CARPENTER: A tribute to Jim Senich, late of Southington

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The smile, the laugh and the crowded kitchen table.

The recliner in the living room, too, with the foot rest that kicked out, and the Sporting News folded in half and that big band book he read one summer at the Indian Town cottage in Old Saybrook.

“Funny,” I thought, being a kid. “Funny that a sports guy is reading about my Grampa Joe’s music and not about Grover Cleveland Alexander striking out Tony Lazzeri in Game 7 of the 1926 World Series or some other book about the St. Louis Cardinals.”

What I remember most about Jim Senich, and will forever hear now that he’s gone, is The Voice. The radio voice, the talk show voice, the play-by-play voice, the emcee voice. A sweet tenor stream that rippled with the comic and deftly plumbed the tragic.

The voice of a storyteller.

Folks in his hometown of Waterbury knew Jim Senich as a radio personality on WATR. Folks in Meriden may remember him as the voice of the Connecticut Falcons. Folks in Southington remember him as the sports editor, then editor-in-chief of the Observer and emcee of many a sports banquet and community event.

I knew him as Mr. Senich, father of my best friend Marty.

I was de facto sibling to his daughter Diana and younger sons Chad and Eric. I was a regular boarder on Saturday nights, so Mart and I could walk to basketball practice on Sunday mornings. I was in the hockey crowd that filled the Senich living room for Bruins games, even on school nights, and I was packed along with the suitcases in the Chevy Impala when it was time to ramble down to Indian Town in the summer.

I shared more breakfasts in the crowded kitchen of that Berkeley Avenue cape than I can remember, save for the eggs, which Mr. Senich liked runny.

His stories ran on and segued into others and I hung on every word, be they about Glenn Miller recording Pennsylvania 6500 or LBJ’s tenure on Pennsylvania Avenue or Bob Gibson striking out 17 in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series and snarling at Tim McCarver to get back behind the plate when the catcher stood and pointed out at the scoreboard, where news flashed of the record.

“Didn’t McCarver once try to give Gibson some pitching advice and Gibson told McCarver, ‘All you know about pitching is you can’t hit it.’”

And Mr. Senich, who had interviewed Ted Williams and Tom Seaver and Phil Rizzuto, who had visited Red Smith, would smile and laugh and his eyes would dance.

“That’s a true story, Bry.”

* * *

Jim Senich was a dead-ringer for his cousin, the actor Bob Crane.

I’m thinking of this the day after Jim’s passing on Thursday evening at age 83. I’m sitting on a bench on Main Street in Southampton, Long Island, where pretty people preen and, if you wait long enough, someone famous will walk by. (Hey! Howard Stern!)

I got my sportswriting start in this town some 30 years ago, just as Mr. Senich got his years before that in Southington. We were transplants and we thrived.

And we gained a little local celebrity, though not of the sort that gains you glances on Main Street Southampton, unless maybe you get mistaken for Bob Crane.

Time has confirmed what I always believed: Mr. Senich had big-league radio chops. Quality of voice, cadence, deep and ready well of anecdote and history. I listen to Major League Baseball games, talk shows. Jim Senich could have hung with any of those guys.

Likely all he lacked was the big ego. Jim Senich was quite content to do his work and raise his kids and watch Di become the inimitable Valentine the Clown, Marty a beloved elementary school teacher, Chaddy a skilled carpenter and Ery a multi-media man.

Chaddy’s voice reminds me of Jim’s. Ery walks directly in his footsteps, albeit on fantastical new platforms.

Did Mr. Senich influence me into becoming a sportswriter? Was he like a second father?

I don’t know. I fell into what I fell into by the vagaries of the job market on the first point and, on the second, I had my Grampa Joe.

But I absolutely admired and respected the man. What he knew, I took on authority when I was young.

And, as I grew older, I found myself writing about what he had written about: regular folks, the kids on the block, the hometown schools. Even after brushing up with bigger lights, we always circled back to the locals. Theirs were the best stories, the most real.

Like any personality who makes a living before a camera or microphone, Mr. Senich could turn it on and off. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say, raise and lower the volume. Because the voice never changed when the stories moved from podium to kitchen table.

His was a voice you wanted to listen to. His were stories you wanted to hear. His was a laugh that made you laugh, often until you couldn’t breathe.

On the night he was inducted into the Southington Sports Hall of Fame, Mr. Senich told a story about Wayne Nakoneczny’s cross country team that had me laughing and crying at the same time.

