Longtime voice of the Astros represented the sound of summer for fans
By Richard Justice
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Gene Elston is that by the time I actually walked inside the Astrodome for the first time, I already had a feel for it. Fifty years later, I'm still amazed by this.
In his precise, uncluttered broadcasting style, Gene reconstructed it in the hearts and minds of the people at home. He got it exactly right, too. Not just the details, but Judge Roy Hofheinz's vision.
The Astrodome represented a triumph of both engineering and the human spirit. Gene described it inning by inning, night by night, capturing the vastness and majesty of the structure. To see the roof and the scoreboard, the dugouts and theater seats for the first time was to feel you'd returned.
Gene, who died Saturday at 93, represented the very best of baseball on the radio. Long before virtually every game was on television, Gene was one of the primary connections to the games and the players.
As the first voice of the Colt .45s in 1962, Gene played a huge role in helping to establish Major League Baseball in Houston. With the opening of the Astrodome in '65, the team became known as the Astros.
Gene was the primary voice of the team for 25 seasons. He was a great broadcaster and an even greater gentleman -- a humble, gracious man who worked relentlessly to improve his craft.
Years later, Gene would grudgingly acknowledge that by his final decade on the job, he'd started to get pretty darn good at doing baseball games. Plenty of others thought so, too. In 2006, Gene was given his profession's highest honor -- the Ford C. Frick Award -- by the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I didn't know Astros third baseman Bob Aspromonte and center fielder Jimmy Wynn in those years, but Gene got them right, too, from Aspro's backhanded grabs on the third-base foul line to the Toy Cannon's monster home runs.
Gene was a minimalist. He set the scene, described the action, found context. Some baseball broadcasters saw themselves as entertainers. Gene saw himself as a reporter, delivering the story 162 times a year.
Vin Scully would say exactly the same thing about his own style. Jon Miller of the Giants and Eric Nadel of the Rangers are among dozens of baseball's greatest broadcasters to express their appreciation for how Gene did his job.
I once told Gene that his final call on Don Wilson's 1967 no-hitter had stayed with me for decades. I asked if he remembered what he said when Wilson got the final out.
"He got it?" Gene said. "Something like that."
"He got it!"
That was Gene's call, and then he set the scene of the celebration and the madness. But the important thing was the no-hitter itself.
He believed it was important for listeners to have a moment to take it all in. Scully has always done things like that, sometimes even walking out into the hallway to prevent himself from saying something that would infringe upon the moment.
Gene believed that to say anything at a time like that would somehow lessen the impact. Sometimes, we just want to experience it for ourselves without someone screaming about it.
Not everyone agreed. Gene had a similar understated call when Mike Scott's no-hitter during the 1986 season clinched a playoff berth.
"There it is!" was Gene's call.
And then he backed off a bit. That game was on television, and so there was nothing Gene could say that would be better than what a generation of long-suffering fans were seeing.
The Astros decided after that season that they wanted the voice of their team to be a bit more of a showman, and they made Milo Hamilton the voice of the team. Milo will also be remembered as one of the great broadcasters of his time, but his style couldn't have been more different from Gene's.
Gene did the CBS National Game of the Week on the radio through the 1997 season. If he was bitter about the way things played out, he never said so. He was a kid who grew up in the Midwest and fulfilled a dream by getting to spend his adult life talking about baseball.
In the end, it was Astros fans who got lucky. He made doing a baseball game on the radio his own art form. He became the background sound of our summers -- never intruded, never annoyed.
He was just comfortable to listen to, and his death brings back a flood of memories of the teams and players of Gene's time behind the microphone. He was part of those memories, too -- one of the best parts.
He was a good man who lived a rich, full life. His dignity and honesty became part of the appeal of baseball itself, and as legacies go, that's a really good one.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.