Rod Belcher was an essential voice in Seattle sports history
Broadcaster, who died last week at 94, called almost every sport imaginable and also had an affinity for jazz, steelhead fishing and family.
Seattle Times columnist
Even in his final days, Rod Belcher mustered up the energy and spirit to combine two of his greatest loves: Singing, and sports.
Bedridden from the stroke that led to his death last Friday at age 94, Belcher suddenly burst out into a raunchy version of a Cal-Stanford rivalry song from his Northern California youth.
Belcher was known for his deep love of jazz music, his robust voice, and often ribald parody songs. But mostly, he will be remembered, forever, as one of the essential broadcast voices of a glittering era of Seattle sports.
“Rod was in the middle of everything that was going on in sports in this region,’’ recalled Johnny O’Brien, the Seattle University basketball legend. “And there was a lot going on. The golden era of Seattle sports was enhanced by a golden era of great sportscasters.”
From 1951 to 1970 – after a year as the voice of the San Francisco 49ers — Belcher dabbled in just about every sport that appeared on the Seattle airwaves, because that’s the way it was done back then. A small cadre of broadcasters – including Bob Robertson, Clay Huntington, Ted Bell, Pat Hayes, John Jarstad, Bill Schonely, along with Belcher at the forefront – did it all.
“Anything that moved, I described it, from pingpong to pro wrestling,’’ said Robertson, now 85. “We all did that. We were kind of a specialty group in broadcasting.”
Belcher called the Seattle U games of the O’Brien twins, Johnny and Eddie, as well as Elgin Baylor. He replaced the legendary Leo Lassen as voice of the Seattle Rainiers baseball team. He did University of Washington play-by-play in football (during the Hugh McElhenny/Don Heinrich era), basketball and track.
Throw in a little boxing here, some hockey there, hydroplanes, crew racing, one season of WSU sports, and all fashion of high school football and basketball, and you’re starting to get a measure of Belcher’s scope.
I said starting. Belcher also broadcast Pacific Lutheran and University of Puget Sound basketball, was the original public-address announcer for the Seattle SuperSonics and later Washington and Seattle U basketball. For 28 years, he served as the press box announcer at Seahawks home games (where a moment of silence in his honor was observed Sunday before Seattle’s game with the 49ers).
We’re not quite done yet. Belcher served as KING-TV sports director for nine years from 1961-70, where his opposite number at rival KOMO was an up-and-coming broadcaster out of WSU named Keith Jackson.
Jackson is 86 now, and not in the greatest of health. But the man whose name became synonymous with college football, now retired in Southern California, is able to immediately transfer himself back to those halcyon Seattle days.
“KING and KOMO had a fierce competition, but we just kind of coexisted,’’ Jackson said in a phone interview. “Rod was a very decent fellow, fair and honest. He worked hard at his trade.
“He and I didn’t bother each other and we had a good time doing what we were doing. I considered it a peaceful kind of thing. The competition between the two stations was at the management and sales level, rather than the sports announcers. We got our butt burned some, but we learned a lot in a hurry.”
If you’re starting to get the idea that we’ve lost an indelible part of our sporting heart and soul with Belcher’s passing, well, you’re right. Not just the incredible games he imparted to the masses, but the massive volumes of institutional knowledge that leave with him.
“Dad had an amazing, magnificent, huge life,’’ said his daughter, Lorri Belcher. “With his memory, he was able to document every single minute of every single day. Dad had a really big head because he had such a huge brain.”
Talk to anyone who knew Belcher, and the same things come up quickly. His songwriting skill, including the theme song he authored in 1969 for Seattle’s expansion baseball team entitled, “Go, Go, You Pilots.” His sense of humor, his uncanny treasure trove of arcane facts (manifested in the “All Things Remembered” trivia column that appeared in this newspaper for 12 years). His love of jazz (Robertson remembers getting a personal tour of San Francisco’s underground jazz scene during a sports junket the two were on), and his passion for steelhead fishing.
That, and a willingness – indeed, an eagerness – to help fledgling broadcasters.
“He wasn’t afraid to share advice with a young sportscaster,’’ Robertson said. “He didn’t look at him as an ultimate replacement. He saw them as someone he’d like to help get there.’’
One such young broadcaster lapping up the Belcher knowledge was Bob Rondeau, who would eventually fill the same “voice of the Huskies” role. In the late 1970s, when Rondeau was starting out as Bruce King’s color man on Husky broadcasts, with Belcher as the studio host, he picked his brain whenever he could.”
“Rod was just an amazing resource,’’ Rondeau said. “I made liberal use of his vast knowledge of sports in the Northwest – and I hit him up even more for his knowledge of steelhead fishing.’’
Sharp until the end, Belcher was preceded in death in 2001 by his wife of 51 years, Dorothy. He is survived by his daughter, two stepdaughters, five grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
“Everyone in the family wants to think they were his favorite,’’ Lorri Belcher said. “We joked about it all the time. He had 15 favorite great-grandchildren and five favorite grandchildren.”
Belcher was driving until he had his stroke in November, and not long before that signed up to be in the Glee Club at his retirement community.
“He had 93 years minus six weeks or so of an excellent life with really, really good health,’’ Lorri said.
In his heyday, Belcher was not known for flashy signature phrases, but rather for the vivid word pictures he’d paint, back before television coverage of sports was omnipresent.
“He didn’t want to be on the stage,’’ O’Brien said. “He wanted to put those other people on the stage.”
But let’s give Belcher, a Seattle legend, one last bow.
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