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July 12, 2016

For Phillies' Larry Andersen, the road to radio wasn't always smooth

Being deaf in his right ear hasn't stopped the broadcaster from thriving in booth

Phillies MLB
071216_Larry-Andersen-Phillies Joe Santoliquito/For PhillyVoice

Phillies color analyst Larry Andersen.

As a kid, Larry Andersen thought he would fool them. He always had an ability to distill the nerves, something that would benefit him greatly later in life as a major league relief pitcher. Wearing a little headset tugged tightly over his ears, he would furtively glance out of the corner of his eye at the switching knobs and raise his right hand, trying to guess right. 

That’s where the problem was — his right. 

Only Andersen, the longtime Phillies color analyst, never viewed it as an issue. But as a first grader, it was embarrassing to admit. So young Larry played the role, raising his right arm each time he thought he heard something. 

He didn’t.

“I was trying to watch their hands turn the switches, because I was embarrassed to say I couldn’t hear anything out of my right ear,” Andersen recently told PhillyVoice. “I was trying to gauge when they were turning the dial to signal when to lift my right arm up. Obviously, they knew I couldn’t hear anything. We went for more testing. I went through all of these tests at the University of Washington, and they never could find an answer.

For instance, I can be walking through the mall or out in public, some will say something, ‘Hey LA,’ and I’ll just keep walking. That’s not me. I’ll talk to anyone.

“I was either born deaf in my right ear or maybe it happened when I was real young and had the German measles. They said all of the parts were there. They’re just not connected, which is what a lot of people have said about my brain—the parts are there, they’re just not all real well connected. It’s something I’ve dealt with. But it really comes in handy sometimes, like when I’m asked to take the garbage out, ‘Oh, I didn’t hear you.’”

For almost two decades, the Delaware Valley has heard Andersen—the last 10 years paired on the radio with play-by-play man Scott Franzke to make the duo one of the best broadcast teams in the Major Leagues and as beloved to Phillies fans as Whitey Ashburn and Harry Kalas were. 

Andersen, comfortably dressed in blue jeans and a collared white-blue checkered shirt — his work clothes — just prior to the Phillies hosting the defending world champion Kansas City Royals on July 4th weekend, had a chance to reflect back on not only his remarkable path to the broadcast booth, but to recall the memory of a father he hardly got a chance to know.

Andersen, 63, always possessed an innate adeptness to know what he could and couldn’t do. He lasted 17 years in the majors with six different teams, pitching in three different decades. He lasted essentially as a two-pitch pitcher, relying heavily on a slider and cutter. 

As someone who works in an audible medium and can’t hear in one ear, he’s succeeded using his keen awareness of the game, his quick wit and corky humor.

“Hearing out of one ear makes it tough doing interviews sometimes, especially if there is other noise around, audible enough in the background that I hear that out of my left side. But I don’t consider it a handicap and never have, only when I’m parking," Anderson said, laughing. "It’s been this way my whole life. I don’t know any other way. I think you have to find a way. You can say it’s been my motto my whole life. It becomes comical sometimes. Someone could be standing to my right, and I’m looking for them, and they’re telling me, ‘Over here, over here.’ And I’ll turn all over the place looking for them. 

“I’m known as a prankster, so a lot of people don’t believe it when I tell them that I’m deaf in one ear. My hearing in my left ear is exceptional, they tell me. Maybe it’s compensating for my right ear. But from a distance, I have issues. For instance, I can be walking through the mall or out in public, some will say something, ‘Hey LA,’ and I’ll just keep walking. That’s not me. I’ll talk to anyone. My wife [Kristi] has become very good at letting me know when someone says something. I’m not the kind of guy who blows people off. I wasn’t that way as a player and I’m not that way now. I’ve never been that way. The way I see it, the fans and the people that listen to the games are the people that I’m working for.”

Former Phillies’ broadcaster Chris Wheeler goes back 20 years with Andersen. It was Wheeler and the late Andy Musser that helped shape Andersen into the broadcaster he is today. 

When Andersen began, there were admittedly some growing pains in transitioning from the field to the booth. He was teamed with Phillies’ Hall of Famer broadcaster Harry Kalas, who told Andersen to be himself. But their styles clashed. Kalas had an old-school style, strictly a broadcaster who would ask his color man for drop-ins. Andersen is more a conversationalist, there to not only add color but add to the play-by-play of a game.

It’s why the byplay between Andersen and Franzke is so unforced.

Joe Santoliquito/PhillyVoice

Scott Franzke, left, and Larry Andersen.

“When I moved from TV to radio, it was a scary time for me because I thought I was being demoted, that they were looking to get me out,” Andersen said. “But working with Scott helped me. It brought out my personality, because with Harry, who I loved to death, there wasn’t the dialogue that Scott and I have. It was more like two monologues versus a conversation. Harry would call the game and he didn’t stray from that.

Never underestimate Larry Andersen; he’s a sharp guy, and a confident guy. It’s why Larry doesn’t mind playing the fool.

“For me, personality-wise, who I was didn’t come out on the broadcast with him. I don’t know if I was nervous working with Harry, because the first couple of years, you’re with ‘Harry Kalas,’ and I just sat back and wanted to listen to him. He was a legend. You find yourself a fan. You’re taken in listening to Harry, he sounded so good calling a game. I caught myself doing that often.”

Wheeler and Musser helped Andersen get over it.

