mong the plethora of crannies on the web is a section called “Classic Baseball Radio Broadcasts.” Contained here are more than a hundred recordings of American baseball games involving teams from across the country and spanning more than fifty years. This piece of acreage has become my oasis in the evening, when news is simply too viral, literally noxious. I long ago removed television from my home — this as a result of eye failure— but never dreamed I’d stumble on the recordings and make them my news surrogate.
So it is that I go back in time to listen to articulate broadcasters who put an emphasis on diction and rarely stayed from the events of the game unfolding before them. They were, they believed, the country’s eyes on the game, and anecdotes — now the centerpiece of sports broadcasting — not usually a part of their repertoire.
I hear Harry Caray in his St. Louis Cardinals days and Ralph Kiner, a former player who went onto to chronicle the New York Mets. I hear Dick Enberg as a rookie thirty-something broadcaster telling audiences that (given illustrious predecessors and co-broadcasters) to be patient with him as he works his way into a verbal groove. He knows full well he has one (and would take it later to a national stage) but nonetheless insists on humility.
Most striking— just that: humility. Whatever these men (and yes, men only) had in the way of vices, slang, and irony they kept tucked very tightly under a code of polite sportsmanship that, sadly, seems outdated. They lack boisterousness in a culture that cannot seem to go ten seconds without it. They tell stories about the game they are watching, and applaud anyone on any side who performs marvelous feats. Their glibness is easygoing, at times perfect: one Cincinnati broadcaster describes a foul ball into the stands as “skimming through the crowd like a loose bar of soap.”
They tell stories about the game they are watching, and applaud anyone on any side who performs marvelous feats.
There’s another side, the ads, some chummy, others didactic, for beer above all else but also cars, cheap weekend getaways (”$59 to Las Vegas!”), insurance and banking (“Know how much your loan costs”), cigarettes (“Viceroy has the taste that’s right…”), car sales outlets promising the deals of a lifetime while emphasizing safety, the occasional public service announcements, and my favorite, for obvious reasons, the actress Cloris Leachman imagining what it is to be blind and asking her audience to take a moment to reflect on vision and the need to keep it sound. Other such bits come from local and national transportation boards, describing a good husband and father and an excellent driver who one day becomes distracted by how much he might make in a deal… “and he has your number.” After the surgeon general’s 1065 report, cigarette ads dropping in number, replaced by graphically phrased and pithily stark ironic descriptions of the “joys” of smoking, as narrated by a black lung.
The baseball and the ads form a kind of two-hour tapestry in which the listener is transported to a stadium where kids are always kids and girls are always girls, and ladies always ladies. There’s no in between. Baseball somehow managed to keep these broadcasts pristine, notwithstanding the massive social changes in the decades they cover. Black athletes are not called black but referred to with respect as Hammerin’ Hank Aaron or Mr. Willie Mays. No politics, partisan or bland, come anywhere near these broadcasts. In the 960s, the Vietnam War raged, but it is never mentioned aside from occasional reference to players absent “to fulfill military obligations.” Presidents come up only when they throw out opening day balls and politics never — though once, when a game went into lengthy extra inning, I recall one broadcaster compared it to a marathon congressional filibuster.
The task of these men was to transit a verbal “visual” of a game that until the 1960s was not seen on television. As TV grew, the broadcasters, some at least, migrated there, leaving the glory years to the period between 1930 and 1970.
The voices could, to some, seems folksy if not hackneyed, but their mission wasn’t one of reflecting trends as they evolved, instead keeping a specific vision of a specific game within specific methods of description, rarely screaming at home runs — which became pats of the later, more entertainment oriented sports culture. No game played under sunny skies could begin without the line, “It’s certainly a beautiful day for a ballgame.” When umpires ejected managers, one wry commentator remarked, “I suppose that had a minor disagreement on the subject of baseball.” These men could not, did not, would not, boo anyone. Rarely did they refer to players by their slang names, though Joe DiMaggio was at times called “the Clipper” by Yankees broadcasters. A home was “a mighty shot,” but no one dwelled on the feat for long. To dwell was to rub it in. That was nor professional.
When umpires ejected managers, one wry commentator remarked, “I suppose that had a minor disagreement on the subject of baseball.”
I am all for a culture of openness, diversity, with barriers lowered if not eliminated. I stand behind those who articulate positions eloquently, whether on the left or the right. I wish merely they would all recognize that the beautiful day for a ballgame wasn’t merely about the game itself, but about the deportment and manners of those who told its stories. “That young man from Alvin, Texas has a fluid motion and great strength in his arm and throws very well,” said Lindsay Nelson of a then-nineteen year old pitcher for the Mets, who in 1967 was making his debut.
The praise, counterclockwise to the counterculture of the day, was typically restrained and as a result all the more notable.
Nelson and others were careful not to trumpet “youngsters,” as most would fall by the wayside. Hype as it is known and harped on today, like boasting, was a pox on these men’s profession. Their job was to carry you into a beloved event, not color it with their feelings.
As for that Alvin, Texas youngster, let the records show his name was Nolan Ryan. You will now find his bust in the baseball Hall of Fame.