When you think of televised baseball, chances are your trip down memory lane has either two or three people in the broadcast booth. There have certainly been exceptions at the local level: today, of course, Dodgers home games are televised by the one-man crew of Vin Scully, and solo radio broadcasts are standard operating procedure in San Francisco when one of the team’s three play-by-play men is on assignment elsewhere.
But on the national level, this is the exception rather than the rule. As of the last update (through the games of July 19, 2015), 99.78 percent of the telecasts in the SABR network television database have had either two or three people in the broadcast booth. Today, we’ll look at those broadcasts that don’t fit in those categories.
For a time, it was the two-man booth that was noteworthy, since the play-by-play announcer typically worked alone. Sometimes there was a second voice present, one which would handle a few innings or read commercials, but by and large only one man was at the microphone.
There have been 20 nationally televised games during which a single broadcaster handled all nine innings, and the majority of those came under the system described above. Bill Slater, Bob Stanton and Bob Edge split the duties for the seven-game 1947 World Series, which was televised not by a single network but an ad-hoc setup that allowed any television station in the U.S. to air the game, if they wanted to. The same circumstances reprised themselves in 1949, this time with Jim Britt handling all five contests.
In 1948, over the same sort of network, Red Barber was the play-by-play voice of the World Series on TV, but he was joined by one of the home team’s announcers: Tom Hussey in Boston and Van Patrick in Cleveland. When NBC took over World Series rights in 1951, they would continue to use local announcers until the mid-1970s.
Early All-Star Games, which like the World Series were telecast nationally, accounted for three more solo broadcasts. With the 1949 Midsummer Classic in his Flatbush backyard, Red Barber handled the duties: Jack Brickhouse did the same in 1950 at Comiskey Park and 1951 at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium. If you’re counting along, that brings us to 15 solo broadcasts.
By 1954, precedent for the midseason and postseason showpieces had been set, and two announcers were deployed for those games. That year, ABC sent a broadcast crew to a second game on Saturday afternoons, primarily to use in case of rain at the primary site but also to file reports as appropriate. For the season’s final two broadcasts, Bob Finnegan was away doing college football on ABC radio, so his usual partner Bill McColgan handled the backup game solo.
The remaining three solo broadcasts in history were one-off instances set up by pennant races. Until NBC inked its first contract with Major League Baseball in 1966, postseason tiebreaker games were bid on separately from either the regular season or the playoffs, and so ended up with different sponsors than the other games.
In 1959, ABC won the rights to the Braves-Dodgers pennant tie-breaker playoff but had no regular announcers to field, since the network broadcast no other baseball that year. George Kell called the first game of the best-of-three series solo before Bob DeLaney joined him for game two. In 1962, Bob Wolff covered the first game of a Dodger-Giant pennant playoff solo; Kell sat in for game two, and Wolff’s usual partner, Joe Garagiola, handled the third game.
Finally, entering the final day of the 1982 season, Atlanta led the N.L. West by a game over Los Angeles, who was playing third-place San Francisco at Candlestick Park. ABC’s two games that day featured the Brewers and Orioles, who were tied atop the A.L. East and were meeting for a winner-take-all Game 162; and the Braves playing San Diego. Since an Atlanta loss coupled with a Los Angeles win would have triggered an N.L. West playoff game, ABC sent Don Drysdale to the Bay Area.
(In the interest of full disclosure, there is a 21st solo broadcast currently listed in the database at this moment. On July 29, 2010, Vin Scully called a Dodgers/Padres game on MLB Network. This was a national retransmission of the Dodgers local broadcast, however, and as such should not be included. It will be removed in the next update.)
On the other end of the spectrum, in recent decades network suits have occasionally decided that three men in the booth was not enough. The 1988 movie The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad lampooned the then-growing trend of three-man booths by teaming Curt Gowdy with Jim Palmer, Tim McCarver, Dick Vitale, Mel Allen, Dick Enberg and Dr. Joyce Brothers for a game being “broadcast” during the movie.
No networks have gone quite as far as stuffing the booth with Vitale or Dr. Brothers on their own real-life broadcasts, but on three occasions, four men have called a national telecast. All three such games were All-Star Games on networks whose principal crews used a play-by-play announcer and two color men. In 1967, NBC’s “A” team featured Gowdy with Pee Wee Reese and Sandy Koufax. With the game at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Angels voice Bud Blattner joined them in the booth. The Zanesville Times-Recorder notes that he also appeared on the NBC radio feed with Jim Simpson and Tony Kubek.
In 1980 and again in 1982, Don Drysdale and Howard Cosell were two-thirds of ABC’s broadcast crew with either Keith Jackson or Al Michaels doing play-by-play. Jackson and Michaels traded off throughout the season as each man went on assignment elsewhere, but with only baseball in session in July, both play-callers worked the games from Los Angeles (1980) and Montreal (1982).
More recently, ESPN has used three or more analysts on the same game, stationing them in various locations around the field in a practice they call “The Shift.” For example, for a Pirates/Dodgers game on June 1, 2014, play-by-play announcer Karl Ravech holed up in the press box with Buster Olney, usually the sideline reporter. Aaron Boone and Mark Mulder reported from the first- and third-base camera wells, with former manager Eric Wedge in the stands behind home plate and Doug Glanville in the outfield.
Glanville and Wedge have reprised those roles on two Wednesday night games this season: Jon Sciambi has handled play-by-play, with Eduardo Perez replacing Aaron Boone, Wedge moving to the third-base camera well, and Rick Sutcliffe analyzing in the press box.
I’m tempted to not count the “Shift” broadcasts as true four-, five- or six-person crews since they represent an intentional paradigm shift away from the booth-based tradition of a single play-by-play announcer working with one or two analysts. But regardless of how one handles them, it’s hard not to think of the wisdom of Lindsey Nelson: “Two analysts in the booth are often one too many, and three people in the booth are often several too many.”
If that’s true of three people in the booth, imagine how Nelson must have felt about four. And whether consciously or not, the networks seem to have followed his lead.