Game Changer: How Carlton Fisk's home run altered baseball and TV
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Recalled Stockton, “Tell me which network top play-by-play announcer today would go along with this. Are you kidding me? He made me feel so at home. I’ll never forget what he did.”
Gowdy, though, would be pushed out by Garagiola as NBC’s lead play-by-play man the next season. Garagiola had done well as a 1975 Saturday Game of the Week guest analyst. It helped, too, that he was a spokesman for Chrysler, a major baseball sponsor that wanted its man to play a big role in the network’s baseball coverage.
Game 6 was Stockton’s only other World Series TV assignment. This time he would be working with Garagiola and Kubek, the color man. Stockton would do play-by-play for the first 4 1/2 innings, beginning with the first pitch thrown by Boston starter Luis Tiant. With a possible Reds clincher on tap, NBC wanted Garagiola in place to call the last out of the World Series.
Shortly before the game, in the press dining room, Stockton ran into Peter Gammons of The Boston Globe. Gammons introduced him to a young Globe reporter: “Dick, this is Lesley Visser.” It wasn’t long before the urbane Stockton asked her out to dinner. Visser said yes and gave him her phone number.
It would be a bell ringer of a night for Stockton as much as for Fisk. Stockton would become an uncle that night, to a boy born to his sister during the game. He would make the broadcasting call of his life. And he met his future wife. (He and Visser married in 1983 and divorced in 2010.) After the Series, Stockton took Visser to a Hungarian restaurant in Boston. Someone mentioned to Visser that it was the third time that week Stockton had dined at the establishment, each time with a different young lady.
Replied Stockton, “What can I say? I like the chicken paprikash.”
By now the events of Game 6 are as familiar as stops on the T. How do you get from Tiant to Fisk? You go through Lynn’s Crash, Carbo’s Homer, “No, No” Doyle and Evans’s Grab. Thirty-four players would get into the game, including 12 pitchers, eight of whom were used by Anderson.
The game reached the top of the ninth tied. It was 11:30 p.m., and 76 million people were watching the game on NBC—35% of the U.S. population. Simmons and producer Roy Hammerman decided to have Kubek leave the broadcast booth and head to the Reds’ clubhouse, where he would conduct interviews in the event of a clinching victory. Coyle spoke to Garagiola: “Use Stockton as your color man.”
Neither Garagiola nor Stockton would mention on air that Kubek had left the booth for the clubhouse—at least not until the bottom of the 11th inning. They would do so then only because the NBC switchboard in New York City was lighting up with phone calls from viewers who were worried that something had happened to Kubek.
When the game headed to the 10th inning, Simmons, Coyle and Hammerman had another decision to make: Who should be the play-by-play man? There had been no contingency for extra innings. So they made one up on the fly: Stockton and Garagiola would alternate innings, with Stockton up first. It truly was his lucky night.
Bottom of the 12th inning. Still tied, 6–6. It was an even-numbered inning, so it was Stockton’s.
Kubek left the Reds’ clubhouse and walked the concrete tunnel that connects the clubhouse to the visiting dugout. He saw Anderson, who had ducked into the tunnel to smoke a cigarette.
“Hey, you’ve been in this situation before,” the manager said to Kubek, who played in six World Series, four of which went seven games.
“No, I haven’t,” Kubek said. “Not like this.”
Anderson tilted his head toward the dugout steps. “Come on in,” he said.
Kubek had one foot on the bottom step of the Reds dugout as Fisk took the first pitch from Pat Darcy for a ball. Kubek could hear Anderson and Reds pitching coach Larry Shepard talk. “How many pitches has he thrown, Shep?” Anderson asked.
“Damn. He ain’t thrown that many in weeks.”
The next thing Kubek heard was the crack of Fisk’s bat.
Carlton Fisk was born two months after the first World Series telecast, in 1947, when there were only about 100,000 television sets in the entire country. The director of the World Series did not own one. Coyle could not afford it. TV sets ran about $500. Coyle made $65 a week.
Fisk’s upbringing in Charlestown may have begun just as the television era was dawning, but it played out not too differently from that of the townsfolk who were born in the Civil War days when St. Luke’s was built. The son of Cecil and Leona Fisk grew up in a white clapboard farmhouse. Neighborhood ball games were held in the Fisks’ side yard. Cecil built a backstop using two wooden stakes and chicken wire. The kids used cow patties for bases. The really long home runs broke windows in the house across the road. And when the games ended, Leona would be ready with a basket of freshly baked cinnamon rolls and glasses of cold milk.
This time the baseball Fisk hit wasn’t traveling toward the neighbor’s window. It was heading for the foul pole above the Green Monster. And it was traveling very fast.
"There it goes! A long drive. . . . If it stays fair. . . . Home run!”
And then Stockton did something nearly as memorable as the perfect clarity of his call: nothing. He and Garagiola stayed silent as Fisk rounded the bases, jumped on home plate and fell into the arms of fans and teammates. Stockton did not speak again until just before Fisk pushed his way into the Boston dugout. Finally he said, “We will have a seventh game in this 1975 World Series.”
