ST. LOUIS (KMOX) — Like many kids growing up in St. Louis, I did get Jack Buck’s autograph once, at a Missouri football game on a fall day in Columbia. Mr. Buck was a guest of a family friend at the game, and he smiled as he signed the front of my program.
My smile? It was there for weeks.
I had just exchanged words with Jack Buck, seen him in real life, the voice of summer himself. I was 9.
My dream as a young sports fan was to get behind the microphone. I ran around the yard, imitating sportscasters — Buck, mostly — with the hope that someday I would have that life. I stayed up late, listening to the games in the dark. I called into “Sports Open Line,” hoping to be selected for an on-air question.
Fast-forward to August, 1997. I’m 22. I’ve just been hired by KMOX Radio, the radio home of the Cardinals and the station I tucked under my pillow at night. The station agreed to bring me on as a part-time board operator, at entry-level pay. And I’m driving downtown to report to One Memorial Drive. Pinch me.
I arrived at the Gateway Tower, took the elevator up to the third floor as instructed, and entered the KMOX sports office. There was one person in there.
I took a few steps and he turned around.
“M-Mr. Buck?” I stammered. “I’m Tom Ackerman. I just started here, sir.”
I took a breath.
“I’m a big fan of your work,” I continued. “And whatever you need, I’m happy to help. It’s just nice to meet you, sir.”
Mr. Buck stood and extended his right hand. I looked at it, the hand that shook Hall of Famers’ hands, Presidents’ hands. I reached out and gave it a firm grip as Mr. Buck said his first words to me as a KMOX employee:
“What kind of pizza do you like, kid?” he asked.
“Um, pepperoni?” I responded, in the form of a question.
“I’ll buy it if you go downstairs and get it.”
And so, my first day at KMOX was spent sharing a pepperoni pizza with Jack Buck. Talk about an ice-breaker.
When he stepped out of the office for a moment, I briefly called home.
“Mom,” I whispered. “I’m here, in the office, by myself. Well, actually Jack Buck is here with me. Just the two of us. We’re eating pizza. Anyway, I have to go.”
“Tom?” my mother asked, but there was no answer.
My career was underway.
If you took Jack Buck’s broadcasting career — most prominently baseball and football, but several other sports, as well — and used it as a stand-alone way to describe him, you’d have yourself a Hall of Famer.
But mostly, Mr. Buck was a Hall of Fame human being. He was genuine, loyal and caring to all who came in his path.
It didn’t matter whether you were an executive or an intern. A restaurant owner or a busboy. A world-class athlete or a worker who prepared the field. You were treated like, at that moment, the most important person in the world.
Jack listened. And I believe he was uplifted by the stories and actions of others. He never missed the opportunity to make the day special for someone, and through that, it was a better day for him.
I had countless interactions with him where he put me in position to be better. He gently pushed me in the right direction — and let me discover some things on my own. He was honest in his criticism, but fair.
But the biggest lessons I learned from him were through observation. As an aspiring emcee, I watched him host many banquets in St. Louis (he started many of them) and display his unique ability to hold the audience in his hand. His comedic timing was impeccable. His ability to read a group of people was uncanny. I’d watch him jot down notes on a piece of paper and zing people in the crowd that I didn’t even know were there. No one has ever done it better.
Mr. Buck gave up his time to host charity events in this city — for decades. He raised millions of dollars through the years — and donated his own money. The generosity, sometimes, was overwhelming. But everyone wanted to be near him and follow him, because they felt they knew him. They’d been listening to him for years — through the radio and in person. He wasn’t a “celebrity broadcaster.” He was their friend.
One year I stood at the corner of Brentwood and Clayton with Mr. Buck, helping collect donations for Old Newsboys Day, a benefit for children’s charities each November. After the event, he turned to me.
“Hey, kid, let’s get some breakfast,” he said, pointing at an International House of Pancakes nearby.
This was going to be good.
We walked into the restaurant and grabbed a table. The heads started turning. Jack opened a menu and ordered “Silver Dollar Pancakes.” (I have no idea what I ordered.)
People began to make their way to the table, politely asking for autographs, and Mr. Buck obliged. He smiled and interacted with Cardinals fans. We ate our breakfast and had a genuinely nice time.
It was at that moment, seeing a possible distraction, that I made the decision: I was going to pay for Jack Buck’s breakfast.
I reached for my wallet under the table and slowly pulled out some cash. I noticed the server approaching the table. The moment had arrived.
Just as I attempted to get her attention, Mr. Buck pulled out a $100 bill and placed it on her tray. She nodded and continued walking. I sat there, hands in my lap, holding a pair of $20’s.
Jack looked up at me, smiling.
“Nice try, kid.”
Tom Ackerman is Sports Director at KMOX. He can be heard at :15 and :45 past the hour weekday mornings on “Total Information A.M.” Follow him on Twitter: @Ackerman1120.