On the 100th Anniversary of Baseball on Radio, I’m Thinking Back to 75

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  Hi all.  Here’s how I see baseball on this Thursday, August 5, 2021.  August 5 has always been a special day to me, since I found out that was the day of the first radio broadcast of a baseball game. As broadcast baseball moves into its second century, it’s in as much of a shambles as the sport itself.  So, let’s turn back the clock to radio baseball’s 75th anniversary, this date in 1996. 

 Jim Lucas and I had been minor league broadcasters going back to 1991.  Every now and then, he would mention a totally crazy, nutty idea.  Routinely I’d laugh his idea off. He finally caught me on just the right day, in just the right frame of mind, and his idea sprouted wings and began to fly. 

  July 12, 1996 was a gloomy night for me.  A year before to the day, the love of my life had told me she was marrying somebody too lazy to get his own girl. While I had another girl in my sights by July of ’96, I was still sad over the one that got away. Following a long-forgotten New Britain Rock Cats game on the road, Jim and I went out to hoist a few. We rarely did this by that point in our careers, but he knew I was in a bad place and may have figured correctly that I might listen to his idea.  So, when I’d had at least one more than I should have, he said we should do a re-creation broadcast. 

 After Harold Arlin’s original live broadcast of a Pirates game on KDKA, re-creations became radio’s watchword for baseball.  This is how it was done:  Western Union would send pitch-by-pitch accounts to the few teams who were interested.  An announcer at the station or possibly at a remote locale would take what he got from Western Union and build their bare bones into a broadcast.  Western Union would say “S1C” and if the announcer was clever, he’d say something like “Here comes the first pitch, and it’s a fastball down the middle for strike one.”  A different sort of announcer might just say “A called strike one.”  Detroit’s Ty Tyson was a practitioner of that minimalist school. 

  Eventually, home games were done live in most cities while away games would continue to be done as re-creations until after World War II.

   In the thirties and early forties, records were available with crowd noise on them.  Some truly daring souls would play one of these in the background and recreate using a wooden stick and a hollow box for the sound of bat hitting ball.  When Jim presented the idea to me, I knew I couldn’t do it that way. I had only two hands and would need them to page through my stats. I wasn’t going to go truly 1920’s and have no stats.  I was reluctant to do the project at all, but when I decided to go for it, I knew I had to do it the way Red Barber did it.  He let his audience know it was a re-creation and used no artifice. If Western Union still existed, I would have wanted the sound of the ticker, as Red had it on his games of this kind.  It was decided Jim would be in our booth at our home stadium, while I would be in the studio of AM 910, our flagship station at the time.

  The big question was when to do it and how to make people want to hear it.  Our discussion was on July 12, and it hit me that August 5 would mark the 75th anniversary of Harold Arlin’s first radio baseball broadcast.  That was our “Eureka” moment.

  We had to make one major concession to 1996 reality-our re-creation would have to include commercials.  Full commercial breaks every half inning were unknown until the 1939 World Series when Gillette bought the exclusive rights. If we had to do commercials, Jim pointed out, they would have to all be live reads.  That meant I would have to braille all the commercials and a log saying which ads I must read in which half inning.  

  While I was working on the live reads, I recalled that one living man had done re-creations in his salad days.  Add to that, he was the most personable man I knew in broadcasting-the Phillies’ Harry Kalas.  I approached the team and explained the interview I hoped to conduct, and eventually was given a time and a number. Harry gave us nearly 15 minutes of his precious time for a terrific interview.  While I also asked about his influences and his later career, my focus was the re-creations he did for the Hawaii Islanders, a Pacific Coast League team that began play in 1961.  There was no way the team would pay for an announcer or the broadcast phone lines from places like Indianapolis or Omaha to Honolulu.  That left Harry doing home games live and road games by re-creation.  The funniest part, as with any re-creation story was when the relay system broke down, which in his case only happened once.  He had to invent stuff to fill time for 20 minutes while his color commentator tried to find out what had actually happened in the last innings of the game.  Nobody can tell a story the way Harry could.

  Following the interview, I buckled down and did the broadcast, commercials and all.  The Rock Cats lost to the visiting Bowie Baysox 4—2.  My girlfriend Melanie came to the studio with me.  Listening to the recording now, I know I should have given her more of the commercials.  She only did two all night, and by the end I was worn out.  The locals enjoyed what we had done.  This led us to make August 5 an annual re-creation night wherever we were. Our last was on August 5, 2002. 

  Fast forward to today.  Thanks to Covid, a very different kind of re-creation has become necessary.  Starting in what there was of the 2020 season, major league broadcasters didn’t travel to the games.  Some broadcast from vacant home stadia, some from their homes.  While the worst of the pandemic has passed in 2021, both major and minor league broadcasters are still finding themselves limited all too often.  When they do road games, they are watching a monitor which often gives a very incomplete picture.  In the Division 3 college playoffs, my alma mater Rowan University didn’t send their broadcasters to Marietta, Ohio for the first round of the playoffs.  In one of the games, our broadcasters got the teams mixed up at the outset of the broadcast.  Their monitor was so bad it took them some 18 minutes, well into the home half of the second inning to realize they had the wrong team at the plate and the wrong team in the field.  While that couldn’t happen at the major league level, it’s possible it might in the minors where the level of talent is all over the lot. In some cities, MILB-TV provides a picture and streams the home town’s radio or Internet feed. This caused an unlistenable situation in Sacramento, where the feed was plugged directly into the stadium’s public address system, making it impossible to hear the broadcasters do their play-by-play.  

                Even before the pandemic, minor league baseball had been sliding off radio and becoming an Internet-only game.  I predicted this in 2000, saying there would be no minor league ball on the radio by 2020.  This isn’t quite true yet, but it’s going that way.  Even the major league Oakland A’s thought to take their games off the radio.  That only lasted a few games. Most disturbing is the Toronto Blue Jays’ choice to simulcast their TV broadcast over their radio station, SN590 in Toronto. At least for home games, their radio man Ben Wagner has been returned to the booth.  Apparently, simulcasting is still the word when the Jays take to the road.

Bottom line: Baseball on radio was rolling along through 2019.  Nobody could have imagined that its centennial would find the game in the spot where it is.  Happy anniversary anyway, and let’s hope some kind of audio broadcast with the announcers in the booth continue as long as there is baseball.

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