“Larry likes to play the clown sometimes, but he’s a very intelligent guy who’s well read,” Wheeler said. “I joke with him that he’s a left-hander in a right-hander’s body. The thing about Larry is that people underestimate him. Never underestimate Larry Andersen; he’s a sharp guy, and a confident guy. It’s why Larry doesn’t mind playing the fool. Larry’s personality is a prankster but he has a serious side.

 “Larry and Scott are great together, because Scott can draw Larry’s personality out. Their ability on the radio works well because they’re on everything. I’ve always thought pitchers and catchers make good analysts, because that’s where the game is played. Larry is a good analyst, because he’s also a good teacher. Larry was never handed anything. Larry had a great ability to walk right-handers away, and pitch inside of left-handed hitters. He learned what worked. He was a viable pitcher on your staff. He could put the ball where he wanted; he won and succeeded with two pitches. He’s always figured what’s worked for him. It’s the same way for him in the broadcast booth. I guess that comes from his dad.”

*     *     *

Dale Andersen was a pilot who was very proud of his two children, daughter Linda and his youngest, Larry, who he would constantly brag about. 

That changed on Friday, March 10, 1967, when Linda and Larry received a phone call the following morning. 

Dale was flying at the time for West Coast Airlines, which eventually became Northwest Airlines. Living in Portland, he was supposed to be training on the DC-9 in March 1967, but a scheduling conflict forced him to stay in Portland an extra month. Larry’s mother was visiting relatives in Nebraska, and this was 1967, back when doors were left unlocked and neighbors watched the kids. When Linda, who’s two years older than Larry, picked up the phone Saturday morning, March 11, with the airline telling her that her father was involved in an accident, no one knew the gravity of the situation.

“My sister woke me and told me dad was in an accident,” Larry recalled, a tinge of emotion in his throat. “When you think accident, at least at that time, I was thinking car accident. When you think crash, you think ‘plane crash.’ When she said dad was in an accident, I don’t want to say I took it lightly, but I was asking about the circumstances. Soon later, a pilot friend of my dad’s showed up at the house, Merrill Cole, and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ He told me my dad was in a plane crash, and that’s when it first dawned on me that this was something serious. I talked with my dad. I had flown with him. Anytime there was a plane crash, my family was concerned. I just knew when he said plane crash, it dashed my hope that there was any hope.” 

Dale and three others died when their Fairchild F-27 propjet flew into the northwest side of Stukel Mountain in a heavy snowfall. Dale was just 38.

I try not to look at what I do as being too positive or negative. I look at it as being honest. If honesty hurts some people, so be it. ... I think it’s the best style in Philadelphia.

“I wasn’t really angry as much as I was lost, because I leaned on my father for everything,” Larry said. “Any questions I had about anything, I went to him. He was my special guy, my touchstone, he was always there for me. For about five, six, seven years after he was killed, I kept waiting for him to come through the door. I didn’t see the plane crash; I didn’t see the wreckage. I eventually read the transcript from the voice recorder, but I always felt that he would be back. I was in limbo. I had no direction. My mom was great, my sister Linda was both a mother and father to me. We grew very close. To this day, I don’t do anything without her. But when my dad left, there was a void there.”

Baseball changed that.

“The game brought my mind back to my father more, just because of all the times we practiced and played and he would be at all of my games,” Larry explained. “It certainly relieved some of being lost. The game gave me direction. But every time I was on the field, after I got drafted, my first big league game, I just wish he could have seen it. I think he was very proud of me and I guess he did brag about me with the other pilots. They would always ask me about how I was doing with my sports. I guessed that came from my father telling them about me.

“It’s why I think I do what I do with honesty. There are some players -- and I’m sure there are plenty of fans and listeners -- that think I’m too negative or not positive enough. I try not to look at what I do as being too positive or negative. I look at it as being honest. If honesty hurts some people, so be it. I don’t know if my style would work in other cities, but I think it’s the best style for Philadelphia—and that’s to be honest; I have more people responding to my work, as they do my honesty. 

“It all comes from my father. I think one of the greatest things for me today, is when some woman came up in April at the front of the booth with a picture of this attractive young lady who she said was her daughter. She said I signed a baseball for her when she was 10 and she never forgot it.”

One of the things Andersen made a habit of doing the last decade of his playing career was playing catch with the fans in the stands after shagging balls in batting practice. Veterans Stadium proved to be a perfect outlet, with its low railing along the right-field baseline. Andersen would seek out a kid to throw the ball to, expecting the ball to be thrown back.

“It was five minutes of my time, and I’m thinking the kid would rather play catch with Darren Dalton or Mitch Williams, or Lenny Dykstra, or John Kruk, but it wasn’t that they were having a catch with Larry Andersen, they were having a catch with a big league player,” Andersen said. “That’s what it meant to me. My father connected with people. It’s why it’s so important that I connect to other people. For the brief time I had my dad, it’s what he instilled in me. Treat people the way they want to be treated. It’s why I make sure I buy six dozen balls each year. I throw them out to fathers that I see with their sons.

“I would hope I’m the man my father was. My best recollection is my father just did everything for everybody, for his family, friends, neighbors. His days off were really my days with him. He just devoted his life to his family, to my sister and myself. He never pushed me into sports. He never got to play growing up in high school, because he had to work. He didn’t come from a lot of money, so he was working all of the time. But I looked at him in awe. For someone to say that I’m my father, it’s greatest compliment that I can get. 

"I just wish he could have been around to see me play in the majors and hear me on the air.”

Follow Joe on Twitter: @JSantoliquito