Perseverance being a commodity not always in full supply these days, the men who announce baseball on TV have to be admired. They toil without complaint through the warm months, dueling with gnats for their composure and with reruns of Mayberry R.F.D. for their audiences. They carry manfully on even though baseball is hopelessly ill-suited for television: an ordinary base hit ranges over a landscape too sweeping for the camera to capture in a single squint, while the game's dawdling pace offers opportunities to trip over their own tongues that even the most cautious of them sometimes find irresistible.
The long season makes them the drudges of sports telecasting, the more so because the moments they are not announcing the game on the tube they are apt to be off doing so on radio. To their labors they nevertheless bring the enthusiasm of a Loel Passe, one of the announcers for the Houston Astros, who exults, "When you love baseball the way I do and broadcast major league games from the great cities of the country—man, that's living." If Passe has any complaint, it is that he finds himself on radio far more than he would prefer, Houston's 14 telecasts a year being the skimpiest TV fare of any big-league team. Of course, 14 games are a full season's work in pro football, but the number amounts to pale underexposure compared with baseball's TV binge in Chicago, where the Cubs' Jack Brickhouse and the White Sox' Jack Drees will announce a staggering 277 televised games between them in 1971.
That kind of saturation, together with the sport's easy atmosphere, gives baseball's men in the booths a communion with the fans unique among sportscasters. But intimacy can lead to annoyance, which explains why Brickhouse, who has telecast baseball in Chicago for 23 years, still receives niggling four-page critiques from viewers in the habit of keeping score on him rather than the game. Similar static disturbs the repose of the Baltimore Orioles' Chuck Thompson, whose wont it is to describe Oriole outfielders as "looking up for a fly ball," prompting more than one viewer to comment: "Where else would an outfielder look for a fly ball?"
With the possible exception of such talk show hosts as Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, who also occupy the screen with numbing regularity, few TV performers evoke as much extreme reaction. Pirate Announcer Bob Prince is surely a beloved character in Pittsburgh, yet he still has to contend with dissenters like the steelworker who approached him before a night game in Forbes Field a year or so ago. "I want to meet you," he said. "I can't stand you, but I can't turn you off either."
September 12, 1971
It is this last weakness, multiplied many times through the television audience, that endears the game to sponsors interested in insistent, season-long selling. Baseball especially attracts products like gasoline, soft drinks and beer that do a big part of their business in summer. It is all lucrative enough to bring baseball roughly $40 million for broadcasting rights, not far off the NFL's $46 million. But where pro football owners share their TV money in the interest of equal prosperity, baseball winds up with haves and have-nots. It pools only the $18 million it gets in its package deal with NBC for such attractions as Game of the Week and World Series. Each club is otherwise free to work out its own broadcasting deal, a liberty that includes picking its own announcers, too.
One effect of this decentralization is that most big-league telecasts tend to be parochial affairs, wedding the technology of TV with the resonances of the small-town game that baseball sometimes still fancies itself. Thus, the Orioles' Thompson, or St. Louis' Jack Buck, celebrities in their home towns, would go unrecognized should they suddenly turn up in, say, Minnesota. There the local favorite is 72-year-old Halsey Hall, an ex-newspaperman who at those moments when he is not starting a fire in the Twins' broadcasting booth with one of his ubiquitous cigars is generally reading get-well wishes to convalescents in a raspy voice redolent of happy days at grandpa's house.
The plain-folks flavor infects even the ex-athletes that baseball, like every sport, increasingly insists on passing off as sportscasters. Basketball has its flashy Hot Rod Hundleys and football its well-coiffed Frank Giffords, but baseball appears to have less taste for such glamour. For every Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale, the former Dodger pitching stars now doing color commentary for NBC and the Montreal Expos respectively, you can find a Nellie King, who as a Pittsburgh pitcher 15 years ago compiled a lifetime record of 7-5 and who today helps Prince on Pirate telecasts. Even when a better-known player is elevated to the booth, it is likely to be somebody like Phillies Announcer Richie Ashburn, whose 15 years in the majors failed to erase a corn-belt twang that is in evidence when he muses in midbroadcast on such matters as summer heat waves back home in Tilden, Neb.
