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COMMENTARY

Chatelain: From Oklahoma to Omaha, Jack Payne became the voice of the CWS

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Payne CWS

Jack Payne, who died Wednesday seven months shy of his 100th birthday, packed more stories than Willa Cather. More punchlines than Johnny Carson. More contacts than Warren Buffett, writes Dirk Chatelain.

My gosh, where do you even begin with Jack Payne?

In the booth with Lyell Bremser during the Game of the Century? Courtside calling Creighton games with Bob Gibson? At Husker football practice conducting an interview with Bob Devaney ... until the combustible coach repeatedly ordered him to stop recording so he could colorfully shout instructions? “I had the darndest time editing that tape,” Payne later said.

How ’bout the Rosenblatt Stadium press box in June 1996 when Warren Morris ripped a two-out, trophy-clinching home run down the right-field line? Payne’s favorite Rosenblatt moment.

He seemingly did it all. Saw it all. Better yet, he helped you see it all, painting pictures so rich, so vivid, you swore you were right beside him. Nebraska treated “Gentleman Jack” like the former president it never had.

Payne, who died Wednesday seven months shy of his 100th birthday, packed more stories than Willa Cather. More punchlines than Johnny Carson. More contacts than Warren Buffett.

At 14, he took a train to New York with his Legion baseball team and saw Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio in the World Series. At 21, during World War II, he served stateside in the Air Force, where he met his future wife, Connie, a Canadian Air Force corporal. At 28, he moved to Omaha and competed alongside Carson and against Tom Brokaw on a revolutionary new platform — TV news.

As general manager for the semi-pro Omaha Mustangs, Payne oversaw players like Frank Solich and Bob Churchich, and coaches like Don Leahy and Al Caniglia. As PA announcer for the state track meet, Payne celebrated phenoms like Larry Station, Ahman Green and Alice Schmidt.

He received so many honorary memberships and degrees, you wondered if he ever wrote an actual check. At some point, he must have emceed every banquet in Omaha. And shaken every hand.

Which is why, in April 2018, I contacted Payne seeking one more interview. I wanted to document his memories, this time for my podcast, “Where I Come From.” At his invitation, I knocked on his door in Omaha’s New Cassel Retirement Center, where he lived alone. We sat beneath walls covered with sports photos and awards.

During the fourth episode of Season 3 of "Where I Come From" with host Dirk Chatelain, Omaha broadcasting legend Jack Payne discusses growing up in a graveyard in small-town Oklahoma, learning football from Bud Wilkinson and Bob Devaney, dealing with the pressure of a radio booth, his favorite College World Series moments and why he still calls games in his head.

We started back before he was famous, to a town of 3,000 people in eastern Oklahoma, birthplace of Woody Guthrie — Okemah. That’s where Jack Payne picked cotton during the Dust Bowl — he recalled the “nastiest, meanest yellow spiders you’ve ever seen.” That’s where Payne used to “lie on my belly” listening to Kern Tips call Southwest Conference football games, moving two sets of marbles across the floor to represent the players.

Jack’s father curated a cemetery in Okemah, and the boy spent every spare hour helping out, calling games in his head, usually behind a mower. One day, he pushed a Toro amid the tombstones when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Jack stopped the mower.

Who are you talking to, his dad said.

Nobody, Jack said. I just walk along, pick two teams and make up the plays.

OK, Dad said. Get back to work.

What his father did next Jack Payne cherished his entire life.

“He walked about 10 steps and he turned around and looked back to me and he says, ‘Who’s winning?’”

During the Great Depression, Jack tweaked his graveyard hours so he could play Legion baseball, helping Okemah to the state Legion title in Norman, then a regional tournament title, in Okemah. For sectionals, the last stop before the American Legion World Series, the Oklahomans hosted teams from Oregon, Arizona and, yes, Nebraska.

“First time I ever heard of Omaha,” Payne said. “1937.”

Before an overflow crowd of 2,500, they lost to Skip Palrang’s McDevitts team, 9-2. But the Okemah downtown merchants rewarded the local heroes with a bus trip to the real World Series.

Yankees-Giants at the Polo Grounds. Pitching for the Giants? Oklahoman Carl Hubbell.

“I can see it now,” Payne said in 2018. “We were in the lower box seats on the first-base line. ... Our manager ... gives the usher 10 bucks to take this note to the dugout to get Carl Hubbell. Before the game started.

“And by gosh, here came Carl Hubbell walking along. Came over where we were. Said hello to Dick, our manager.

“Then he talked to us. He had a ball in his glove. And I said, ‘Mr. Hubbell, could I have that baseball?’ ... And he put Carl Hubbell on it and gave it to me. And I took that ball home.”

Payne displayed his souvenir for 10 years. Until his nephew grabbed it one day and took off. “Out in the street went my Carl Hubbell baseball,” Payne said.

Payne would eventually meet even bigger stars.

Payne's plaques

“My eyes are your ears,” Jack Payne said in 2018. “What you know about this game I’m telling you.”

