The Voice of God: Philadelphia’s John Facenda

Here’s an interesting video I just came across, with Philly legend John Facenda discussing his heartbreak over the 1964 Phillies. Facenda is well known in these parts. The man known to football fans as the “Voice of God” moved to Philadelphia as a young boy when his father got a job working on the Ben Franklin Bridge. As a young man, Facenda got his start at the Philadelphia Public Ledger, and later did the news for WCAU (NBC10), where his news show dominated the local ratings.

But it was a stroke of luck that he became a football deity. The following comes from a terrific story about Facenda (and his sons efforts to protect his legacy) in 2007 in Philly Mag:
In 1964, John Facenda strolled into the San Marco, a favorite nightspot on City Avenue for Philadelphia’s newsmen. People called City Avenue the “Golden Mile” then. It was a place full of swagger and splash. Much of that was due to television station WCAU’s move there in the ’50s — an extraordinary step, for a station to move its headquarters outside the city, and a boost for the area’s sense of cool.

In the San Marco, Facenda took off his hat — he always wore a hat — and took his seat at the bar. Through the cigarette smoke, he saw what was a novelty for a bar: a television. The black-and-white box meant more than easy entertainment, then. After decades of radio rule, television had taken over. Each evening the princes of the new medium broadcast the news from a few blocks away, then paraded down to the San Marco for drinks, and Facenda ruled them all. “He was the dean of broadcasters,” says Gerry Wilkinson, who now runs Broadcast Pioneers, a preservation society for Philadelphia’s television history. “He was first, and he was best.”

Down the bar, another man, Ed Sabol, watched the television as well. He worked as an aspiring filmmaker. The bar’s owner, keen to use his television to bring in business, had invited Sabol to show off some of his spectacular football highlight footage. And it was astonishing: slow-motion violence, players crashing and trampling, the high spiral of the ball dropping through snow into the waiting hands of a receiver.

Facenda marveled. He opened his mouth and his voice poured out, narrating the plays as they unfolded on the film. From down the bar, Sabol listened, then approached. “If I give you a script,” he asked Facenda, “could you repeat what you just did?”

The broadcaster said, “I’ll try.”

And so John Facenda went from local legend to national football deity. His NFL films obituary for Vince Lombardi is goosebump-inducing (“Lombardi. A certain magic still lingers in the very name. It speaks of duels in the snow and cold Novmeber mud.”), and his poem The Autumn Wind is the theme song of Raider Nation. The video above, is baseball. I chose that one because it not only shows off his incredible voice, but also shows that he was personally upset by the collapse of his hometown 9.

Facenda died of cancer in 1984 at age 71. In the years since, his voice has been used to sell everything from video games to soups. His son, Jack, has been trying to protect his father’s voice, suing NFL Films, the NFL, and Chunky Soup in recent years.

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