Again, it gets back to my dad—that’s everything I say, which is probably boring—but he was so far the other way. He didn’t have another gear, and I just can’t imagine that. I have it on a small level, and I think about these people that are national celebrities such as Britney Spears, who lost herself and just went nuts. I can understand why.

“The more success you have, the more you’re trying to convince people that you’re still a good guy, that you haven’t changed.”

***

Among the many lessons Jack taught his son, he saved the most important for the end.

Buck counts the months leading up to his father’s death, sleepless nights in the ICU at Barnes-Jewish in 2002, among the “most intense learning sessions of my life.”

Lying in the hospital on a March night, worn ragged from Parkinson’s and lung cancer, Jack told his son, “I hope that this time in the hospital has taught you something. You have to live your life and let it go. Don’t worry about things so much, and do what you want to do. Build your house, take trips with Ann, enjoy being with your kids. You never know, Buck, what’s around the corner. You have to make the most of the time you’ve got. By the time you are in here, it’s too late.”

Jack died a few months later.

As Cardinals Nation mourned the passing of its beloved announcer, the younger Buck became a rock for his family, both a shoulder for his mother and a master of ceremonies at his dad’s public wake, where thousands of fans mourned and left their own heartfelt messages. He cried just once.

“I’ve never told anyone this, but I used to love to watch him part his hair,” Bucks recalls. “He’d comb it all straight down, and then he’d pick the one piece of hair that was gonna be the follicle that died, and that whole side he’d comb over to the side of his head. And then consequently on the other side of that piece of hair, that would come down, and that was his part. I loved watching him find his part.

“I was watching him do that while he was getting ready for his dad’s funeral, when I was about 15, and he said, ‘I know what you’re thinking: What’s it gonna be like when I die?’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. It will be fine; you’ll be ready for it. You’ll be strong enough to carry on.’ And he was right.”

***

The back door of Buck’s Ladue home opens. Buck smiles. Ann, Natalie, and Trudy (the girls now 13 and 10) walk inside. Their three affectionate Labs—all girls—rush to greet them.

“Hi, Natter. How are you, pretty girl?” Buck asks. “Can you smile? We’re putting on an act here.”

In truth, Buck is wild about his girls. Even on days when he travels, he wakes at 6 a.m. to drop them off at school. He coached Natalie’s basketball team one season, with the opposition’s fans whispering and pointing toward the sideline. He attends his daughters’ soccer games and swim meets whenever possible.

Among a great many impersonations Buck does (including James Taylor, Johnny Depp, and Shannon on this day), his wife credits his best as “this out-of-control Barney.” At one point, he bought a purple dinosaur costume off eBay for a friend’s costume party. A month later, Ann was on vacation in L.A. when she got a text: “Picking up the girls in the Barney costume.” Sitting inside a Volkswagen convertible with the top down, purple head poking over the dashboard, Buck pulled into the pickup line. The moment Natalie saw her dino-clad dad, she turned and walked back inside.

“If you had an ego, there’s no way you would put on a Barney costume and pick up your kids in a convertible,” laughs Ann.

***

Still, the critics remain.

“I’ve said—and I really believe this—that if you’re willing to cash the checks and be Mr. Big Shot, you’d better be willing to take criticism,” he says—though it’s not always easy.

In 2005, when Vikings receiver Randy Moss celebrated a touchdown by acting as if he were mooning Packers fans, Buck called it “a disgusting act.” To his surprise, sports fans criticized the announcer’s on-air denouncement as pompous. “I felt like I was getting Punk’d,” he recalls. “Like, ‘Wait, what? I’m the one who did something wrong here?’”

Then, last July, during an interview with ESPN’s Colin Cowherd, Buck admitted to not regularly watching games at home, instead sometimes opting for The Bachelorette with his wife. Many fans saw it as a slap in the face.

“The bigger point was that I’m a dad,” he says, explaining that he was alluding to the endless priorities in people’s lives. “I have a wife, I have stuff going on in my house. I said there are other things going on in my world, too. And that is the truth.”

***

Buck followed his father’s advice.

He scaled back his schedule to spend more time with family. In 2007, he broadcast just eight baseball games during the regular season. He told The New York Times, “While I’m deathly afraid of overexposure, I’m more afraid of underexposure at home with my wife and girls.”

While his daughters are at school, he often spends downtime in St. Louis playing golf at Old Warson Country Club. He helps raise money for organizations like St. Louis Children’s Hospital and KidSmart. He eats breakfast at Schneithorst’s each morning with the same set of friends. He frequently calls his mom, grabbing lunch with her at least once a week. “We could be in New York or L.A., but part of the reason that I want to stay here is the core of our family is right here,” he says.

The job still requires its share of travel, but Buck always rushes back to St. Louis. “My No. 1 priority is to do a good job on Saturday or Sunday, and once that’s finished, my next No. 1 priority is to get home,” he says.

Last year, after whittling down the number of local broadcasts for years, Buck announced he would no longer do regular-season Cardinals games for FSN Midwest—the first time a Buck wouldn’t hold court in 54 years. “I’m not wrapped up in the whole tradition of a Buck in the broadcast booth with the Cardinals,” he says. “I think the job deserves more than someone saying I’m a Cardinals broadcaster when they just do 10 games.”

Why cut back? “I want to be there to intimidate Natalie’s first boyfriend.”

***

Perched in a broadcast booth at Busch the next morning, hearing the distant sound of laughter from schoolkids on a stadium tour, he reflects on his storied life.

You might think he finds it a bit surreal: breakfasts with hockey star Keith Tkachuk, golf with baseball legend Stan Musial, vacations with Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, broadcasts with Jack. “I swear to God, the thing I’m most thankful for is the house I grew up in,” he says. “Every movie has some discordant aspect, where everybody is yelling at home, but that’s just nothing I ever witnessed as a kid.”

His family—that name, Buck—has invited both opportunity and pressure. But it’s also helped him grow into his own, now confident to carry on his father’s name.

He recalls a few weeks earlier, when Blues owner Dave Checketts approached him at a game, saying, “Thanks for coming, Jack.”

“I heard it, but I acted like I didn’t,” he says. Several minutes later, Checketts circled back and touched Buck on the shoulder, saying, “I’m so sorry I said that. It’s just because I loved your dad so much that when I think of you, I think of him.”

“I used to think it was ridiculous,” says Buck, noting that it’s not unusual for people to accidentally call him by his dad’s name. “Now, it’s such a compliment that I make them think of him.”

 

Jarrett Medlin, SLM’s senior editor, has written about actress Jenna Fischer and NASCAR driver Carl Edwards. He previously served as editor of Wichita Magazine.

Click here for more exclusive content about Buck, including an audio excerpt of the sportscaster reflecting on a memorable Shannonism and his favorite movies and musicians of all time.

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