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Game Changer: How Carlton Fisk's home run altered baseball and TV

Game 6 of the 1975 World Series was not only perhaps the best game ever played, but it also helped save baseball and forever changed how sports are broadcast on television.

This story appears in the Oct. 26, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.

A waning gibbous moon hung like a medallion over Charlestown, N.H., on the first clear night after a three-day nor’easter. A light wind rustled the lindens and oaks along Main Street. The bells of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church suddenly began clanging at the strange hour of 1:07 a.m. Such an intrusion on the dead of night alarmed the local police. No services could possibly be held in these first hours of Wednesday, Oct. 22, 1975.

The corner of Main and Church, whence the bells tolled, is 128 miles from Fenway Park, 170 miles from Cooperstown, N.Y., and as near to the roots of America as anyplace else—which is to say its story actually begins in England. A struggling young cabinetmaker named Richard Upjohn left that country for the U.S. and an architectural career around 1829. His big break came 10 years later, when he was hired to design and build a new Trinity Church in New York City. He delivered what still stands as one of this country’s foremost monuments to Gothic architecture.

Upjohn became an American master of the Gothic Revival style and gained wide influence for his 1852 publication Rural Architecture, which provided the designs for small congregations to build churches all over the country. St. Luke’s, built over five months in 1863, is Upjohn’s only wooden church in New Hampshire: a simple, sturdy, white building shaped like a cross, with pointed arched red doorways; a slate-shingled, steeply pitched roof; and a two-story tower with almond-shaped louvered openings on four sides, the better to allow the bells’ ringing to carry over the Connecticut River Valley.

Those bells. They would not stop. By Godfrey if any of the 4,300 residents of Charlestown could sleep through that racket. A police officer rushed to the church and climbed to the belfry. There he found a Charlestown resident, David Conant, 61.

“What are you doing?” the officer demanded.

“Carlton Fisk just hit a home run to win the World Series game tonight for the Red Sox!” Conant announced.

Fisk was born across the river in Bellows Falls, Vt., and raised in Charlestown. Conant’s wife used to change Fisk’s diapers. Conant’s son played baseball with Fisk at Charlestown High. The broad-shouldered, square-jawed Fisk was as much a testament to New England values as St. Luke’s itself. As he once told the Concord Monitor, “My core was anchored in New Hampshire. Being stubborn and unwavering, never giving in, never giving up, no matter what the obstacles.”

Everybody in Charlestown knew Fisk, the kid who was called Pudge ever since he weighed 105 pounds as an eight-year-old. Now the police officer understood what all the commotion was about. “Hell,” he replied, “if I had known that, I would have come and helped you.”

Conant rang the bells for four minutes. Quiet finally returned to Charlestown at 1:11 a.m., but the resonance of the bells of St. Luke’s will never cease.

That night endures not just because a son of New England hit one of the most famous home runs in baseball history, the clout that ended Game 6 and made necessary an almost-as-thrilling Game 7 to confirm a superlative Reds ball club as world champions. That night also changed American culture.

Forty years later our arenas and ballparks and especially our living rooms, dens, man caves, bars, restaurants and every other place we gather to watch sports have become our secular versions of St. Luke’s. Worship is not too strong a word to describe what we do at the nexus of our two favorite pastimes: sports and television.

Think about what we now take for granted in televised sports. Prime-time starts, the networks influencing when games are played, cameras placed at unusual vantage points, reaction shots of athletes away from the ball—all of it can be traced to the NBC telecast of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. What the 1958 NFL title game did for pro football, Game 6 did for televised sports. There is only before and after. It is the most influential telecast in the 76 years that baseball has been televised.

“The sixth game was one of the best ever played,” William Leggett wrote in SI then, “and NBC rose to the occasion with perhaps the best baseball telecast ever put on the air.”

In hindsight, it was easier to build St. Luke’s than it was to make that four-hour event. It took much more than Fisk’s home run to change televised sports forever. It took the conflation of happy accidents and huge personalities, including rain, money, Bowie Kuhn, Red Smith, Howard Cosell, rain, O.J. Simpson, Pete Rose, Sparky Anderson ... and more rain. Oh, did it rain.

*****

A telegram arrived at the Lenox Hotel on Boylston Street in Boston during the last week of the 1975 regular season. It was addressed to a guest, Dick Stockton, a 32-year-old broadcaster who was wrapping up his first season calling play-by-play for the Red Sox. Stockton’s timing was superb. The Red Sox won 95 games, their most since 1949.

The telegram was a bonus for the rookie announcer. Stockton, who only 12 months earlier had been a freelancer for a Boston NBC station with no baseball experience, ripped open the envelope. He hardly could believe the typewritten words:

We are pleased to advise you of your nomination and approval to work with us during the 1975 World Series for the telecast of the first and sixth game. $500 a game. Please do not include the color blue in your wardrobe. Good luck. Chet Simmons, NBC Sports.

Today the telegram is framed and hanging on the wall of Stockton’s Florida home.

