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Greg Brown Reminisces About His Days with the Bisons, Bills, and Pirates

December 8, 2019

Pittsburgh Pirates play-by-play man Greg Brown looks back fondly on his five seasons calling Bisons games with Pete Weber and three years working with Van Miller on Bills games. Brown named the two Buffalo broadcast icons, along with two legendary Pittsburgh announcers, as having a major influence on him and his career. “My Mount Rushmore of mentors would be Pete Weber, Van Miller, Mike Lange, and Lanny Frattare,” Brown said. “Those are my four guys that probably did it for me more than anybody.” Even though he left the Queen City 26 years ago to work for the Pirates, it’s still apparent his time in Buffalo had a big impact on him.

 

Brown grew up in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, about three hours east of Pittsburgh. His dad often traveled to the Steel City on business, which helped Brown become a Pirates fan. “He started taking me on trips to Pittsburgh,” Brown explained. “He would go to meetings and I would hang out in the lobbies of the visiting team’s hotels and run around getting autographs. So that’s where I fell in love with the Pirates.” Growing up, Brown often listened to Mylo Hamilton and Lanny Frattare call Pirates games on the radio. Due to his location in central Pennsylvania and proximity to Philadelphia and Baltimore, he also tuned in regularly to legendary announcers like Harry Kalas, By Saam, Andy Musser, and Richie Ashburn calling Phillies games, Chuck Thompson calling Orioles games, and Jack Buck calling Cardinals games.

 

Brown originally became involved with the Pirates during their magical 1979 season, which ended with the Bucs defeating the Orioles in Game 7 of the World Series. Brown auditioned to become the team mascot, the Pirate Parrot. Although he didn’t get the mascot job, the tryout led to other opportunities. “I tried out for the mascot and ended up coming in second place,” Brown recalled. “The guy that called me said ‘I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is you’re not the parrot, the good news is you’re the backup Pirate Parrot, and you’re going to intern for us this summer.’”

 

The internship led to many other opportunities with the ballclub. For the next 10 seasons, Brown worked in the Pirates’ sales, public relations, and broadcast departments. “I did every possible job imaginable for 10 years in the front office,” Brown remembered. “Assistant promotions director, I did… my goodness, truly everything imaginable. I spun records during the games initially. Then I really helped put the entertainment package together during ball games.” He started helping out legendary public address announcer Art McKennan, which led to Brown becoming the team’s public address announcer in 1987.

 

Brown in the PNC Park television booth in 2019. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.

 

Through it all, his goal was to become a broadcaster for the team. “The people in the front office realized that I wanted to become a broadcaster,” Brown said. “They created a broadcast coordinator position. I was the liaison between the radio network stations and our flagship KDKA radio.” The job led to even more broadcast related opportunities. “I started to write and produce commercials. I eventually did some voice over work. At one point the fledgling cable company was looking to hire a play-by-play and a color guy, and our president at the time, Malcom Prine, asked me to spearhead the guys who were coming in to try out for the play-by-play and color analyst.” Brown helped coordinate the search. He also saw a potential opportunity for himself: “I put a tape together for these guys to come in and audition. And several local guys and a lot of national guys wanted to do play-by-play for these cable games, and eventually it whittled down to a handful and I put my own name in to try to be the play-by-play guy. Malcolm Prine said, ‘You can’t be our play-by-play guy, but we would like you to do some pre- and post-game stuff. We think you’ve got some talent.’”

 

The two announcers who were chosen during the process turned out to be very important in Brown’s career. Mike Lange became the play-by-play announcer and former Pirate hurler Steve Blass was chosen to be the color analyst, while Brown became the pre- and post-game host, as well as an in-game reporter. Brown eventually teamed with Blass on Pirates broadcasts from 1994 up until Blass's retirement last season, while Lange helped give Brown his first break into broadcasting.

