Is it just me or does it seem like the older ballplayers had more colorful lives? Maybe some of today’s international players, who have lived through crushing poverty and had to escape from repressive governments, have some interesting stories. It seems most of the U.S. players have followed a fairly similar linear path: child prodigy, massive amounts of AAU ball, star in high school or college, then to the minors, and finally to the majors. None of them seem to materialize out of the dust at the age of 19 and have enough talent to take on big leaguers (Dizzy Dean). None of them served on a rocket boat storming Omaha Beach (Yogi Berra) or flew combat missions in two wars (Ted Williams). None of them left home at the age of 12 or barnstormed across the country.
A lot of that is good. It’s good that most young men (and women) today do not have to sacrifice their lives in war. It shows how much we’ve progressed as a society. How much better would some of those older ballplayers have been had they had access to the technology of 2021 and the better diets and training methods and the early competition of AAU ball? Times change and the stories change with the times. It’s a different sport, but can you imagine if Dick Butkus had all of that available to him? My God, they would have kicked him out of the NFL before he killed someone.
Robert “Bud” Blattner was another of those older ballplayers who lived a fascinating life. His name might not mean anything to younger Royal fans, but to older fans, he was our version of Vin Scully, a honey-voiced presence on the TV and radio in the early days of the Royals.
Blattner was born on February 8, 1920 in St. Louis. His father nicknamed him “Buddy” at an early age, later shortened to “Bud”, and it stuck with him.
As a 12-year-old, Bud would sneak into a St. Louis pool hall, lay boards over the pool table, and practice table tennis. The kid was a natural and by the time he was 16, he won the first of two World Table Tennis doubles titles. The first, in 1936, was won in Prague. He won again the following year in Baden, Austria, on his seventeenth birthday. Can you imagine being a two-time world champ in anything before your seventeenth birthday? What would you do for an encore?
Table tennis wasn’t his only sport. Young Bud was a phenomenal high school athlete, winning ten letters in baseball, basketball, and tennis. He won three Missouri State High School tennis titles. While serving in the armed forces, he scrimmaged against Bobby Riggs. Many just remember Riggs as the showman who played Billie Jean King in the Battle of the sexes. That occurred in 1973 when Riggs was 55 and King was in the prime of her career. Long-forgotten was the fact that Riggs won one Wimbledon and two US Open singles championships in his prime. He was a great tennis player.
After graduating from high school, Blattner attended Rogers Hornsby’s Baseball College in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The Rajah charged attendees $50 per week for six weeks of instruction by various big-league players. Blattner later attended a tryout camp in 1938, after which he was signed by his hometown Cardinals and legendary Branch Rickey.
Blattner made fairly quick work of the Cardinals minor league system and made his big-league debut on April 18, 1942 at the age of 22. Bud got into 19 games for the Cardinals, and it was tough sledding. He collected exactly one hit in 27 plate appearances, an eighth inning single off the New York Giants Dave Koslo. With a batting average of .043, the Cardinals sent him back to their AA affiliate in Rochester, and after the season ended, they gave him his release.
The New York Giants signed him but before he could even attend spring training, Uncle Sam called. Like many of his contemporaries, Blattner served in the United States Navy from 1943 to 1945. After his discharge, he made the Giants roster as a utility infielder, but soon moved into their starting lineup at second base. Blattner fared much better in New York. He appeared in 189 games for the Giants over three seasons and slashed a respectable .247/.347/.384. The Phillies selected him in the Rule 5 draft after the 1948 season. Blattner only got into 46 games of the Phils that summer and hit .247 with a little power. Strangely, most of the second base at-bats went to Eddie Miller (.207) and Mike Goliat (.212). He would be done in 1949 at the age of 29.
Blattner was always a hustler though and by the 1950 season he had started to call some radio games for the St. Louis Browns. During the 1951 season, the Brown’s owner Bill Veeck had the wild idea of strapping a walkie-talkie to Blattner back and have him play while broadcasting the game. The Phillies, who still owned the rights to Blattner, demanded $10,000 for him, which Veeck either refused to pay or couldn’t afford to pay, so mercifully, the idea died.
By 1953 Blattner had signed on with ABC to broadcast the baseball Game of the Week. His partner, or should we say podner, in the booth was Dizzy Dean. Blattner’s job was to keep the telecast on the rails while Dean went off on various rants. Dean would often break out in song, most often the Wabash Cannonball, and often mangled the English language while doing it. The broadcast was immensely popular and stayed that way until Dean blew things up in 1959, when Dizzy, a reformed smoker, refused to pump Chesterfield cigarettes to the listening audience.
Blattner, as was his style, landed on his feet. He had started calling games for the St. Louis Hawks of the NBA in 1955 and had worked hard to become a knowledgeable and polished broadcaster. By 1960, Bud had moved into the St. Louis Cardinals booth, sitting aside Harry Carey, Joe Garagiola, and Jack Buck. Think about that foursome!
Blattner moved onto the Los Angeles Angels in 1962 and called their games through the end of the 1968 season when he was approached by Cedric Tallis of the expansion Royals. Tallis had previously worked in the Angels organization and desperately wanted to bring Blattner back east with him. Blattner also wanted to move closer to home, so it was a match made in heaven.
Blattner needed a partner in the booth and after a search which included looking at 250 resumes, Blattner and the Royals settled in on a 26-year-old broadcaster from Illinois named Dennis Matthews.
For us older Royal fans, Blattner and Matthews were the voices of our summers. In those early days, very few games were carried on television. In fact, in 1969, the Royals only broadcast 26 games on the tube. Most of those were road games and on weekends. I spent many a summer night, sitting on our living room couch, looking out the window in the direction of Kansas City while listening to Blattner and Matthews call the game, usually on WIBW out of Topeka. They were a fabulous team. They had the rare ability to let a game breathe. Many announcers today feel the need to fill every second of airtime with chatter. Blattner and Matthews would often pause for 5-10 seconds so the listener could hear the buzz of the crowd. Sometimes you could even hear a vendor shout “Frosty malts. Get your Frosty Malts!”.
A typical Blattner call would go something like this, “beautiful night here in Kansas City. Two balls, one strike on Mayberry. Here’s the pitch. Hit long and deep to right! That ball is out of here! Home run #17 for Big John Mayberry and the Royals now lead by a score of 3 to 1.” Then you’d hear the crowd cheer for ten seconds or so before one of them would cut back in. It made you feel like you were sitting in the stands watching the game.
Blattner left the booth after the 1975 season, saying he never wanted to stay too long and “become a cranky old man.”
For his next act, he moved onto real estate development in the St. Louis area and continued work on a charity, The Buddy Fund, that he had set up years earlier. The Buddy Fund provided sports equipment to underprivileged children.
Blattner was inducted into the U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame in 1979 and into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1980. He remains absent from the Royals Hall of Fame, as does Tallis.
Blattner died on September 4, 2009 in Chesterfield, Missouri from complications of lung cancer. He was survived by his wife of 68 years, Barbara, and daughters Barbara, Deborah, and Donna.
On another note unrelated to Blattner, I missed highlighting Halter Top Day in my piece on game programs, an egregious oversight for those of us who remember well the halter top games. So here you go.