Marty Brennaman Is Still Coming In Loud and Clear

Marty Brennaman has been the voice of the Reds for more than four decades. But his most impressive feat has been keeping a voice of his own.

His name is Franchester Martin Brennaman Jr. But you can call him Marty.

For the last 44 seasons, he’s handled the play-by-play on Reds radio broadcasts, and he’s always done it pretty much the same way. Each night, he eases into one of the best seats in the house. (At Great American Ball Park, the radio booth hovers just above home plate on the first base side.) He opens his scorebook, kept with an idiosyncratic system of symbols and tidbits and notes, and lines up the tools for maintaining that system: red pen, blue pen, highlighter, No. 1 pencil, white-out pen, plus backups of each. He stacks the pieces of paper containing his in-game promos. He slips on his chunky Sony headphones. And then Marty watches the game closely—the action and the possibility, the successes and the screw-ups—and tells you exactly what he sees.

Marty Brennaman

Photo-Illustration By Jesse Lenz

The Cincinnati Reds, after some stops and starts, began consistently broadcasting games on radio in 1931. That means the franchise has now passed more years with Marty on the radio than years without him. And he’s still the team’s biggest nightly interpreter. According to Nielsen, Reds games on Fox Sports Ohio have drawn between 30,000 and 40,000 nightly television viewers in recent seasons. Marty’s broadcasts reach more than twice that many fans—and that’s just in Cincinnati, before you factor in the Reds’ other 109 radio affiliates or WLW’s near-national signal.

Given Marty’s longevity and ubiquity, he’s arguably the franchise’s most famous employee, even including the guys in the dugout. “Think of how many different incarnations the team has had over the last 44 years,” says Mo Egger, a sports talk host on ESPN1530 and WLW. “You knew they were going to fire the manager and the general manager soon enough. You knew they were going to cycle through more players. But Marty was the guy who was going to be there. There’s something comforting about that.”

That comfort seems central to Marty’s appeal. He’s changed in some small ways. (Nowadays he orders those No. 1 pencils online, because it’s hard to find them in stationery stores.) He’s changed in some big ways. (He’s dialed his schedule back to 135 games in recent years.) Mainly, though, he’s stayed exactly the same. Most fans revere him as an old-fashioned presence on an old-fashioned technology; a few have grown to dislike him because he won’t embrace baseball’s modern methods.

But both camps miss something important about Marty: His familiarity has become radical. His being there has become key. Marty Brennaman is a relic in today’s game, but not for the reasons you might think.

Before we go any further, let us pause for an anthology of Marty’s on-air wisdom, which, in addition to being good fun, is a reminder that he has always been sharp and clever and prickly and clear, dating all the way back to his time as a grumpy young man broadcasting basketball games in Virginia:

  • On the home crowd for a Virginia Squires playoff game, 1972: “One wonders whether Tidewater, or in fact Virginia, deserves major league basketball. Or major league anything.”
  • On Reds shortstop Davey Concepcion’s game-winning hit, 1975: “Concepcion, pinch hitting for Pedro Borbon, and here’s Mike Marshall’s first pitch plate-ward. Swung on, a looper, left center field, a base hit. Here comes Chaney, the throw to the plate—and this one belongs to the Reds!”
  • On the Reds’ slow start, 1982: “To be seven games back after 10 days of the season is an accomplishment in itself.”
  • On Pete Rose breaking baseball’s all-time hit record, 1985: “Hit number forty-one, ninety-two. A line drive single into left-center field—a clean base hit.”
  • On the home crowd for the Reds’ opening day, 1994: “If there are 55,093 people here, a lot of them are disguised as seats.”
  • On the St. Louis Cardinals, 2011: “The most disliked team in baseball.”

Marty was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1942. “But I was born and raised in radio,” he says today.

He grew up a lackluster athlete, marooned in the outfield during Little League, bolted to the bench during high school hoops. But he loved listening to announcers on the radio: Bob Prince and the Pittsburgh Pirates, or Arch McDonald and the Washington Senators. Soon after graduating college, he got a job at a small radio station in North Carolina broadcasting high school football, American Legion baseball, even some soap box derbies. Slowly, he worked his way up to ABA basketball and Triple-A baseball, and when the Reds lost their play-by-play man in 1974, Marty sent in his demo. The team received more than 200 applications, but they chose his.

