Remembering Larry Munson
Before Larry Munson became Georgia’s football play-by-play announcer in 1966, I knew him from his time working at Vanderbilt, where he had become a fixture in Nashville. His agenda included, in addition to announcing for the Commodores, hosting a popular television fishing show and working as the play-by-play voice of the Nashville Vols’ minor league baseball team.
What I remember most about him was his hairstyle — a distinctive crew cut. He was a little reticent but engaged in conversation easily. He was often in the company of Dudley “Waxo” Green of the Nashville Banner and John Bibb of the Nashville Tennessean. Those were different times. Not every SEC team assigned a broadcast crew for road games, but Commodore basketball was big, which is why the two competing daily newspapers sent beat writers on the road — which is also why you never saw Munson without Green and Bibb.
Curt Gowdy — for years the big league announcer for the Red Sox and later a popular network sportscaster — and Munson became friends when Munson succeeded Gowdy as the play-by-play announcer for the Wyoming Cowboys. When Gowdy left for the big leagues, he told Munson that, to get to the top, he needed to set his sights on major league baseball. And to get there he had to, like the players, move up the line in the minor leagues. That is why Munson went to Nashville. The old Nashville Vols played in the AA Southern Association. It was a step in the right direction.
When the Milwaukee Braves moved South, Munson became the second announcer, teaming with Milo Hamilton when the Braves began play in Atlanta in 1966. Working for the Braves would become Munson’s link with Georgia.
To join the Braves’ broadcast crew, Munson had to give up his ties with Vanderbilt, a decision that also made him fortuitously available to call Georgia football games on a freelance basis. The Braves were okay with that arrangement, but for that to come about, there first had to be an opening at Georgia, where Ed Thilenius, a golden throat if there ever was one, was entrenched.
Atlanta, becoming a major league city, figured into the coming of Munson to the Bulldogs. Thilenius moved to WAGA-TV Channel 5 in Atlanta, the city’s first full-time sports director who would work the new Atlanta Falcons games for CBS.
When he inquired about the Georgia job, it was to Munson’s advantage that Joel Eaves was the athletic director. Eaves had been the Auburn basketball coach before taking over in Athens as AD. He knew Munson. He often heard Munson calling Vandy games over WSM out of Nashville. The deal was closed with alacrity. Georgia lost Thilenius one day and gained Munson the next.
Nobody paid the decision much attention except to lament the departure of Thilenius, whom the Georgia fans revered. They saw him at coffee clubs around town, they munched on hot dogs with him at the Varsity. He was their friend as well as their announcer.
With Munson, whose family was anchored in Nashville, it was an in-and-out sojourn to Athens on the weekends. When he got to Sanford Stadium, he parked his car facing north and made a mad dash back to Nashville as soon as he signed off on the broadcast. I once noted that he met more state troopers than he did Georgia fans.
Bulldog listeners had to adjust to a new-sounding voice and a new style. Believe it or not, Munson was not an instant hit, considering the esteem with which Thilenius was regarded and the lack of familiarity with his successor.
After a couple of years with the Braves, Munson returned to Nashville for a television gig on the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news. But in the early seventies, he moved to Atlanta and began working with the old Georgia Network, a statewide radio network that provided news, sports, weather, and farm news to local stations.
Larry did it all, but with a family to support, he began spending time on the road speaking, which meant that he might drive as much as four hours to speak, getting him home well after midnight. He was back at the network studios by 5:30 a.m. The quintessential radio man, he enjoyed his life, as hectic as it was.
Three things were taking place during those early years. First, he was getting to know Georgia people as he was traveling the state speaking. Dan Magill appreciated his work and made cassette tapes of his best calls and sold them to Bulldog Club members. You could hear those tapes being played when you walked through the tailgate enclaves on game day.
Perhaps the most important thing for Larry was that Vince Dooley’s teams had a knack for winning close games, often claiming victory late in the fourth quarter.
When the team rose to the occasion on the field, Larry rose to the occasion behind the microphone — which memorably gave us, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” “Run, Lindsay, Run, Run!” and eventually, under Mark Richt, “Hobnail boot.”
Larry, while not a loner, pretty much kept to himself and had at least two other lives: going to movies with his movie club and fishing. We had something in common when it came to fishing and hunting. On a pheasant hunting trip to South Dakota, I had some pheasant smoked and sent home. You should have seen his eyes light up when I gave him those smoked pheasant.