 

“I was a stage manager essentially,” Brown said of his roll on Blass and Lange’s cable broadcasts. “I would stand in the back of the broadcast booth, and any time Mike or Steve needed anything at all, a drink of water, a Coke, a scoring decision, anything, I was at the ready. I would run down the steps, find out what they needed, run back up, like a runner.” His big break came during a doubleheader at Three Rivers Stadium. “Mike got to know me very well and realized I wanted to be an announcer someday,” Brown recalled. “One day he said to me ‘Be ready kid, next week I’m not going to do 18 innings of that doubleheader against the Mets.’ I didn’t really know what he meant.” Lange meant that Brown would finally get a chance to call his first big league game. “I was standing in the back and Mike took his headset off and walked to the back of the booth and said ‘Go get ‘em kid’ and left the booth. I stood in the back of the booth, not knowing what was going on, because I didn’t know what he meant. Steve Blass waved at me to sit down in Mike’s chair. So for the next two innings, I called a major league baseball game.” The experience of calling a big league game only enhanced Brown’s desire to join the booth.

 

He also had a foot in another broadcasting door at the time. “I became a tv sports anchor at WFMJ tv in  Youngstown, Ohio for a summer.” Brown said. “I was offered the sports director’s job going into the winter of 1988. I was still working full time for the Pirates and traveling to Youngstown, Ohio and doing Saturday and Sunday 6 and 11 o’clock sportscasts… So I had to make a decision whether I wanted to leave the Pirates and become a sports anchor, which was kind of my dream to a degree, because I wanted to get into the business.”

 

While he had to make this big career decision, another enticing opportunity presented itself. “At the same time, the Bisons had come down to check out the Pirates operation. Mike Billoni (vice president/general manager of the Bisons at the time), I think Bucz (Mike Buczkowski, who was Bisons public relations manager at the time and is currently president, Rich Baseball Operations and vice president and general manager of the Bisons), and John Dandes (who was vice president/general manager of stadium services at the time) might have also come down to see the parent club and how they were operating,” Brown said. The Bisons were about to enter their second season as a Pirates affiliate. “I happened to be away that week. I think I was on the caravan, because that’s another thing I did, I helped put together the Pirate caravan. They talked to my boss, the VP of Broadcasting, Dean Jordan, about recommendations he might have had for someone who might be able to do some play-by-play backup and color, but also help put the radio network together. He suggested me, his assistant.” Brown eventually decided that his best route to his dream of calling big league games was to take the Bisons job over the sports director’s job or remaining with the Pirates. “Lanny (Frattare) always told me if I wanted to become a major league announcer I had to get experience in the minor leagues. And he was right… I tell people that I went the opposite direction. Most times you go from the minors to the majors. I went from the majors to the minors. Without a safety net.”

 

 Brown with Pete Weber and David Roth in the Pilot Field broadcast booth in 1989. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

 

Brown has great memories of his time working with the Bisons and broadcasting games alongside Pete Weber. “Pete had just a huge influence on me,” Brown said of Weber, who was the Voice of the Bisons for 13 seasons. “Just the fun that he had. He made it so much fun. You think about his résumé. Pete’s résumé was big league, and that was certainly part of it, that he treated that position like a major-league broadcaster. So that made it easy for me to feel like I was to a degree already in the major leagues.” He added, “His preparation, his memory, which you know I can only strive to be as prepared as Pete. I can strive to have fun at the job and yet take the job seriously at the same time like Pete, but I’ll never match his memory. He’s just such a brilliant person.”

 

There were many aspects of being in Buffalo that made Brown feel like he was still in the majors. “I had gone from a team (the Pirates) where I was in the promotions department, marketing, and broadcast department, when the team was celebrating a million in attendance at a major league ballpark. Then I go up to Buffalo one year after they had opened up Pilot Field, and a million people was a regular occurrence. On many nights we would outdraw Pittsburgh. Now, I left in ’89, and that’s when Pittsburgh started to pick up. In ’90, ’91, ’92, they won the division, so they were drawing well then. But it made it an easy transition.” He also noted the professionalism demonstrated by the Bisons ownership and front office: “For me it was easy to have fun when the Bisons held themselves to such a high standard. Without being disrespectful to any other minor league team. They couldn’t really hold a candle to the Bisons. The way that the Riches treated me. And again, that’s a major league facility and operation, everything about it.”  

 

 Brown calling a game from high atop Pilot Field. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club. 

 

One memory that stands out for Brown is the dramatic one-game playoff Buffalo played with Nashville in 1990 to decide the American Association East Division Champion. “I remember being down by the dugout,” Brown said. “We were really ahead of our time, because we had wireless. This was Pete Weber, all his doing. He was always ahead of his time… We had a wireless microphone and headset, and at times I would travel around the ballpark and he had me go down by the dugout. I can remember looking into the dugout and seeing the exhaustion on the faces of the players. The grit, the drive, the determination, the exhaustion of it all and the incredible fortitude. The drive of these guys to try to win such an important ballgame.” The epic game went 18 innings before the Sounds finally prevailed by a score of 9-8.

