How Radio Gave Baseball Its Voice (Paul Dickson)

The National Pastime Museum is a website rich with historical baseball articles written by some of SABR’s brightest lights, as well as some of the top working journalists in the game.  If you haven’t been there yet, head on over when you’ve got a few minutes to kill.

An interesting baseball media article published there recently was written by Paul Dickson, who is probably most famous in baseball circles for publishing The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, which you can buy here or, if you have at least a halfway decent library available to you, check it out from there.  But Dickson has authored enough baseball and non-baseball books, over 65 of them, to have a pretty impressive Wikipedia page dedicated to him.

The article Dickson recently published, which we republish in full below, is titled “How Radio Gave Baseball its Voice“, and while it’s not a comprehensive history of baseball on the radio, it does include some of the key figures of the early radio business, and is a nice, easy, breezy read.

Thanks to Becki Hartke, Director of the National Pastime Museum. You can join almost 2,500 other followers of their twitter feed at @TNPMuseum.


 

HOW RADIO GAVE BASEBALL ITS VOICE

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On August 5, 1921, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a 25-year-old studio announcer for radio station KDKA sat in a box seat behind home plate in Forbes Field. Using only a converted telephone as a microphone and some jury-rigged equipment, Harold Arlin broadcast the first Major League Baseball game, calling every play in a game between the Pirates and the Phillies, which the Pirates won 8–5.

Arlin later recalled that this pioneering event was merely an experiment—a “one-off”—and that most of the staff at the station thought that baseball would never be commercially viable on radio.

For the moment the conclusion reached by Arlin and his peers seemed on target. That year’s World Series between the New York Yankees and the New York Giants was broadcast locally, and the broadcast the following year of the 1922 World Series was linked to more than one station, but these were novelties with little impact on the regular baseball season or the consciousness of the fans.

The first great radio success came in 1923 with the Chicago Cubs, which was due to the open-mindedness of Phil Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs, and his progressive president William Veeck—not to be confused with his son Bill Veeck. Wrigley, a great advocate of advertising, had been the perfect owner for Veeck to work with. One of the combined legacies of the two men was radio, which both men saw as the perfect vehicle for selling the Cubs as a regional franchise. Veeck especially welcomed free radio coverage of Cubs games, and one of the reasons he gave for this was that radio educated new fans in the subtleties of baseball, and this was especially true for women. Wrigley firmly believed that radio would increase ticket sales and yield a wider regional fan base.

Late in the 1923 season, Judith Waller, managing director of radio station WMAQ, came to Wrigley asking for a 30-day trial of broadcasting live Cubs games. At the end of the trial, listeners were asked to send in letters expressing their feelings about the broadcasts. The letters came in bundles from all over the Midwest. A Wisconsin dentist wrote, “I have had no trouble with my patients since I installed the radio for the Cubs games. They sit and listen and let me work.” An Indiana farmer wrote that he had a radio rigged in his field and caught the score as he finished each turn of the plow. He said, “Don’t stop it.”

The experimenting continued and culminated on June 1, 1925, when WMAQ became the first station in the United States to broadcast every home baseball game, an arrangement that continued for many seasons. Surprisingly, the deal with WMAQ was not exclusive, and the Cubs allowed other broadcasters to set up next to the press box and provide live accounts of the game on the radio. At any given moment through the late 1920s, as many as five radio stations carried the games live. But the key was WMAQ, a clear-channel 50,000-watt monster that could be heard over much of the Midwest in the day and over most of the East Coast at night when the AM signal was stronger. “The middle as well as the country at large was becoming Cub-conscious,” newsman John P. Carmichael later wrote of the WMAQ deal. “The team was on its way to fame and fortune.” [i]

In his 1946 history of the Cubs, journalist Warren Brown maintained that beyond spreading the Cubs gospel, radio did increase attendance for the team. His evidence: from 1918 to 1924, when the Cubs averaged fourth place in the National League standings, they drew 3,585,439 patrons for that seven-year period; and from 1925 to 1931, with a club that averaged fourth place in the National League standings, the Cubs, for that seven-year period, drew 7,845,700 patrons. To quote Brown, “That represents a gain of 119%. Over the same period, the other seven clubs gained 27% in home attendance.”

