By John Plevyak
"The Mayor of Baltimore," was the headline in the New York Post sports pages on Jan. 5, 2007. Columnist Peter Vecsey was writing about legendary sportscaster Jim Karvellas, who passed away on New Year's Day from prostate cancer.
The Baltimore Sun also published a lengthy obit on Karvellas and there are many passionate fans of Baltimore's professional sports in the '60s and '70s who will never forget that "bourbon voice, strong, smooth and silky."
Karvellas grew up on the south side of Chicago, following local professional teams with a passion. In 1962, he became the youngest announcer in the NBA when he began broadcasting the Chicago Zephyrs. Karvellas followed the team's move to Baltimore, where the Zephyrs became the Bullets in 1964, and soon changed the way hoop fans listened to games on the radio. No longer did we hear "swish" but instead the trademark Karvellas "bull's-eye" repeated in every pickup game around town.
He gave everyone a nickname, and I remember laying in bed as a youngster, listening to Karvellas call the action: "Waxy [Don Ohl] brings the ball across the time line, over to Murph [Kevin Loughery], Murph with the dribble down low to Honeycomb [Gus Johnson]. Honeycomb with a 15-foot fade-away, BULL'S-EYE!" He painted the picture and provided the same scene and atmosphere he was watching.
As the Bullets rose to prominence in the late-'60s, it was Karvellas who put it all together and helped turn Baltimoreans into rabid NBA fans.
Karvellas also did radio for the Colts and Orioles and had the distinction of announcing the Super Bowl, World Series and NBA playoffs all in the same season (1969-70). Unfortunately, all three local teams were defeated by New York teams (Jets, Mets and Knicks).
Most local fans remember all this, but few recall that Karvellas was also the first voice of professional soccer in Baltimore and went on to have a major role in advancing the outdoor game toward the success it enjoys today.
In the early days of the North American Soccer League, the Baltimore Bays had a franchise that played home games in Memorial Stadium. Karvellas was the team's first play-by-play man and fell in love with the game. He later became a co-owner of the Bays when they played in the American Soccer League.
Following the final season with the ASL, Karvellas' Bays played an independent schedule against international competition and hosted the powerful Moscow Dynamos and Santos of Brazil for two exciting nights of big-time soccer that have never been duplicated in this town.
Karvellas' name became synonymous with the growth of soccer when in 1976 he became the TV and radio voice of the N.Y. Cosmos, a team that having signed Pele would become the talk of New York as well as the soccer world.
According to Larry Hirsch, a hockey broadcaster and close friend of Karvellas, it was the late Lamar Hunt who urged Cosmos general manager Steve Ross to hire the announcer. David Halbertson, executive vice president at Westwood One Sports and a sports broadcasting historian, said, "Karvo brought a folksy and charming blend of opinions, warmth, and absentmindedness not heard before to the booth." Few will ever forget his elongated opening to every broadcast, "This is Coz-MOES SOCK-errrrr!"
Karvellas and the Cosmos were the toast of New York for 11 great years and helped put the professional game on the path to its current success.
This town was always blessed with great announcers who could bring the game into the home like no others. Chuck Thompson was a great baseball announcer and the greatest football play-by-play man to ever step into a radio booth. However, Jim Karvellas took a backseat to no one when it came to basketball and soccer.
Charles Cuttone, executive editor of Big Apple Soccer, once said, "The memories of sports they love are replayed in their minds with the great voices of their game."
Jim Karvellas was the voice of mine.
Issue 2.2: January 11, 2007