Voice of the Astros: An Interview With Bronx Science Alumnus Robert Ford ’97

A look at the life and career of Bronx Science alumnus and Houston Astros play-by-play radio broadcaster, Robert Ford.

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Tobias Amstutz

Robert Ford joined me on a Zoom call from MLB Spring Training in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Robert Ford had just graduated college and was working his first job as an assistant Sports reporter at the New York City Bureau of a Japanese newspaper called the Yomiuri Shimbun, on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. He arrived in the office at 9:00 AM, 14 minutes after the first plane had hit the World Trade Center. Two minutes before the second plane hit, after he heard the news, Ford immediately knew it was not going to be an ordinary day. Although his focus was mainly on sports, this story was so big that every reporter had to work it. His paper by chance had one reporter with a 35mm film camera by the World Trade Center as the events were unfolding, and he was able to take photographs as events transpired, although there was no way of getting the film back to the paper. In a fit of organizational heroics, Ford was able to find a place as far downtown as he was allowed to go where he could transfer film of the event via a man who was paid $40 to run with the film from the World Trade Center to where Ford stood.  It was an ingenious way of ensuring that the news of the event was captured, and it opens a window into Ford’s ingenuity and grit as a journalist. 

Ford is now one of thirty primary play-by-play radio announcers to given commentary for a Major League Baseball team and only one of four African-American men ever to hold that title. Furthermore, he is one of only two African-American men ever to commentate a Series deciding game in the World Series. Simply put, he is a trailblazer in his field.

Speaking on his determination, Ford said, “I just knew I wanted to be in sports. I think I knew that for a long time, even before I figured out the journalism stuff, and even if that had never happened, I knew I wanted to work in sports. I wanted to just figure out a way out, once I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional athlete. It was like, ‘Okay, well, how else can I do this?’ And so once I seized on something that I really loved, and it seemed interesting to me, I was like: ‘Alright, I’m just gonna do this,’ and I also think I was too naive to think, ‘Man, the odds here are really long, it’s really hard to get a minor league job, it’s even harder to get a job in the big leagues.’ I just was like, ‘I’m gonna figure this out and see where it takes me, and I just didn’t worry about any of the other stuff.’”

Ford was born in Jamaica, Queens. His parents never married and split up when he was four years old. From a young age, Ford’s family cultivated his love of sports. The three figures that inspired his love of sports the most were his father, his mother, and his grandfather on his mother’s side.

His father was a former athlete at Queensborough Community College, where he “majored in basketball.” He was a huge sports fan and would watch basketball, baseball, football, and boxing with his son. Ford used this time to bond with his father, as they would talk about every aspect of the game, including who was doing the play-by-play commentary.

His mother also helped Ford to cultivate his love for sports. She did this by recognizing that he had a passion for the game of baseball which she decided to embrace, by buying Ford lots of books about the game. Ford used them to deepen his interest. 

However, the biggest reason that Ford fell in love with sports and baseball, in particular, was because of his grandfather. His grandfather grew up in rural North Carolina on sharecropping land and only got through the 8th grade before he moved to New York City. He was “functionally illiterate” when he got to the City and began doing the only thing he knew, baseball. He played in the semi-pro all-Black leagues before he realized there was more money to be made in other fields, but his love for baseball never waned. He was a huge Mets fan all his life, and that inspired Robert to become a Mets fan. Speaking about his relationship with baseball and his grandfather, Ford said, “Baseball was really the first sport that I gravitated toward; that was the favorite sport of my grandfather.” 

Robert Ford likes to brag that he is, “one of the few Bronx Science students who actually grew up in walking distance from Bronx Science,” which is true because his mother moved to 193rd street and Jerome avenue before his first birthday. When he began his time at Bronx Science, he had to walk half a mile from his mother’s house to school each morning, but by the time junior year started, he and his mother had moved to Scott Towers, which are directly across Paul Avenue from Bronx Science. 

During his time at Bronx Science, Ford had a life changing experience, while taking Global Studies with a former teacher, Ms. Goodman, during his sophomore year. He was given an assignment to write about a current event of his choice. Because of his love of baseball, he chose the 1994-95 MLB strike which lasted 232 days. He had a lot to say about the topic and it translated to one of his best pieces of writing in high school. When Ms. Goodman handed it back to him with an ‘A,’ she told him, “You are a great writer, you should write for The Science Survey because a lot of people there don’t know how to write, and you do.” This was the first time anyone had ever told him he was a good writer, and it gave him the confidence to try writing for The Science Survey, Bronx Science’s student newspaper. He got in touch with the sports editors for The Science Survey at the time, and soon he was writing about the Bronx Science sports teams. 

