I met Gene Elston only once, at the Barnes & Noble in Vanderbilt Square off of Holcombe. It was a June afternoon in 2002. He was promoting a book he’d written about the history of baseball, and the Press had asked me to interview him — forget about the book, my then editor said, just talk to him and see what happens.
So I forgot about the book and he forgot about the book and we talked baseball, about the great games he'd broadcast, his favorite players, his thoughts on the current game and how he thought the style of game you grew up watching as a kid would always be your favorite era of baseball. We talked about the Astros, and he said Roy Hofheinz had been a good owner, that he’d been a guy who wanted to win but suffered from a lack of patience. Hofheinz, Elston lamented, kept tearing up the team just before it could get good.
Gene Elston died Saturday. He was 93 years old. He was the original play-by-play voice of the Astros. He was the broadcaster on Nolan Ryan’s record-breaking fifth no-hitter, and he was behind the microphone when Ryan set the career strikeout record. His final out call for Mike Scott’s 1986 pennant clinching no-hitter was the iconic “there it is.” He wasn’t fancy. He didn’t shout. He wasn’t a homer. He was the eyes for the people who couldn’t be at the game, and it was his job to accurately describe what was happening on the field.
It was Elston’s voice I heard as a child when I was becoming a baseball fan. He’s the one who keyed me in on the rhythms of the game, who taught me that those silent, quiet moments were actually some of the most intense. He put pictures in my head of the gorgeous ballpark in Los Angeles and the windy dump in San Francisco. Because he was a master at describing what he saw, I became a fan of not just the Houston Astros, but of the sport of baseball.
Elston was fired after the 1986 season, one of the worst moves ever made during the regime of owner John McMullen. Elson wasn’t loud enough, it was said. He didn’t display enough emotion. He didn’t cheer or shout or get angry. He just described what he saw happen on the field.
Ironically, it was that Mike Scott no-hitter, one of the most famous broadcaster calls of Elston’s career (and one of my favorites), that supposedly got Elston fired. Working the game on television, Elston kept his call short, simple, then he shut up and let the images on the field and the noises from the field and the stands tell the game. Astros players jumping on the field and shouting and guys running out from the dugout. The fans are loud, cheering, applauding. Elston doesn’t need to speak because it’s all right there on the screen for the viewer.
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It’s beautiful, exhilarating, moving. But over on the radio side Milo Hamilton was shouting and screaming and speaking every adjective in the book that could remotely be tied to a pennant clinching no hitter. It’s clichéd, the stuff of bad movies, and that’s what the Astros ownership wanted. So it was goodbye Elston, a man whose only crime was correctly doing his job, describing what he saw and where possible, letting the picture tell the story.
There aren’t many broadcasters around anymore who can call a game like Gene Elston. The most prominent broadcaster in baseball is the great Vin Scully, a man from whom Elston learned how to call a baseball game. Scully just re-upped with the Dodgers for his 67th year behind the microphone. But, unfortunately, he's about the only one left, since the Milo Hamilton school of shouting won out over the school of describing. I think that this does a tremendous disservice to fans of baseball and to broadcasting, but then again, I’m just an old man, and perhaps Gene Elston was right—it’s the era you grew up in that controls what you think is the best.
I think I spoke with Elston for about 30 minutes or so that Saturday in 2002, him sharing baseball stories until his publicist pulled him away for another event. I never met him again, or talked to him. I know what guys like Larry Dierker said about him, and I’ve seen what his fellow broadcasters are saying about him now. That he was an incredibly nice guy who loved the game of baseball and shared his knowledge, passion, and understanding of the sport the best way he knew how, by just telling people what he saw happening in front of him.
Gene Elston will always be my voice of the Houston Astros, and my gateway to the game of baseball. May he rest in peace, and may his family know the love and affection that so many of us felt towards him all these years.