For all their seeming permanence they might as well have been buffaloes…They went quickly, yet so silently that we whom they served have not yet really noticed that they are vanished.
So with other vanishings. There were the little bunty street-cars on the long, single track that went its troubled way among the cobblestones…A lone mule drew the car, and sometimes drew it off the track, when the passengers would get out and push it on again. They really owed it courtesies like this, for the car was genially accommodating: a lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once and wait for her while she shut the window, put on her hat and cloak, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the "girl" what to have for dinner, and came forth from the house…
In good weather the mule pulled the car a mile in a little less than twenty minutes, unless the stops were too long; but when the trolley-cars came, doing its miles in five minutes and better, it would wait for nobody. Nor could its passengers have endured such a thing, because the faster they were carried the less time they had to spare! In the days before deathly contrivances hustled them through their lives, and when they had no telephones—another ancient vacancy profoundly responsible for leisure—they had time for everything: time to think, to talk, time to read, time to wait for a lady!
—Booth "Don't Call Me Fran" Tarkington, the aptly named The Magnificent Ambersons
Do you remember lyin' in bed, with the covers pulled up over you head, radio playin' so no one could see?
—The Ramone "Aviles", "Rock'N'Roll Radio"
A Baseball Fan Revisits the Radio
We fans today are a spoiled lot. Between local and cable TV, you can see just about every game on the local team's schedule. If your favorite team isn't nearby, you can always pay your cable or satellite company a bit extra to see their games. If you can't get to a television, you can pay Major League Baseball and watch the game online at MLB.TV (which is, by the way, the only positive thing that baseball has done during the reign of Bud). If you can't watch the game live, you can tape or TiVo it. If you forgot to record it, you can watch the replay at MLB.TV. If you don't have the time devout to a Royals-Expos masterpiece, you can see the highlights on SportsCenter. If you want to keep the Booyas to a minimum, you can watch the extended highlights or the condensed game online. If you just want the scores, you can read the scroll at ESPN, ESPN II, or ESPN News. If you're not near a TV, you can use you laptop with a cellular modem to check any of a dozen sport sites to get an up-to-the minute score, a box score, a game cast of the current game situation. If you fall of the face of the earth for a month or two and want to catch up on the season, you can go online and get a record of every pitch of every game.
When I was a kid a-watching baseball in mid-Seventies suburban Philadelphia, we got to see about half the away games and Sunday home games for the locals, and that's about it. If you missed a game, you were out of luck. I remember when Mike Schmidt hit four home runs against the Cubs and the local affiliate, channel 17, "The Great Entertainer", got a special dispensation from the pope to replay the game. Forget about seeing west coast games on the local TV. They wouldn't incur the cost of sending a crew out west for the handful of fans who stayed up past 10 PM to watch. You probably couldn't even get the score in the morning paper, just something like "Yesterday's games: Phils at Dodgers (N)…" You'd either have to wait for the late edition of the paper—yeah, they once printed different versions of the paper something like a dozen times a day-- or watch the local news after dinner to find out the score. And forget about seeing a home game during the week. The thinking was that no one would go to the park if they could see the game at home.
But, there was one means that was always available, radio. All of the games no matter how late, how long, or how blacked out were available on your local AM sports station in glorious, state-of-the-art mono.
So when my All-Baseball colleagues floated the idea for a "Rashomon" project, where we all watch the same game and report on the various aspects of the experience, I thought of…nothing. When the various platforms for watching the game (i.e., at the ballpark, on TV, TiVo, and online) were being taken, I of course opted for…nothing, but picking on Joe Morgan's broadcast, which might be a bit of overkill. So when my friend Murray suggested listening to the game on the radio, I, of course, said, "Huh?" But then I thought about my own experience of baseball on the radio, and that made up my mind.
When I was kid, I had a bright blue, plastic, handheld transistor radio with a black leatherette case that served absolutely no purpose. It was from the dawn of time—I don't remember when I got: it was always there though I don't know why. I also believe that it only received AM stations. It didn't really matter since it only had one mono speaker anyway.