By then, Mr. Senich had been walking on a prosthesis for nearly 10 years. On a summer morning in 2004, crossing the street in Waterbury, where he was living with his second wife and daughter, he was hit by a car. The lower leg fracture was compound, it got infected and a guy who once walked from Southington to his mother’s house in Waterbury, straight over the mountain on Route 322, had a limb amputated at the knee.

Maybe Mr. Senich would still be with us if not for that accident. It’s a testament to his hardiness that he lived so long after it occured. I guess, in the end, he was Bob Gibson, going his allotted nine.

* * *

As terrific a storyteller as Jim Senich was, he was also a terrific listener. I’ve come to learn you can’t be the one without being the other.

At a house-warming party for Chaddy some 20 years ago, before the accident, around another crowded kitchen table, Jim took keen interest when I shared a misadventure of Mart and I and another buddy on a college-days run to the Cape.

Let’s just say the road to Orleans took a detour through Barnstable Superior Court.

“I wised off to the judge,” I confessed to Mr. Senich, “and he sent me back down to the tank, and I’m down there with this guy from Fall River with more facial scars and tattoos than Queequeg in Moby Dick, and he’s muttering, ‘I’m goin’ to jail, man,’ and all I can think to say — this was ‘84 — is ‘How ‘bout them Cubs?’”

Jim absolutely howled.

“How ‘bout them Cubs?!”

Air fled the room.


I’d be flattered to think he filed that one away and laughed just as hard when he retold it.

* * *

Here’s my favorite Jim Senich story and then I’ll let you go.

Sometime 1980s, Indian Town, outside on the narrow dead end in front of the cottage, just by the tidal creek, just after dinner, fat August sun hanging low in a gauzy-blue west, an hour of daylight before Monopoly with Chaddy and Ery on the table in the screened-in porch.

Mr. Senich grabs his wood bat, Mart and I our gloves, and we hit that narrow little dead end where no cars pass, with the smell of low tide wafting up from the creek, and we play pepper.

Back and forth, back and forth: to me, to Mart. Thwack, catch, toss. Thwack, catch, toss.

So long as our throws are within the reach of his arms, Mr. Senich doesn’t miss. One-hoppers, pops, liners: to me, to Mart, thwack, catch, toss, chattering all the while.

“I love pepper!”

“My Grampa Joe loved Pepper Martin!”

“Did he, Bry?”

“Dizzy Dean and all those Gashouse Gang guys!”

Thwack, catch, toss: to me, to Mart.

How many in a row? Our record escapes me. Memory wants to measure in minutes, in hours.

A full eternity, I think, looking back at that fat August sun hanging low in a gauzy-blue west and the smell of low tide rising fresh from the creek and no cars passing to disturb our game.

* * *

The elderly woman who hit Mr. Senich with her car was so distraught she kept visiting him in the hospital.

“I appreciated it,” Mr. Senich said one night I stopped by, “but after a while ...”

His room had to be changed.

“The nurses wheeled me in a bed down the hallway like Vito Corleone in The Godfather.”

I confess I did not visit Mr. Senich in his declining years as much as I should have. I hated seeing Jim Senich, the Stan Musial of pepper, grow frail. Hated seeing the guy who walked from Southington to Waterbury clear over the mountain confined to a chair.

Hated hearing The Voice reduced to a whisper and seeing those dancing eyes dim.

This March 27, on the occasion of his 83rd birthday, Di put together a parade for Mr. Senich at Southington Care Center. Decked as Valentine the Clown, she handed out hats and wigs and toy instruments and we paraded past as he was wheeled out the front door.

The other patients had gathered inside at the windows. We did a couple loops and then Di lined us up in a kick line — “Like the Rockettes!” — and we complied, because if anyone inherited Jim’s ability to command a room and fill it with laughter, it’s Di.

I had my son Danny with me and brought him over to say Happy Birthday.

“He’s just started playing Little League, Mr. Senich, and we’re reading Joe Posnanski’s Baseball 100, so he knows the history and guys like Rogers Hornsby.”

“He’s No. 17 on the list,” Danny said.

Mr. Senich mustered himself. The afternoon was getting on. “Lou Brock?” he rasped.

Amazingly, no. I triple-checked. Lou Brock is not among Joe Posnanski’s top 100 baseball players of all time.

Win some, lose some. Even the greats can fly below the radar.

But those who know, they know. They don’t need a list. They don’t need someone else to tell them. They’ve always known or maybe one day it dawns on them that, week after week, year after year, they’ve been lucky to dwell and move among the best.

The humble best. The best of the best.

Those who know, know. And that is enough.


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