The prominent television sportscaster, perhaps the last “up-and-coming” Top 40 disc jockey at the height of the genre, and onetime NHL announcer, George Michael, passed away this morning in Washington after a two-year fight with leukemia. He was 70 years old.
Less known about George was that he, like so many people I’ve discussed here in the last few months, had a remarkably specific and utterly satisfying contribution to the game we love. Nellie King has been a fixture of Pittsburgh player, reporter, game announcer, and now author. With only 25 major league games under his belt, Dirk Hayhurst has probably written the best baseball book of the young century. Lester Rodney, who I memorialized here on Tuesday, was perhaps the only white journalist of the 1930’s and 1940’s who not only pointed out the unstated ban on black players but tirelessly advocated for its repudiation.
And now there’s George, who for all the eccentric devotion of his program “The Sports Machine” to rodeo, or (when it was hardly known to exist north of the Carolinas, NASCAR), was an ardent baseball researcher and historian. He had a general interest in vintage baseball game photography, but, like all of us, you could cut to the chase with him and quickly discover his exact, precise fascination with… slides into the plate or the bases.
It was George’s self-appointed duty to identify every participant in every such photograph, and the game depicted. He focused on the days before uniform numbers, when often you couldn’t see the runner’s face, the catcher’s back was turned to you, the uniforms were barely identifiable (if that), and even the stadiums were hard to pin down. He was published on the subject in a Society for American Baseball Research Journal a few years back, and his walk-through of his step-by-step process for finding clues was not only fascinating, but terrifically instructional to anybody trying to figure out the identities in any vintage baseball photography (when logos are not visible, you can most easily narrow down years and teams, even in black-and-white photos, by whether the caps and socks were dark, light, or striped; also don’t forget to judge where the throw originated – was it from an outfielder, or was it from the catcher? In the latter case you’re most likely dealing with a stolen base attempt – and probably a guy with a few steals under his belt).
I remember once getting a large package from George containing a series of photocopies of the top ten or twenty photos that were giving him the hardest time. Inevitably he had already found the era, at least one of the teams, possibly the ballpark. One, I believe, he had found to be from a 1911 A’s-Red Sox game, in Philadelphia, in the sixth inning. The third baseman was Home Run Baker but the runner tearing into third was problematic because the face was partially obscured and, incredibly, there had been two different plays made at third during the inning.
So if you think of George’s untimely passing this holiday season, remember that for all his larger-than-life tv persona, and the seemingly endless rodeo highlights — he was truly one of us, and his hobby underscored how otherwise diverse a crowd “we” are.