He arrived in Cincinnati at 31 years old—a confident disco gentleman with lofty turtlenecks, intricately epaulette-ed jackets, and a motorcycle helmet of brown 1970s hair. Still, he was nervous. The man he was replacing was another up-and-comer by the name of Al Michaels, and Cincinnatians kept telling Marty how great Michaels and his partner, ex-pitcher Joe Nuxhall, had been together. Marty’s first spring training game went well enough, but during his second, live from Tampa’s Al Lopez Field, he slipped. “Hello everyone,” he said during the opening, “and welcome to Al Michaels Field.” Nuxhall couldn’t stop laughing. Michaels still gives Marty a hard time about it. “It was the single most embarrassing moment of my career,” Marty says.

One way to deal with the pressures of the new gig was to become a stout booster for the Reds. It’s hard to imagine today, but Marty was a homer. “No one ever said they wanted me to root for the club on the air,” he says. But he could sense it—and he knew it was the easiest way to win over fans. “The most used word in my vocabulary is ‘we,’” he told a reporter during his first year. “People don’t have trouble deciding who I work for.” He developed such a team-friendly reputation that when The Cincinnati Enquirer’s media critic made his list of mock Christmas gifts, he suggested a Reds beanie and letter sweater for Marty.

“Any success Joe and I had was always as a tandem,” Brennaman says. “It was always Marty and Joe.”

It helped that there wasn’t much to pan. Marty joined the Big Red Machine at full throttle, when there were plenty of wins and plenty of nights where four in five radios in town were tuning in. He coined his most famous call early on. After a thrilling win—in the bottom of the ninth, or maybe even extra innings, no one can quite recall—Marty blurted it without thinking. And this one belongs to the Reds. “As I was driving home that night,” he says, “I thought, This might be something to use when they win.” Immediately, the phrase stuck.

Marty still marvels that he got to watch perhaps the best team in baseball history, though it took him years to truly appreciate it. “I had no means of comparison,” he says. In 1975, when the team clinched the division, the players celebrated by spraying champagne all over the locker room. Marty needed to do some radio interviews, but didn’t want to endanger his outfit. He stripped to his boxers, marched into the boozy mist, and got the tape. While it made for a memorable night for Marty, the players were used to it. It was their fourth division crown in six years.

Eventually, the Reds declined, and Marty decided to drop the we-and-us routine and become more objective. The mature Marty emerged, a skeptical voice fans now recognize as the most independent team-employed announcer in baseball.

This transformation didn’t always sit well with management. In the fall of 1980, as the Reds were hobbling toward a third-place finish, Johnny Bench and Ken Griffey Sr. showing their age, team president Dick Wagner decided to muzzle Marty. The two had already argued several times about the broadcaster nitpicking players. And so, a few hours before a Friday night game, Marty and Joe learned that a third broadcaster, Dick Carlson, would be joining their booth.

Wagner styled it as “an experiment,” but everyone knew it was a message. Marty spent the whole weekend blasting Wagner on air. On Monday, he and Wagner sat down. “I said, ‘Dick you’re a lying son of a bitch,’” Marty recalls.

(An aside: Marty is astonishingly profane, and it’s a credit to his professionalism that he’s never had a real FCC-worthy lapse, outside of a couple times a hot mic captured the real off-air Marty, cursing up a storm.)

Marty and Wagner went on for half an hour, screaming and finger-pointing and solving nothing. Marty left the meeting convinced he’d be fired. But the team president couldn’t do it. While the scandal was festering, the Enquirer had commissioned a poll: out of 2,461 respondents, only 16—not even 1 percent—said they were unhappy with Marty and Joe. Marty’s leverage extended beyond the fans, too. Over the years he’d turned down job offers from the Phillies, Pirates, and Mets; his baseball memorabilia collection still features a framed five-year offer from the Red Sox. When he and Wagner met again, after the season, Marty told him the team had two choices: either let him go or let him broadcast the way he wanted.

