Between his 882 Major League Baseball games played for the St. Louis Cardinals and the many thousands of games he broadcast as the team’s radio announcer, there are generations of St. Louisans who have spent as much time with Mike Shannon as they have spent with all but a handful of people in their lives.
One’s relationship with their favorite baseball team’s broadcaster is different than any other sport. Even if one listened to the local radio broadcast for every game of an NFL season, a fan would still only spend double-digit hours per year with that voice. Particularly in an era in which most Major League Baseball games were not televised, an era in which Mike Shannon partially operated, the voice of the radio broadcaster is the voice of the team. Even though I personally jumped into Cardinals fandom nearly a quarter-century into Mike Shannon’s illustrious radio career, my fandom predated every single game being broadcast on television, so my memories of Shannon’s voice were necessarily vivid; in an era of games not on TV and where I did not have access to home internet, through the voices of Mike Shannon and Jack Buck were my only option if I wanted to live the day’s game. I had access to ESPN, so I could see the score, the winning and losing and perhaps saving pitchers, and perhaps see the batting line of a player or two, but through the eyes of Shannon and Buck, I could feel as though I had seen the game itself.
Jack Buck was an established broadcasting legend when I was a kid, but by the time I got around to hearing him, while there was a charm to his warmth and general gravitas, he was not nearly the caliber of broadcaster that he had been in his prime. Mike Shannon, however, was on top of his game–he was, to compare him to the current crop of Cardinals announcers, younger than Ricky Horton or John Rooney, around the same age as Chip Caray, and barely older than Jim Edmonds. He was a mesmerizing blend of casual and energetic, and this contrast made him equally adept at handling major moments and minor ones.
Later in his career, once Jack Buck had retired, the role of radio broadcaster was less consequential in terms of its journalism–every game was on television and thanks to the internet, fans could access information about the games with ease. But Mike Shannon’s style evolved to that of the emeritus storyteller of St. Louis Cardinals baseball. By the mid-aughts, my primary exposure to Mike Shannon’s broadcasts were during June or July cookouts, sitting on my parents’ deck while my dad barbecued or on a beautiful summer day where if I cared so much about hearing every detail of a game, I could have simply gone inside, but I wanted Mike Shannon’s cadence and his storytelling and I didn’t care if occasionally he would skip over a routine 6-3 groundout because there’s hundreds or thousands of those in a season and maybe a story about a fishing trip with Roger Maris from when my parents were children was actually what I wanted to hear. On long car rides, the primary exposure most fans had to Mike Shannon over the last couple decades of his career, he felt something like a friend telling a long-winded story–occasionally, you wanted him to get to the point, but paradoxically, you also never wanted to the story to end. What was the rush?
Most of the great icons of St. Louis Cardinals baseball are by definition outsiders who were eventually informally adopted by the city. Jack Buck was born and raised in Massachusetts before moving to Cleveland as a teenager. Stan Musial was from near Pittsburgh; Bob Gibson from Omaha; Ozzie Smith from Los Angeles; Albert Pujols from Santo Domingo. But Mike Shannon’s roots in St. Louis ran feverishly deep. Raised in the Lindenwood Park neighborhood in south St. Louis, Shannon attended Christian Brothers College High School before attending the University of Missouri as a two-sport athlete; a much-repeated anecdote from the legendary football coach Frank Broyles was that had Shannon remained as a quarterback on the Missouri football team, he could have won the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best player. But Shannon ultimately signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. Originally an outfielder, Shannon eventually moved to third base; while a Cardinal, Shannon won the World Series in both 1964 and 1967. His best individual season came in 1968, his age-28 season, during which he finished in seventh in National League Most Valuable Player voting, finishing ahead of such legends as Billy Williams, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Willie Mays. On the pennant-winning 1968 team, only Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Curt Flood were more valuable by Wins Above Replacement. Shannon also held the distinction of hitting the final home run at the stadium best known as Sportsman’s Park, as well as the first home run at the new Busch Stadium by a Cardinal in 1966.
Unfortunately for Shannon, in 1970, a kidney disease forced him into early retirement from baseball, playing his final game less than a month after his 31st birthday. But Shannon was only started to craft his legend in St. Louis. In 1971, Shannon took a job with the club’s promotional staff while in 1972, he took the job for which he would be best remembered–in the radio booth with Jack Buck. There, Shannon replaced Jim Woods, a respected play-by-play voice but one whose chemistry with Buck was considered lacking, but in Shannon, the Cardinals found the perfect complement to Jack Buck–Mike Shannon’s sense of humor and energy were a welcome part of a booth defined by Jack Buck’s buttoned-down professional tone, but Shannon wasn’t exactly comic relief–he was also a top-notch broadcaster almost immediately.
When I was nine years old, I attended a game at the old Busch Stadium, and walking around the concourse before the game, my dad pointed out that Mike Shannon was walking by us. I was shy but eventually worked up the courage to mutter a “Hi, Mr. Shannon.” Mike Shannon responded enthusiastically, declaring what a great day it was for a baseball game. I was enamored by his personality. I’m sure Mike Shannon couldn’t have recalled that moment the next day, but it has stuck with me for 25 years. This was the kind of mark Mike Shannon made–for millions of Cardinals fans, he made an indelible impression simply by being himself.