Mike Shannon’s five decades in the Cardinals’ broadcasts booths is about to end, with the finish line arriving as early as Sunday to a one-of-a-kind career.
That’s when the Cards play their regular-season finale. Although they will be going to the postseason, Shannon, 82, will be back in the booth only if the Redbirds win their one-game wild-card showdown Wednesday with the Dodgers or Giants.
That game will be on the road, and the plan is for the team’s radio rotation to remain nearly the same for the playoffs as it is for the regular season — John Rooney and Ricky Horton on away games, Shannon and Rooney on home contests. The caveat is that Horton also will contribute to some broadcasts from Busch Stadium.
But there is no guarantee that there will be any more games this season at Busch beyond Sunday. So Shannon could be saying his final goodbyes then, when a long series of tributes culminates with him being honored in a pregame ceremony that starts at approximately 1:45 p.m.
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It will be a salute to a guy who became a man of the people with his folksy, unique style and his “Shannonisms,” malaprops that had listeners grinning. But he also offered deep insights into the game he played for nine years in the majors, all with his hometown Cardinals that include three World Series appearances and two titles.
He didn’t sugarcoat Cardinals problems, and even though his voice isn’t as strong as it once was his words still are. For instance, on Thursday he suggested that the Cards’ Matt Carpenter (now hitting .168) was “bullheaded” for continuing to hit into the shift. In August, when the team was lethargic and losing, he bluntly said: “This team is not very good at all.”
And he raised eyebrows on the air Thursday when he said “the word on the street is that (the DeWitts) are going to sell the franchise,” something team president Bill DeWitt III firmly denied when asked about it by the Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold.
Through the years Shannon would rise to the occasion on big calls, including for the final out of the Cardinals’ last World Series winner:
“Back goes Craig, he’s at the track. HE HAS IT! The Cardinals are world champions for 2011. They came from NOWHERE to ASTOUND the baseball world ... What a season! What a comeback for this Cardinal team.”
But things weren’t always so upbeat for Shannon, who not only had a rough start in the booth but might not have ever made it there — or anywhere else — because of a life-threatening health matter that in 1970 ended his playing days.
A story we did 30 years ago addressed the situation, and with some of those interviewed no longer being with us we will revisit that piece. We pick it up at spring training in 1970, when team physician Dr. Stan London discovered an irregularity:
‘’It was just a routine urine exam, and the results showed something abnormal,” London said.
Tests eventually showed Shannon was suffering from glomerulonephritis, a defect of the filtering function of the kidney.
‘’It was quite serious, sometimes fatal,” London recalled.
Life for Shannon suddenly took an entirely different perspective, from that of a strong, seemingly invincible 30-year-old major-league ballplayer to someone who had little control over his life.
‘’I wasn’t worried about myself, but I had a young wife and five kids,” he said. “I was worried about what they would do for the next 50 years. That was my prime concern.”
Shannon quickly was shuttled from the Cardinals’ Florida spring base to Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.
“I spent about 30 days in the hospital while they were doing tests to find out what was wrong with me,” Shannon said. “They found out, and prescribed medication. Basically, they said, ‘Either this works or banzai, goodbye.’ Fortunately, I was healthy enough and young enough to make it. The good Lord looked down and said, ‘I’ll get you next time.’ I was a fortunate man.”
Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck was shocked when he saw the ailing Shannon.
“I looked at him and did not know the man,” Buck said. “His head was like a basketball.”
Buck spread two fingers less than an inch apart. “He was that close to not making it. A lot of people thought he was going to die.”
Contrary to many people’s recollection, Shannon didn’t lose a kidney. And he recovered enough to make a brief comeback in 1970. But he hit just .213 in 52 games and retired as a player. The Cardinals provided Shannon with a front-office job in 1971, making him assistant director of promotions and sales.
Twice that season, Cardinals general manager Bing Devine offered Shannon a chance to get back into uniform, once as a minor-league manager and once as a big-league coach. Shannon turned him down both times.
“I felt really bad because jobs were really tough to get in baseball,” he said. “But it just wasn’t the kind of money I needed to get by on with five kids to raise and send to college. Then about a month later, Bing said some people had approached him about me and the broadcasting position. And it all eventually fell into place from there.”
“Eventually” is the key wordin that statement. Shannon’s delivery at first was about as jagged as a broken beer bottle. According to reports at the time, he had been picked by a “cross section of the Cardinals and Anheuser-Busch,” the company that has owned the team since 1953.
“The people on the committee to select a new broadcaster told me Mike barely edged out Steve Mizerany,” Buck said at the press conference when Shannon’s hiring was announced.
It was a funny line, but the comparison to the fast-talking local appliance dealer wasn’t far off the mark.
“Shannon was raw, raw, raw — man, he was chopped meat,” said Jay Randolph, who was Shannon’s television broadcast partner for many years. “But he worked very hard at it.”
Shannon looks back and realizes he was raw when he started. And there was a justifiable barrage of criticism from listeners that lasted several seasons.
“I knew I was going to be very inexperienced and make a lot of errors,” Shannon said. “But when you’re in athletics, you have to be able to take criticism. I knew I’d make mistakes, so I was determined not to let them bother me.
“I didn’t become frustrated — but a lot of the listeners may have been,” he said with a loud chuckle. “I was just fortunate that Jack and Anheuser-Busch were very patient. There never was a time when I thought that I wanted to give it up.”
But many others, at the time, wished he would have. Shannon’s diction, grammar and delivery were poor.
“There were a lot of dissatisfied listeners,” longtime St. Louis sportscaster Ron Jacober said. “I myself wondered how in the world could they have hired this guy. He was just awful. But he’s light years from that now.”
Shannon firmly points his index finger in one direction — at Buck — when asked for the reason he has lasted.
“I walked into the broadcast booth and had absolutely no experience,” Shannon said. “... I had no idea what was going on. But my real ace in the hole was Jack. Good Lord of mercy, I don’t know what I would have done without him. That man helped me so much. I didn’t have to go to broadcasting school — working with Jack was like having a private tutor, on-the-job training.”
Buck, who died in 2002, took Shannon under his wing.
“I went by his rental house in St. Pete the day they told him he couldn’t play,” Buck said. “I told him I’d do anything I could.”
When Shannon got the broadcasting job, Buck followed through on the promise. Buck opened his home for training sessions.
“We’d have a tape recorder and a stopwatch, and I’d try to coach him on how to do a scoreboard show,” Buck said. “One of the farthest things from his mind when he was playing was being on the radio. This was quite an undertaking for him.”
One of Shannon’s strengths is his deep knowledge of the game.
“There’s not one announcer who never played big-league baseball who knows as much about the game as somebody who played for a significant period of time,” Buck said. “And Shannon knows the game, the intricacies. Some (former players-turned-broadcasters) shove it down your throat. Shannon knows where to draw the line.”
That line is about to come to an end. And with it goes an era unlike any other in local sportscasting history.
"There is absolutely zero interest in my son and I and the rest of the family in selling our interest," DeWitt Jr. said. "So, you know, there's nothing there.”
“Mute the TV and turn on Shannon! That's what people did,” David Freese says. “He’s just been around forever."