The Sound Of Summer TV has the gimmicks, but for patter and word pictures, you can't beat baseball on the radio

July 29, 2001

You can keep your flat-screen, your high-definition, your
plasma-projection TVs. All I need is my AM radio, with its
9-volt battery, its Doobie Brothers hits, its Casey Kasem
dispensing wise counsel: "Keep your feet on the ground, and keep
reachin' for the stars."

The first big league baseball game that I "saw" was described to
me by Herb Carneal on WCCO-AM in Minneapolis. My AM radio seemed
to me then, as it does now, a technological wonder beyond words,
pulling in the 50,000-watt flagship stations that have forever
been affiliated in my mind with a ball club: the Reds on WLW, the
Cardinals on KMOX, the Indians on WWWE ("Three Double-yew E").

Indeed, the first baseball game ever broadcast was carried by
KDKA in Pittsburgh 80 years ago next week, and the electronic
revolution in the ensuing decades has done nothing to alter the
fact that baseball is still best experienced on the radio. It
isn't merely because of the game's memorable voices, though many
of them remain a marvel. (Listen to Marty Brennaman, his vocal
cords smoked like a couple of cured hams, punctuate a Cincinnati
win with "And this one belongs to the Reds.") It's not simply
that the soundtrack of summer in so many cities--the background
vocals issuing from taxicabs, beach blankets and backyard
barbecues--has been the play-by-play of Vin Scully or Mel Allen
or Ernie Harwell (or Jack Buck or Harry Caray or Red Barber).

No, there are countless reasons that baseball, unlike children,
should be heard and not seen. Every ballpark is beautiful on the
radio, and the great players even better when imagined. Babe
Ruth, in the days before television, was whatever you wanted him
to be and no less authentic for existing largely in the mind's
eye. "What the imagination seizes as Beauty," wrote Keats, "must
be truth." Which is to say, if the Phillies radio broadcasters
tell you that the Vet is architecturally exquisite--and you
believe them--why, then, it is.

Of course, baseball's lumbering pace is perfectly supplemented by
radio, which abhors dead air and fills it with ceaseless
sponsorships, one for every mundane moment of a ball game. So,
during Yankees games on WABC radio, "the umpire's lineup is
brought to you by Weitz & Luxenberg, setting the standard in
asbestos litigation for over a decade."

I am a connoisseur of such promotional pairings (umpires
presented by lawyers, that seems about right) and all the other
rituals of baseball on the radio. I enjoy pausing for station
identification. I breathlessly await the inevitable admonishment
not to rebroadcast or retransmit the accounts and descriptions of
this game without the express written consent of Major League
Baseball. I still love--when the announcers embark on a leisurely
discussion of yesterday's lunch--removing the 9-volt battery from
my radio and testing its potency with my tongue. (The resulting
shock was, in an age before PlayStation, the greatest thrill a
kid could have.)

Lately I've been listening to baseball games broadcast in Spanish
on the radio. With a few exceptions--pelota, Heineken,
Chuckknoblauch--I cannot understand a word, but each play is
described with such urgent enthusiasm (you can almost see those
upside-down and right-side-up exclamation marks bracketing every
sentence) that I am enraptured. This is baseball the way it
oughta be, in which even the laziest infield fly-out is reported
in tones more appropriate to the crash of the Hindenburg.

What else do I like about baseball on the radio? Only everything:
I like falling asleep to a night game on the West Coast and
waking the next morning to Weather on the Ones and Traffic on the
Twos. I like the impossibly cheap tokens of appreciation given to
guests of the pregame shows. ("For stopping by the booth, His
Holiness will receive a $25 gift certificate from Jiffy Lube,
with 27 locations in the Tri-State.") And while I can't say I
like them, I have come to accept the sponsor jingles that take
root in the head of a regular listener by May and soon become
unshakable even by exorcism.

Which is why the swingin' jingle of Foxwoods Casino (played
relentlessly during Yankees broadcasts) has played relentlessly
in my brain all summer: "Take a chance, make it happen/Pop the
cork, fingers snappin'/Spin the wheel, 'round and 'round we
go/Life is good, life is sweet/Grab yourself a front-row seat/And
let's meet/And have a ball/Yeah, let's live/For the won-der of it

There's a second verse, and I know that too, for baseball on the
radio has taught me so much--new songs, the power of imagination,
a new language. So I say to you, my fellow sports fans:

¬°Pelota! ¬°Heineken! ¬°Chuckknoblauch!

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)