“If Ms. Goodman had never said anything to me, I don’t know that I would have ever written for The Science Survey. I don’t know if things would have happened the way that they did, but obviously I’m glad that they happened that way,” said Ford.

When Ford was applying to college in 1997, the internet was coming onto the scene, and print journalism was becoming less  important. He saw this trend unfolding and did not want to be stuck in the seemingly dying print journalism industry, so he decided he wanted to major in broadcast journalism. He knew that many of his favorite sports broadcasters had gone to Syracuse University, and so it became one of his top choices. When they offered him a great financial aid package, he accepted and started as a broadcast journalism major at Syracuse. At that point, he thought he wanted to be a T.V. anchor, but after dipping his toe into multiple fields at school, he was enthralled with play-by-play commentary. By the end of his sophomore year, he had decided that he wanted to become a play-by-play broadcaster.

But unfortunately, unlike all the other famous broadcasters out of Syracuse, he had not joined the prestigious student run radio station, WAER, as a first year student. Because of the competitive nature of the station, if you were not a member from the beginning of your time at Syracuse, it was impossible to advance to become a play-by-play commentator. This meant that Ford was forced to take an unconventional path to become a broadcaster and only meant he had to work harder in order to achieve his goal. 

Once he had made up his mind on what he wanted to do, he decided to put everything he had into pursuing this goal. He did this by practicing all the time.  To practice, he would sit in the back of the local Syracuse AAA baseball games, as well as the Syracuse University basketball and football games with a tape recorder, and he would offer commentary on the game to himself. In his senior year, he also took a class in play-by-play broadcasting, where he was able to have some hands-on experience giving commentary on high school baseball and basketball games. After he graduated from Syracuse, he moved back to New York City, but that did not stop him from practicing. He would go to any games that he could get into, including Mets, Yankees, and college games around the city. He would bring his tape recorder to all of these games, and by the end of the year, he had amassed experience at enough games that he was able to put together a demo-tape of the calls that he thought sounded the best. 

Ford then brought this tape to the 2001 Baseball Winter Meeting in Boston. There, he applied for every available broadcasting position using his demo-tape, and was immediately interviewed and then hired by a Minor League Baseball team located in Washington State called the Yakima Bears. In June 2002, Ford started offering commentary for the Bears. They had 76 games in 80 days because of a shortened season, and he did every game by himself. Looking back on this time, Ford said, “By the end of that summer I knew two things. I knew that play-by-play was what I wanted to do, and I knew that I could be pretty good at it.” 

Ford spent seven years in the minor leagues doing play-by-play broadcasting for the Yakima Bears, the Binghamton Mets, and the Kalamazoo Kings. In 2009, he stopped doing play-by-play for baseball, because he was offered a job in the major leagues with the Kansas City Royals. He became the host of a post-game talk show where fans would call in and talk about the team. He still wanted to be a major league play-by-play announcer, but he thought this job would be a good stepping stone and a way to get out of the minor leagues. During this time, he missed doing play-by-play for baseball and would often revert back to giving commentary on the games by himself into a tape recorder. After a few years in this job, he had amassed enough tapes to create a contemporary demo-tape. He sent this in whenever there was an opening for a major-league broadcaster job. Through this tape, Ford was able to land his current job as primary play-by-play broadcaster for the Houston Astros.

Ford was awarded this job after the 2012 season. The Astros had just gotten a new owner, and their legendary broadcaster, Milo Hamilton, who had been in Houston the previous 30 years, had just retired. Before the season, the new owner decided to make wholesale changes within radio broadcast, and that included bringing in Ford. 

This was Ford’s first job in the major leagues, and he was not extremely confident in his abilities yet. Talking about this time, Ford said, “I wanted to know, am I good enough? Do people like me? Am I doing a decent job at this?” In order to answer these questions, Ford turned to the veteran, Milo Hamilton, asking him for constructive criticism whenever possible. Hamilton would always give Ford one or two pieces of good advice until one day in the middle of Ford’s first season with the Astros, he asked Hamilton for some advice, and Milo put his hand on Ford’s shoulder and said, “Kid, you’re going to be just fine.” Looking back on this moment Ford said, “That really meant the world to me and gave me a lot more confidence. I was like: ‘Okay I’m on the right track. Things are going to be okay.’ I’ll never forget that moment for as long as I live.”