After the war, he worked for the OU student radio station. He earned his first play-by-play gig by tryout, attending a Sooner football practice and describing the scene. Payne called Bud Wilkinson’s first season in ’47.

The turning point came in 1950, when Payne heard about an opening at WOW in Omaha and rode north to interview. “There was this big intersection: 72nd and Dodge. Beyond that, farm. Cows and corn. That was my introduction to Omaha.”

Why leave Oklahoma? Because Omaha offered a chance to be on TV. That was the future, Payne figured. In the early ’50s, Payne worked almost nonstop, occasionally conducting an entire TV newscast himself.

In ’52, the Missouri River flooded and Payne reported from a ladder high above the current.

“My biggest reaction to that was Crazy Okie, what are you doing up here?”

He worked at WOWT for 17 years before stepping away to run the Omaha semi-pro football team. In ’70, he returned to the mic with KFAB, joining Bremser and Dave Blackwell on Husker game days. Good timing.

Devaney won back-to-back national titles in ’70 and ’71, highlighted by a 35-31 epic in Norman. Payne provided color commentary for Bremser. “I look back and say that’s got to be my biggest thrill,” Payne told me. “Working on that broadcast.”

Payne occupied the KFAB game day booth through 1992. In the glory years of Husker football, before every game was on TV, he helped deliver to the masses the state’s cultural export — the tie that binds generations together.

“My eyes are your ears,” Payne said in 2018. “What you know about this game I’m telling you.”

What a thrill. What a responsibility, too. “The good Lord” puts a microphone in front of you, Payne said, and somehow relieves you from thinking about “how many thousands of people are listening to what I’m going to say now.”

Like many radio voices, Payne was prone to bias. Playing at Minnesota in 1959, Husker Clay White dashed upfield, the 15, 20, 25 ... “run, Clay, run, run, run!”

One night at St. Joseph’s, covering Creighton basketball, Payne stormed down to the halftime locker room and vented to coach Red McManus about the hometown referees. “Red, listen, dammit, we don’t have to play in places like this!”

Payne didn’t realize that Philadelphia reporters were listening in. As Payne returned to his microphone, they asked, “Who was that?”

Oh, that’s just our broadcaster.

Where did Payne catch his breath? Where did he stop and smell the barbecue? Rosenblatt Stadium. It’s hard to imagine a broadcaster more synonymous with one venue.

As PA voice, Payne stewarded the CWS for 37 years. Saw it grow into Omaha’s favorite summer party and a fixture on ESPN. He helped the CWS maintain its charm.

500th game

Longtime College World Series announcer Jack Payne gets a hug from Lou Spry, the CWS' official scorekeeper, during Payne's 500th CWS game.

One night in 1981, Payne asked a record crowd to give the umpires a standing ovation before first pitch. Who does that? Another time, he spotted a grade schooler — “a little fella with the yellow shirt” — rubbing his eyes above the first-base dugout. He asked the crowd to help him find his parents. Who does that?

At 77, Payne retired from the PA perch after the 2000 CWS. But he kept coming to Rosenblatt.

The following summer, for the first time, he watched games next to his wife in the grandstand. Per tradition, he made a brief appearance in the Rosenblatt press box to present Connie’s homemade chocolate cookies to the media. In 2010, Payne attended the last CWS game at Rosenblatt, an 11th-inning walk-off hit by Whit Merrifield.

“I don’t know how much more color you’d want in a broadcast,” Payne said.

He watched from the stands, calling the action in his head. Why? Because a broadcaster never turns it off. The little Oklahoma boy moving marbles across the floor in front of the radio became the 90-year-old man calling games in front of the TV.

Why are you talking back to the screen, his wife asked him.

“I’m not talking back,” Jack told her. “I’m just expressing myself.”

Connie died in 2015 and life got lonelier for Jack. When I called him four years ago, he initially resisted my request for an interview. Then we spent three hours together. Toward the end, he asked what I was going to do with his words.

“This will be a podcast,” I said. “It’ll be up on the internet for people to hear. Get to introduce people to Jack Payne.”

“You’re going to do that for me?”

He wiped his eyes. It caught me off guard. This wasn’t exactly “SportsCenter’s” Sunday Conversation.

“Why does that mean something to you, Jack?”

He paused a long time and tried to find the words, stammering through a few tears.

“I think it means what I did was worth something ... I tried to please a lot of people. ... I never did think of anything being a favor or anything like that. Just wanted to do it. ... Contribute.”

He apologized for getting emotional. Then, unprompted, the 95-year-old remembered the graveyard during the Dust Bowl. Where it all started. His dad tapping him on the shoulder as he cut grass.

“He was really a kind man,” Jack said. “That’s why I remember that thing about the cemetery. To stop and ask me who won, I laugh about that.”

His father couldn’t possibly have known the path from Okemah to Omaha. The icon his son would become. Who’s winning? That was a trick question.

When Jack Payne called a game, everybody won.

Payne in press box

When Jack Payne called a game, everybody won, writes Dirk Chatelain.

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