Red Wings' broadcasting icon Tom Decker dies

Jim Mandelaro, Staff writer November 8, 2013

Tom Decker heard the news in the winter of 1953: Jack Buck was leaving as Rochester Red Wings play-by-play man after just one season to join the parent St. Louis Cardinals.

"My brother Jack tipped me off," Decker said in a 2010 interview with the Democrat and Chronicle. "I sent a recording to (Cardinals general manager) Bing Devine and he said 'C'mon down, let's talk.' "

Decker's baseball experience was limited recreating major-league games on the Armed Forces Network during the Korean War so he sent Devine a football tape. But his obvious talent was too good to overlook. He got the job and spent the next eight seasons with the Red Wings.

Buck went on to become a Hall of Fame broadcaster. Decker forged his own legacy in his adopted hometown of Rochester.

Decker died Tuesday at age 90 in Ormond Beach, Fla. He is predeceased by his wife, Helen, and survived by his son, David, and daughter, Susan. Funeral services are Friday and Saturday at Craig Flagler Funeral Home in Flagler Beach, Fla. Condolences may be sent to craigflaglerpalms.com.

Decker also became a highly popular news and sports anchor at WROC-TV (Channel 8) before leaving the area in 1975. He was inducted into the Red Wings Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Rochester Radio Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1995.

"Tom Decker was a giant in the TV news business during the Golden Age of television," said Channel 8 sports director John Kucko, who did extensive stories on Decker through the years. "His on-air personna was captivating, with that infamous baritone. Channel 8 had a stranglehold on the TV news ratings back then, and it was because of Tom Decker."

Thomas Joseph Decker was born and raised in Buffalo, graduating from Kensington High as class president. He loved broadcasting from an early age.

"My mother would always say, 'Listen to that announcer. He has a good delivery," he recalled.

He began his broadcasting career with the Buffalo Broadcasting Corp. while attending Canisius College. He joined the Army at the height of World War II, serving in the 80th Infantry Division and earned both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. After the war, he attended Syracuse University to finish his degree in radio journalism. That's where he met Helen.

He was recalled to active duty during the Korean War and served as program director for 32 stations on the American Forces Network.

After a stint with radio station WNEB in Worcester, Mass., and completing his degree in radio journalism at Syracuse University, he came to Rochester in '54.

Smooth, dry-witted and always professional, Decker was the Voice of the Red Wings during some of the most turbulent yet glorious times in franchise history. After the 1956 season, the team was put up for sale by the Cardinals and purchased by the newly-formed Rochester Community Baseball headed by local music store owner Morrie Silver. Four years later, the Red Wings dropped the Cardinals after 34 seasons and signed on with the Baltimore Orioles.

Decker said his greatest memory was seeing players such as Bob Gibson, Boog Powell and Tim McCarver go from the Red Wings to big-league stardom. He also covered one of the most popular Red Wings of all time, the charismatic and ageless Luke Easter.

Decker saw the Red Wings win back-to-back Governors' Cup titles in 1955 and '56. He only worked on the road during playoff games. Otherwise, he would "recreate" the game from a local studio, using the Western Union ticker as his guide.

"I'd bang two sticks together to make a hit sound," he said.

The Buffalo native was a busy man in those days. He took over as WROC news anchor in 1959, and his duties soon included reporting sports scores. By the end of the 1961 season, he decided to lighten his load and gave up his job with the Red Wings. But he didn't go away completely.

"I still went to a lot of games and became good friends with (replacement) Joe Cullinane," he said. "He even let me call a few games."

Decker and weatherman Bob Mills headed a Channel 8 staff that led local TV rankings for years. Some called him "Rochester's answer to Walter Cronkite." His brother, Jack, was the WROC news director and head writer then, and for years the brothers and their families lived less than a mile apart in Pittsford.

"He had the ability to write the way I speak," Decker said. "We had almost total intuitive agreement on what people would be talking about the next day."

Everything changed when WROC was sold to new owners who wanted more controversial issues and field reporters with "attitudes," Decker said. Jack had left for rival Channel 10 and ratings were declining. In 1975, after suffering a perforated ulcer, Tom resigned.

"I feel like I have a 500-pound weight off my shoulders," he said at the time.

The local Republican party wanted him to run for state Senate. Instead, he left Rochester to become a vice president and spokesman for the National Safety Council in Chicago. He appeared on the major TV networks and narrated safety films. He retired in 1992 and moved with Helen to Florida first Palm Coast and then Ormond Beach, north of Daytona Beach. He was extremely active and presided at holiday gatherings and church services. Helen passed away in 2000.

Decker's love of Rochester was genuine.

"Of all the cities we lived in, I always considered Rochester to be my home," he said. "That's when the kids were little, grew up and went to school. And that's where all of our family friends were."

Long after he retired, Tom and Helen would make regular trips to Rochester to visit old friends and have dinner at Oak Hill Country Club and Monroe Golf Club.

"And then little by little they died," he said in 2009. "There's not that much reason to come back."

But his fondness for the city where he lived for 21 years never waned. "I loved Rochester," he said. "Except in the wintertime."