 

Brown also reminisced about Game 4 of Buffalo’s five game playoff series with Denver in 1991, when the Bisons staged a furious comeback after trailing 9-0 and being no-hit for eight innings. Buffalo rallied for eight runs in the game’s final frame, but Greg Edge was called out on a close play at the plate to end the game. Brown remembered the game and the improbable final inning even though he wasn’t actually in attendance. “It’s funny, because I just saw Pete a week ago on the road,” Brown said. “We were talking about some of the games, and we were talking about that one.” Brown remembered listening to Weber’s radio call from his Delaware Avenue apartment, “because I was on the Bills beat, so when the Bills started up in Fredonia, I was there every day. Therefore, if the Bisons were on the road at that point, I wasn’t going on the road. If the Bisons were home, I would be at Fredonia during the day and I would drive to Pilot Field and do games at night, so I would broadcast home games but not road games.” Brown vividly recalled listening to Weber’s call of the Bisons’ ninth inning comeback attempt and said it was “one of the greatest games in the history of sports, let alone minor league baseball.”

 

 A page from Brown's scorebook when he was with the Herd. Courtesy of Greg Brown. 

 

As he spoke about his time with the Herd, memories of interacting with some of the Bisons’ stars from that era began flooding back to him. “I did a weekly show with Jeff Richardson. He was so much fun… and Greg Tubbs, what a great guy he was… Dorn Taylor was so much fun, and Rick Reed… and Mike York.” He remembered the special relationship minor league announcers had with players at that time. “I remember saying goodbye to Jay Bell, when he got the call to go back to the big leagues. I remember being there when he took the shuttle to the airport. I think I made it a point at like at 5:30 in the morning to be there to shake his hand.” He continued, “I remember catching Tim Wakefield. I said show me your knuckleball.” But did he actually catch it? “Yeah, I did actually… I’m sure I didn’t catch every one, but a couple of them anyway.” Not only did Brown catch Wakefield, he also stepped on the mound once to throw to Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Tom Prince. “I remember being in the bullpen, I think in Columbus. Tom Prince would always get on me saying how easy I thought it looked. I said ‘Oh I can pitch.’ And he said ‘Get on the mound in the bullpen’ and I remember him catching me.”

 

Brown recalls calling former Bisons manager Terry Collins and suggested a player should be called up to the major leagues when Collins was with the Pirates: “I remember talking to Terry Collins when he was up in the big leagues as the bullpen coach and telling him, like I was a scout, I was telling him ‘You’ve got to tell the Pirates you need to bring up Mike York, this guy’s too good.’ He said ‘What are you doing calling me?’ like, are you out of your mind?” Brown laughed as he remembered Collins saying, ‘You can’t be doing this.’”

 

While he was working as color analyst for the Bisons, Brown was also hosting sports talk shows on WGR. “I was doing sportscasts. I was doing sports talk at night. Pete did an hour show every night and there would be some nights he’d give me the show. I did morning drive sports news. Pete also had secured the Bill Polian Show and the Marv Levy Show and there would be times he would have me host those.” Brown and Weber began doing Bills pre-game shows on WGR, even though the station didn’t have the rights to the team’s broadcasts yet. “He and I carved out a three hour pre-game show. We would have the big mobile unit in the parking lot at Rich Stadium. We would be doing a three-hour pre-game. This is unbelievable when you think about it. We didn’t have the rights to the games yet but we did our own pre-game show for three hours.”

 

 Brown in the WGR broadcast booth. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club. 

 

In 1990, WGR finally got the rights to broadcast Bills games and Brown and Weber continued to host the pre- and post-game shows. After the first year, the station decided to bring in a new color analyst and offered Brown the job. Brown remembered he “got called into the (WGR’s) GM’s office, and he said to me, ‘Hey, we’re making a change to the color announcer. We want you to be the color broadcaster for the Bills.’ And I scoffed at it. He goes ‘What?’ I stunned him. I said ‘I came up here to be a baseball broadcaster and you’re asking me to do football. You have to let me think about it.’ Unbeknownst to me I think I got a raise from that. I think they thought it was a negotiating tactic. Anything but.” Brown eventually decided to take the job and was the Bills radio color analyst for the next three seasons.

