7 a.m. Eastern Time, Saturday. This is not exactly prime time for much of anything. That is, unless you happened to be a listener to NPR. For the past 25 years 7 a.m. Eastern Time Saturday has been appointment radio time for listeners from 240 NPR stations to “Only A Game,” a superior sports program done, as host Bill Littlefield likes to say, “NPR-style.”
But most of those listeners will soon be in Saturday A.M. withdrawal. Saturday July 28 will be Bill Littlefield’s final show as host of “Only A Game.” Oh, the show will continue. But, let no one at either host station WBUR nor at NPR itself kid themselves: Without Bill Littlefield, the show will never be quite the same.
Why, Bill? Faithful listeners want to know. You still sound pretty good to us.
“It’s time. I just turned 70,” he explains. “Twenty-five is a nice round number. Seventy is a nice round number. It’s just time.”
He’s self-deferential enough to say he may have lost just a little off his fastball. Of course, I’m not buying it, and neither will anyone else. He sounds just as sharp as ever. Still, it’s his call, and no one else’s.
So what is sports “NPR style?”
It’s not endless dissection of events, although there has always been a little of that. “Only A Game” is quite well aware that such sports events as the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Final, Final Four, Kentucky Derby, and other marquee sports events are important to people. The show has never lacked expert commentary and opinion. But detailed analysis of events has never been the program’s raison d’être.
“Only A Game” opens up a very wide umbrella. It’s most often about storytelling, and as such it hopes to attract the interest of those for whom sports is only a small part of their leisure time pursuits. Sometimes the sport in question doesn’t even happen to be real. Two of his thousands of segments were devoted to Quidditch.
The show is not about conflict. It’s more about harmony. “We are the antithesis of sports talk radio,” Littlefield explains. “And we can take advantage of what NPR offers because time is never a factor. We tell the story as it needs to be told. If necessary, we can stretch it out.”
His list of guests has been eclectic, to say the least. It was really unfair to ask him to choose some favorites, but here a few of the many: Joan Benoit Samuelson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ruben “Hurricane” Carter and famed documentarian Frederick Wiseman, who did a film entitled “Boxing Gym.” And if you think he must have had an author or two on the show, you would be correct. The latest lucky interview subject was Mike Stanton, who has just written “Unbeaten,” the story of Rocky Marciano.
OK, Bill. What are you proudest of? “I think we’ve successfully made people laugh,” he says.
I’ll say. And Bill Littlefield’s own laugh is memorable.
A few million of those laughs have been produced at approximately 7:40, Eastern, on these many Saturdays. That’s when Bill welcomes the inimitable Charles P. Pierce for a review of the week’s most intriguing sports topics. The format is simple. Bill feeds Charlie a nice batting practice not-so-fastball and Charlie whacks it out of the ballpark, very often leading to the famous Littlefield laugh.
“If you make Bill laugh, it’s what people expect,” reasons Pierce.
If there is a Bill Littlefield Fan Club, Charlie Pierce may qualify as president.
“What impresses me most about Bill is his basic humanity,” Pierce says. “Bill Littlefield is one of the most humane and decent people I know.”
The feeling is mutual.
“The segments with Charlie are a delight every time,” Littlefield declares. “He is the quickest, smartest most thoroughly knowledgeable person imaginable.”
Bill Littlefield is not going to fade away. “The important thing is that I am retiring to something,” he explains. One such something will be the composition of another book. If it turns out to be a novel, it will be his fourth. He has also written non-fiction and he is the editor of the W.C. Heinz collection, “The Top of His Game.” He is also a publishing poet. Oh, and let’s not forget the teaching career which includes, among other things, being a longtime writer in-residence at Curry College. He will also continue his involvement in “More Than Words,” a program that encourages literacy in young people while simultaneously teaching them how to be entrepreneurial.
The listeners will miss him. Among the others who will miss him are soccer fans, all women connected with sports, and anyone who recognizes that there is a lot more worthy sports activity beyond our meat-and-potatoes staple sports, as enjoyable as they are.
Among those who will not miss him are diehard fans of the National Football League. Bill Littlefield was light years ahead of the curve when it came to decrying the horrible effects of head injuries in our most brutal popular sport.
Charlie Pierce knows what else Bill is going to do.
“He’ll have more time now to root for Barcelona,” Charlie points out.
Psst. Ask him about Ronaldo. That will give you a laugh.
Hey Bill, thanks for everything. No offense to your successor, but I may be sleeping a little later on Saturday morning from now on.
Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.