Steve Stone announced his retirement from baseball on June 2, 1982, at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. The former Orioles right-hander, who won the American League Cy Young Award in 1980, had been hampered by tendinitis in his elbow and shoulder. In the news conference, an emotional Stone lamented that his age, then 34, and the low success rate of surgery made the decision for him.
Afterward, a team secretary approached him with two phone messages. One was from David Hartman, the host of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” who wanted Stone to appear on the show. The other was from Chuck Howard, an executive at ABC Sports.
The secretary told Stone to call Howard first. “I think he has a job for you,” she said.
Sure enough, Howard offered Stone the chance to join the “Monday Night Baseball” booth for three games. But the first would be a Cardinals-Expos game in Montreal in five days, and Stone hadn’t been in the National League in six years. Howard asked if he’d be comfortable with the assignment.
“Chuck, I’ll do Japanese baseball,” Stone said. “Just put me on the air.”
Tuesday will mark the 40th anniversary of Stone’s first baseball broadcast. That night, he’ll be in the White Sox’ TV booth with Jason Benetti for the game against the Dodgers at Guaranteed Rate Field. But on June 7, 1982, he sat with Al Michaels and Don Drysdale in the Olympic Stadium booth for the season premiere of “Monday Night Baseball.” (It was the B game behind Athletics-White Sox at Comiskey Park.)
“I knew that two months out of baseball, it was going to be ‘Steve who?’ ” Stone said recently. “That was my shot. I had never had the headset on; I had never thought about doing a game. But I figured worse comes to worst, I look like an idiot in front of 30 million people, and then I go home after three games. But it didn’t work out that way. I’m still here.”
Michaels wasn’t surprised that Stone joined him shortly after retiring. Television titan Roone Arledge was running ABC, and Michaels said it was typical of Arledge to bring in someone topical. In the late 1970s, he put Mark Fidrych in the booth while the Tigers pitcher was on the disabled list. “The Bird” had become a celebrity with his success and quirky antics, but it didn’t translate to the broadcast.
“He’d never been in a broadcast booth in his life, and I’m on the air with him,” Michaels said. “He had no idea what he was doing. What I remember about Steve is that he was not fazed by anything. He seemed to be very comfortable right off the bat.”
Stone, 74, attributes his broadcast career to his Cy Young season, when he had a 14-game winning streak en route to a 25-7 record. He said if not for that year, ABC executives never would have heard him in interviews, in which he sounded cogent and capable of speaking on the air.
“They knew I could get the sentences out; they knew I had something to say,” Stone said. “I don’t know what prompted them to give me a call. I do know that I was the biggest name who was retiring in the middle of that season. I might’ve been one of the only, but I certainly was the biggest.”
“Steve parlayed one unbelievably fantastic year into a 40-year broadcasting career,” Michaels said. “If you look at the rest of Steve’s career, it’s workmanlike. But he had that one year, pretty much like Fidrych. You look at all of Steve’s numbers, and you go, ‘What?’ ”
Stone also caught the attention of the Cubs, who were looking for a partner for Harry Caray on WGN TV. Word of the search spread, and Stone recalls the team having to weather a Sun-Times poll that asked fans to choose from the incumbent radio duo of Lou Boudreau and Vince Lloyd, Tony Kubek and Stone.
“It was like 98% Vince and Lou,” Stone said. “They’re wonderful guys.”
But the team chose Stone, who played for the Cubs from 1974 to ’76, sandwiched between stints with the White Sox in 1973 and 1977-78. Other opportunities came Stone’s way while he was at WGN, including TV analyst jobs with the Yankees and Angels, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave Chicago.
Former WGN Radio boss Dan Fabian even tried to pilfer Stone, offering him the Cubs’ lead play-by-play job.
“I thought about it for a couple of weeks, and I said to him, ‘I really think this Harry and Steve thing is going pretty well,’ ” Stone said. ” ‘I think I want to play this out and see where it goes.’ “
It ended up going very well and very far. But it all began June 7, 1982, in Montreal.
“Working with Al Michaels was a dream,” Stone said. “The six guys who worked [at ABC], it was like the Hall of the Hall of broadcasters. The two play-by-play guys were Al Michaels and Keith Jackson, and the four analysts were Don Drysdale, Bob Uecker, Howard Cosell and me. First-time broadcaster with those five guys. That was a great learning experience.”