Born to Broadcast, Howard Kellman to call 6,000th Game Tonight

Voice of the Indians reaches new milestone

Howard Kellman has been behind the mic for the Indians the last 42 years, including all 21 seasons played at Victory Field. (Photo by Randall Cork)

By Mike Lopresti / Indianapolis Indians | June 30, 2017 10:33 AM

Surely, there must come a point Friday night when Howard Kellman allows himself the moment to appreciate one number, and what it signifies. A love affair that has never lost its passion, a lifetime spent in his favorite place in all the world.

And then, of course, he will get back to the game. Because he always does.

Look what has happened up there on the press level. The 22-year-old kid with stars in his eyes and a New York accent has turned into the 65-year-old Hoosier legend, who has survived a heart attack in the booth, and shared his voice with millions. Matter of fact, he has shared it 5,999 times for the Indianapolis Indians. Friday night will be Kellman's 6000th game.

"It means everything in the world," he was saying this week. "This is what I would like to do more than anything else I could be doing for a living or as a hobby, and I've done that virtually my entire adult life. It's been a dream come true."

Not just because of games by the thousands, but memories by the - well, way too many to count. And each one as clear as a cloudless day at Victory Field. Kellman does not carry an encyclopedia of the past, he is an encyclopedia of the past.

Punch up a moment, he'll rattle off the details, undulled by time.

Game No. 1 . . .

"It was in Evansville on April 17, 1974. We started the season later then, because we had scheduled doubleheaders. It was a Wednesday night and then the home opener was Saturday at Bush Stadium, when we played an afternoon game against the Omaha Royals. An Omaha team that had a young third baseman by the name of George Brett.

"I was concerned with two things the first night. Calling the game, obviously. But I was also concerned about the engineering, because I'm not that technically sound. I was my own engineer by myself then. The people at WIFN in Franklin, they talked me through it. This is a mic, this is your amplifier.

"I had never been away from New York before, and in New York back then, you did not have to dial a 1 to make a long distance phone call. I'm trying to call the radio station and not dial the1, and I can't even get to the radio station. I'm thinking, this isn't going too well, here. I called an operator and asked for help and finally after 20 minutes, I found out you have to dial a 1. And then they talked me through it little by little, and we got on the air, fortunately. The Indians swept that series in Evansville and won their first five games en route to the Eastern Division championship."

Which of the 6,000 he'll always cherish the most . . .

"The most important one was, I think, the greatest moment in the history of the Indianapolis Indians franchise. In 1986, the Indians were playing Denver for the American Association at Bush Stadium, three games apiece. Denver is Cincinnati's Triple-A team, we're Montreal's Triple-A team. The bases were loaded, two outs, Indianapolis down by one in the bottom of the ninth. Billy Moore batting against Rob Dibble. And on a 2-2 pitch Billy Moore lines a base hit to left field and the tying and winning runs score. It was the first of four championships in a row.

"I often say to people when I give speeches, Larry Bird and the Celtics won three in the 1980s, Magic Johnson and the Lakers won five, we won six of them in the 1980s.''

He mentions a couple of nine-inning no-hitters. Tom Carroll's was "a Friday night in Omaha." He knows that 43 years later. Also Ian Snell's was in 2005. "A Sunday afternoon. Only walked one batter."

Any more?  "If I had to pick a fourth moment, it'd be the opening of Victory Field on July 11, 1996."

The call he'd like to have back . . .

"The first home run I ever called. The broadcast booth at Evansville was really behind third base. It was not in a good location at all. Danny Meyer of Evansville was batting, I said, `There's a fly ball down the left field line, twisting foul, going out of play.' I look up and he's trotting around the bases. It was a three-run homer. That never happened again."

The night one of his habits, reviewing and critiquing tapes of his games, got him into some mild trouble with the manager . . .