The Reds went with the latter, and Marty kept being Marty. He’s demonstrated a real gift for inciting big controversies every few years—the sort of stories that make it to sports sections all across the country. During a game in 1988, for instance, an umpire blew a late call. The crowd detonated, ignited in part by Marty’s anger: “I am specifically citing one umpire,” he said on air, “and he is bad news.” Fans tuning in from their seats started lobbing trash, beer cups, even their portable radios at the umpire until he was forced to leave the field. A few days later, Marty had to catch a red-eye to New York to get chewed out by the commissioner, but he still hustled home in time to do that night’s game.

In 1995, Marty blasted Pedro Martinez for throwing at hitters—to the point that the Montreal Expos’ GM barged into the booth and accused him of racism. “I don’t care if [he’s] white, black, blue, or green,” Marty said. “I’m not backing off.” In 2000, the first year of Ken Griffey Jr.’s hexed homecoming, he and Marty ended up screaming at each other in the clubhouse after Marty attacked Junior’s effort. Near the end, Marty yelled, “I was here before you were here, and I’ll be here after you’re gone.”

Marty was right. Well, mostly: The next day, Junior brought in a picture of him in a tiny Reds uniform on Family Day, circa 1973.

There’s no better example of Marty’s power than his quiet clash with then-owner Carl Lindner. “He thought that if you criticized any aspect of any of his holdings it was a sign of disloyalty,” Marty says. After a game in the early 2000s in which Marty derided the maneuvers of manager Bob Boone, John Allen, the team’s Managing Executive at the time, asked Marty to visit his office. He and Marty got along well, but now Allen had to relay the owner’s displeasure. “Mr. Lindner was not happy,” Allen said, before implying that the team would keep this in mind when it came time to renew Marty’s contract at the end of the year.

“John, I think you just threatened me,” Marty said, before responding with a threat of his own: if Lindner pressured him again, Marty would call a press conference to announce he was not coming back because of owner interference.

Lindner backed off, but that offseason, when Allen called Marty to discuss his new contract, he said the owner wanted to add a loyalty clause. Marty said he wouldn’t sign anything of the sort—and that if the team pushed the idea he’d just call another press conference. “There was never another mention of a loyalty clause,” he says.

Before we go any further, let us pause for an anthology of Joe Nuxhall’s on-air wisdom:

On the possibility of retiring, 1992: “Everything comes to an end. When it does, it’s over. That’s been proven many times.”

If Marty was a radio lifer who lucked into Cincinnati, Joe was a Cincinnatian who lucked into radio. In 1963, a station executive dropped by a gas station Joe owned and tried to sell him some ads; the exec ended up hiring him to do play-by-play for Miami University, and when Joe’s playing career finally ended in 1966, he relocated to the Reds’ radio booth.

Marty and Joe in the booth at Riverfront Stadium, 1983.

Photograph courtesy the Cincinnati Reds.

Their backgrounds were only one of the ways in which Marty and Joe were opposites. Marty was small and slim; Joe was big and barrel-chested. Marty was disciplined and neat; Joe was sloppy and vibrant, less worried about getting champagne on his clothes than about finishing his sandwich between innings. Marty’s calls were polished and expansive, seemingly conversational until you realized they were completely free of skips or gaffes and filled up every empty second, unless he paused to write something in his scorebook. Joe’s calls were rambling and emotive, clumsy yet koanish. Marty was always willing to criticize. Joe was always willing to cheer.

They shared the Reds’ radio booth for 31 years—the longest joint tenure in baseball history. They were at their best together, especially when Marty was offering a precise call while Joe’s everyfan enthusiasm burbled in the background. This exchange, from a random game in 1983, was typical:

Marty: “Here’s the pitch. Driessen swings . . .”
Joe: “Get outta here! Get outta here!”
Marty: “ . . . Hits it deep to right field . . .”
Joe: “Get outta here!”
Marty: “. . . Gone!”
Joe: “Byah! Byah!”

The two also shared a deep friendship. “You broadcast baseball for seven months out of 12,” Marty says. “If you don’t like the guy you’re working with, it’s impossible to fake. You can fake it with football, once a week. But with baseball, people will eventually see the chemistry is lacking.”

