Milo Hamilton had big talent, big heart, big ego

Alan Truex

HOUSTON — When someone we know dies, our instinct is to say how wonderful the person was.  To eulogize means to praise — pretty much without qualification.  Objective journalism goes on hiatus when a famous person dies.

Upon learning that Milo Hamilton had passed, I thought of how connected I was to that unsurpassable voice, rich yet Midwestern-homespun.  He was born in Fairfield, Iowa.  If anyone was ever folksy, he was folksy.  A guy who goes by Milo (his middle name) would have to be.

I lived in Atlanta for four years in which Hamilton called Braves play-by-play and in Houston for 15 years when he was Voice of the Astros.  My wife would tell me, more than once: “You listen to Milo Hamilton more than me.”

The truth is that while Phyllis was pleasant to listen to most of the time, Milo was pleasant all of the time.  The point being the death of a big-league baseball announcer, especially one as historic as Hamilton, is a painful jolt to millions of people.  He was so much a part of our lives – that reassuring, deep-toned voice, truly one of the great instruments God has created.

He’s missed, not so much for his ability to describe the action (he was no Vin Skully there) as for his ability to hold our attention when there was nothing happening  – all too often the case in that sport.  He could call on his knowledge of baseball history and make it interesting.  Without belaboring the past, he had that most important of analytical skills: sense of perspective.

What can hardly be calculated is the impact of his death on the hundreds of charities for which he labored.  I think it’s safe to say nobody had a busier MC schedule.

Until weeks before he died last Thursday, in Houston at 88, Hamilton had extraordinary energy.  Whether it was calling Hank Aaron’s 715th home run or a popup to third base (“a can of corn”), there was genuine ebullience in his speech, punctuated by his hearty exclamation, “Holy Toledo,” which his father taught him to use in lieu of a profanity.

His beautifully succinct Aaron call (“It’s gone, 715!  There’s a new home run champion of all time, and it’s Henry Aaron”) is often replayed because Milo was perfect in the most pressurized moment of his life.

Of course he welcomed that moment, and though he denied it, I’m sure he prepared for it.  He would not have been Milo Hamilton if he had not prepared. 

Among the Atlanta media corps, of which I was a part in 1974, Milo was faulted for demanding the stage as Aaron bore down on history.  From No. 700 to 715, he called every Aaron homer, cutting in on broadcast partner Ernie Johnson whenever need be.

I would not have written that paragraph the day Hamilton died.  But now, a few days later, I wonder if the time is right to describe a real human being, his struggles and shortcomings as well as his successes.  Hamilton worked for seven teams during his 60-year career in big-league broadcasting, and just about everywhere he stirred conflict.

In Atlanta he feuded with Aaron, after clumsily introducing Roberto Clemente at a luncheon in 1972 as “the man who beat out Hank Aaron as the National League’s All-Star right fielder.”

In fact, Aaron had led all NL outfielders in fan voting but agreed to play left field in the All-Star Game so Clemente could showcase his nuclear-powered right-field arm.

Aaron confronted Hamilton about his inaccurate introduction, but he would not back down.  In his autobiography, I Had a Hammer, Aaron wrote: “We nearly came to blows.”

Thereafter, for a couple of seasons Hamilton from time to time made comments on the air that Aaron found belittling.  Eventually the two men, so tightly bound by history, made peace.  But many Atlantans felt Hamilton had been way out of line.  There wasn’t much outcry when he was fired, in 1975.

The following season he was in Pittsburgh, succeeding the retiring Bob Prince.  But even though he called the World Series for the winning Pirates in 1979, that sojourn was not a happy one for Hamilton.  He did not feel loved the way Prince had been.

So in 1980 Hamilton jumped to the Chicago Cubs, where he would feud with his broadcasting partner, the immensely overshadowing Harry Caray. 

Seeking to be No. 1, Hamilton moved to Houston in 1985, where he set his aim on Gene Elston’s back.  Houston’s lead baseball broadcaster, Elston had an understated, precise, informative delivery appreciated by a booming, futuristic city asserting its sophistication.

But Milo in front of media and team employees criticized Elston for not conveying enough excitement, for being too low-keyed.  Ironically, similar complaints had been made of Hamilton in Pittsburgh.  Since then he had become more inclined to glorify a fielding play far beyond its actual merit.  The important goal was to keep us listening.

Astros general manager Dick Wagner agreed with Milo’s view on Elston, who was fired, with Hamilton promoted to No. 1.  Although admiring Hamilton’s work, Wagner  referred to the broadcaster as “The Big E” – for big ego.

Elston in 2006 would join Hamilton as a Cooperstown inductee, and he died, at 93, just 12 days before his rival.

After an earlier rival, Caray, died in 1998, Hamilton commented to a reporter that his former booth-mate had stayed in the business too long, his skills eroded.

Caray’s son, Skip, who succeeded Hamilton in heading the Braves’ broadcasts, publicly lashed out at his father’s nemesis.  Milo later told me he tried to apologize to Skip, who turned away from him.

Except for that spat with Skip Caray, Hamilton avoided major controversy in Houston.  However, out of public view he alienated some talented people he worked with.  

Milo partnered quite successfully with Larry Dierker for years.  But by the mid 2000s, Milo and Dirk were barely speaking to each other even as they shared the booth.  Milo apparently took offense at some lighthearted barbs in Dierker’s 2003 autobiography.  Milo, he wrote, “loves the game almost as much as he loves to hear himself describe it.”

To most people, most of the time, Milo was congenial.  Which helped in his campaign for the Hall of Fame.  He invited baseball writers to lunch, generously snatching tabs as his Cooperstown enshrinement was considered.

But to be fair: long after his induction in ’92, Milo continued his annual hosting of a feast at Poli’s restaurant in Pittsburgh for the Astros’ traveling party — manager, coaches, front-office personnel and media.  It was a thoughtful and expensive gesture I’ve never seen equaled by any other sportscasters, for any sport, with whom I’ve traveled.

Milo Hamilton was a big-hearted man who excelled at his craft.  And he was very nice to everyone he did not consider a threat to his status.  But as I saw it, not as a close friend but as a close-by observer, he could not fully enjoy his success.  He was overly concerned about someone else earning some recognition, as if it would subtract from his own unchallenged greatness.

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