Mark Story

In Kentucky, we were never sure baseball was Marty Brennaman’s best sport

It started on April 4, 1974, with a 7-6 Cincinnati Reds win over the Atlanta Braves. It ended Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019, with the Reds’ 5-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.

For 46 years, Marty Brennaman was the radio voice of Reds baseball. He was so accomplished at his craft that, in 2000, Brennaman was honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame with the Ford Frick Award for “major contributions to the game of baseball.”

Yet here in Kentucky, there is a contrarian view — which I share — that baseball was not the best sport in the broadcasting repertoire of the retiring Reds play-by-play announcer.

Basketball was.

“I think Marty is one of the all-time greats in baseball. Obviously, he is in the Hall of Fame,” says Lexington’s Jim Host, the long-time sports marketing and broadcasting mogul. “He does, I think, (call) basketball better than baseball.”

Youthful Marty and Joe.jpg
Cincinnati Reds broadcasters Marty Brennaman, left, and Joe Nuxhall in the radio booth at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati in 1976. Brennaman, 77, called his final Reds game Thursday before retirement. Bob Free AP

When Host’s company used to own the radio rights to broadcast the men’s NCAA basketball tournament, Brennaman was one of the network’s play-by-play staples.

“He did it for me for 17 years,” Host says. “He would leave the Reds (spring training) to come and do basketball for us. He would continually tell me how much he loved it.”

The depth of Brennaman’s preparation for broadcasting college basketball left a positive impression.

“I’ve never worked with anybody who I thought was a better professional or somebody who prepared himself any better,” Host said. “And the people we had who worked with him said the same thing.”

For two years during the Eddie Sutton coaching era, Brennaman — a Virginia native and 1965 graduate of the University of North Carolina — was the television play-by-play announcer for the University of Kentucky men’s basketball network with ex-Cat Larry Conley as color analyst.

“Of all the people I have worked with (in broadcasting basketball games), and there have been 100s, Marty would be on the short list of the best I ever worked with,” Conley says. “One of the things I greatly appreciated, Marty has great knowledge about the history of college basketball.”

Larry Conley.JPG
For two seasons during the Eddie Sutton coaching era, ex-Kentucky standout Larry Conley worked as the color analyst with Marty Brennaman as play-by-play announcer on local UK Television Network broadcasts of Wildcats' men's basketball. "One of the things I greatly appreciated, Marty has great knowledge about the history of college basketball,” says Conley. Mark Mahan

For all his identification with the Reds and Major League Baseball, Brennaman, 77, cut his teeth as a professional sports broadcaster with the Virginia Squires of the old American Basketball Association.

“He talked about the Squires all the time,” Conley said. “We’d go to dinner, and I would talk about guys I had played against who played in the ABA. And Marty would just say ‘I know him. Yeah, I know him.’

“I always imagined people seeing us talking and thinking ‘They’ve got to be talking about baseball.’ But Marty loved talking about the ABA days, and just basketball in general.”

Among those of us who grew up in Kentucky in the 1970s and 1980s, it was hard not to compare Brennamen’s broadcasting style with that of Cawood Ledford, the iconic University of Kentucky radio play-by-play announcer who retired in 1992 and died in 2001.

One trait the two shared is they were not “homers.” If the team they broadcast was playing poorly, neither pulled any punches with their audiences in telling them the truth.

Brennaman was an admirer of Ledford.

“I think he’s probably the greatest college basketball announcer who ever lived,” Brennaman told the Herald-Leader at the time of Ledford’s death. “People who live and die Kentucky basketball don’t take kindly to people being critical of the program. (Ledford) could be critical.

“He did an objective broadcast in a situation to me where it would be tougher than anywhere else in the country. ... He could get away with it because of who he was. The fact he was there all those years (Ledford broadcast UK games for 39 years). The fact he was a native Kentuckian. His accent. People related to him and what he represented. Plus, the fact he was a damn good play-by-play man.”

Brennaman had a direct link to the final UK sports event Ledford ever broadcast.

When Duke’s Christian Laettner hit his famous buzzer beater in the 104-103 masterpiece between the Blue Devils and UK in the 1992 NCAA Tournament, it became Ledford’s final Kentucky call before retirement.

Brennaman was also on the microphone at that game for the NCAA Tournament radio network.

“I thought the job (Brennaman) did on calling the Laettner shot for the NCAA Tournament (network) was one of the great calls I have ever heard in my life,” Host said.

Jim Host.JPG
When Jim Host's company owned the radio broadcasting rights to the men's NCAA Tournament, he used long-time Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman as a play-by-play announcer for March Madness. “He does, I think, (call) basketball better than baseball,” Host says of Brennaman. Mark Mahan

Earlier this summer, as Brennaman contemplated his post-retirement future, Host says the duo discussed some options, including the idea of the announcer writing a book.

“I made the same comment to him then that I always make about how great his call of the Laettner shot was,” Host said. “And I told him again that I thought he was better at (announcing) basketball.”

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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