The big question for a baseball fan at the time of the playoffs was whether to turn his television set on or not. Both the American and the National League championship series were being broadcast by ABC, the network that handles baseball as delicately as a bear handles a gingersnap. Show biz. Razzmatazz. Bad camerawork. Poor direction. In its first season of televising major league baseball since 1965, ABC's most memorable moment had been a delightful, forgivable slip of the tongue during the All-Star Game by Announcer Warner Wolf. Describing Mickey Rivers of the Yankees, he said, "Watch him flip his bat like a blaton tirler." A lackluster record like that was almost—but not quite—enough to make a knowledgeable fan listen to the playoffs on radio.
Switching on the tube turned out to be the right decision, at least for the first day of the playoffs. Covering the Royals-Yankees game were Bob Uecker, Outfielder-turned-Color-man Reggie Jackson and, goodness gracious, Howard Cosell. Bowie Kuhn, the man who almost runs baseball, fought fiercely to keep Cosell off the air. Kuhn's gripe was that Cosell had blasted baseball in the past. What Kuhn overlooked was that while Cosell was often too strident in his criticism, he also was often right. That Cosell won the battle of the broadcast booth was an asset in the American League opener. He served as a catalyst between Uecker and Jackson and did a worth-while interview with Kansas City Groundkeeper George Toma. And Jackson did a fine job of interviewing losing Manager Whitey Herzog after the game, except when he asked Herzog the bewildering question, "Who will be your pitcher of record tomorrow?"
When tomorrow came, Uecker was replaced by Keith Jackson, which meant that one of the year's most important baseball games was being covered by two football announcers and a player with one game of broadcasting experience. Real trouble set in. Overnight Reggie Jackson had contracted a case of the babbles. He said that Royals Pitcher Dennis Leonard was "throwing good, moving the ball around." Leonard was gone by the third inning, when the Royals brought in Paul Splittorff. Jackson said Splittorff "can't find his rhythm, he's been away too long." Splittorff pitched six shutout innings. Reggie was not alone in the babble brigade. Keith Jackson and Cosell joined him in talking during pitches, during plays, during everything but the commercials. Once again ABC had allowed its announcers to take precedence over the event they were reporting. Razzmatazz.
Jackson, Jackson & Cosell then moved to New York for Game 3 and show biz really took over. Instead of using odd moments during the telecast to show replays from that afternoon's dramatic National League game in Cincinnati, ABC gave us interviews with baseball luminaries Frank Sinatra, Bruce Jenner and Hammerin' Henry Kissinger. Cosell's talk with Kissinger was remarkable. He insisted that the Secretary of State had been in New York on April 15 for the reopening of Yankee Stadium. Kissinger said not so. Cosell insisted again. Kissinger demurred once more. At that point, I said to myself, "Outside of Nancy, who cares?" Cosell did. He left viewers with the impression that Kissinger does not know where he is, at least some of the time. To set the record straight, the Secretary's log for April 15 shows that he was not at Yankee Stadium.
November 1, 1976
Meanwhile, there were the National League playoffs, which opened in Philadelphia. Announcers Al Michaels and Tom Seaver, when he remembered to control his cackling laugh, were good, but the cameramen must have shot the games from Bookbinders restaurant. They repeatedly were focused on the wrong base runner or outfielder.
By the end of the third American League game, it was time to turn off the TV, switch on CBS radio (Ned Martin and Ernie Harwell were excellent) and begin waiting for the World Series on NBC-TV.
There seemed no way that network could do a better job than it did with the '75 Series, but it did. For one thing, Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek did not talk as much as they did a year ago. And they were well prepared. Kubek broke one of the cardinal rules of broadcasting by actually attending playoff games his network was not telecasting. He came up with much more inside baseball information and far more complete scouting reports on players than the network baseball telecasts usually provide. He is no gonzo journalist, but he does call a bad play a bad play. And Kubek knows how to make his verbal descriptions fit the picture, a rare gift among former players turned broadcasters. His expertise helped NBC smother ABC in postseason baseball.
Despite NBC's fine work, the question remains: How many playoff and Series games should be played in prime time? This year there were seven, and that's too many. Night games in October take too much away from the sport—sunshine, fans sitting comfortably without needing arctic outfits, the tricky problems caused by falling shadows. Hitters should not require a hot-water bottle—as Graig Nettles did in the Sunday night Series game—to warm up their bats. Kuhn should not make a spectacle of himself by appearing coatless in 43° weather, as he did in Cincinnati, in an attempt to make palatable his decision to take $700,000 from NBC to switch the Sunday game from daylight to darkness.
It is feared that all the Series games may be played at night next year. That would be unfortunate; October evenings are just too cold. After all, baseball was never intended to be the winter game.