When we fished a time or two at his favorite spot in Newton County, he talked in his game day vernacular. When the wind came up, he began to fret. “It’s out of the north and I don’t like it,” he complained. “I don’t like it, no sir, I don’t like the looks of things. Yeah, you knew it would be this way if the north wind got up, driving down those big bass five, six, seven, eight, nine feet.”
Twice divorced and living alone at the time, Munson found comforting respite on the lake. “I’m out here by myself a lot,” he said and then volunteered that on the lake was where he talked to his late father, Harry. “I just tell him how much I enjoyed those days when I was growing up in Minnesota and he taught me everything I know about fishing. When my sister, Dorothy, sent me his tackle box, which he bought in 1943, it was one of the happiest days of my life. When I opened the package and took that old tackle box out, I hugged it. I felt like I could communicate with my dad again. It brought back such great memories. Him and me on a lake. The fish biting and the water lapping against the boat.”
Then there was a solemn and sensitive moment when he talked about his mother’s death in the mid-nineties and his divorces. After his mother died, he lamented the fact that he no longer had “any reason to send a Mother’s Day card to anybody.” He volunteered personal information, for example, bringing up the fact that a nephew had died of AIDS.
“When I am really down,” he said, “I come here to the lake. I’ll hunker down out here all by myself and talk to my dad. He understands things. A fisherman always understands. If you need advice, a fisherman will know what to tell you.”
When Larry retired, a pall hovered over Bulldogland. It was hard to adjust to, but he got a deserving farewell. Following are the thoughts I had, which also previously appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald on his retirement.
The lyrics from “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” put in perspective the essence of what sports means to most of us. “Root, root, root for the home team, and if they don’t win it is a shame.” Rooting for the home team would include the announcers, especially if they are college play-by-play announcers.
The guys doing Monday Night Football? It doesn’t matter if they play it straight, but if your team wears red jerseys and silver britches, the announcer better let it be known he is for the Dawgs.
Larry was old school. In the beginning, he played it straight. I can remember coaches’ wives complaining, “He doesn’t sound like he is for us.” For Munson to like us, he had to get to know us. And we had to get to know him.
Often, he would leave work for some distant, small Georgia town, where he spoke at a banquet for a modest fee, returning home about time to go to work. He never turned anybody down for a speaking request. That in itself showed that he was a fellow with a humble and modest bent. That wears well with folks.
Before long he was saying “we,” and with that came exhortations for the team to measure up. “C’mon you guys ... we need a miracle.” When we got one, he went over the top. Without question, Munson had a gift for the right phrase at peak moments. As he would say it, the hobnail boot thing. Sugar falling from the sky, on and on.
It was like a cleanup hitter hitting a game-winning homer, a quarterback connecting for the winning pass as time expired. In short, when opportunity presented itself, he rose to the occasion. He had a sixth sense for delivery and riveting thought.
He took “homerism” to a new level. The Georgia fans ate it up. They couldn’t get enough Munson. “I don’t know where he comes up with that stuff,” the late Skip Caray (Atlanta Braves announcer) used to tell me when we got together for lunch or drinks, “but I’ll tell you one thing. It is great radio. I love to listen to him call a game.”
The call that made him connect beyond his Bulldog affiliation — attracting regional attention — was when Rex Robinson kicked the game-winning field goal in Lexington when Georgia defeated Kentucky, 17-16, in 1978.
You remember. Larry never said the kick was good, he just screamed into the mike as the kick sailed through, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” It was a cool, crisp October night, and WSB’s Clear Channel signal beamed that call into the upper Midwest, probably all the way to Minnesota, where he grew up.
With all due respect to the other great calls, I thought that was his signature call. A lot of truck drivers moving across the country became Larry Munson fans that night.
With the demands of a long week coming to an end this past weekend, I went to bed early Sunday night and put my cell phone out of hearing. Didn’t learn the news until I went out about 4 a.m. Monday for the paper. There it was, a banner headline telling us that his voice had been silenced forever.
I immediately tried, unsuccessfully, to locate the North Star, which he frequently saw growing up in Minnesota. The search of the heavens made me feel good, nonetheless. My mind raced with thoughts and reflections. With a heavy heart, I returned inside to build a fire and had a talk with Larry, like he often had with his dad on the lake. It was mostly thanks for the memories and for giving me a lasting identity with the Bulldog Nation with his “Whaddaya Got” line.
As the flames gained momentum, my central thought was, “Aren’t we glad, aren’t we happy to rejoice, that Larry Munson came our way.”
[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]