Anyway, I used this radio to listen to the broadcast of every mid-Seventies Phils game that wasn't on TV. Many's the time that I played a game of one-man stoop ball, trying to predict and ensure the Phils success with my trusty radio broadcasting game at my side. "If I Can get a popup, then Carlton will get out of this jam."
And like Joey Ramon, I spent many a summer night in my un-air conditioned, sweltering bedroom falling to sleep—well, unlike Joey—to the strains of a baseball game. Lying in the dark listening to the mellifluous tones of a broadcast by two future Hall-of-Famers, Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn, was like the scent of sweet honeysuckle on a summer night.
I remember one scorching night in particular around 1979 when the Phils trailed the Pirates by a run or so. I cursed as the hated Enrique Romo, who seemed to always kill the Phils back then, held the lead until the equally hated Kent Tekulve (that is, until he pitched for the Phils a few years later) held on for the Buccos victory. I even remember scoring scores of games over the radio. Then again, I scored my APBA games.
That was about all I could remember of the experience. It was all at a personal level, but I couldn't remember how the broadcast differed on the radio as opposed to on TV. After all, I hadn't listened to a ballgame on the radio in a good twenty years or so, aside from a random inning here or there when I started spinning around the dial on my car radio. When I was in high school, we got cable and the local network, the now-defunct Prism, broadcast just about every game not on free TV. I also, foolishly, started getting distracted from the game by whatever it is kids did in high school in the early '80s: go to the mall, watch MTV (when it actually played music) ad nauseum, play tons of Galaga, and generally reenact the Smashing Pumpkin's "1979" video [see every John Cusack movie from the decade for more info].
I never did return to the game via the radio, even though many have (including Murray) have recommended using it as the soundtrack for the TV broadcasts, turning off the turgid TV play-by-play and "color" combo in favor of the crackling mono of the radio broadcast. The only problem was that I was too lazy. It was too much bother. Besides, who would I have to yell at when they got a call wrong. You can yell at a disembodied voice. Now yelling at the TV screen is a different matter.
Anyway, I was going to my wife's aunt and uncle's house for Father's Day, and the thought occurred to me that my father-in-law, Arnie, and my wife's uncle David both listened predominantly to radio games of the Dodgers growing up in Brooklyn in the mid-Fifties. What better resources could there be on the experience? Maybe the kid from "Brooklyn Bridge", but that's about it.
So I conducted an impromptu interview of the erstwhile Dodger fans and current Yankee fans sans tape recorder. All I had was pen and paper so some of it may paraphrase what they said and since they are both lawyers, I'll be careful with what I say or rather have them say.
When I brought it up my father-in-law at first said he couldn't remember anything at all about baseball's radio days. While David said that he was just thinking the other day about listening to a Dodgers-Braves broadcast with Spahn on the mound. So I thought that sitting them down together and hopefully pitting them against each other a la Survivor would be the most effective means to get the most out of the interview as well as to get my jollies.
So here it is:
Mike: Well, what can you tell me about the broadcasters? Were they different from the TV broadcasters today? First, who did you listen to?
Arnie: Red Barber did the Dodgers broadcasts and then eventually the Yankees. And I remember hearing Vin Scully and Mel Allen. "That's another Ballantine blast." Barber had great sayings: "He's sitting in the catbird seat" and "Rippin' up the whole pea patch."
Mike: What was that?
Arnie: Either a player had a lot of hits or hit a ball a long way.
David: I never heard that one.
Arnie: Barber was a Southern gentleman, who broadcast the Brooklyn Dodgers. That was pretty strange. No "des", "dems", and "dose". He was more dignified. Not a frenetic broadcaster.
David: Slow-paced. As a matter of fact they never told you the speeds. And there was a lot of dead air.
Mike: How long 5, 10, 15 seconds.
David: Could be.
Mike: That's strange because you would expect them to fill the time without TV since you can always watch what else is going on on TV.