His tribute of silence lasted 36 seconds.
“I just did what I’m supposed to do,” Stockton said. “There are two kinds of home runs: the drives that are deep and you can give a rhapsodic call—It’s way back ... it could be gone—and there are the ones like this one, and you have a nanosecond and it’s going to be fair or foul and you have to get it right and you don’t have much time to have much flourish on the call.
“The only thing that hit me was, ‘If it stays fair....’ That was the key thing there. And after it was a home run, I just wanted to shut up. I wanted to make sure I’m not going to scream and yell. It was total instinct. I didn’t know any better or any worse. I always felt the guy who invented that technique was Vin Scully. What’s better than the sound and pictures? I wasn’t aware of that technique at the time. It was purely instinct.”
As Fisk dashed for home, zigzagging because of the humanity in his way, John Kiley knew just what to coax out of that monster Hammond X-66: Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Hearing the X-66 was another pearl made possible by Stockton’s 36 seconds of silence. You can hear Kiley, as if back in the ornate silent-movie palaces of the Hub, choose the perfect sound track as Fisk scored the last run of a long night. Later, when Fisk came back on the field to talk to Kubek and to bask in the adoration of fans who did not want to leave, Kiley broke into “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and then “Give Me Some Men Who Are Stout-Hearted Men” and then “The Beer Barrel Polka” and then ... well, then anything with a good beat to make the joy seem as if it could last forever.
Inside the truck, as the home run unfolded, Coyle stuck to The Bible: centerfield shot of the pitch, cut to the high home camera to follow the flight of the ball off the foul pole and to the ground, cut to a high third-base-side camera following Fisk as he rounds first and second, cut to a centerfield shot of the delirious fans standing and cheering behind the Boston dugout, cut back to the high third camera as Fisk rounds third base, cut to a low first base camera of the crowd and cut in time to see Fisk jump on home plate—six cuts in all.
Coyle showed his first replay one minute after the ball was hit. It was from the high third camera. It showed Fisk from behind, jumping after he knew the ball was a home run and then clapping his hands. Twenty seconds later Coyle punched up his second replay: an angle down the line, toward the leftfield wall, that showed the ball hitting the screen attached to the foul pole. He cut back to live pictures, one from the high home camera showing the field and another from the high third camera that panned the crowd.
Around that time Simmons was standing in the back of the production truck, on the phone with NBC New York, coordinating the “throw”—the moment when the network switched from the coverage in Boston to programming that would follow. Suddenly his eyes found one of the many small monitors in a big wall in front of Coyle, one that was off to Coyle’s side. “Look at that!” Simmons shouted. “What is that up there?”
It was the feed from the camera in the leftfield wall, the one Kubek had recommended for action at second base. This camera, a one-time placement, was not in Coyle’s replay rotation; the feed from that camera wasn’t even in the director’s line of vision. Alerted by Simmons, Coyle looked up. “Oh, my God,” he said. “Let’s take that.”
Coyle punched up the replay from the camera, which was operated by Lou Gerard. Two minutes and 11 seconds had passed since Fisk hit the home run. Finally the world saw it: an isolation shot of Fisk as the ball was in the air. Three times Fisk waved with his arms to his right, trying to semaphore the baseball fair. When he saw it hit the foul pole, Fisk jumped in delight and then jumped again. Coyle froze the shot on Fisk’s second jump.
In the NBC studios in New York, John Filippelli, a young desk assistant who was cutting highlights of the game and would later work side by side with Coyle as a producer, was struck by the sight of Fisk. “Wow, that’s the shot you remember,” Filippelli said. “It goes back to an adage I used many times: The way you document a game is almost as important as the game itself.”
“It was arguably one of the greatest replays of all time,” Weisman said. Thirty-four years later, speaking to author Mark Frost for his exquisite 2009 book, Game Six, Weisman revealed that it was Simmons, not Coyle, who deserved credit for noticing the Fisk reaction shot. But before doing so, Weisman spoke with Coyle’s widow about it. Coyle had died in 1996. Before Simmons died in 2010, Weisman had spoken to him and his wife, who, Weisman said, “thanked me for setting the record straight. She said, ‘You know Chet could never have told that story himself.’ ”
The record of the Game 6 telecast was not fully set, though. A whopper of a legend remained.
The legend goes like this: Gerard caught one of the most famous images in sports television history, the one that allegedly “invented” the reaction shot, only because a rat the size of a cat was at his feet and Gerard was too afraid to swing his camera to follow the flight of Fisk’s home run ball. The story of this happy accident has been told time and time again over 40 years.
But when Leggett visited Coyle at his New Jersey home the week after the World Series, Coyle said only that Gerard “was fighting off rats in there most of the night. He had to keep one eye on the game and another out for rats. When Fisk hit the ball toward leftfield, nobody could tell if it would be fair or foul, so it was great for us when one of our cameras got a good shot of it hitting the pole.” Coyle did not say that Gerard had broken from The Bible to stay on Fisk because a rat appeared. But over subsequent years, and with increased fervor, the director and the cameraman delighted in telling that tale.