One of Marty’s best Joe stories comes from 1978. Like everything else at the erstwhile Riverfront Stadium, their booth was rather austere: concrete walls, a Western Union ticker machine that spit out game scores, and a black-and-white monitor to watch replays. Before the game, the booth’s engineer explained to Marty that he was going to prank Joe, something everyone was always attempting, mostly because it was so easy. In the seventh inning, while Joe was handling the play-by-play, a close play occurred at second. Joe studied the monitor, trying to make sense of it for his listeners—until the engineer flipped a switch and the monitor started playing an extremely explicit scene from the adult film Deep Throat.

The prank worked. “Joe lost his mind,” Marty says with a laugh. “He just quit talking. He didn’t say a word for 10 seconds.” And yet, somehow, even in his gullibility, Joe had sensed something was coming—he had asked Marty several times during commercials, “What the hell are you smiling about?” The two knew each other, and they enjoyed each other, too. On road trips, they’d wake up early, tee off by 7 a.m., then head back to the hotel so Joe could nap before the game. “That was our routine,” Marty says.

Joe finally retired in 2004. “We never acknowledged in the course of the year that the inevitable was coming,” Marty says. Even during their final broadcast, they avoided it. Finally, when the game was over—the Reds had capped another forgettable season with a 2–0 loss to the Pirates—it was time. And it was harder than either had expected. Another difference between them was that Joe was a quick and prodigious crier while Marty stayed more stoic. But that day, both men wept on air. “He said, ‘I need some help, little buddy,’” Marty remembers. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I need some help, too.’”

Marty still gets tearful talking about the last time he saw Joe, in the fall of 2007. “Joe was sick,” he remembers. “He was not well.” But a couple of fans had won a round of golf with the duo at a charity auction, and Joe insisted on keeping their promise.

So they all met at the Kenwood Country Club. “He was not strong enough to play 18 holes,” Marty says. “But he could tell stories, and he could hit a ball every so often.” Marty did everything he could to protect his partner, starting with picking him up in a cart at his car so he didn’t have to walk to the pro shop. After 9 holes, Marty suggested Joe head home, but the old lefthander wanted to keep going. “We got to the 14th hole, and we’re sitting there in the cart,” Marty says. “And he said completely out of the blue, ‘We really had a good time together, didn’t we?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, we had a great time together. We really did.’”

Marty was surprised by Joe’s comment, but he didn’t read much into it—Joe had had previous health scares, including cancer in 1992 and a heart attack in 2001. A few days later, Marty left for the Reds’ annual baseball cruise. He learned of Joe’s death when a friend called him on the ship. “I was speechless,” he says. “I had no idea it was going to happen that quickly.” But he was thankful he got to spend one last day with Joe, on a golf course and as a pair. “Any success Joe and I had was always as a tandem,” he says. “It was always Marty and Joe. It was never just Marty, and it was never just Joe.”

While Joe was alive, you could debate the mayor of Great American Ball Park. These days, it’s unquestionably Marty. And yet even that label sells his role (and his game-day routine) short. He’s part mayor, part mascot, part detective, and part king.

He’s usually the first media guy at the park, arriving around 2 p.m. and spending some time alone in the booth, updating his scorebook or doing some research as the green field breathes quietly in the background. Before long, though, he starts moving and barely stops. Marty is surprisingly good with technology for a 75-year-old radio guy. He frequently checks his pseudonymous Twitter account, and loves his Kindle and his Fitbit, both of which he adopted early. Most days he gets in 10,000 steps, and while some of them occur on his basement treadmill or at a hotel fitness center, a lot of them come from traversing the ballpark.

Marty knows everyone in the hallways beneath the Reds’ stadium and behind the luxury suites. He says hi to each of them, asking how they’re doing and promising to put some embarrassing personal story on air. A janitor will tell Marty a dirty joke. A worker in the press box’s busy cafeteria will make sure he sees the one empty table, tucked in the back. Joe Zerhusen, the Reds’ PA announcer, recently went through a terrifying bout of throat cancer. “One of the first people to call me,” he says, “and one of the guys who kept checking on me, was Marty.”