*****

Game 6, which followed a travel day, was scheduled for Saturday afternoon, Oct. 18. The Reds were one victory away from the franchise’s first championship in 35 years. But they would have to wait at least another day. The nor’easter that had brought sheets of rain to Boston on Friday night showed no signs of quitting. At 9:20 a.m. Kuhn, the commissioner, called the game and rescheduled it for the following day at 1 p.m.

The newspapermen, who had grown up with the the World Series starting a few days after the regular season (with no playoffs as a preamble) and played exclusively in daylight (the better for deadlines), blamed the postponement on television. “The whole competition could have been completed before now and that championship decided in lovely weather if baseball hadn’t sold out its prime spectacle as a weekend special for the TV hucksters,” wrote Smith, the Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for the The New York Times who was born in 1905, the year of the second World Series.

The forecast for Sunday sounded no better, which sent the press corps into a tizzy about whether Kuhn would dare play Game 6 on a Monday night. Baseball had played its first World Series night game in 1971, then dipped a few other toes in the water over the next four years by scheduling the three weekday games (3, 4 and 5) at night. Game 6 had never been played at night. “It all boils down to the fact that baseball stupidly puts the interests of the networks and their viewers ahead of the cash customers’ good,” Smith wrote.

But Kuhn’s choice wasn’t so simple. By playing Game 6 on Monday night, he would be putting baseball up against not only Monday Night Football, in which Simpson’s Buffalo Bills were playing the New York Giants, but also the top-rated show on television, the sitcom All in the Family, which was pulling in a staggering 30.1 rating at a time when viewers still had few choices beyond ABC, CBS and NBC. (Only 14% of homes had cable television.) “Relish is the wrong word,” Kuhn replied when a reporter asked if he relished such a head-to-head-to-head matchup.

Many houses had just one television, and the networks packed prime time with shows designed to allow the entire family to gather around the TV set after dinner. Eight o’clock was reserved almost exclusively for dramas and sitcoms. Sports had no footing in network television at 8 p.m.; the networks and advertisers were skeptical that sports could work at that hour because, while they might appeal to dad, they would not win the whole family’s attention. ABC had been running Monday Night Football since 1970, but those games had 9 p.m. kickoffs, past the “family window” coveted by advertisers.

Baseball tried its own Monday-night games in the early 1970s, but the reaction from viewers was so tepid that in ’73, NBC announced that it would recruit celebrity game analysts such as Pearl Bailey, Woody Allen and Dinah Shore. One celebrity invited to join the NBC booth that season was MNF fixture Cosell, who promptly ripped baseball. “Unfortunately,” he said on air, “it is impossible for us to continue to camouflage the indisputable fact that this game is lagging insufferably.”

Baseball was regarded as too slow. A downturn in offense, which prompted the American League to adopt the designated hitter rule in 1973, didn’t help. Attendance was stagnant: Seven of the 24 teams failed to draw one million fans (fewer than 12,000 per game). Ratings for the 1974 World Series were down 20%. The flow of national TV money showed little to no growth. In May 1971, Kuhn announced a four-year contract with NBC that included a 7.6% increase in annual payments, but the take for each club actually declined because the majors had expanded from 20 to 24 teams.

Four years later, in March 1975, Kuhn announced that ABC would join NBC in a new deal with MLB. He proudly trumpeted a 29.3% increase in total fees as “enormous.” But because of inflation, the true value of the deal was about equal to the 1971 deal. The big TV money the old pressmen like Smith worried about wasn’t there—not yet, anyway.

MORE MLB: Full postseason schedule, start times, TV listings

*****

No person created more institutional baseball memories than Harry Coyle. He directed 36 World Series, all for NBC, beginning with the first the network covered, in 1947. It was through Coyle’s direction that we saw, even if it was many years later, Lavagetto break Bevens’s heart in ’47, Mays rob Wertz in ’54, Berra jump into Larsen’s arms in ’56, the ball go through Buckner’s legs in ’86, Gibson take Eckersley deep in ’88. Coyle gave us the visual encyclopedia of postseason baseball.

It was Coyle who pioneered the use of the centerfield camera, capturing the strategic embroilment of pitcher-batter-catcher. Coyle also wrote a 14-page manual for televising baseball that was such a definitive work that it was called Harry’s Bible. It included each camera operator’s assignment on the most common plays and the rapid progression of how those shots should be used.

Coyle, a former World War II bomber pilot, was 53 in 1975. He was a cigarette-smoking, gruff-talking, dese ’n’ dems kind of guy who walked in the swaying manner of John Wayne and was known to relieve himself between the production trucks during commercial breaks. Such a legend did he become that the broadcaster played by Bob Uecker in the 1989 baseball farce Major League was named Harry Doyle.

On the night of Oct. 21, 1975, in a parking lot behind the rightfield seats of Fenway Park, a young production assistant named Michael Weisman would take his seat in NBC’s main production truck, immediately behind Coyle. It was Weisman’s job to run the graphics, such as flashing the ball-and-strike count. “I thought, Oh, my God, I remember being 10 years old and watching Tony Kubek get hit in the throat, and this is the man who brought me the pictures,” Weisman says of Coyle. “This is the man who brought Koufax into my house in ’63 and the Miracle Mets in ’69. It’s very rare you could work with someone who was the best in history at what he did.

