Griffin: Dave Van Horne recalls his 32 years in Montreal
During the early seasons of the Expos franchise, broadcaster Dave Van Horne worked alongside a variety Hall-of-Famers in the TV booth. That was when Expos television was just a Wednesday night game of the week, the feeling by president John McHale being, why give away your product for free when the goal is to put people in the ballpark. Van Horne worked in those early years with hall-of-famers Pee Wee Reese, Don Drysdale and Duke Snider. Now he joins that trio of great former Dodgers at Cooperstown as the 2011 winner of the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence.Van Horne, whether he knew it or not back in '69, was about to become the baseball voice for an entire nation.
“I didn't,” Van Horne admitted of his lack of prescience. “As a matter of fact I was hired at spring training and the day before the opener in New York, John McHale said to me, 'I'm not going to offer you a multiple year deal because I have no idea what's going to happen up here. The only thing I do know is that we're going to play 162 games this year. So, we'll talk again when the season's over.'”
Up until 1977, Van Horne was the dominant voice of Canadian baseball from coast-to-coast. He was the voice of summertime, with his smooth delivery and lack of home-team bias making him a pleasure to listen to for all fans and a soothing companion at a hot summer backyard barbecue. He was an inspiration to many would-be baseball play-by-play men, including a young Tom Cheek, who was working at a border radio station in Vermont at the time the Expos made their debut.
The Expos in those early years took the winter caravan very seriously as a marketing tool. Whenever the stop was Burlington, VT, young Mr. Cheek would be the emcee at whatever banquet was staged for the visiting sports stars. Later, when the question arose about who should replace Van Horne on televised nights when he was in the booth with the Duke of Flatbush, Van Horne remembered to his bosses the potential of the tall, baritoned kid from Vermont and suggested Tom Cheek.
When the Jays came into existence and they were looking for a radio play-by-play man late in 1976, heading into the inaugural season, already with Canadian experience, Cheek was at the top of the list. In fact, when you listened to the two men on their respective broadcasts, it was amazing the inflection, the intonation and the phrasing, how eerily similar they were. It's only fitting that Van Horne, of the two Canadian broadcasting icons, should reach Cooperstown first and even though the window of Cheek's opportunity is closing due to the passage of time since his tragic death, the fact that he is annually kept on the ballot by loyal Jays fans and their online campaign gives him a puncher's chance.
For 32 years, Van Horne was a hidden jewel of baseball. I travelled on the road with the Expos for an average of 75 games for 26 seasons and can honestly say that other than Vin Scully, God's protoype for the position, I never heard a better broadcaster on radio in any of those years, in any of those baseball towns. His call on the final out of Dennis Martinez's perfect game at Dodger Stadium of “El President, El Perfecto” has rarely been equalled in its brevity and dramatic flair.
“I think it's the simplicity of that call,” Van Horne said. “But that's for others to decide. Certainly the special moment adds to it. There aren't very many moments like that in baseball. I have never broadcast to make highlights or quirky comments. I try to think of the moment and try to make that moment special for the radio listener. Not to get in the way of what's happening on the field.”
But his most unique call will always be an Expos home run: “Up, up and away.” Van Horne told the story of how that phrasing came about. In the Expos' second season, he and his partner Russ Taylor listened to highlights and realized their home run calls were very similar. He was driving home to the West Island where he was a year-long resident, when he heard the hit song by the Fifth Dimension, “Up, Up and Away.” It got him thinking. He used it for a couple of weeks with no reaction, so he drifted back to other calls. Van Horne recalled that as soon as he stopped, he was besieged by questions from fans and the team's president McHale. “What happened to your home run call?” It returned to stay.
Van Horne's career in Montreal ended on a somewhat sour note. After the great strike of '94, English radio interest in Montreal was low in the late '90s. Negotiation stalled and interested stations played hardball with the Expos, insisting that the right be handed over for next to nothing. As such, there was one disappointing season in 2000 when Van Horne, one of the great voices in baseball was doing radio games for an Internet audience. Baseball cannot survive without radio.
“It wasn't very pleasant,” Van Horne recalled. “My escape daily was the 2-1/2 to 3 hours I was behind the mic to do the ballgame. The rest of the time was spent wondering what I was going to do the rest of my life. A good part of that season was spent agonizing over what next for me, for my family, for my livelihood as a baseball family. Openings at the major-league level don't come up very often.”
After Expos' owner Jeffrey Loria bailed on Montreal and took his talents to South Beach to take over the Marlins in a sweetheart deal, leaving the fate of the Expos in the hands of fatalistic MLB ownership, a spot opened up in the Marlins booth and Van Horne jumped at the chance to move on, to a better situation. By then, he was already a longtime resident of south Florida.
He is a Hall-of-Famer. I speak to Canadians, fans of a certain age, for whom Van Horne was their window to baseball growing up. He influenced an entire nation and generations of sports fans and without the interest and early success of the majors in Montreal, there might not be a Jays.