At its best, this relaxed atmosphere lends itself to thoughtful, gracefully presented commentary not always possible during the more frantic action of football, basketball or hockey. One thinks of the Washington Senators' Ray Scott, whose spare style, sharpened by a Lombardiesque discipline developed while announcing Green Bay Packer football games, seems even more ideally suited to the leisurely pace of baseball. Then there is Buddy Blattner, a world table-tennis champion in the 1930s and later a National League infielder, whose play-by-play work for the Kansas City Royals mixes expertise with a conversational manner that eludes most of his colleagues. A relative newcomer is 36-year-old Dick Enberg, who brings to his job as announcer for the California Angels a Ph.D. from Indiana University and a knack for using the TV camera as a teaching tool, most notably on a pregame show featuring brisk instructionals on catcher's signs or the art of making the double play.
By common consent the best of the baseball broadcasters is Enberg's Southern California neighbor, red-haired Vin Scully, 43, who has been announcing Dodger games in Brooklyn and Los Angeles for 18 years. Scully's natural element is radio; he is the reason that transistors abound at Dodger Stadium and that Angelenos by the thousands tune in to Dodger games on the freeways, all of which has made the club one of only a few—the Angels, Astros, Twins and Red Sox are others—for whom radio revenues exceed those from TV.
Scully also announces the 21 games, all of them on the road, that Walter O'Malley condescends to allow on TV. There are dangers, such as talking too much about the obvious, that make the switch from radio to television perilous, but Scully avoids them.
"In radio you're leading all the time, but in television you're a counterpuncher," says Scully, who put on an impressive show of the latter while telecasting a game earlier this season from San Francisco. Juan Marichal was pitching and Scully, astute student of the game that he is, told his viewers that the Giant star seemed off stride while making his distinctive leg-high windup.
In the second inning Marichal's wind-up began to improve, which Scully demonstrated by bringing into play stop-action camera and instant replay, visual aids still absent from many baseball telecasts. Then the Giant pitcher broke off a good curve, a single pitch, but one that moved Scully to the casual eloquence characteristic of his style. "That's the kind of pitch Roy Campanella used to say gives you the old jelly leg," he said. "It's tough to hang in there on curveballs like those. Your leg starts to leave without you."
The qualities of a Scott or Scully, though, are all but lost in the sea of bland-ness and banalities that otherwise inundates the telecasting of baseball. The sins are easily cataloged: repetitive small talk about matters already deathlessly familiar; sugar-coated explanations for poor play; nice-Nellyisms about umpires who are never wrong and ballplayers who are, each and every last one, great guys in their own rights. There is an ebullience that is sometimes warranted by events, at other times not. "This is some kind of ball game," Oakland's Red Rush will say during some kind of mild drama or other. Then he will observe a moment later; "This Sal Bando is some kind of player." Or later still: "This Rick Monday can sure pick 'em up and lay 'em down." Or: "Hey, the crowd is on the edge of its seats. This is some kind of crowd."
What makes such sensationalizing of the routine all the more striking is the silence that so often greets genuine news, as when Clete Boyer was suspended this season by Atlanta. Braves Announcer Milo Hamilton scarcely referred to the incident. Babies have been born in the stands during baseball games and people shot, but the cameras have looked stonily away, only to return later for closeups of little boys holding aloft homemade banners.
Baseball announcers share with the White House press corps an inhibiting occupational hazard. As St. Louis' Buck puts it, "You can't always say what you're thinking because you want to continue your contacts." Of course, the newspapermen who cover baseball must live with their sources, too, but telecasters tend to be even more sympathetic with the ballplayers. For one thing, they are generally in the same financial league as the athletes, their salaries ranging from less than $20,000 for a rookie announcer to $100,000 or more for a superstar like Scully. With such riches comes the fact that players and announcers alike are called upon frequently to transfer loyalties. Baseball's peripatetic Bobo Newsom had little, for example, on Merle Harmon, who has announced in succession, and always with home-town fervor, the Kansas City A's, Milwaukee Braves, Minnesota Twins and, currently, the Milwaukee Brewers.
There are other parallels. The TV men travel along with the players, sign autographs for the fans and serve the same masters. Announcers are hired either by the club or with its approval, and one of them, the Cubs' Brickhouse, even serves on his team's board of directors.
That the telecasters and the teams they profess to be objectively covering maintain something less than an arm's-length relationship appears to offend surprisingly few fans—and fewer announcers. Lindsey Nelson, the play-by-play man on New York Met telecasts, says, "Cab drivers, policemen and the man in the street all identify the broadcasters with the ball club. If I walk down Fifth Avenue I'm stopped often by people asking, 'What are you going to do about the Mets?' "
What Nelson and other announcers will probably do is more of what they have always done, and this means hawking illustrated team yearbooks, plugging bat days and T shirt giveaways and reminding anybody who might be inclined to drag himself out to the airport of the team's imminent return from a road trip at 3 a.m. They are also expected to sell the sponsor's beer and the ball club's tickets. If you seldom hear TV announcers urge motorists to "come on out for the second game," which used to be a standing invitation for radio listeners, it is only because they know that not many people are watching TV while driving around in their cars. Patient pitchmen that they are, they want you in the tent, but tomorrow will be just fine.