Ford’s first season with the Astros was 2013. That year they went 51 and 111, which was their worst season in franchise history. However, each year after that they began to improve. On the topic of the Astros progression, Ford said, “Every year they got a little bit better and a little bit better and a little bit better… It’s been very rewarding.”

The Astro’s progression culminated in the 2017 season in which they won the World Series in 7 games. This was a huge turn around for the organization and was created mainly by the play of some truly great players. Unfortunately, this team was also affiliated with one of the biggest scandals in the recent history of baseball. It all unfolded in 2019 after former Astros pitcher, Mike Fiers exposed them for “electronically stealing signs” by using cameras in the outfield at home games to try to get a competitive advantage against the opposing team. Once this story broke, it immediately became the biggest in all of baseball. It framed the Astros organization and players in a terrible light and immediately put the legitimacy of their 2017 championship into question. When thinking back on the scandal Ford said, “What’s unfortunate to me is that it tarnishes everything that that team did, and that those players did.” He added, “I know that they could have won the World Series and done all of the things they did without any help, and I wish they hadn’t done it that way, but they did, so you know, this is always going to be the story of this era of Astros baseball.” 

This 2017 World Series was a historic moment for Ford for a different reason. It was game seven of that series when he became the second African-American announcer to lead a World Series deciding broadcast. When asked about diversity in baseball today, Ford said, “There have been more than four Black broadcasters who are qualified to call major league baseball games,” and “I want there to be more Black broadcasters, I want there to be more Asian broadcasters,  I want there to be more Latino broadcasters, and I want there to be more female broadcasters. I think diversity is what the game needs in order to continue to thrive and grow.”

Ford talked to me from Spring Training in West Palm Beach, Florida before the 2021 MLB officially kicked off. He is starting his ninth year doing major league play-by-play, and in many ways, has achieved his dream. Looking back, Ford felt like his time at Bronx Science helped him out a lot in his career path, saying, “One of the great things about Bronx Science is, obviously, that it is a math and science high school, but it’s also a really good high school. You know, we talk about journalism, that’s not math or science, but I was able to cultivate an interest in journalism at Bronx Science, and I might not have been able to at another high school, and I think that’s a testament to just how good and well rounded of a school it is.” He added, “It’s a more diverse school than the vast majority of high schools anywhere, and so then I went to college which is also diverse, and it wasn’t something that was unfamiliar to me.”

When asked to give some advice to future Bronx Science students who are interested in journalism or sports, he said, “It’s important to have other interests outside of journalism or sports, because when you only have your one or two interests, it’s much easier to get burnt out. I’ve always had lots of different interests. I was an education minor at Syracuse. My education classes were a nice contrast to my broadcast journalism classes. I was a tour guide at the American Museum of Natural History for two summers after college, which had nothing to do with journalism. I think it is important to use a different part of your brain.” 

He finally added, “You want to try and figure out: ‘What makes me different? What sets me apart?’ There are a million people out there who like sports and want to write about sports. My determination, I think that was something that set me apart. I was just going to figure this out and keep trying to get better. There are a lot of people who say they want to do this, but aren’t willing to put in the work. So when you figure out what it is you decide to do you have to think: ‘Am I willing to put in the work to be as good as possible to be one of the best I can be at this? What’s gonna set me apart? How am I different from everybody else who’s trying to do the same thing you’re trying to do?’”

“I just knew I wanted to be in sports. I think I knew that for a long time, even before I figured out the journalism stuff, and even if that had never happened, I knew I wanted to work in sports. I wanted to just figure out a way out, once I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional athlete. It was like, ‘Okay, well, how else can I do this?’ And so once I seized on something that I really loved, and it seemed interesting to me, I was like: ‘Alright, I’m just gonna do this,’ and I also think I was too naive to think, ‘Man, the odds here are really long, it’s really hard to get a minor league job, it’s even harder to get a job in the big leagues.’ I just was like, ‘I’m gonna figure this out and see where it takes me, and I just didn’t worry about any of the other stuff,’” said Robert Ford, Voice of the Astros. 

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