 

Thanks to his new job with the Bills, Brown had the opportunity to work with another broadcast legend, Van Miller. Brown remembers Miller having a similar influence on him as Pete Weber had, “but in a different way." He said Miller demonstrated that broadcasting sports should be fun. Brown recalls Miller interacting with the crowd at Rich Stadium. “You’re actually closer to the fans than we are here,” Brown said while sitting in Pittsburgh’s PNC Park's radio booth. “The seats are very close… They’d score a touchdown to put the game away. Van would actually go up on the desk and he’d be reaching down and start high fiving people. So he was a showman. He was a passionate Bills fan. He loved the Bills. He loved his job. He was fun and funny. I mean he was just hysterical. He was just a ton of fun.” Miller’s infectious enthusiasm rubbed off on Brown. “It’s a game, it’s fun.” Brown said. “And that’s what Van did all the time… I just adored him.”

 

Brown sat alongside Miller throughout three of the Bills four consecutive AFC Championship seasons. Many games from the time stand out in Brown’s mind, with the comeback game at the forefront. “The one moment was the wild card game against the Oilers,” Brown said. “No doubt about that. The comeback game. Without question.” His conversations with Bills fans after the game on his call-in show were also memorable. “After those games, the next day, I would be on for three hours I believe on the morning drive taking phone calls. Then for the next week doing sports talk just rehashing the game.” After the Bills fell behind 35-3 to Houston, many fans headed for the exits. “The next day after the wild card game, to hear stories of people leaving Rich Stadium and then pulling over on the thruway. They said it was a gigantic tailgate party. They were all listening to the game. So that absolutely stands out.”

 

 Van Miller and Greg Brown calling "The Comeback Game", the Bills vs. Oilers Wildcard game in 1993.

 

A formative moment in Brown’s career occurred during the second game of the Bills 1993 season. Coming off a loss to the Cowboys in the Super Bowl the previous season, Buffalo headed to Dallas for a rematch. The Bills clung to a 13-10 lead in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter, as Troy Aikman drove the Cowboys downfield for what could have been a game winning drive. But safety Matt Darby intercepted Aikman at the goal line with just 12 seconds remaining to seal a Bills victory. The play was chaotic, with the ball ricocheting in the air off Cowboys tight end Jay Novacek’s shoulder pads, before being secured by Darby. During the confusion, Miller paused briefly in his call and Brown remembers yelling “Darby!, Darby breaks it up!” The next day, Brown was called in to WGR program director Chuck Finney’s office, for what he assumed would be a reprimand for shouting over Miller’s call on the crucial play. “He was from Cincinnati,” Brown said of Finney. “He closed the door and said ‘You know why I’m calling you in here?’” Brown responded, “I assume because Van probably didn’t like me stepping on him.” To Brown’s surprise, Finney said, ‘Let me let you listen to something.” And he put on a cassette tape. Brown told what happened as he listened to the tape: “It’s a Cincinnati Reds game with Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall calling a playoff game and somehow they win it on a walk-off home run. You hear Marty Brennaman’s call, but you also hear Joe Nuxhall, the color analyst call over him ‘Yeah! Yeah!’, screaming. And it’s just mayhem and spontaneous joy. He stopped the tape and said ‘What do you think of that call?’ And I said ‘Well, I guess it’s not very good because the color analyst…’ And he said ‘Exact opposite. This is sports. Sports is unrehearsed. It’s live. It’s guttural. It’s what you feel. It’s passion. My point is don’t ever lose that passion. Calls like that will stand forever. They’ll stand the test of time.’” Brown remembers that lesson to this day and still tells his color analysts not to be afraid to talk over him in a display of spontaneous emotion during a big play. He believes the emotion is what helps make a call memorable.

 

 Brown interviewing Baseball Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club. 

 

Brown got the opportunity to return to Pittsburgh in 1994, where he’s been the Pirates play-by play-announcer on both radio and television ever since. He noted that working with the Pirates Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo helped him ease his transition back to the big leagues: “I was very comfortable when I got the job here because the Pirates had gone through a transition. They were getting younger and they were bringing up a lot of the minor leaguers. So I knew them all.”