Marty also works hard. He always has. In his early years in Cincinnati, he spent the offseason listening to old broadcasts, figuring out what to fix. (Give the score more; don’t repeat the same phrases.) Even now, on game days, he spends his afternoons hiking to manager Bryan Price’s office to record their daily show, usually preceded by a long off-the-record conversation. Marty checks in with players at the clubhouse or during BP, though he believes they’re less forthcoming than they used to be. He quizzes the visiting team’s broadcasters and beat writers, trying to learn about lingering injuries or the pronunciation of some rookie’s name.

This information, as much as his independence, gives Marty his authority. It also helps him fill in baseball’s chasms of inaction. “It’s the most challenging sport to do well,” he says. “Basketball is like a windup toy. When the ball goes in the air, it’s nonstop talk. You don’t have to ad lib.” When something finally does take place in baseball, Marty looks at the defenders first; he trusts their reactions more than his own. “I’ll call the play as it happens and then I’ll recap it immediately, to give fans the complete visual,” he says. While he doesn’t always pull it off, he tries to make the call a split second before it happens on the field. Every so often this will burn him, like when a player makes an error or an amazing catch, but most times it means the listener hears Marty’s call, then the crowd’s reaction, then Marty’s repetition—a subtle sonic ripple that makes radio baseball such a pleasure.

Marty maintains that a key part of his job is entertainment, partly because of baseball’s pace and particularly when the Reds are struggling. “You’ve got to tap dance a bit when the club does badly,” he says. That’s why Marty and Joe used to keep everyone apprised of Marty’s tomato plants and Elvis obsession and Joe’s love of golf. Marty does the same with former Reds pitcher Jeff Brantley, his most frequent post-Joe booth partner. He feels they are getting better and better together, in part because they’ve become friends. “I would never say it’s the same as it was with Joe,” Marty says. “But it’s as close as it could possibly be.”

Still, no matter the partner, once the game starts it all comes back to Marty. If he drops by the press bathroom during a break, the other media fellows lining up for a urinal take a silent step back: the broadcaster gets dibs. During every game, the Reds’ VIP clients and a few lucky fans crowd into the back of the booth to see him work. Sometimes it’s just locals, but sometimes it’s a big name like Ohio native (and Ohio State head football coach) Urban Meyer. When Meyer and his family stopped by the booth one night this summer, Marty got up during the commercials to gab. When the game resumed, though, Meyer stayed to listen. “Great voice,” the coach said to no one. “Remember that voice growing up?”

Marty was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000, in the same ceremony as Sparky Anderson and Tony Perez. Out in the crowd of 25,000, one fan waived a sign: “And this day belonged to the Reds.” Still, the Cincinnatian on everyone’s mind was Pete Rose, whose chance at reinstatement felt less dismal at the time. Brennaman had hinted he would mention Rose in his speech; several Hall of Famers had hinted this would drive them off the stage. “I was scared to death,” Marty says. But in his list of thank yous, he named a few people “who should be in the Hall of Fame and aren’t”—Davey Concecpion, his partner Joe, “and, yes, by God, Peter Edward Rose.”

Even during his induction, Marty knew how to stir up some graceful trouble. But the Hall was also an honor. He still remembers the exact time he got the call at his Anderson home: 11:04 a.m. Marty spent a lot of time on the phone that day, fielding congratulatory calls from ex-players like Bench and other announcers like Jack Buck of the Cardinals and Ernie Harwell of the Detroit Tigers.

Like Marty, Buck and Harwell belong to the same group as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Vin Scully, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Bob Uecker, and a handful of others: radio broadcasters who spent decades with a single team. They weren’t just announcers—they were icons. But that group seems unlikely to expand. Today, most young announcers aspire to get to a bigger market or on TV. (Marty’s son, Thom Brennaman, is a good example; when he first joined the Reds he alternated between calling radio and TV, but lately he’s focused more on the latter, in addition to doing NFL games for Fox.) Thanks to the shuffling, these broadcasters tend to minimize the personal and call their games in an overlapping fashion. Looming over all of this is the media’s technological uncertainty. “Nobody knows what the industry will look like in the next decade,” says Dan Hoard, who handles the Bengals’ radio play-by-play. “Will there still be traditional radio and television broadcasts?”