“Wink, wink,” said Weisman. “First it was a rat by his foot, then after a couple of years it was a rat on his shoulder, and then it was a rat under his hat eating a ham sandwich.... Just one of the rumors and the wives’ tales and the exaggerations that came out of the game.”
If Gerard really was supposed to stay on the action, how could a camera inside the leftfield wall follow the flight of a baseball hitting the leftfield foul pole? And the shot from the high third camera of Fisk jumping—Coyle’s first replay—wasn’t that a reaction shot? And going all the way back to Coyle’s first World Series, in 1947, wasn’t the shot of Joe DiMaggio kicking the dirt after getting robbed by Al Gionfriddo a reaction shot?
“I don’t think you can say it was the first [reaction shot],” Weisman said of the Fisk image. “I think you can say it popularized it. It made it more important to show people’s emotions and reactions away from the ball. That was raw emotion from Fisk. It made you smile. It was inarguable after that about showing the thrill of victory.”
Anderson felt terrible after Game 6. He thought his pitching moves had doomed his club. He saw Rose and Johnny Bench in that tiny visitors’ clubhouse and barked, “Big Red Machine, my ass.”
“Sparky, relax,” Rose said. “Did you see that celebration they had? We got ’em right where we want them. We just played in one of the greatest games ever. Don’t worry. We’ll win tomorrow.”
The Reds did win Game 7 the next night. It was the highest-rated telecast to date, and has been exceeded only by Game 6 of the 1980 Series. “More surprising than the huge numbers for the seventh game is the fact that they occurred during prime evening hours, when viewers supposedly prefer situation comedies, dramatic series and variety shows to sports,” Leggett wrote. “Sponsors, promoters and the networks will have to rethink their old assumptions about baseball and prime-time sports telecasts.”
Kuhn crowed in his book that Fisk’s home run would not have had nearly the same impact if he had hit it at 4:30 on a weekday afternoon, as the pressmen would have had it. Said Weisman, “I guarantee the ratings for Game 6 grew the longer that game went on. If that game in 1975 was a blowout or didn’t go extra innings, who knows what would have happened. But it really saved baseball. Madison Avenue bought in.”
There was no going back. NBC asked Kuhn for a fourth night game in the next World Series. The commissioner granted it “on an experimental basis,” scheduling Game 2 as the first weekend night game in Series history. It was held in frigid weather in Cincinnati. Comically, Kuhn watched the game without an overcoat but with long johns underneath his suit. Before the game, Yogi Berra, a Yankees coach, snapped, “What are we playin’ for? The championship of Nielsen?” By 1985, the World Series had become an all-prime-time event.
Game 6 in 1975 ignited a revival of baseball that would last more than a decade, something Anderson seemed to understand even as he left Fenway after Game 7. “We didn’t win the World Series,” the skipper said. “Baseball did.”
Attendance rose 5% in 1976, Monday Night Baseball ratings went up 19% and All-Star Game ratings went up 28%. The next television contract, signed in 1979, doubled baseball’s annual take from the networks. The 10 highest-rated World Series all occurred in the window of 1971–86.
(The period of remarkable growth was also ignited by another event, two months after Fisk hit his home run: a ruling that ended baseball’s reserve clause and paved the way for free agency. The average salary in 1975 was $45,000. By ’78, it was $100,000.)
Televised sports quickly became not only a prime-time fixture but also an all-the-time fixture. Four years after the 1975 World Series, Simmons left NBC to help launch and lead ESPN, taking Connal with him. Weisman went on to become one of the greatest sports producers in the industry and now oversees MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Stockton was in demand after the ’75 Series: NBC hired him to call NFL games, and two years later he moved to CBS, where he became the network’s lead basketball broadcaster. Forty years later, he can hardly walk through an airport without someone recognizing him and saying, “If it stays fair....”
“I’ve been blessed to call some great events over the years,” Stockton said. “That remains No. 1. Nothing has ever surpassed it.”
In 1998, TV Guide ranked the Fisk home run as the top moment in the history of televised sports. Since then the reaction shot has often replaced the action shot as how we best remember a great moment: Gibson pumping his fist as he rounds the bases, Carter leaping near first base, Gonzalez with his arms raised, Freese spiking his helmet between his legs, Bautista flipping his bat....
Coyle made sure it would be that way. After the 1975 Series, he made a rare amendment to Harry’s Bible: Camera operators heretofore were instructed to stay on their shots for another five seconds after the play ended. “After this game,” Weisman said, “it went from the Old Testament to the New Testament. The edict was to stay for the reaction.”
The image of Fisk waving the ball fair instantly became more powerful than the home run itself. Change that night was as clear as the bells of St. Luke’s. We would never look at sports on TV the same way again.