I really have no idea when I first heard “the Commander,” Bob Elson, longtime voice of
the White Sox, but something must have struck a good note with me because I would continue to hang on every bit of play-by-play he’d provide for years up until the time that he was no longer the voice of the Sox. No doubt, it was in the late ‘50s, when the White Sox were edging toward their World Series season in 1959.
For some unknown reason, the memories of hearing my first radio broadcasts of White Sox games included a large Zenith radio/record player combo that my parents had purchased recently and lots of static. The static didn’t deter me from following the fortunes of the team I was growing to know and love, either. Through the years, whether I was in Huntington, Indiana, somewhere in Ohio, Vermont, or Pennsylvania, I would learn to “listen through the static”—annoying as it was! (In later years, this habit always drove my daughter nuts…still does.)
Through that “static,” there were always the comforting dulcet tones of Bob Elson and his partner at the time, Don Wells. The two would create images of Comiskey Park and the games going on there that would stick with me my whole life. And never having been there in person, I could really get wild with my imagined images of balls being “walloped” or “blasted” or “scalded.” And the crowd noise and organ music were also important elements of these early listening soundtracks of White Sox baseball on the radio.
Summer weeknights, there was usually a game on, and weekends were comprised of day games. Huddled close to the clunky radio that sat on a stand in our small living room, I knew exactly where on the dial I could find WCFL—The Voice of Labor. (As a young kid, I never really understood what that meant, but it always sounded cool!)
Elson would always promote the upcoming “big series” with whatever team was coming to town (particularly the Yankees or Red Sox) with something such as “Boston, and all that gang, will be here Friday night, Saturday afternoon, and a big Sunday doubleheader.” His smooth and deliberate—unhurried—style usually managed to get his point across: You didn’t want to miss out on the weekend ahead! And, of course, I was hooked and knew that I didn’t want to miss the games—even if I couldn’t be there in person. As long as I had Bob Elson and Don Wells and WCFL, all was right in my world.
I didn’t really know too much about Bob Elson, the broadcaster whom his colleagues referred to as “the Commander,” other than when he came into our living room each night to give us exciting White Sox baseball. I had no idea what he looked like (one of the charms of the world of radio!) or how old he was. He was simply a “voice” in the night that became like a regular friend during the summer. Through that voice, I developed an interest and liking—eventually love—for the White Sox.
Sometime during the early ‘60s, I subscribed to Sport Magazine. It was in the pages of the magazine where I finally got my first glimpse of Bob Elson, prominently featured each month in a section of respected writers and broadcasters from around the Major Leagues. Believe me when I say, I was quite taken aback when I saw that “the Commander” was an old guy who’d been broadcasting since 1930! I asked myself: Was this the same guy who talked to me each night and described the exploits of my heroes? To an eleven-year-old kid, it was a bit disturbing—this brush with reality.
One of Elson’s greatest strengths as a broadcaster was his skill in interviewing. I became familiar with every player, coach, manager, general manager, ticket manager, and front office personnel associated with the White Sox merely by listening to Bob Elson and the people he’d interview and chat with during the course of a season. Very early, I realized that there were more than just balls and strikes, hits and errors, or runs and outs that attracted me to White Sox radio broadcasts. To this day, I couldn’t care less about batting averages, on-base percentages, or earned run averages. I do, however, care about guys like Ernie Carroll in the Bards’ Room at Comiskey Park, who made the chili Bob Elson was always extolling during the course of a broadcast—usually on a cold and rainy night.
And then there were the sponsors on WCFL. The one that stands out the most is General Finance with Friendly Bob Adams (“…phone Andover 3-2020, and your money will be ready and waiting.”) Bob Elson’s delivery of this ad copy between innings was so smooth and direct that one could not resist the urge to pick up the phone and make the call. (Of course I was too young to want to do that, but it always sounded so very easy to do!)
Like Bob Elson, there was little I knew of Don Wells, other than that he was there at the “beginning” of my White Sox listenership. He remained there for a few more years and added interesting tidbits to the broadcasts. After he left the Sox job, he became one of the first voices of the newly formed Los Angeles Angels.
The ‘60s were good years for the Sox, coming close each season with excellent pitching and good defense but never quite good enough to get them over the hump. Bob Elson remained with them through the 1970 season—the beginning of the Harry Caray era. I was disappointed that “the Commander” would no longer be my constant companion, describing the ups and downs of my favorite team, especially since he moved along to broadcast the Oakland A’s games for a season. But it didn’t really matter since “the Commander” would retire after a season there. He died in 1981 at age 76 due to a heart ailment.
Incidentally, I learned why Bob Elson was called “the Commander.” He had served four years in the Navy during World War II. I like to think, also, that he earned the nickname because he was so well-respected by fellow baseball broadcasters and writers and for his “command” of broadcasts describing ballgames—and the people who played them—to young kids such as I who were out there “listening through the static.”
See you at the ballpark…