Baseball owners look upon TV not only as a source of riches but also as a promotional tool simply because so many of them are suffering from a severe case of empty seats. The current wisdom in baseball's high councils is that a relatively liberal TV policy on away games produces broadcasting revenues even as it reminds the home folks during long road trips that the team still exists. Except in populous TV markets like New York and Chicago, home games generally are telecast sparingly if at all. A special case is the Montreal Expos, who by showing fans enjoying themselves in cozy Jarry Park—most of the club's 18 televised games are at home—have educated Canadians about baseball, made Rusty Staub a national hero and, not least, helped sell a remarkable 250,000 Expo caps.
The need to incessantly promote the club inevitably affects coverage of the game itself, this at a time of widespread debate over television's performance in reporting the news. Baseball announcers are likely to be slower to blame every fumbled ground ball on a bad hop if viewers at home can clearly see otherwise, but anything resembling impartiality is extremely rare.
The telecasters are notorious for crimes of omission, for avoiding saying anything that hints of criticism, and some of the worst offenders are ex-ballplayers. Ostensibly hired for their insights into the game, they are often the most protective of all, which leads to the inescapable conclusion that their real mission is to lend their more or less illustrious names to the struggle for higher ratings. Yankee Announcer Phil Rizzuto is one of the few who occasionally offer even gentle criticism, as when he takes note of Horace Clarke's erratic fielding, but the exercise obviously pains him. "I try not to overdo it," Rizzuto says. "I played baseball and I know that errors are part of the game."
At large in an ethical no-man's-land, the ball clubs differ widely in their avowed policies, with the Expos, for example, claiming to give their announcers a completely free hand ("Boosting the club is not expected of them—they just do it," says Broadcasting Director Jim Faszholz enigmatically), while the Cincinnati Reds expect their announcers to refrain from saying anything negative about the team. Another that makes no pretense of objectivity is the Phillies organization, which wants its telecasters, Vice-President Bill Giles says, "To make us look as good as possible."
Given the Phillies' less than glorious history, credit Telecaster Byrum Saam for a valiant effort. Saam, an exuberant fellow whose career reached a high point of sorts the day he came on the air and said, "Hello, Byrum Saam, this is everybody," has broadcast baseball in Philadelphia since 1938 for both the Phillies and, until they departed in 1955, the Athletics, which gives him an association with probably more losing teams than any sportscaster—or perhaps any human being—in history. Yet seldom is heard a discouraging word from Byrum Saam. "If the team is going bad, I talk about an opponent, a Clemente or Mays, who's going good," he says. He even managed to smile his way through the Phillies' record 23-game losing streak in 1961. "I wasn't depressed. I just stuck to the basic things and hoped this was the day we were going to win."
Not every announcer has been quite so willing to put a happy face on disaster. The most memorable act of rebellion occurred in the last days of the 1966 season when only 413 fans, the smallest number ever to watch baseball in 65,000-seat Yankee Stadium, showed up for a game against the White Sox. When Red Barber, the Yankee announcer, asked the cameras to show the empty seats, a club vice-president refused, even to the extent of forbidding cameras to follow foul balls into the stands. As Barber recalls in his recent book The Broadcasters, "I knew what the New York Daily News would do—they'd cover the whole back page of the paper with pictures of the yawning emptiness of Yankee Stadium."
His news judgment challenged, his sense of duty to his viewers aroused, Barber defied the ball club. He leaned into the microphone and said simply, "I don't know what the paid attendance is today—but whatever it is, it is the smallest crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium. This smallest crowd is the story, not the ball game." Barber and the Yankees were already heading for a parting of the ways, and four days later Barber was told that his contract would not be renewed.
The restraints imposed by the owners come on top of difficulties baseball broadcasters face that are inherent in the nature of the game, difficulties they are fond of dramatizing with an endless succession of queer little facts. They will tell you, for instance, that every hour of baseball contains only two minutes of honest action. Or they will tell you that 85% of the game occurs between the pitching mound and home plate. Or that only one of every four pitched balls is hit into fair territory. There is the additional problem of the awkward interview of the kind that Ralph Kiner, another of the Mets telecasters, once conducted with New York Catcher Choo Choo Coleman.
