July 30, 2006, 1:00AM
DURING many of his 40-plus years as a baseball announcer, no one was harder on Gene Elston than Gene Elston.
Elston demanded documentation of his inadequacies. He had a deal with engineer Bob Green during his early years with the Colt .45s and Astros to tape one game per week at random so he could study his work.
"I would tell him don't tell me when you're taping me. Just do it," Elston said. "I'd get the tape at the end of the week, and you'd be surprised how many things I did wrong.
"It wasn't until I had been in baseball for 15 years, probably until the mid-'70s, that I could listen to one of my tapes and say 'Now I've got it; now I've got it.' "
Indeed, he had it. Tens of thousands of Astros fans knew it, and so did fans around the nation who heard Elston's work on the Mutual Broadcasting Network and on CBS Radio.
Today, in Cooperstown, N.Y., Elston, 84, will receive one more sign of affirmation — the 2006 Ford Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame for baseball broadcasting.
As he prepared for his speech today, Elston took a few minutes at his home in southwest Houston recently to talk about his time in baseball.
Though he is best remembered by Astros fans for his partnerships with Loel Passe and Larry Dierker, Elston always thought broadcasting baseball was a solo endeavor.
"I don't think radio needs a color man. You put two voices together, and most color men talk too much. The years I had with Larry Dierker were fantastic, and I don't think at any time did we step on each other. He was a phenomenal color man. ...
"I tried to put myself in the fan's seat and to tell them what I thought they wanted to know. One of the first things I learned was to tell the score. When it came to a point where you didn't know what to say, give the score.
"I wanted to do the actual scene at the ballpark. I wanted to follow the ball. When the ball wasn't moving around, I would do color aspects around the stadium. Don't drop in stats unless they're good. Learn the players by name first and last and when the ball is hit to shortstop, say it is hit to Adam Everett. If runners are on second and third, identify them by name so that when the ball is hit, you know who's scoring."
"My second or third year in Des Moines, I got a call from the president of the International League, who said he had been listening to me and that there was an opening in Rochester (with the Cardinals farm team) and would I like to investigate it.
"I went up to Rochester for an interview, (but) I was very happy in Des Moines doing Class A ball. I turned it down ... then it dawned on me that this was Triple A.
"I got to second-guessing myself and a week later called them back and said I had changed my mind. And they said, 'Sorry, we just hired another guy, a youngster coming over from Columbus. His name is Jack Buck.' "
Elston broadcast Cubs games on WIND in Chicago from 1955 through 1957, then spent three seasons calling the Mutual Radio Network's Game of the Day. He wound up in Houston in 1961, somewhat by accident.
"I was supposed to go to Cincinnati after I left Mutual at the end of the 1960 season. Gabe Paul was the general manager of the Reds and wanted to know if I wanted to come to Cincinnati, and I said that would be great.
"Then he called me not too much longer after, a month or so, and said: 'I can't bring you to Cincinnati because I'm going to Houston. I've just accepted a job there as general manager. How would you like to go there?' I said, 'Fine. That's great.' "
"(Hofheinz) went over everything that happened in the first week of the season, and we were about ready to break up the meeting when he said, 'Before we go, I have one more thing to say: Loel, you are no Gene Elston. I want you to be like you were in the Texas League. I want you to be my country bumpkin. Use all the old things you used to say, and I don't want you to get away from them, because I want to have a balance. Don't forget that.'
"Loel was a legend. Everybody thinks of him as 'hot ziggedy dog and sassafras tea' and 'jamming jelly up and down,' but that wasn't his fault. When Loel wasn't getting overly excited and yelling, he was a pretty damned good announcer. He knew the game. He was a terrific homer, which I didn't like, but he was good."
Elston worked with or knew many Frick Award winners, including Bob Prince, who spent a year in Houston in the 1970s.
"I often said that I wouldn't want to do it again, but I enjoyed it very much. He was strictly Prince. He stayed right with me and didn't do much of his sidebar stuff. He was a hell of an announcer, really great. He could do play-by-play as well as anybody I knew.
"He had a wrong idea about Houston. He thought this was the Wild West and that they didn't know much about baseball down here. But he was a great guy to work with."
What did he think of Harry Caray?
"Harry Caray was a gem. He was one in a million. He was one of the greatest guys you would ever want to meet. Just absolutely fabulous.
"He was not a good play-by-play man, but he was the fans' announcer. He was an entertainer. He sold the game. He probably sold the game more just by being there than anybody I can think of."
How about Jack Buck?
"Jack Buck was the best. Number one. Great sense of humor. He wasn't a homer."
"One of the best I've ever heard. I was always in awe of Vinny. He's the perfect example of somebody with a photographic mind."
"Ernie was a little too Southern for me, but he was a very successful guy. When we worked together, we were compatible. He did a good play-by-play. I enjoyed him.
Best players: "When you talk about run, throw, hit for power, it was Willie Mays. He had excitement. He was that way all the time. He was probably the best overall player that I saw, and nobody else came close until I saw Barry Bonds.
Best Astros players: "The best pitcher was J.R. Richard. We had a lot of good pitchers in those days, but J.R., for a short stay, was probably the best. Joe Morgan was the best second baseman I ever saw. Best relief pitcher? Joe Sambito. The best outfielder overall was Cesar Cedeño. The best outfielder was Terry Puhl. The best shortstop was Roger Metzger.
Best games: "Hard to say. I've done so many. I would say the games I remember are from the 1980 season — not as a game, but as a season. That was, I think, the big turnaround for this ballclub after Tal Smith came back from the Yankees (in 1979) and turned things around.
"That 1980 season was just unbelievable. We were out of first place maybe four times all year. It was win, win, win all the time. The 1986 season was great, but I don't equate it (to 1980)."
"Statistics are overdone. When I came here, people said I was a statistician, and that was the one thing I didn't want to do. When I was working in the minor leagues I had to keep my own stats, and even in my first years in the major leagues, the leagues weren't putting them out. That's why I became stuck on statistics.
"I probably wrote down notes for two hours before a game. But if there were 15, 20 notes about pitchers, if I got to use five or six, I'd be lucky. But they were there if I wanted them.
"When Lou Brock was at bat, most announcers would say that Brock has stolen 50 bases this year. I didn't say that. If he gets on base, then, OK, we can talk about stolen bases."
Unlike many broadcasters who were weaned on radio, Elston enjoyed television play-by-play.
"It's easy if you put yourself in the fan's place. You've got a picture in front of you. Don't say what is going on. If a ground ball is hit to second base, say 'Ball's hit,' and you don't even have to say that.
"The big thing I had to learn was to watch the monitor. Pick out things that the fan can see. Don't talk about the pitcher when the batter is on the screen."
Typically, Elston approaches today's Frick Award presentation in a low-key manner.
"I'm outwardly not a very excitable person. I probably am (excited) inside me. It's like a duck swimming. You can't see his feet going around. He's excited, but he doesn't show it."