Shelby Whitfield dies

Shelby Whitfield dies, Shelby Whitfield, a former play-by-play announcer for the Washington Senators who wrote a critical book about the team’s owner in the early 1970s and later managed an all-star cast of announcers for ABC Radio, died Feb. 5 at a rehabilitation facility in Jackson, N.J. He was 77.

He had complications from diabetes, a daughter, Shauna Lawrence, said.

Mr. Whitfield spent two years as the radio voice of the Senators, beginning in 1969. It was the only year that the second incarnation of the team — established in 1961 as an expansion club — had a winning record.

Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich once described Mr. Whitfield’s announcing style as “knowing and alert.”

Mr. Whitfield spent another year in the baseball broadcast booth in 1970, including 35 games on television, only to watch as the Senators descended to their customary mediocrity, brightened only by the towering home runs of slugger Frank Howard.

After the 1971 season, owner Robert E. Short moved the Senators to Arlington, Tex., prompting Mr. Whitfield to write a scathing book about the last days of the franchise, “Kiss It Goodbye” (1973). (The book’s title referred to Mr. Whitfield’s home-run call.)

He described Short, who died in 1982, as “an intimidating, domineering person” who was slow to pay his bills. Short asked announcers to inflate crowd numbers, Mr. Whitfield wrote, and to say the weather was always sunny, “even if the floodwaters were lapping the sides of RFK Stadium.”

The book helped prompt the Federal Communications Commission to launch hearings into the ethics of sports broadcasting. In 1974, the FCC passed a regulation — since rescinded — requiring announcers to disclose during games whether they were employees of a team, a league or a broadcasting company.

After leaving the Senators beat, Mr. Whitfield worked for WWDC-AM as the host of “Sports Roundtable,” one of Washington’s first radio sports talk shows. Mr. Whitfield later spent seven years as the Washington-based sports director of Associated Press Radio before going to New York in 1981 as sports director of ABC Radio.

At ABC, Mr. Whitfield supervised radio coverage of the Olympic Games for many years, as well as NBA basketball, football, boxing and Triple Crown horse racing. He hired or supervised such well-known figures as broadcasters Howard Cosell and Dick Vitale, basketball star Oscar Robertson and boxing trainer Angelo Dundee.

“Shelby had so many contacts, he could call on people he knew,” said Fred Manfra, a play-by-play announcer for the Baltimore Orioles who worked for Mr. Whitfield at AP and ABC. “We always had a star-studded array of analysts.”

Mr. Whitfield had a knack for getting along with difficult personalities, including the Senators’ tempestuous manager, Ted Williams, and the abrasive Cosell. In 1991, Mr. Whitfield collaborated on a book with Cosell, “What’s Wrong With Sports,” that highlighted corruption and the influence of money in athletics.

“Howard never took kindly to anybody telling him what to do,” Bob Benson, the former vice president of sports and news for ABC Radio, said Thursday in an interview. “But he took to Shelby because Shelby knew everything about every sport.”

Shelby Aldwin Whitfield was born April 13, 1935, in Frost, Tex., and decided in his early teens to be a sportscaster. He announced games while attending the University of Texas and did play-by-play coverage for a minor-league baseball team in Plainview, Tex.

Mr. Whitfield joined the Army in 1955, attended a broadcasting school and within two years was sports director of American Forces Network, a military radio service in Europe. After leaving the Army in the late 1950s, he stayed on as a civilian employee of the network, broadcasting sports to U.S. military personnel throughout Europe.

In 1967, he came to Washington as assistant sports director for the worldwide Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. He lived in Oxon Hill before moving to New Jersey in the early 1980s. He retired in 1997 but continued to work on contract with ABC for a number of years.

Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Lora Napierski Whitfield of Manchester, N.J.; four children, Drew Whitfield of Plainfield, N.J., Shauna Lawrence of Sabillasville, Md., Tina Cerullo of Huntsville, Ala., and Sharon Knauf of Jackson, N.J.; a brother; a sister; and five grandchildren.

“The best style is being yourself,” Mr. Whitfield told The Post in 1969, describing his approach to broadcasting. “I think the fans want an exciting sportscaster, but this can be overdone just as you can be too dull and lifeless. I try to be factual and objective, but interesting — winning or losing.”

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