Goodnight, Mr. Elston; We Thank You!

Gene Elston Voice of Houston Baseball, 1962-86 Ford C. Frick Award Winner. 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame

Gene Elston
Voice of Houston Baseball, 1962-86
Ford C. Frick Award Winner. 2006
Baseball Hall of Fame

We received the news by cell phone Internet last night at TEDECU Stadium that our friend, Gene Elston, the original voice of the Houston Colt .45s and Astros (1962-1986), had passed away yesterday at the age of 93. The salient Houston baseball professional facts about the man are contained in this nice coverage story by David Barron of the Houston Chronicle:

David Barron’s description of Gene Elston’s broadcasting style as “reserved eloquence” stands now as nothing less than a spot-on two-word biography of both the man and his work, also proving writer Roger Kahn’s smiling contention that sometimes, a word (or two) is worth a thousand pictures. In that sports broadcasting role, radio and television, Gene Elston was never anything less than eloquent in his insightful grasp. He saw that viewers and listeners needed an easy flow of the facts in each game situation, but he also understood that his audiences never needed more than their eyes and ears could absorb on their own.

Gene Elston was one of the first television baseball broadcasters to understand that television was not merely “radio with pictures”. Viewers did not need the announcer to tell them what they could see for themselves. It’s a point that is easier for all to see today. Because of the great progress we’ve made with technology since Elston’s time, our variety of high quality perspectives on the pictures and sounds that now reach us via televised baseball make the point even more obvious.

Only those broadcasters today who still think that their personal acts are the show fail to get it. And Gene Elston was never one of them. He was always a modest, but definitive cut-above the glory hog remember-my-branded-call voices of the game. And that wisdom and quality of the professional that was Gene Elston attracted the fans and his eventual recognition by the Baseball Hall of Fame as the 2006 winner of the Ford C. Frick Award for baseball broadcasting.

Gene Elston’s excellence finally cost him his job with the Astros under General Manager Dick Wagner. As David Barron reports in his column, Gene was working the telecast of that Mike Scott no-hitter that also clinched the division title for the Astros on the last day of the 1986 baseball season. And, just as Barron reports, when it was over, Gene Elston’s comment was all we needed to soak in the joy via the natural sounds and pictures of jubilant celebration.

“There it is,” said Gene Elston.

And we were left to soak in what we saw and heard, clear through to the foundation soul of why we even were baseball fans.

And it was beautiful. There was no blabbering about playoff tickets – or cuts to commercial for another truck ride through the ranches we have to assume that the advertisers assumed we own. – There was only wide-open visceral joy for a story book finish to an incredible run through the regular season. For many of us, it was the last hurrah of great joy from the Astrodome. The possibility of a World Series in Houston soon, very soon, never seemed more real.

Unfortunately, Gene’s genius understanding of the portal that existed in that moment got him fired.

Astros GM Wagner apparently wanted Gene to say more, sell more, and push more. So, when he didn’t get it in this joy-bleeding big moment, he simply fired the heart and soul “Voice of the Astros” as though Gene Elston were a contract electrician who had not wired things to Wagner’s satisfaction.

Gene Elston rallied. He had a few other jobs after that dismissal, and he never quit caring about baseball, the Astros, and his writing and research, but I will never believe that he ever fully recovered from the hurt that firing caused him. As he had done with baseball all those years, I think Gene just did what he already knew how to do so well. He simply accepted it as one of those times that life disappoints, but you can’t do anything about it. You can either fold – or you can put your ducks in a row and do what you love in a way that lights your own soul until the last sunset finally arrives.

Gene Elston’s soul burned bright to the very end. And we shall love and miss him forever, but also keep him too. The gifts he left with us were not the perishable kind.


Postscript: I wasn’t expecting to be anywhere but home last night because of my ongoing shingles recovery, but I made a last day decision that I really wanted to be there for Tom Herman’s debut as head coach of my UH Cougars at TEDECU Stadium on campus. Simpatico to that subject, I just had to mention another point about Gene Elston that I haven’t read elsewhere.

For several seasons during the 1960s and 1970s, Gene Elston also served as the radio Voice of Houston Cougars Football. He simply was exceptional in that role, understanding clearly from the start that, just as TV is not radio, football is not baseball. Football is a game that moves constantly, like a back and forth march, up and down the field.

Gene Elston’s football play-by-play football work was like the energy exerted in words by a great fast-moving fiction writer. – You could see in your own mind a runner struggling through the line for a three-yard gain. – You could see the wide receiver breaking through into the clear, even before the ball was thrown to him. – And you always knew the yard-line of play, the down, the yards-to-go, the score, the quarter, and the time in the game.

What do you need to hear? Gene Elston always knew. He gave us what we needed. Nothing more. Nothing less. Even understanding, when others did not, that sometimes, less – really is more.

Goodbye, Gene. Hope to see you again someday.


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7 Responses to “Goodnight, Mr. Elston; We Thank You!”

  1. Tom Hunter Says:

    Between the Colt .45s/Astros baseball and University of Houston football broadcasts, Gene Elston was the voice of my youth. Many of us remember how angry we were when he was fired after the 1986 season.

    I hope the Astros honor him with a patch on their uniforms: RGE.

  2. Shirley Virdon Says:

    Gene was always a gentleman as well as an excellent broadcaster of Baseball games and general knowledge of all sports!

  3. Bill Gilbert Says:

    It was a great to get to know Gene Elston after his distinguished broadcasting career. A true professional and a real gentleman.

  4. stanfromtacoma Says:

    When I was growing up on the East coast I discovered that at night I could turn the radio dial and listen to baseball from far away places. I could pick up the broadcasts of seven of the ten National League teams in the early 60s. I was able to pick up Colt 45 games from a station in New Orleans. Those were special nights–/ I could listen to Harry Caray and Jack Buck call Cardinal games; Bob Prince and Jim Woods on KDKA calling Pirate games; Bob Murphy calling Met games and Gene Elston calling games of the Colt 45’s. All of those broadcasters were top flight.

    Luckily a lot of Gene’s radio broadcasts have been preserved. I find listening to those old broadcasts just as interesting today as when they originally aired. I am listening to a 1977 radio broadcast of a Mariner/Angel game as I type this. I think the next vintage broadcast I’ll listen to will be a game called by Gene. RIP Mr Elston and thanks for the enjoyment you gave me when I listened to you call a ballgame.

  5. Larry Dierker Says:

    Gene seemed to sense that it was best to ride, rather than drive the game. It was a might fine ride.

  6. Tom Kleinworth Says:

    The first time I met Gene was at a book signing, and I told him he would always be my favorite announcer. He asked how old I was when the Colt 45s started playing. I told him I was 10, and he smiled and said that was the perfect age to fall in love with baseball — and with a team. He was right. I later met him when my friend Andy Lopez and I traveled to Cooperstown when Gene was awarded the Ford Frick Award. Andy and I took a giant Astro flag, and when Gene stepped up to be inducted, we hoisted the flag on extended poles (with the help of many kind baseball fans). We wanted Gene to know he was loved and appreciated. By luck, we met Gene and some of his family members at the Albany airport the next day, and Gene told us how honored he was for what we’d done. The honor was ours, we told him. He was a great announcer, and a real gentleman, as Bill Gilbert noted. And he’ll always be my favorite announcer.

  7. Mark W Says:

    I’ve missed his voice on the airwaves since 1986. How do you fire a man with 25 years in continuity through all the transformations of the franchise, a connecting thread through the team’s history from its minor league precursor and infant origins to a potential world series, a stabilizing and reassuring presence that helps a franchise command loyalty over a span of decades? Truly a bonehead move.

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