It is entirely possible that Bob Robertson, 75 years young, has spoken more words into a microphone than anyone in television and radio history. What makes that accomplishment all the more remarkable, Robertson says, is that he even did play-by-play for table tennis -- and lived to tell about it.
"I did table tennis for ESPN," Robertson recalls, "and a lot of the kids were from Thailand. You couldn't pronounce their names without a tongue depressor. Plus, the pace of table tennis -- you had guys flying all over, hitting balls from all over, even flying into the stands."
Robertson, back for his sixth season as the radio voice of the Northwest League's Spokane Indians, has seen it all in sportscasting since he first did play-by-play at a high school football game for Bellingham radio station KVOS in 1947. At the time, he was an 18-year-old freshman at Western Washington College of Education (now University).
Two years later, Robertson quit school, turned down a minor league player's contract with the Salem (Ore.) Senators -- Robertson says he was a slow-footed outfielder with a strong arm and good bat -- and landed his first full-time broadcasting job at KPQ in Wenatchee. Robertson handled the play-by-play for the Wenatchee Chiefs, a rival of Salem in the Western International League, the forefather of the Northwest League.
"With intelligence and diligence, I've gone all the way from doing the WI League in Wenatchee to doing the Spokane Indians in the Northwest League," Robertson quips. "I've gone all of 130 miles."
Robertson has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles by plane, train, bus and auto to cover everything from minor league baseball to college football to roller derby to pro and amateur boxing to pro and college wrestling to pro hockey to college basketball to rodeo to high school sports to men's fastpitch softball. He lists one of his career highlights as a three-game stint filling in for vacationing Dave Niehaus on Seattle Mariners broadcasts.
Asked if he once aspired to be a full-time broadcaster at the major league level, Robertson replies, "I still do. But at my age, I know it's not realistic."
Robertson broadcast Notre Dame football on TV in 1955. ("We hated the climate," he says. "It gets so cold in the Midwest, so we left.") He's handled major league indoor and/or outdoor soccer in Seattle, Tacoma and Portland. He's the longtime voice of Washington State football -- Robertson also did Cougar men's basketball for years -- and he's also a familiar voice on Spokane radio stations during state high school basketball tournaments.
It is minor league baseball, however, that has occupied the vast majority of Robertson's time in the broadcast booth. Interestingly, Robertson's father, Robbie, was a career minor leaguer as a player.
"He bounced around all over," Robertson says. "He was a center fielder. He had a couple cups of coffee in the Pacific Coast League."
Robertson has done minor league play-by-play for teams in Fresno, Seattle, Tacoma and now Spokane, but his first job in the minors came in Wenatchee. His salary, as he recalls, was $225 per month.
"I did baseball (plus high school and junior college football and basketball), a daily sports show, and I'd help out on newscasts occasionally," Robertson says. "You did a little bit of everything. I watered the flowers on warm summer nights. Flooded the basement one time..."
When Robertson started out, sportscasters rarely traveled to road games. Instead, they "recreated" games in a studio, taking notes off a telegraph and adding sound effects.
"To make the sound of a hit, some guys used to hit the microphone with a pencil," Robertson explains. "I used to use a real baseball bat and hit it with a knife. That sounded a lot more realistic."
Robertson spent many an autumn and winter evening traveling the backroads of Central Washington to broadcast high school football and basketball games in Wenatchee. One of those games almost brought a quick end to his budding career -- and life.
"I was at Coulee Dam or Grand Coulee, sitting up high in the stands between the percussion section and the tubas," Robertson says dryly. "I had to run my [radio] cables back to my car, and some kid on a bicycle ran into the cables and almost pulled me off the back of the stands."
Robertson says many of his favorite broadcasting moments revolve around key football games of Washington State, including last season's Holiday Bowl win over Texas.
"No one thought they were going to beat the fifth-ranked team in the nation," Robertson points out. "They just played a great game."
Another one of Robertson's fondest college football broadcasting memories -- well, NOW it's a fond memory -- involved the Whitworth Pirates.
"It was the 'Fog Bowl' between Whitworth and PLU [Pacific Lutheran University] in the '50s," Robertson says. "You couldn't see the field from the press box; you couldn't see past the first four rows of the grandstand at the Lincoln Bowl in Tacoma.
"We ended up recreating the game from a ladder on the back of the press box with hundreds of fans down below listening. They couldn't see the game, either."
Robertson, the father of four and grandfather of four, has been married "for 52 and a half years" to ever-understanding wife Joanne. The Robertsons live in the Tacoma suburb of University Place -- Robertson broadcasts PLU men's and women's basketball games in the winter, and he was a sports TV anchor in Tacoma for years. At 75, he spends his summers checking in and out of a Spokane hotel, depending on whether the Indians are home or away.
"It's better than renting an apartment," insists Robertson, who makes it home whenever possible when Joanne isn't visiting him in Spokane or other Northwest League cities.
Robertson was born in Fullerton, Calif., but spent much of his life growing up in Canadian cities like Vancouver and Saskatoon (his father was Canadian). Robertson graduated from Blaine (Wash.) High School on the Canadian border, where he'd drift off to sleep at night listening to legendary Seattle Rainiers baseball broadcaster Leo Lassen.
More than half a century later, Lassen is long gone, but Robertson is still yakking away at the mike. He doesn't plan on quitting anytime soon.
"Why," Robertson asks, his voice full of wonder, "would you quit something you enjoy?"
Publication date: 6/17/04