Gil Santos, 80; Patriots play-by-play man for more than three decades died on his birthday
The voice of Mel Allen was transporting listeners to the Rose Bowl football game in Southern California on Jan. 2, 1950, and a young Gil Santos was entranced.
“He said, ‘It’s 80 degrees and sunny here in Pasadena,’ ’’ Mr. Santos recalled in a 2009 interview with the Associated Press, “and I was thinking ‘Geez, it’s snowing here, it’s 80 degrees there, and this guy’s there to broadcast the game.’ ”
“What a great way to make a living,’’ he remembered thinking then, a boy growing up in Fairhaven.
Sixty-three years later, in 2013, Mr. Santos was inducted into the New England Patriots Hall of Fame after 36 seasons and 744 games as the team’s radio play-by-play announcer. Mr. Santos died Thursday, which was his 80th birthday and his 57th wedding anniversary, said his son, Mark.
“My philosophy of broadcasting is simple,’’ Mr. Santos told the Globe in 2001. “I tell the people where the ball is, who has it, and then what they’re doing with it. Then I let my partner talk.’’
Simple, perhaps, but that philosophy, along with countless hours of preparation and a deep, sonorous voice, made Mr. Santos the voice of the Patriots.
“For a guy who spoke nothing but Portuguese until he was five, he came a long way,” said his son, Mark Santos.
His father, he said, “never felt more comfortable than sitting in a press box.”
“That was his calling,” said Mark Santos. “He loved calling games.”
Mr. Santos was also well-known as the radio sports anchor for 38 years for WBZ Morning News. He served as the Celtics play-by-play announcer on Channels 4 and 56 for several seasons in the 1980s.
Mark Santos said he spoke with his father Thursday evening to wish him a happy birthday. Santos said the cause of death was not immediately clear to the family.
In addition to his son, Mr. Santos leaves his wife, Roberta, a daughter, Kathy, and two grandchildren, according to Mark.
Mr. Santos and his color man, Gino Cappelletti, the former star Patriots kicker and receiver, were partners from 1972-78 and then consecutively from 1991 until Cappelletti’s retirement from the booth before the 2012 season.
“For generations of Patriots fans, Gil Santos was and forever will be known as the ‘Voice of the Patriots,’ ’’ Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement. “Gil was a legendary broadcaster, who for 36 years passionately described the play-by-play detail of every Patriots game during his career, including many of the most memorable moments in franchise history.’’
At the beginning of Patriots broadcasts, Mr. Santos would refer to Cappelletti as “mon ami.’’
“They were the unofficial voices of fall in New England. During their heyday, Patriots fans liked to say they turned down the sound on the television so they could listen to the broadcasters they knew simply as Gil and Gino,’’ wrote Globe’s sports media columnist Chad Finn. “Their call of Adam Vinatieri’s winning field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI remains a classic.’’
Before joining Mr. Santos in 2004 for the call of Super Bowl XXXVIII at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Cappelletti quipped to the Globe: “It’s one of the highest booths I’ve ever been in. I’ve got to watch Gil. He gets excited and tends to lean over. If he does that here, he’d better be wearing a parachute.’’
Cappelletti added he and Mr. Santos had a relationship that was “electric’’ from the start. “He is truly a pro in every sense of the word, always prepared,’’ said Cappelletti. “Gil demands quality and excellence in everything he does in the radio broadcast business.’’
And there were none better in the business, Mr. Santos’ longtime colleague at WBZ, Gary LaPierre, said in a Globe story. “Listen to him. There are none better at painting pictures on radio,” he said. “He’s got a set of pipes and credibility. You never hear anyone bad-mouthing him. He is a straight shooter.’’
Mr. Santos said he took at least four hours to prepare for every hour on the air, including memorizing names and their pronunciation, and the research and preparation that went into each broadcast was the hardest part of his job.
Fittingly born and married on Patriots Day, Mr. Santos enrolled in the New England School of Broadcasting after graduation from Southeastern Massachusetts Technical Institute — now the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
“It was strictly luck of the draw that I had the voice for it,’’ the longtime Raynham resident said. “In those days, you either sounded like you belonged on the air, or you didn’t get on.’’
Mr. Santos, who loved parades, would call cadence and sing marching songs while serving in the Army during the Berlin and Cuban missile crises.
He had continued to admire Mel Allen, the voice of the New York Yankees, over the years.
“He had a marvelous voice,’’ Mr. Santos recalled, “It had a little bit of a Southern drawl to it. And his descriptions were perfect. When he called a game, I could see it in my mind’s eye. I haven’t tried to imitate Allen, but I have tried to paint pictures.’’
Mr. Santos worked on that technique while learning some early lessons in the business at stations WNBH and WBSM in New Bedford.
At a high school football game for which he had carefully prepared a spotter’s board with names, numbers, heights, and weights, a steady rain washed away his handiwork.
“So I threw a quarter under the stands to my technician,’’ he recalled in 1985, “and ever since that day, I’ve been broadcasting games from the program. . . . It’s easier to be a good announcer on the big level. But it’s important to get experience on the high school level. You get a chance to deal with all kinds of adversities. Because no matter what happens, the show must go on.’’
An improbable breakthrough came in early 1966.
While working at WNBH, he recalled, “I had my pay cut by $5 a week’’ after a misunderstanding with a station executive. “I was so mad that night after doing a Holy Family-Westport game, which went to triple overtime, I sent a tape of it to all Boston stations.’’
WBZ radio hired him and although unsure of what his job would be, Mr. Santos soon found out that the station had been contracted to cover Patriots games. He embarked on a job as color commentator with Patriots play-by-play announcer Bob Starr.
The highest level of broadcasting Mr. Santos had done to that point was Southeastern Mass. Tech basketball. Just before he got the Patriots job, he was doing four high school football games each weekend.
He was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters, The Sports Museum, and Fairhaven High School halls of fame and was a recipient of numerous regional and national awards. They included Massachusetts Sportscaster of the Year and a New England Emmy.
Mr. Santos also announced Providence College and Big East basketball and Penn State and Boston College football. He was a radio broadcaster at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, continuing to fulfill his boyhood dream of covering sports in sunny California.
Like the Patriots players he covered and knew over nearly a half-century, Mr. Santos was a battler.
Just days after the team’s loss to the New York Giants at Super Bowl XLVI in 2012, he was hospitalized after being stricken with pneumonia and obstructed pulmonary disease.
He was put into a medically induced coma and given the last rites of the Catholic Church. According to the Providence Journal, Mr. Santos could move only his right arm and could not feed himself.
But months of rehab and his determination enabled Mr. Santos to come back for his final year behind the mic.
His last broadcast was Jan. 20, 2013, at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots were defeated in the AFC title game by the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
“Hey, I’m pretty lucky,’’ Mr. Santos told the Globe. “I got to do what I wanted to do. Now all I’d like is to be remembered as someone who was good at what he did and was a good guy, too. . . . It’s never been a job with the Patriots. It’s been an honor.’’