This morning in Cooperstown, N.Y., he gets five to seven minutes.
The Seattle Mariners' 73-year-old play-by-play voice will become the 32nd recipient of the Ford Frick Award at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, honored for his contributions to baseball as a broadcaster.
"It's hard to thank everybody involved and go over 40-45 years of your life. You can't do that in five to seven minutes," said Niehaus, the voice of the Mariners since the first pitch in franchise history in 1977. "It took me two days to come up with what I've got, and I don't think it's going to be the Gettysburg Address."
Niehaus will be honored with the Hall of Fame's Class of 2008 _ former relief pitcher Rich "Goose" Gossage and manager Dick Williams, both with the Mariners at one point in their careers, along with former commissioner Bowie Kuhn, ex-Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley and Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss, and former outfielder and manager Billy Southworth.
He'll sit alongside 54 living Hall of Famers who'll attend the ceremony. His wife Marilyn, three children and their families, including five of his six grandchildren, will be among the thousands on the lawn at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown. Millions more will watch on TV (10:30 a.m. on ESPN Classic).
"It's intimidating," Niehaus said. "But it's also going to be the thrill of my life."
Once he's called to the lectern, Niehaus hopes he'll remember the advice Reggie Jackson gave him a few weeks ago.
"Reggie told me, 'Just don't look behind you,'" Niehaus said.
How does someone achieve the biggest honor of his life and thank everyone who got him there in five to seven minutes? How does he adequately convey his love for the game, the fans and the personalities that make his job such a joy in five to seven minutes?
First, Niehaus says, he'll apologize to those he doesn't mention. Then he'll describe what the day, the Mariners organization, the sport, the fans, the career have meant.
"I'm a fan, No. 1," he said. "If I wasn't out here doing the games broadcasting, I'd be out here sitting in the stands. I've been very lucky. I've never had to go to work a day in my life. I hope that comes across to the people who've listened to me for generations."
He grew up in Princeton, Ind., and began college thinking he would become a dentist. Then Niehaus considered what that meant.
"I didn't want to wake up at 8 o'clock in the morning and look down somebody's throat," he said.
So he checked out the broadcasting program offered at the University of Indiana. He'd always been enamored not only with baseball, but particularly the St. Louis Cardinals and specifically their play-by-play announcer, Harry Caray.
Niehaus would sit on the front porch of his parents' home on muggy lightning-bug summer nights in Princeton, Ind., and let Caray's descriptions paint a mental picture of those Cardinals games. The players seemed like legends, the ballfield like a shrine.
"Harry made it a magic game to me," Niehaus said. "Instead of Alice in Wonderland, for me it was, 'It might be! It could be! It is! A home run!' It seemed like a zillion miles away. It was a fantasy land."
Then his parents, Jack and Delania, took him to a Cardinals game at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis when he was about 10. It was Niehaus' first big-league game in person, and it was a letdown.
"I expected much more than it was because of what Harry Caray had done," he said. "I had put these guys on such a high pedestal."
He entered the military in 1957 and wound up in New York with the Armed Forces Radio Service, becoming friends with Casey Stengel. He moved to Los Angeles and, in 1969, joined Dick Enberg and Don Drysdale on California Angels broadcasts.
In 1976, he learned about an opportunity to become the lead broadcaster for the 1977 expansion team in Seattle. He interviewed for the job at the winter meetings in 1976.
"It was a chance to spread my wings," Niehaus said. "And here I am, 32 years later."
Always a story to tell
Nothing seemed more special than Opening Day, 1977, when baseball returned to Seattle after the one-year failure of the Seattle Pilots in 1969.
"When I walked into the Kingdome, I thought it was the most beautiful place on the face of the earth," Niehaus said. "I'll never forget opening night. Everybody was happy to have major league baseball back after an eight-year hiatus. It was a wonderful time.
"Then we got shut out the first night and shut out the second night, and I was beginning to wonder if we'd not only win a game, but score a run in '77."
He remembers the end of the 1987 season, when the Mariners swept the Rangers four straight and finished with a 78-84 record, as a long-awaited high point for the franchise.
"I went over to congratulate Dick Williams," Niehaus said. "I said, 'You won the final four games of the season and it's a springboard to the next season.' But Dick cooled me off in a hurry by saying, 'We're still horse(bleep).' He was right, but I loved every game."
Nothing seemed finer than the moment the 1991 Mariners clinched a .500 record for the first time in franchise history.
"I remember Alvin Davis crying, Dave Valle crying, me crying," Niehaus said. "It was a huge thing."
There will never be a season like 1995, when the Mariners surged from 12½ games behind the Angels in mid-August to win the division in a one-game playoff at the Kingdome.
"What happened in '95 will never happen again," he said. "Even 2001, when we won 116 games, it was nothing like that. That was a magical, magical, magical year. It got us Safeco Field, it got us recognized in baseball."
Forever the fan favorite
During the years when the Mariners gave fans so little to cheer about, they listened to Niehaus.
Like Harry Caray was to him, his words helped them imagine the sights, sounds and emotions at the ballpark. Niehaus became a friend in their living rooms, on their car radios or during the late-night shifts at work.
Long considered the most popular part of the franchise, he didn't fully realize it until Oct. 2, 1995.
The Mariners had beaten the Angels 9-1 in the one-game playoff to determine the American League West Division champion. The victory set off a delirious celebration on the field and in the stands.
After a few moments, something special happened.
Almost in unison, the fans in the Kingdome turned their attention toward the broadcast booth, where Niehaus stood describing the scene. With more loud cheering, they saluted the man who'd experienced more Mariners losses than anyone in franchise history, a man who deserved more than anyone else a chance to be called a champion _ Niehaus.
Reminded of that last week, he choked back tears as he tried to convey what that moment meant.
"It's hard to express," Niehaus said. "It's probably the biggest thrill of my life until this weekend. I didn't know I meant that much to them."
Today, as he's honored at the Hall of Fame, Niehaus will try to maintain his composure during the best five-to-seven minutes of his career.
"I don't want to pull a Bill Mazeroski," he said.
Mazeroski, the former Pirates shortstop inducted in 2001, delivered one of the most memorable acceptance speeches in the history of the Hall of Fame. He had 12 pages of notes but managed three sentences before he broke down crying. He lasted 2½ minutes.
Niehaus will return to the broadcast booth Monday, calling the Mariners' game against the Rangers in Arlington, Texas, and enjoying every second of it, win or lose.
He can't imagine quitting this job.
"You might as well dig a hole and put me in it," he said. "All of us in this business, this is the toy department of life. It's a narcotic. Anybody who's involved in this business, we're lucky people."
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