But despite the success of the Cubs as the decade wore on, a majority of the other teams were increasingly fearful, believing radio would cut down on ticket sales by allowing the lukewarm fan—or the fan with little disposable income—to stay home and get a word picture of the game for nothing. The Boston teams—the NL Boston Bees (later the Braves) and the Red Sox—began broadcasting some of their games in 1926.

Baseball Magazine, July 1930

Then along came the crash of 1929 and the fear of broadcasting seemed to intensify. Owners pointed to the declining sales of sheet music and phonograph records as evidence of radio’s negative impact on traditional media. But there was one notable exception—in 1929 the Cincinnati Reds became the second club to air regular radio broadcasts of all their home games.

In December 1931, 11 of 16 Major League teams came to the winter meetings in Chicago planning to establish a ban on all radio coverage, but the measure had to be tabled. The night before the ban was to be discussed, the Cubs had agreed to a new radio contract for the 1932 season, infuriating those who feared the consequences. President William Harridge of the American League intimated that if radio became an issue with the newspapers, he would recommend that broadcasts be eliminated. “Newspaper publicity made baseball,” said Harridge, who had the support of the Baseball Writers Association, which had expressed the belief that radio was cutting down on the sale of “EXTRA” editions of their newspapers.[ii] [iii]

As the Depression deepened, the opinion of the majority of owners solidified around the notion that radio kept fans from the ballpark. Nowhere was this belief more strongly held than in the greater New York area, where, in 1934, a five-year pact between the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, and the New York Yankees went into effect banning all radio coverage. Added to this fear that radio was sapping the vitality of baseball was the emergence of serial melodramas known as soap operas, which often ran when afternoon games were played.

If radio was declared the enemy of baseball in New York, it was not universal. The Cincinnati Reds reported that radio was adding to ticket sales, and the commitment to the medium redoubled when Powel Crosley, the largest manufacturer of radios in the world, bought the team in 1934.

Crosley’s general manager was Larry MacPhail, the red-faced, sandy-haired, heavy-drinking protégé of Branch Rickey who had revived the ailing Reds and turned them into a money-making contender. His innovations in Cincinnati included regular radio broadcasts employing another redhead—a young Floridian named Red Barber—and night baseball.

MacPhail was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers during the winter of 1938–39, and on February 5, MacPhail announced that the Dodgers would be the first team to break the New York area radio ban, and all of the team’s games would be broadcast on WOR—a 50,000-watt powerhouse of a station. Sponsors had been lined up, and broadcaster Red Barber was hired to be the voice of the team.

Source: The Trading Card Database, www.tradingcarddb.com

Later in the month at the National League winter meeting, the Giants announced they were also opting out of the radio agreement. At the end of that meeting, the only radio holdout in either league was the New York Yankees, which succumbed shortly thereafter. [iv]

Meanwhile, after being first hired by MacPhail, Barber went to spring training to get the lowdown on the players so that he could talk about them—and not just what they did between the white lines. New Yorkers had heard him before—and apparently liked him despite or because of his homespun southern delivery—as the announcer for the 1938 World Series and radio voice of the Army–Notre Dame football game staged at Yankee Stadium a few months earlier. His voice, made for radio, was soothing, and his approach to calling a game was colorful and rich in rural metaphor—Ebbets Field would soon become “the Flatbush pea patch.” Barber was a man of “you alls” and “yes, ma’ams” headed for a place mocked for “dems” and “dose.” [v]

Barber was one of the most influential of the new broadcast personalities who gave the game its voice through the war years and beyond and in the process became as important to the face of many teams as the players themselves. Another such figure was Mel Allen, another southern voice, who became the Yankee’s first play-by-play man. During his long radio career, Allen called more World Series (20) and All-Star Games (24) on radio than anyone in history. Barber, who later went to the Yankees after 15 years with the Dodgers, was also instrumental in the development of another brilliant redhead, Vin Scully. Beginning with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950, Scully apprenticed under his watchful eyes and critical ears. The amazing Scully has called Dodgers games on two coasts in seven decades including the present one.