"How did you get your nickname?" Kiner asked by way of openers.
The camera showed Choo Choo deep in thought. Kiner waited and so did the TV audience. Finally Coleman replied, "I don't know."
The only known antidote for so sure a show-killer is preparation—a ballplayer's nickname is easy enough to check out in advance—and the best announcers devote a surprising amount of effort to it. "There's an average interval of 15 seconds between pitches," says Kansas City's Blattner, offering another of those queer little facts. "You've got to fill some of that dead air. You can't keep saying over and over that 'the pitcher gets set on the mound, tugs at his cap, etc.' " Blattner has broadcast baseball for two decades, but he still puts in three hours of homework before every game, talking to players, poring over press releases, newspapers and magazines.
Assembling material makes sense if it is properly put to use, of course, and the acknowledged master at this, as at most aspects of his trade, is Scully. "Vin is patient with his good pieces of information," says Scully's friendly rival, Enberg. "He has the patience to hold off using a note in the first inning when it might better sustain the drama of the eighth." Beyond this, Scully realizes that a good game provides its own excitement and that his job is to tell, not just sell. Scully himself says: "Many a time I've said the Dodgers blew the game or it was a bad play on somebody's part. We're strictly reporters."
Why this refreshing candor is not only tolerated but encouraged by the Dodger organization owes as much to heritage as to the team's financial solidity. The Dodgers have a tradition of tough, knowledgeable radio coverage dating back to Red Barber in the late 1930s. Now it just seems to go with the territory. "We would probably lose half our followers if we didn't allow Scully to describe the game the way he sees it," said one Los Angeles official. "We feel Vin is promoting the sport, and that means he is promoting the Dodgers. It's what the public has come to expect."
The Dodgers properly credit Scully for playing a major role in their health as a franchise. They have the most valuable broadcasting rights anywhere. The club collects $400,000 as its share of baseball's television contract with NBC, and a hefty $1.8 million from local radio and TV; by comparison, the NFL's share-alike TV arrangement enriches each pro football team by a flat $1.75 million a year.
Even allowing for Scully's special talents, and remembering that he works in a uniquely lucrative market, it is difficult to understand what any club really gains from protective, all-holds-barred TV coverage. The ultimate answer may rest not with the clubs, or even the announcers, but with TV stations that foot the bills and presumably are in a position to call the shots. For the sake of TV riches, for instance, baseball has allowed the minor leagues to wither and has shuffled franchises with all the calm deliberation of a base runner trapped in a rundown.
It is possible to argue that baseball is packaged entertainment as much as it is pure news, although the vapidities and mindless euphoria that characterize so many baseball telecasts do not always make for rollicking show biz, either. For those hungry for theatrics, there is always Bob Prince, that Harvard Law dropout and riot of good humor who announces for the Pirates. Prince sometimes makes news himself, as when he won a bet with several of the Pirates by diving from a third-story window into the swimming pool of St. Louis' Chase-Park Plaza Hotel. He later outdid himself when he was pulled off an airliner for having used the word "bomb" too loosely, as in, or so he later explained to the law, "We're going to bomb that Giant pitching."
On the air Prince is just as unpredictable. He roots shamelessly for the Pirates, as witness his pet phrase, "We had 'em all the way," which he generally reserves for cliffhangers the Pirates miraculously manage to win. But he is also inclined to wander into subjects far afield from baseball, a tendency that prompts Pirate General Manager Joe Brown to closely monitor the broadcasts. Maybe the day Prince found a way to satisfy his instinct for reporting and Brown's for protection best summarizes the relationship between announcer and club. Richie Hebner, the Pirate infielder, had tossed his bat in anger into the stands in Houston. It was the kind of incident the club prefers to have Prince ignore, but the audible boos of the Astrodome crowd made this impossible. "Fans," Prince said, "something has happened here but I'm not going to be able to tell you about it."
THE MELLOW VOICES OF OLD
Pittsburgh's Rosey Rowswell (far left) said, "Open the window, Aunt Minnie," and became famous. Arch McDonald, the voice of the Senators, parted his hair in the middle and offered to fight fans. Cleveland Indian Jack Graney was the first ballplayer to turn announcer, to which the Yanks' Mel Allen would have said, "How about that?" Graham McNamee, here with John McGraw, was the first to broadcast baseball. The first to report Bobby Thomson's home run were Russ Hodges and Red Barber sitting in "the catbird seat."