In the final days before work crews tore down Memorial Stadium in early 2002, a bunch of old journalism warhorses gathered there for a final sentimental journey. I found myself standing with Vince Bagli. The day was drizzly and bleak, and the old ballpark so overgrown with weeds and gravel that it felt as if we’d entered an unkempt graveyard.
“Thank God I’m a Baltimorean and had a chance to be here,” Bagli said softly.
He looked around the place and didn’t focus on the weeds or the gravel. He saw the same thrilling ghosts as the rest of us: Unitas fading into the pocket, Gino and Artie thundering after some terrified quarterback, Earl Weaver declaring war on the nearest umpire.
Now Bagli, at 93, joins those ghosts of Memorial Stadium (and Oriole Park). He slipped away the other day, the undisputed “dean” of Bawlamer sportscasters after nearly half a century on WBAL-TV and a bunch of radio microphones.
He was the dean not only by dint of experience. He was also the fellow whose very example taught a few generations of local broadcast guys how to connect with thousands of strangers watching from their living rooms.
Think about Tom Davis, Keith Mills, Scott Garceau, Gerry Sandusky, John Saunders, Mark Viviano, Chris Ealy, Chris Thomas, Randy Blair, Stan the Fan Charles and Steve Melewski.
Most of them never worked at WBAL. But all of them studied at the “University of Bagli.”
(Nestor Aparicio doesn’t make the list. Like Vince, he knows the value of hometown ties. But Nestor’s a proud graduate of the “Charley Eckman School of Higher Elucidation.”)
Bagli seemed like your gentle next-door neighbor. He was the hometown guy who never forgot to cover the high school kids as well as the Orioles. If there was a second-string split end with the Green Bay Packers, Vince made sure to mention he’d gone to Mount Saint Joe or Patterson or Poly once upon a time.
Twenty-five years ago, he and Norman L. Macht wrote a book, “Sundays at 2:00 with the Baltimore Colts” (Tidewater Publishers), that captured Vince’s whole outlook. He recalled watching the earliest Colts working out at Herring Run Park, long before the current era when pro football training facilities resemble the Taj Mahal.
“The kids in our neighborhood,” he wrote, “were especially proud when Hamilton’s own Bud Grain (Poly and Penn) played guard on that first team. Then Elmer Wingate (Poly and Maryland), who lived two blocks from Grain, made the ’53 team.”
He understood that sports wasn’t just about victory and defeat, it was about the extended community, the village tribe. You listened to him, and you were a member of the home team.
And he knew that sports were all about dreaming –- young people dreaming of touchdown possibilities, and old people reminiscing about distant yesterdays that were still fresh in their minds.
That final day we walked around Memorial Stadium, Bagli remembered a lot of his yesterdays.
“I always said, ‘I’ve spent more time here than any other building in the world,'” he said. “Somewhere in heaven, my mother must think, ‘What in the world happened to that boy?’”
He was laughing when he said it. Bagli’s parents had talked to him about medical school, and Vince talked about touchdowns and home runs. He was an usher at the Colts’ first game in 1947. He remembered the first football game he ever saw — Navy against Notre Dame, in 1935.
“From the start, I wanted to be connected to sports in some way,” he said. “But being 89 pounds and gutless, I knew that being a ballplayer was never gonna work out.”
He found the next best thing: covering the games, and getting a chance to share what he saw with thousands of people who hadn’t yet heard the news of the day.
One secret of his success — he was the same guy off the air as the guy on your TV screen. The late Jerry Turner used to tell all TV rookies: “Be yourself. If you try to fake it on the air, they see right through you.”
Bagli was the real thing: a kind, decent man who spoke like a pal sharing the events of the day on the front stoops.
“It’s been a pleasure,” he’d say at the end of each broadcast.
The pleasure was ours, Vince.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Tonight at 6: A Daily Show Masquerading as Local TV News” (Apprentice House) and “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).