As it turned out, radio became the vehicle by which baseball thrived. As Gerald Nachman put it in his book Raised on Radio, “Radio quickly became a crucial arm of sports in America, spreading the gospel of baseball in the 1920s to 1950s.”

When television came along, the fear was that radio would be the loser to the new medium, but radio remains vital today as teams set up their own networks to keep far-flung fans connected to their favorite teams. Currently, the last team to buy into radio has 52 stations linked on the Yankees Radio Network, which reaches across 15 states including Alaska.

 


[i] Carmichael, 1993, Chicago Daily News, biography.
[ii] San Jose News, December 8, 1931.
[iii] Normally reserved for a crisis—but often extended to baseball—these were special editions hastily printed and hawked by street vendors. During a World Series, there would be at least one newsboy on every corner.
[iv] Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1938.
[v] The Sporting News, March 16, 1939, p. 6.

Major League Broadcast Booth Changes Don’t Open Minor League Doors

The Major League Baseball season consists of 2,430 games played over the next six months, and with each of those games broadcast on television and radio, hundreds of commentators get involved. While the phrase “you can’t tell them without a scorecard” originally applied to players, with more than 40 of those announcers changing jobs this winter, we thought it might be good to give them a rundown as well.

If you caught ESPN’s Opening Night broadcast on Sunday, you discovered a new top team for the Worldwide Leader in Sports’ coverage of the national pastime. While Dan Shulman begins his sixth season in the booth, his partners are both gone. John Kruk returns to Baseball Tonight, while Curt Schilling’s month-long departure from the Sunday night booth last September has become permanent.

Just as she did last fall, Jessica Mendoza replaces Schilling: Aaron Boone slides over from Monday-night duty to replace Schilling. Eduardo Perez will join Schilling in the analyst chair on Monday nights, with Karl Ravech or Dave Flemming handling play-by-play.

When Fox starts its coverage this weekend, it too will make a change at the top, with John Smoltz replacing the duo of Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci.

Below is a look at the changes coming to local broadcasts around the league, broken down by division. But before we get there, let’s get the easy listings out of the way: if you’re a fan of the Rays, Yankees, Indians, Royals, Twins, Astros, Angels, Mariners, Mets, Braves, Nationals, Giants or Reds, you’ll get more of the same from last season.

While 17 teams changed something about their broadcasts, that doesn’t appear to have created any vacancies at the AAA level. Every new major-league play-by-play voice save one came from a supporting role at a national network or from another major-league booth, and the lone exception jumped from NCAA Division I to MLB.

In fact, the directory at Broadcaster411.com lists just two new lead play-by-play voices in AA and AAA:Tyler Murray takes over at AA New Hampshire while Chris Adams-Wall steps in at AA New Hampshire.

American League East

Former Red Sox second sacker Jerry Remy has a new partner in the television booth this season as the organization sacked Don Orsillo following a 15-year tenure. Dave O’Brien moves from the radio booth to TV, and New Hampshire native Tim Neverett moves in from the Pirates’ broadcast crew to replace O’Brien on the radio.

Dan Shulman continues his gig as the play-by-play voice for Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN, but also returns home for 30 Blue Jays telecasts on Sportsnet, where he’ll join Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler.

In Baltimore, Fred Manfra will cut back to about a third of the Orioles’ games. Jim Hunter, who was one of several analysts on the television side, will lead the committee to replace him.

American League Central

The White Sox move radio flagships from WSCR 670 to WLS 890, paving the way for the Cubs to take over CBS’s 50,000-watt all-sports station in the nation’s third-largest radio market. With the Blackhawks on WGN 720, the Bulls on WMVP 1000 and the Bears on WBBM 780, all five major Chicago sports teams are on different Class A stations for the next few months.

On the television side, the Pale Hose make another change, and it’s one that will be met with jubilation or despair but not much in between: Ken Harrelson will cut his schedule in half for his 27th straight season in the booth. “The Hawk,” who turns 75 over Labor Day weekend, has taken the unusual step of cutting his schedule back to predominantly road games because each home game comes with a 100-mile commute one way from his home in Granger, Ind. Jason Benetti, a 32-year-old Syracuse University graduate who called games at the local AAA team before joining ESPN in 2011, will handle the remaining half of the schedule.