David: It just had a different pace.
Arnie: There was a broadcaster Bill Stern who also played a broadcaster in the movies, too. But he always seemed so rushed. The Dodger broadcasters, especially with Red Barber, just had a slower pace. They didn't feel compelled to fill every empty space. No "here's the windup".
David: And there was only one person at a time. They switched off every three innings or so.
Mike: They didn’t have a play-by-play guy and a color guy.
Arnie: They didn't have a play-by-play guy. Or a color guy. It just wasn't like that.
Mike: Who paid the broadcasters?
David: I think they were hired by the team. And they rooted for the home team definitely.
Arnie: Yeah, they rooted but it wasn't so overt. It was just the game, not constant chatter.
Mike: Did they have canned commercials or did they just read some copy on breaks?
Arnie: They read it. Ballantine and…
David: Rheingold. They were the sponsors, done by the announcers, not canned.
Arnie: Remember Rheingold papers?
David: We had an uncle who worked for Rheingold and he got paper, not exactly letterhead. It was just paper with the logo and some beer steins. But we called it Rheingold paper, like it was a special type.
Arnie: And Rheingold trays, with the logo, too.
David: One memory I have is lying in bed at night during the summers. The Dodgers and St. Louis or the Braves. Spahn and Burdette, and who was the third guy?
Arnie and Mike (almost in unison): Buehl?
Arnie: I am trying to remember a game, the Phils and Dodgers. It was around when Jim Konstanty was a big pitcher.
Mike: He won the MVP in 1950.
Arnie: OK, that sounds about right. Robinson hit a ball, no he caught a ball. You had to use your imagination. It was in extra innings late in the season, Robinson made a great play. You had to imagine that he flew across given the way they described it, but you never knew. It was very exciting.
Well it was at this point that my five-and-one-half-year-old, and you had better not forget that "one half" or you're in big trouble, dragged me away to play badminton—It was Father's Day after all. So that was the end of our interview.
I did look up the Phils-Dodgers game. I believe it was September 30, 1951. Robinson hit an upper-deck homer off of Robin Roberts in the 14th inning to win the game 9-8. They had trailed 6-1 at one point. Robinson's catch was off an Eddie Waitkus line drive for a double play. The win ensures that the Dodgers will finish in a tie for first with the Giants, both with 96-58 records. The Giants win the playoff series.
Our drive home began at 8 PM, game time. My plan was to listen on the way home on the car radio and then transfer when we got home. Our median of five- and six-year-old was supposed to sleep over her grandparents, and the nine-month would be fast asleep by the time. I had written down both the New York (1050) and the Philly (920) ESPN stations' info since we would be between the two cities. I even had a walkman backup in case the car stereo was keeping my son up. That was the plan, but one meltdown later and our daughter was coming home with us. My walkman couldn’t pick up any AM stations and though I could get either ESPN station, all they were broadcasting were the thrilling golf scores. So thinking that I had gotten the start time wrong, I started telling my daughter her two bedtime stories. She now requests stories based on a scenario that she comes up, something involving her current favorite doll and a medley of characters from her TV shows and books, either when they were kids or when they go to the beach or some sort of other scenario that would bedevil those "Who Line Is It Anyway" performers and outdo that creepy Clive guy. And you can tell how well I can spin a yarn by this compelling narrative right cheer.
While I was deep into the second straight Shrek and Puss'N'Boots are kids at the beach story, I hear that the Yankees have gone down 1-2-3 in the top of the first. I quickly wind up the story and my daughter is well on her way to sleep. I then realize that although ESPN is broadcasting the game on TV, the local broadcaster still owns the radio rights. I quickly discard the ESPN stations for the Yankee affiliate, 880 AM. Without my walkman, I have turned the car stereo fade all the way to the front and have the volume on low to allow the kids to sleep. Meanwhile I am craning my neck to even hear the broadcast, which drew stares from at least one car at a red light.