 

His most memorable moment broadcasting Pirates games came courtesy of a former Bison. “My greatest moment was because of Buffalo,” Brown said. “It was from John Wehner.” Brown knew Wehner from his time with the Bisons, where Wehner played 268 games over four seasons. Brown continued, “He has a great story. Grew up in Pittsburgh as a Pirate fan. Went to Indiana University. He grew up in a bad part of Pittsburgh. He talks now about how he’s lucky to be alive. He says many of his friends growing up are either dead or in jail. So his story in itself is spectacular.” The incredible moment came in front of a full house in the final Pirates game at Three Rivers Stadium. “John never hit homers, rarely did he start. He was a utility guy. He was a late inning replacement. But he started that game as a gesture by Gene LaMonte, the manager of the Pirates, to have the Pittsburgh kid play third base in the final game. I talked to him (Wehner) before the game. I said to him, ‘How cool is it that you’re starting today?’ He’s very humble. He goes ‘Yeah, these guys are kidding me that maybe I can hit a home run.’ And we laughed because he didn’t hit home runs.” As fate would have it, the Pittsburgh kid came up big in the historic game. Wehner hit a two-run home run to give the Pirates the lead in the fifth inning. “Sure enough, he hits a home run,” Brown remembered. “And I’m going crazy. It was one of those moments. I get goose bumps every time I tell the story, because that moment, not only did it slow down, but it’s almost like the baseball stopped, about halfway to the wall. At that moment in time I said to myself ‘Is this really happening? Is that ball possibly leaving this ballpark? John Wehner is going to hit a home run that’s going to give the Pirates the lead in the last game ever at Three Rivers Stadium? It’s impossible.’ Sure enough it did, and so that moment stands out for me.”

 

John Wehner's home run during the last game at Three Rivers Stadium. 

 

Brown’s signature call after every Pirates win, “Raise the Jolly Roger!,”  has become a phenomenon with Pirates fans. He remembered the origins of the call: “I was in the front office with the Pirates. I was in marketing and might have even been still an intern. I was thinking how cool it would be, because in Chicago they raise a W on a flag over Wrigley Field when they win. I thought how cool it would be for the Pirates, because when Pirates capture ships, they put a skull and crossbones up. How cool would it be if people were going to work the next morning, and we had a late game, and they didn’t know the outcome, and they looked across the river and saw this big black skull and crossbones high atop Three Rivers Stadium? They’d know that the Pirates had won the game the night before.” Brown’s suggestion was shot down at the time, but the idea returned years later. “So, fast forward to like 1999, and Bob Walk, my color analyst and my friend, kept urging me to have some finishing signature call like so many other announcers have. Lanny Frattare had ‘There was no doubt about it!’ Bob Prince before him had ‘We had ‘em all the way!’ And I said I just don’t want to get all caught up in that. But I told him the story about the flag at Three Rivers Stadium, and he goes to me ‘That’s called a Jolly Roger. How about when the Pirates win ‘Hoist the Jolly Roger.’ Not a bad idea. And it changed to raise it, raise the Jolly Roger. I thought that would be easier to say.” The call has become synonymous with Pirates wins. “I tell people that I had that call for several years before the Pirates won in 2013, and nobody noticed it,” Brown said, “But then in 2013 they were doing stories about it in the paper. Front-page story, big black skull and crossbones, Jolly Rogers waiving everywhere. They sell them now. They talk about RTJR, Raise the Jolly Roger, #Raiseit. So it went from just an idea back in the early ‘80s to what it’s become now. Yeah, it’s really cool. I get tweets and texts and pictures from people in every part of the world, showing them raising the Jolly Roger.”

 

An incredible broadcasting journey that began the day Mike Lange handed off the mic at Three Rivers Stadium, has taken him through some of the most memorable moments of the Bisons modern era, the Bills Super Bowl seasons, and a long career calling games for his favorite childhood team. The guy who once stood in the back of the broadcast booth and acted as a runner now enters his 27th season as the Pirates’ play-by-play man. His tenure with the Bucs has made him a broadcast legend in Pittsburgh, earning him the same status as the great broadcasters who have influenced him throughout his incredible career.

 

 Raise the Jolly Roger!

 

 

 

 

 

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