For many years the Los Angeles Dodgers have operated two highly successful farm systems. The more renowned delivers young players to Manager Walt Alston, who then molds them into fine Dodger teams. The second system mysteriously transports retired Dodgers to broadcasting booths at ball parks all around the major leagues. In recent seasons you could turn on a TV set or a radio almost anyplace in North America and hear a former Dodger announcing: Don Drysdale (California Angels), Sandy Koufax (formerly NBC-TV), Duke Snider (Montreal, San Diego), Pee Wee Reese (Montreal, Cincinnati, NBC), Mudcat Grant (Cleveland), Wes Parker (Cincinnati), Leo Durocher (NBC), Bobby Bragan (Fort Worth) and Maury Wills (NBC).
As a result of the limitations under which he presently works, Wills has had very little exposure, and we are all the poorer for it. Before the 1973 season NBC hired him as an analyst for its "back-up game," that strange adjunct to the Saturday afternoon and Monday night Game of the Week productions that receives nationwide airing only when the "prime game" is rained out. So far Wills has had the opportunity to analyze nationally only five times.
Trying to figure out how NBC schedules the Monday night version of the Game of the Week frequently baffles baseball fans. The network has exclusive television rights to all Monday night games in the major leagues, but those rights are encumbered by an odd blackout rule stipulating that the cities of the teams playing in the prime game cannot view their own clubs. While it is logical to protect the home team's attendance by showing only the back-up game in its city, it makes no sense to black out the city of the visitors. The ban can be lifted only by unanimous vote of the major league owners. Baseball's owners agree about as often as Bobby Fischer plays chess in public.
The back-up differs from the prime game in that fewer cameras are used (three to five) and the production crew consists of 30 persons instead of 60. And being a back-up announcer also means that you spend a lot of Monday nights in Houston's Astrodome without ever getting to say you're sorry.
When Wills first signed on with NBC, many broadcasting people thought he might fail because he lacked a sense of humor. The media folks overlooked the fact that during his 14-year baseball career Wills was hardly an ordinary player. He was a light show in spikes. More than any other performer of the '60s, he changed baseball from a game of power to one of speed by reviving the stolen base as a major offensive tactic. He worked hard to improve his skills and forge them into serious weapons. In the process he also developed a broad knowledge of baseball.
Wills' early broadcasts left Jim Simpson, his frequent partner on back-up telecasts, frustrated. "He seemed timid about speaking up and I finally had to say to him, 'Maury, don't worry about taking away from the play-by-play,' "Simpson says. " 'You're working for NBC because you stole 104 bases. People want to hear what you have to say. I never captained the Dodgers.' "
Wills admits that he did not force himself on the audience. "I didn't want to come in and try to take over," he says. "When you're traded from one team to another you must earn respect, not demand it. I had problems and I still have some. I tend to chew off the endings of my words. That may be O.K. in normal conversation, but it's magnified on television. The network told me to take diction lessons and I am. In some ways I'm like a pitcher trying to get his fastball, breaking pitch and motion together. That simply can't be done in just a couple of games."
Still, Wills' progress has pleased the producers for whom he has worked. "Maury has developed fast," says NBC's Jim Marooney. "He tells the guys down in the truck what to look for and that enables them to tell the cameramen what to watch. That way we get better replays. He's going at this with the same dedication he gave to playing."
On a recent telecast Wills ranged as far as he did in his shortstopping days to give the audience a variety of fact and opinion.
"The next pitch is going to be a pitchout. I ought to know a pitchout sign, I've seen enough of them." (It was.)
"The other evening Frisbees were given out at a game in Atlanta and the game almost was forfeited when they were thrown on the field. How can you be given a Frisbee and not throw it?"
"Anybody who hits behind a base-stealer like Lou Brock is going to lose about 25 points off his batting average. I know because that's what I cost Junior Gilliam."
"There is no way a major league player can let a fly ball drop because the sun got in his eyes. When it happens it is scored as a hit. It is not a hit; it is an error."
Wills has made up his mind that he will not take those "if we get the hitting and the pitching and the fielding and avoid injuries we will win" answers from players. "If you take that, you'll take anything," he says. "I think I have enough rapport with the players and enough knowledge of the game to ask things that will get interesting answers."
Not too long ago Wills asked Met Pitcher Jon Matlack, "Did you feel you got a good shake from the umpire?"
"There were a few pitches I thought he missed," Matlack replied.
Baseball audiences are not used to such answers, mostly because they are not accustomed to such questions.