Radio Man Reflects on Hall of Fame Career

By Troy Treasure

NEMOnews Media Group

KMEM-Memphis Sports Director Donnie Middleton’s family loved St. Louis Cardinals baseball of the 1950s and 60s – especially his mother, Elaine.

Broadcasts of then mostly daytime games brought the voice of St. Louis play-by-play man Harry Caray into the Middleton’s Downing residence.

Donnie Middleton eventually went to broadcasting school.

“I worked for two weeks at a radio station in Texas before I got drafted,” Middleton recalled recently.

Unfortunately, the Cardinals did not make the draft selection. It was the United States Army. Middleton served in the Vietnam War during portions of 1969 and 1970. He stepped off an aircraft in Long Binh, just outside Saigon, on Easter Sunday, 1969.

“Eleven months and 20 days,” Middleton said. “My son was born less than a month after I got in Vietnam.”

When Middleton returned home from the service, there was not a radio station in Clark or Scotland Counties. He had a family to support. Middleton’s broadcast career, all two weeks of it, went on another hiatus.

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Donnie was inducted into the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2017. The pathway there began with an old-time rock-and-roll radio show.

Middleton mentioned to then-KMEM owner Sam Berkowitz how much he enjoyed the station’s Nostalgia Sunday program.

“Three days later, Sam called me. He said, ‘How would you like to host Nostalgia Sunday?’ I started on July 1, 1986,” Middleton said.

Berkowitz was hired as head football coach at Schuyler County. As owner of the radio station, he ordered Schuyler County games on the air. Middleton was originally asked about play-by-play, but instead requested an acclimation process as analyst.

That process was very brief.

“We’re in Queen City. J.C. Knoll was supposed to do the play-by-play,” Middleton said. “I said, ‘Now with the play-by-play, here’s J.C. Knoll,’ and handed him the microphone.

“He couldn’t talk. I immediately just started talking about what I’m seeing,” Middleton continued, “and I’ve said this before: when I first started, I wasn’t very good. But, neither was Schuyler County. They were only a couple of years into their program.”

Donnie cited former University of Missouri basketball voice Kevin Harlan as an influence. Middleton listened to the broadcasts on KIRX-Kirksville.

“Kevin Harlan, I think, is the first one I remember really paying attention to,” Middleton said. “To me, he is kind of controlled excitement. You think he can explode about any time. I just loved the way he kept my attention.”

Middleton’s son, Andy, has many fond memories of working with his father.

Andy recalled a game in either 1993 or 1994.

“I was with him for Schuyler County at Westran. Up to that point, Schuyler County usually wasn’t very good but that year’s team had potential,” Andy said.

“That game ended tied 6-6 and went five overtimes,” he continued. “The Rams got a two-point conversion and Westran didn’t. The final was something like 46-44.

“It was just crazy and we went crazy because of the lack of success the Rams had had to that point,” Andy added.

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Overall, Donnie estimated he has had the privilege of calling 10 state athletic events in either Columbia or Springfield. The most recent was with the Scotland County Lady Tigers in the 2021 Show-Me Showdown at Missouri State University.

Clark County R-1 High School Principal Jason Harper said he’s listened to Middleton’s broadcasts for nearly 35 years.

“He called my games as both a player in the 1980s and then as a high school coach in the 1990s and 2000s,” Harper said.

“Donnie really has a talent for calling games,” Harper continued. “He creates a unique dialogue, with his gravelly voice that can create a picture for the listener.”

During his career, Middleton has broadcast games or been public address announcer from such locations as the back of a pickup truck, as well as a small booth atop a telephone poll.

He has also endured less than ideal weather conditions. Just two or three years ago, however, Middleton experienced a first.

“Over at Putnam County, it’s the first baseball game of the year,” he recalled. “We’re out in the open, dark, steely gray skies, just like Vin Scully would describe it.”

Snow began to fall.

“By the third inning, it was comin’ down; big old flakes. Our stat sheet? Gone, it got so wet. It snowed hard. It was almost covering the infield,” Middleton said.

“A kid hit a line drive into left field. The left fielder caught it. I don’t know how because I could not see the ball,” he continued. “That’s when the umpire said, ‘That’s it.’ I had insulated coveralls on. They suspended the game.”

The contest was later resumed at Knox County as part of a quasi-doubleheader. Middleton stated he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

Middleton also recalled a 2007 fire at the North Shelby Tournament and a bomb threat during a Scotland County-Clark County basketball game at Memphis. The incidents occurred approximately a month apart.

“I’m in the hospitality room all by myself at North Shelby and the fire alarm went off,” Middleton said. “Dave Sharp walks in and says it’s probably the popcorn machine. He left, then came back and said, ‘The place is on fire!’”

Middleton, like just about everyone else, found himself outside.

“You looked to the north at the elementary school and there were big, black, billowy clouds of smoke and the fire trucks were coming,” he said.

The bomb threat at Memphis turned out to be a false alarm. However, the fieldhouse was evacuated – except for one person.

“Dave Boden (producer) said stay there and report,” Middleton said. “The song Bits and Pieces by the Dave Clark Five went through my head.

“There was nothing to report. I was talking to walls,” he added. “Finally, somebody said, ‘Donnie, you’ve got to leave.’”

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This past basketball season, KMEM aired 95 games. Donnie estimated he did about 80.

“I went to all these places and, knock on wood, I didn’t have the COVID,” he said.

Middleton has jokingly indicated to people his service in Vietnam might be the reason why.

“I took 1,120 malaria pills and after 50 years, maybe they’re still kicking in. I don’t know,” he said with a laugh.

Harper said Middleton has promoted high school athletics as well as anyone in Clark County’s small corner of northeast Missouri.

“Every time I see him enter the gym, it brings a smile to my face,” Harper said. “You never meet Donnie without a handshake and a, ‘How are you doing?’

“He is a legend in northeast Missouri and for everyone that has grown up here; a fixture on KMEM throughout the school year,” Harper added.

Middleton, 73, has no plan for putting the headset down for a final time.

“I hope that if I start going downhill – some people might say I already have – I hope I know that it’s time to step down,” he said.

“Right now, I’ve already told my producer Dave Boden, who does the majority of the games, that if ever I’m doing a ball game and all of sudden after about 30 seconds he hasn’t heard anything, call 911 because I’ve probably keeled over,” Middleton said with a chuckle.