Two of my grandfather's great loves were radio and baseball. Those enthusiasms must be implanted in my family's genes, because although I've grown from a mere lad to an otherwise normal man in the 17 years since his death, I'm still as apt to spend a summer evening fidgeting with the radio dial as he was.
Among my earliest recollections of my boyhood in New Windsor, Md. are warm summer nights in the mid-1950s when it was my habit to scoot across the street for a visit to my maternal grandparents' house. There the conscience of the Washington Senators and radio's unbending advocate held forth nightly. Wearing his battered blue cap with the red W, Grandy would be perched in front of his floor-model Philco, hanging on Arch McDonald's every word. "Here she comes and there she goes!" said the thick accent, describing a foul strike. "Runnels is at the plate, and ducks're on the pond. A swinging strike three. Well, they cut down the old pine tree, and at the end of seven, it's Indians 6, Senators 0."
As the advertising jingle Cheeri Beeri Boh came on between innings, Grandy would invariably go into a commercial of his own. It is my suspicion that he was a bit uneasy about the creeping popularity of television, and he never missed an opportunity to put in a plug for a medium that could be trusted. Besides, the old rascal knew a captive audience when he saw one. He would boast about baseball's opening day on radio, and how he had been on the business end of an oatmeal-box crystal set that afternoon in 1921 when a fellow named Harold Arlin did that first broadcast, a game between the Phillies and the Pirates.
And it would not be long before he would lapse into long descriptive accounts of the past, which usually included a little play-by-play of his own. Then the fun really began. I'd be on the edge of my seat as he recounted tales of hearing immortals like Ruth and Cobb described by the likes of Ted Husing or Graham McNamee. Washington games were ideal for such storytelling, because the Senators provided many an uninteresting interlude. One reliever after another would parade in to get his ERA pinned back, and it was during those pitching changes that Grandy would speak up.
April 18, 1977
"Yowser, son," he would say, "they did all the away games from a Western Union ticker tape back then, and guys like McDonald here would fake the whole thing. He'd crack some blocks together for the bat sound and play a recording of crowd noise. Why, when you heard him describe it, you'd have thought Arch was actually there watching Mickey Vernon tear down the right-field wall." His favorite story, which he told almost weekly in his later years, was his ear-witness account of Russ Hodges calling the shot heard 'round the world: "Branca looks in, gets the sign. Thomson swings, fly ball left field, Pafko going back, back...." It usually ended with him standing up in his overstuffed chair, getting ready to scream, "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" At that moment, my grandmother would arrive, not unlike a shot herself, to calm him down.
My visits with granddad seldom went the full nine, because my mother would call and I'd be sent home to the showers. On those occasions, I was not about to give up the ball game easily, although my mother seemed to be waging a one-woman war against the sport and would frisk my bed nightly in an attempt to find that "noise box." (It is my opinion that, if this love of baseball and radio is indeed hereditary, the gene must be recessive in females.) But when her search failed—as it often did—I'd quietly slide the RCA portable from its latest hiding place, pop on the earphones and check in with Ernie Harwell and the Orioles. After suffering through the early evening with the Senators, the wait for the motley Baltimore crew to get something going became doubly miserable. On those rare occasions when Gus Triandos got into one, I'd listen to Ernie's deft description of the shot to left and pray it fair with all my might. But almost invariably the Orioles' ineptness would wear my patience thin, and I would begin my nightly tour of the majors.
The buzzing and static that occasionally all but deafened me was an occupational hazard as my fingers worked the knobs with the precision of a safecracker. I had even scraped notches into the dial to serve as guides to the stations of the various clubs. And because the portable's antenna was highly directional, it took considerable savvy to angle the box properly to bring in the voices from different parts of the country.
"How about that, everybody," I would hear Mel Allen say on WINS in New York. "The Yanks have 'em loaded with Berra at the plate. One-and-one count on Yogi, Brewer gets set and comes in with the fast ball—and there it goes, deep, deep to right! It's—" Sh-Boom, Sh-Boom, Ya da da da da da da da da da, Sh-Boom, Sh-Boom, Life could be a dream. I'd dive on that undependable, cordless hunk of metal like a catcher on a bunt, frantically attempting to bring the game back. Fortunately, my educated ear could immediately discern the difference between the crowd noise of 30,000 New Yorkers coming down from a Ballantine Blast and that of fans who had just witnessed a loud foul. As soon as the roar subsided, Allen's play-by-play would resume: "Brewer again goes into the motion and comes in with the pitch. Ground ball, first-base side. Goodman makes the pickup and flips it to Zauchin, and that's all for Yogi and the Yanks in the home eighth."
