Bob Greenberg died this week at the age of 67. He was a sportscaster who happened to be blind. When I've told people he's one of the most extraordinary people I've ever worked with, there's usually polite incomprehension: A blind sportscaster?
Bob worked for WBEZ in Chicago, and he could be cranky, blustery and loud. But it was a marvel to watch him work.
A helper would read box scores to him every day, and Bob would pound a Braille keyboard to punch them into cards. If a football player caught a pass, Bob would rifle through his cards like a riverboat gambler, find the dots and stats he wanted and announce, "That's the third fourth-down pass Baschnagel has caught this year!"
In the early 1980s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could be a little sullen with reporters. After a hard game on a cold night, the press cornered him in the locker room, barking questions. He turned with a cold stare, and saw Bob Greenberg, dressed in rumpled, ill-buttoned clothes, holding a white cane and a microphone.
"How'd you get here?" Kareem asked.
"Not hard," said Bob, who then explained how he knew the exact number of steps to bring him to the Lake Street "L" station; how he felt for the right combination of coins to put in the turnstile; and then the number of steps to take along West Madison to Chicago Stadium.
"Maybe that's why I can remember so many stats about the game," Bob said.
Abdul-Jabbar paused to take that in and finally replied, "Ask your question, sir." Athletes often disdain reporters as snoops and second-guessers who couldn't catch a ball that's laid in their lap. But Kareem saw Bob Greenberg and seemed to think, "You've worked hard to get here, too."
I don't recall Bob saying there was anything he couldn't figure out how to do because he was blind. But I came to feel that having to count and calculate most every step, every day of your life, could make any man a little cranky.
Bob told me once that over the years, he had painted in his mind's eye what most every play in sports — indeed, what most every item on Earth, from beetles to roses to whales — looked like. But he said he couldn't quite "see" home runs. They had a distinct sound: the single stroke of the bat, the crowd's hopes and cheers rising as the ball sailed into the stands, or just fell into a long, dismaying out.
"I sure wish I could see that," Bob said.
Alfonso Soriano of the Cubs hit a home run out of Wrigley Field yesterday. I like to think Bob saw it.