“I don’t know how he did it. For all those years he was under such intense pressure. Every pitch could lead to history, and you can’t miss one.”

*****

Sunday arrived. So did more rain. Kuhn called the game at 9:23 a.m. Then he announced a game time for Monday: 8:30 p.m. “My inclination is toward a night game to better accommodate the fans,” Kuhn said.

Smith was apoplectic. He eviscerated Kuhn in print again. “Exposing cash customers to raw night cold is a novel way of accommodating them,” Smith wrote. “Accommodating TV sponsors at prime time is something else again.” The two days of rain had done more than just postpone the World Series; they made for a new war, between the purists who wanted to protect the agrarian-rooted game they had grown up with and the profiteers of a foundering sport who saw TV money as the way forward.

The Monday-night ratings war would never happen, though. Monday morning brought only more rain and more carping. Another Times columnist, Dave Anderson, took the baton from Smith later in the week. “Nureyev isn’t asked to dance on ice, Heifetz never had to play the violin with mittens,” Anderson wrote. “But for the greater glory of the Nielsen ratings, World Series players are expected to compete in weather that not only is unsuitable to their skills but also would not always be condoned during the regular season.”

Kuhn finally rescheduled the game for Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. The World Series had been on hiatus for four days. Bitterness and fatigue saturated the press corps as surely as the rain did. “The mood by then,” Stockton says, “was, 'Let’s get this thing over with.'”

*****

Tony Kubek, the former Yankees shortstop who quickly became the sharpest baseball analyst on television, would walk around a ballpark before a World Series in the manner of a nature photographer studying the landscape. Instead of a camera, he would carry a yellow legal pad and a pen. Accompanied by executive producer Scotty Connal, Kubek would look for camera sight lines that might offer a unique perspective on the upcoming games. In 1974 at Dodger Stadium, for instance, Kubek suggested that NBC place a camera in the field boxes behind first base with a direct view of the pitcher, shooting through the open space between the first baseman and the runner taking a lead. Kubek knew that the A’s carried a pinch-running specialist, Herb Washington. In the ninth inning of Game 2, with Oakland down a run, Washington pinch-ran at first base. Sure enough, Dodgers pitcher Mike Marshall picked him off.

A year later Kubek and Connal were walking the perimeter of Fenway Park when Kubek began jotting on his yellow legal pad. “Scotty, with Rose and Morgan and Griffey and Concepcion, the Reds like to run,” Kubek said. “What if we had a camera in the leftfield wall looking in at second base? We might get some hard takeouts, some steals and slides, a lot of unusual things.”

Connal was intrigued. Kubek, Connal, Coyle and Chet Simmons, an NBC Sports executive, walked across leftfield to the Green Monster and were happy to see there was a rectangular opening in the wall, similar to the vision slit in a tank, so the scoreboard operators could watch the game. They decided it would be a perfect place to put a camera.

*****

At The End Of The Curse, A Blessing: '04 Red Sox, Sportsmen of the Year

A beautiful dawn broke over Boston on Tuesday, Oct. 21. The forecast called for a partly sunny sky and a high temperature near 70°, dropping into the high 50s at night. Baseball weather. Finally.

John Kiley headed to Fenway Park to play his Hammond X-66 organ, a 574-pound monster made of mahogany and ebony that retailed for $9,800. Kiley was 11 days away from turning 63, which is to say he was six months younger than Fenway Park. When he was 15, Kiley began playing the organ at the Criterion Theatre in Roxbury, Mass., providing the score to the silent movies. It was clear that the boy had a gift for matching music to the moment. He played other movie houses around Boston until he landed a job in 1934 as the musical director of WMEX, a job he held until 1956. Then one day a regular listener called and offered him a job. The listener was Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, who hired Kiley to bring his music to Fenway.

In the middle of the seventh inning of Game 6, Kiley would pound out “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on his X-66. The song was not yet a staple of major league ballparks. That tradition would take full root the next season, when White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray led fans at Comiskey Park in singing the tune.

*****

Calling Fisk's home run on NBC gave a huge boost to the then-largely-unknown Dick Stockton.

Calling Fisk's home run on NBC gave a huge boost to the then-largely-unknown Dick Stockton.

Simmons had come up with a rotation for his World Series broadcast booth that resembled how Anderson, the Reds manager known as Captain Hook, treated his pitching staff. Those taking turns at the microphones were NBC play-by-play men Curt Gowdy, 56, and Joe Garagiola, 49; Kubek, 40; and local announcers Stockton and Ned Martin, 52, of Boston and Marty Brennaman, 33, of Cincinnati.

Stockton made his baseball national television debut in Game 1. Part of his job was to read promotional copy for a show that was scheduled to debut that night: Saturday Night Live. Stockton shared the booth with Kubek and Gowdy, the legendary broadcaster who once called the Super Bowl, World Series and Final Four in the same year. Gowdy and Stockton each did 4 1/2 innings of play-by-play, with Gowdy leading off. As Gowdy turned over the duties to Stockton in the bottom of the fifth, he told viewers, “You’ll enjoy listening to Dick.”