As Allen began his pitch for White Owl, the night owl would look for a new perch. As the games rolled by, the earphones would begin to make me sweat, and combined with the cloud of guilt that hung over the should-be sleeper, they caused considerable discomfort as the evening wore on. Bypassing offers to buy rosebushes and the White Bible, the dial would land briefly on a new base: "Atlantic keeps your car on the go, and now here's By." "Right you are, Gene. We're rolling right along in the Phils' fifth, and it's Phillies 2, Giants 1, and Ashburn to lead it off. Morgan on deck and Hamner in the...." Another fade, and my impatient fingers would twist the knob until Bob Elson, the voice of the White Sox, broke through like sun after a rain delay. "The classy little lefthander is working well tonight." I would hear him say. "Pierce looking in to Lollar for the sign...the curve ball is called strike one to Kuenn, and that one couldn't have been better if he'd hung it in there on a string. Uh-oh, Harvey doesn't like the call one little bit, and he's right in Napp's face. Larry's turning his back and isn't gonna give him the time of—" Angel, Earth Angel, Will you be mine, My darling, dear, Love you all the time.
My tuning hand would again reach for the knob and twist it through news, more music and unbelievable crackling and popping, until, eureka!, it hit the clearest reception of the night—KMOX and Harry Caray, 50,000 watts loud and clear: "No doubt about it. Jack, it's the king of beers! Holy cow, folks, we've had almost a two-hour wait, but we're gonna play ball in St. Louis tonight after all! The rain has completely subsided, and the faithful are moving back down into the boxes as they roll up the tarp. The Red Birds lead it 3-2, and we're in the Milwaukee second. Let me reset the lineups. For the Braves, leading off and playing center, Bruton. Hitting in the No. 2 spot and at shortstop, Logan." At last, seven static-free innings lay ahead, and I'd begin to nestle in for the festivities. "And batting ninth and pitching, Burdette." But inevitably the hum of the crowd noise would begin to have its somnolent effect. I'd be out, even before Musial came up for his second licks.
On many mornings following those late-night vigils, the neighborhood baseball game would be held up by the tardy arrival of its baggy-eyed broadcaster. But I never had to worry about a position; I was the announcer and catcher for both sides (ACBS, if you're scoring it). I often would still be adjusting my kickstand as I signed on: "Hi again, everybody, this is Ernie Harwell, and welcome to Oriole baseball!" It was, however, my habit, after sides had been chosen, to allow the participants to decide which major league teams were "playing" that day. They all had their favorites, and when the rhubarb broke up, I'd go into my chatter. When the Dodgers were "in town," I would go back a few seasons and put myself in the catbird seat, calling them in Red Barber's Southern drawl: "Yes, suh, folks, heah comes the Duke to the plate, and things look just right for Snider. He's got the wind blowin' across the ole pea patch toward right, and Hilda's ringin' her cowbell and gettin' those folks along third all worked up. You can hear 'em chantin' for the Duke to get ahold ah one."
If the Pirates came in for a three-game set, I would go into my Gunner Prince act: "We've got the Quail at first, the Chrome coming up and Captain Midnight on deck. All we need is a bloop and a blast, and we're right back in this one!" If the kid who was batting in Clemente's spot got into one, I would scream, "You can kiss it goodby! Oh, how sweet it is!" And when the last out was made, no one made a move for his bicycle until I went off the air: "Don't forget, fans, the Cubs will be in for a double dip tomorrow, and you can catch all the action right here on the Pirates' radio network."
My friends and my granddad were right. The play-by-play men provided a touch of charm that made what has since been described as a dull game anything but that. Those nightly sessions listening to their going, going, gones were more to me than just good company; with some help from Grandy, they taught me the game. And now my wife wonders how a grown man can spend every Monday night of the summer griping about TV's boring analysts with their human-interest shots of the moon. The explanation is simple. I'm a radio man. I guess it's in the blood.