"In 1984, the Indians were in Omaha and we had played a doubleheader and lost the first game and won the second game. I was back in my hotel room listening to the tape. And Buck Rodgers, our manager, was in the next room and I didn't realize he could hear it. My phone rang and Buck says, `Hey, can you turn the tape down a little bit? And by the way if you're going to listen to it, why don't you listen to the second game? We won that game.'"

The first time a player gently got on him about a broadcast . . .

"My first year, Roger Freed - who, by the way, is the only man ever to be the MVP in the International League and the American Association - said to me after a game, `My wife was listening to the game and you said a ball got by me in right field.' Now he's talking to a 23-year-old guy and he's 26 at the time. So he puts his arm around me and says `We want the fans to think I'm a good outfielder. So please don't say the ball got by me.'"

He can tell you about the time he allowed Norfolk manager Rick Dempsey to vent on the air about his struggling team during an interview. At the end, Kellman thanked Dempsey for his time, as he does all his guests. "Oh, no," Dempsey answered. "Thank you very much for listening to me today."

He can tell you how Randy Johnson was probably the finest player to come through here, and how he would have gone to Cooperstown for Johnson's Hall of fame induction had the Indians not been playing. He can tell you about maybe the greatest offensive season ever for an Indians player, and still click off the numbers 39 years later - Champ Summers' .368 average, 34 home runs and 124 RBI in 1978.

He can tell how it started for him. Doing St. John's basketball games while a college student in Brooklyn. Getting permission from George Steinbrenner to sit in vacant radio booths in Yankee Stadium to do practice broadcasts. A kid basically talking to himself in the Bronx.

He can tell you that it was precisely 110 letters he sent out to potential employers before his senior year, and 25 answered. "I was somewhat naïve because I thought the other letters were being lost in the mail. That's why I wasn't hearing back from them."

He can tell you the three minor league baseball broadcast jobs open in 1974 when he was looking for a job - Indianapolis, Spokane and Albuquerque. And his audition tape to all three was the eighth inning of a Yankee-Red Sox game, broadcast by himself in that lonely booth. It included, he can remember, an RBI hit by Thurman Munson.

He can tell you Indianapolis offered a job before Spokane, or he might have spent his life in the state of Washington. And that one of the first things Max Schumacher said to him was Roger Maris once played for the Indianapolis Indians.

"That meant so much to me as a Yankee fan," Kellman said. "I was nine years old in 1961 when Maris hit his 61 homers but I remember it like it was yesterday. That meant so much to me and to this day still does."

And he can tell you about June 12, 2016. A Sunday afternoon game that was just minutes away from starting, when the pain and pressure in the arm and chest became too severe to ignore. Soon, Kellman was being rushed to the hospital.

Prompt attention by the Victory Field medical folks prevented heart damage, and three hours after he was wheeled into the ER, Kellman was ready to get back to the ballpark. Uh, no.

He did visit that Wednesday - "That might not have been the smartest thing in the world, but I felt great and I wanted to show everybody I was OK" - but endured the only 10 games he has ever missed because of health reasons.

"Very difficult," he said of those days. "The reason they were difficult was I felt fine."

The day he returned to work, he walked into the booth and there were welcome back cards all over the walls. He can tell you how that might have been the most touching moment of all.

So it won't suddenly dawn on him Friday night, how special his journey is. Or what has kept him moving through all those national anthems and seventh inning stretches.

"There's the love of the game of baseball, there's the love for broadcasting the game of baseball, there's being around he coaches, players and managers. I also thought the same about the 5,000th game. And I'd like to make the 7,000th game. Every day is still wonderful at the ballpark. I think there's some reflection and there always will be. The most important thing is being able to do the job on a daily basis.

"Like the great Hall of Famer Willie Stargell once said, the umpires don't say work ball, they say play ball. I have fun every day."

So for one night, a nice round number can tell us what it has been like for Howard Kellman, baseball lifer -- 6,000 first pitches, 6,000 smiles.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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