This brings up the first problem with baseball on the radio, that there are no schedules. When I was a kid, they at least published the radio schedule for sporting events in the Sunday TV book. But I searched online and all I found was that the two ESPN affiliates would be broadcasting the Game Night game, which was incorrect.
Anyway, by the time I got home, it was already 4-0 Dodgers. After carrying the kids up to bed, I find that the game is 4-2. However, I am now set up with my walkman, which is now picking up the broadcast, and my TV on mute. After hearing all the scoring in the car against two suspect moundmen in Jose Lima and Jose Contreras, it was odd to witness what was basically a pitcher's duel thereafter. The game was eminently winnable for the Yankees but a double play groundout by Posada and a misplayed one-hopper by Matsui that ended up an inside-the-park home run ensured their defeat.
However, I was more interested in the radio experience of the game. I have to say that it was much more of interest to me when I did not have the TV support. Hearing the radio broadcast, even John Sterling's, registers on a different level. It seems like you, as the listener, are right there at the park. The crowd noise seems to surround you. The radio broadcasters cuts through the noise like the PA announcer at the game while TV broadcasters seem to ride above it all isolated form the game. It took me right back to the games on a radio that I heard as a kid. It's like the cheap cigarette smell that I remember from the Vet when I was a kid and one was allowed to smoke everywhere on the planet including the doctor's office (as long as you asked if the other people didn't mind first). Anyway, whenever I smell that cheap cigarette smell it takes me back to the ride from Fern Rock station to the Vet, and the radio broadcast did the same thing.
I now realize what filled the empty spaces that attended Fifties Dodgers broadcasts. They are now filled with in-inning commercials read by the announcers and the many announcements of out-of-town scores.
Also, on the radio, you obviously cannot see the runners, so the announcer has to continually run through how many runners are on base and how they got there. On TV, they are have the runners on the little diamond symbol in the upper left-hand corner and the announcer is too busy reviewing the last replay to tell you how they got there. The replays are a big difference too. Obviously, you can't have a replay on the radio, so everything that happens seems to immediate and of-the-moment.
The announcers call a different game on the radio as well. They don't sugarcoat it. On Matsui's misplay and Posada's doubleplay ball, the announcer had no qualms about calling each a bad play. I guess when you don't have the video to review the subtle nuance of each play, you have to distill it down to its basest elements: good play/bad play. What the heck do we know anyway: we didn’t see it.
I guess that's makes the biggest difference in the broadcast. The radio announcer is trying to describe the play to the audience while the TV broadcaster can skim the description and go directly to so-called analysis. And thus Timmy McCarver was born. Anyway, a radio announcer has greater latitude to be overly descriptive in his call of the play since that is our entire image of it. Sometimes on TV a player will hit a monstrous home run and the announcers will just let the image and the crowd noise speak for itself and won't return until the replay is queued up. The radio broadcaster can't get away with that. They also seem to get less distracted them most TV announcers and will actually tell you the type of pitch and the location, out of necessity, whereas the TV announcer might use that extra bit of time to climb on a soapbox or to regale the audience with some old amusing anecdote (when what you really need is a antidote).
All in all, I preferred the audio experience of the radio broadcast over the TV one (maybe because Joe Morgan was doing that with the ultra-objective Tommy Lasorda). However, I did find that I was glued to the TV and even had closed captions on to get both sets of dialogue. One oddity was that the radio broadcast was 2-3 seconds ahead of the TV one, probably because of a longer tape delay on TV thanks to Janet Jackson. Anyway, that was enough to dissuade me from again listening to the radio broadcast while watching the TV video.
As for my future as a radio listener, during the breaks I was setting up the wireless network that my family got me for Father's Day (hey, it beats a tie). By the end of the game I was able to watch the highlights of the game and video of the plays that I missed online. Given that I am headed more in that direction the neo-Luddite in me that enjoyed the radio broadcast realized that it was more novelty than a rediscovery of the Mississippi John Hurt variety. It was a nice place to visit, but I doubt I'll stay.
[By the way, the title's from Elvis Costello's "Radio Radio".]