One day soon, Marty will join his fellow elderly announcers in retirement. Most Reds fans will mourn the loss. But a few of them, especially the loyal followers of sabermetrics and the Moneyball revolution, can’t wait. They see Marty as stubborn and sour, particularly when he criticizes players like Joey Votto or Adam Dunn before him—stars who man corner positions but prioritize getting on base over driving in runs.

When it comes to baseball’s old-school vs. new-school debates, though, Marty isn’t as predictable as you might think. He calls Votto “the best pure hitter in the history of the franchise.” (The franchise’s best pitcher? “Tom Seaver and Mario Soto.” Best defender? “A tie between [Cesar] Geronimo and Concepcion.”) He sees the value in advanced statistics. “I think there is a place for analytics,” he says, and he means it. He regularly logs on to Baseball Reference, and in private can discuss a stat like OPS fluidly. Part of the reason he avoids conveying as much on air is because he doesn’t want to bog down the broadcast with statistics. Part of it is because he just thinks left fielders and first basemen should hit for power.

But there’s another part that is, well, pretty old-fashioned. “Analytics can’t measure a guy’s baseball sense, his brain, his heart,” Marty says.

That kind of comment seems designed to relaunch baseball’s exhausted culture wars. But before the new-school numbers brigade mobilizes, there are a few things they should consider. First, they were right. Second, they won. (The scoreboard at Great American Ball Park now regularly shows the hitter’s OPS.) Third, and most important, baseball fans of all stripes—stat nerds and anti-stat curmudgeons alike—share a bigger adversary now: billionaire owners.

In Cincinnati, that would be Bob Castellini. When Marge Schott bought a controlling interest of the Reds in 1984, the team was valued at about $68 million. When Lindner replaced her in 1999, the valuation climbed to about $180 million. When Castellini replaced him in 2005, the valuation hit $270 million—and today has soared to nearly a billion dollars, according to Forbes.

Castellini has done a lot of good as owner, but he’s always done it in a very specific way: cautious, corporate, and constrained. He’s (micro)managed his team like the increasingly lucrative business it is, and one of the easiest places to see this is in its radio strategy. Before he even finalized the purchase, Castellini was plotting to centralize the Reds Radio Network. Today, the team has more than doubled its number of affiliates. But it’s also brought its ad sales and marketing in-house. Castellini now controls practically everything about the radio broadcasts, in the same manner he controls practically everything else about the Reds.

Everything except Marty. The broadcasting legend is happy to play a part in the new radio regime. (The team often uses him to record commercials or charm clients.) But he can still rise above it, just like he did with Dick Wagner and Carl Lindner so long ago. “I know guys in my profession who have to measure every word that comes out of their mouth,” says Marty. He knows he can say whatever he wants, just as he also knows the Reds’ next announcer won’t enjoy the same autonomy.

No one’s quite sure when that next announcer will arrive. Marty has now uttered “And this one belongs to the Reds” more than 3,000 times, even when you factor in the few wins where he forgot. How many more does he have in him? He looks younger today than he did when he went into the Hall. Some of that is the Fitbit. Some of it is a newish hairstyle, a buzz cut left over from the bet he made with a coach in 2012 that ended with Marty getting his head shaved in front of 40,000 fans (and raising a ton of money for charity in the process). He still dresses like a young man: designer jeans, stylish shoes, and loud button-up shirts that look straight out of Aroldis Chapman’s old locker.

“I don’t know what I want to do,” he says. “I get so conflicted.” His contract runs through 2018, and he’s signaled to the team that he wants at least one more season. He thinks of Joe at the end and worries about lingering too long, about retiring and then realizing he’s too old to enjoy having a summer off for the first time since Nixon was president. But he also frets about quitting too soon, about walking away and discovering he’s made a mistake. “The thing I always come back to is how much I enjoy being here,” he says. “If I didn’t enjoy being here, I wouldn’t be here at 2 for a 7 o’clock game.”

However long Marty lasts, his continuing presence makes one thing clear: it’s good for the team to have critics, even if they are occasionally wrong. His willingness to criticize Joey Votto’s contract matters more than his silliness about Votto’s walks. In baseball’s corporate age, Marty’s freedom has become his most retro quality, and Reds fans—all of them—will miss it when it’s gone. “I broadcast baseball the way I broadcast baseball,” he says. “I’m not going to change now.”

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