The Tigers will swap play-by-play announcers between TV and radio for 13 games this season with Mario Impemba moving to radio and Dan Dickerson handling TV duties. Michigan native Dick Enberg, who is signing off from the Padres booth after the season (more on that below), will also step in for a game.

American League West

A Rangers broadcast crew with three 60-something announcers will get a bit of relief as 43-year-old Dave Raymond joins the staff. A Stanford graduate who was one of three men splitting in the Astros radio booth from 2006-12, Raymond will work 43 games on radio with Steve Busby, permitting Tom Grieve to dial back his schedule. Raymond will also fill in for Eric Nadel on the radio side, working with Matt Hicks.

In Oakland, Mark Mulder will join the television booth for 20 games.

National League East

The Miami Marlins dispense with television analyst Tommy Hutton after 19 seasons. The Miami Herald reported that the team believed Hutton was too negative: as media columnist Barry Jackson observed, “Hutton’s dismissal serves as a disconcerting reminder that many teams prefer cheerleaders in the booth, announcers who won’t rock the boat and certainly won’t openly question coaching or personnel decisions.”

Eduardo Perez, Preston Wilson and Al Leiter will alternate alongside Rich Waltz in Hutton’s place, leaving Leiter in the unique position of working local telecasts for both the Yankees and Marlins.

In Philadelphia, the Phillies will have just one flagship station instead of two as they drop WPHT 1210 for an exclusive home on WIP 94.1.

National League Central

The Pirates, who lost Tim Neverett to Boston, ransack divisional rival Milwaukee for a replacement. Joe Block steps aside as Milwaukee’s no. 2 radio voice to join Greg Brown in the Steel City, where the announcers alternate TV and radio duties from one game to the nexr.

With Block out, Jeff Levering assumes the title of “Bob Uecker’s backup” in Milwaukee: he serves as the secondary play-by-play announcer for home games and leads the broadcast when Uecker is absent on the road. Last year, Levering was the third man on the totem pole, which meant he joined Block to do color on the road. That means that Levering is, in effect, partnering with his own replacement this year: Lane Grindle steps in after a decade covering baseball at the University of Nebraska.

Longtime Cardinal voice Mike Shannon cuts road games out of his schedule after trimming most non-division road games some time ago. Rick Horton and Al Hrabosky, who also work the television side of things, were the fill-ins last season, and Jim Edmonds is set to join Fox Sports Midwest this year.

As mentioned above, the Cubs slide from one CBS radio station to another, departing WBBM 780 for WSCR 670.

National League West

The Rockies require two men to replace the retired George Frazier in the TV color chair: Ryan Spilborghs and Jeff Huson will join Drew Goodman on Root Sports Rocky Mountain.

At the age of 81, Dick Enberg has decided that the 2016 season will be his last with the Padres on Fox Sports San Diego. Former Red Sox voice Don Orsillo is the successor in waiting: he will cover a part-time schedule of TV and radio games this season before taking over full-time on television next spring.

Ted Leitner returns to the Padres radio booth as the play-by-play man, despite the fact that sounds to me like the guy who reads the fine print at the end of car commercials. He has a new partner, as Bob Scanlan shifts to working for Padres.com and former fill-in Jesse Agler steps in beside Leitner.

Up the California coast, another legend prepares to say goodbye. Vin Scully, who was in his second year covering the Dodgers when Bobby Thomson smacked the Shot Heard ’Round The World in 1951 and whose broadcasting career spans 67 years, says the 2016 season will most likely be his last. Joe Davis of Fox Sports, who is nearly 60 years Scully’s junior, joins the broadcast booth at Chavez Ravine, where he’ll cover 50 games on television.

Jeff Munn departs the Diamondbacks radio booth, where he was the pregame and postgame host who also pinch-hit on play-by-play occasionally. Mike Ferrin leaves MLB Network on SiriusXM to replace him.

So, if you’re keeping score, the Giants are the lone NL West team to return all of its on-air talent.