Among people who have read up on the history of baseball broadcasting, it’s pretty well known that putting games on the radio was a very controversial topic during the first decade-plus of the practice. Many owners believed that broadcasting live games, especially home games, would cost them at the gate. This opinion was prevalent especially in the crowded Northeast corridor, where fandom extended generally to the ends of the transit lines needed to get to the ballpark. The Midwestern teams (as well as the Boston clubs) were the first to regularly broadcast starting in the late Twenties. By contrast, the three New York teams entered into a formal agreement in 1934 placing a moratorium on all game broadcasts. This agreement remained in place until the major leagues signed the Major League Broadcast Agreement just before the 1939 season (more on that in a post tomorrow).
It’s not as though the fans kept their thoughts on the matter to themselves, though. The Sporting News conducted a poll on the question in 1932, in conjunction with a vote for the most popular baseball broadcaster (won by Arch McDonald, then at WDOD calling Chattanooga Lookouts games) and a contest paying cash prizes (up to $25!) for the best-written letters sent in. In the words of the paper, the results of the poll were “practically unanimous”: fans demanded the “continuance of radio broadcasting of baseball games”, with a “remarkable number of women” responding “showing an increased interest in the game by the fair sex” and revealing that, directly as a result of the broadcasts available at the time, interest was “particularly empathic from the small hamlets, where baseball enthusiasm apparently (ran) higher than in the larger cities.”
The article, shown below in its entirety, featured several of the winning letters sent in by respondents, some of whom confirmed that were it not for the broadcasts, they would scarcely be aware that the major league baseball even existed, and that listening to the games only whetted their appetite to see games live at the ballpark. According to the article, a staggering 259.865 votes were cast in the poll which concluded that only five percent of respondents would have rather listened to the game on radio than see the game in person.
One interesting revelation is that fans wanted all games broadcast, both home and away—except for Saturday and Sunday games, since “the fans usually have leisure on these days to attend the games and that the radio should not be a substitute for attendance on those days.”
This article ran in the issue of September 29, 1932, a season during which only nine of the sixteen major league teams were broadcasting their games. Click on the article to open it in a new tab, then click the article in that new tab again to see it in full size. Yes, we know the very bottom of the article is practically illegible.
Very few of us reading this article ever heard an actual re-created baseball game on the radio, but game re-creation was the norm for away games for nearly every team broadcasting their games on radio from the dawn of broadcasting well into the 1950s. Almost all of us knew that already, but if you didn’t, you know now.
But even though we know, intellectually, that this was the state of the baseball broadcast art, probably very few of us have thought very deeply about how this art was executed. We perhaps don’t often close our eyes and imagine what a re-created baseball game would sound like, and the effort that went into making it sound like a real, live baseball game.
Committee member Bob Barrier has, and he wrote a nice little piece a few years ago about, as he terms it, the aesthetics of re-creating a road ball game on the radio for a team’s fans to enjoy at home. While the whole idea of re-creating a baseball game from a telegraph wire might sound a bit like a silly exercise to undergo, sending broadcast equipment and an announcer on the road was prohibitively expensive at the time, and besides, teams usually had room to house only one broadcast team, obviously for the home team’s broadcast (which probably explains why the Brooklyn Dodgers re-created road games even at the New York Giants’ Polo Grounds, less than 15 miles away). But the fans still wanted and needed to hear their own team play even when they were playing on the road, and thus: the re-creation.
Barrier’s piece is reproduced in full below, having first appeared in the tome entitled Baseball/Literature/Culture: Essays, 2006-2007. Especially illuminating is his interview with Nat Allbright, little known today but widely considered the “king of the baseball re-creators” throughout the Fifties, having worked some 1,500 Brooklyn Dodger road games for the Mutual Network from his studio in, of all places, Washington D.C. During the interview, Barrier asked Allbright to simulate a baseball re-creation for him, and … well, I invite you to just read it, below.
Only the Game Was Real
The Aesthetics and Significance of Re-created Baseball Broadcasting
Robert G. Barrier
The huge success of XM Satellite Radio’s Major League Baseball broadcasts the past two years has highlighted a truth almost forgotten. Even in these days of high-definition television, streaming Internet video, and play-by-play graphical Web sites, baseball on the radio still remains the most compelling, imaginative, nostalgic, and personal way to participate as a “spectator” from a distance. Indeed, radio announcers maintain the seams of nostalgia, and in their different ways make the listener a daily participant in the game. But for some of these listeners, particularly those who lived in the rural South and Midwest from the 1930s to the 1950s, the imaginary stadiums constructed for them came from announcers re-creating the actual games from Western Union tickers miles away from the actual game. The re-created games, which often relied on recorded crowd noises, audio clips of bats hitting the ball or the ball hitting the glove, were also embellished by the imaginative patter of word artists, such as Red Barber or Graham McNamee, who created broadcasts in many instances under the illusion that listeners were hearing a real game from a real stadium.
Early on, electronics connected the nation of fans with largely factual accounts devoid of creative imagination. The earliest commercial radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, broadcast scores during the summer of 1921 and carried the first live broadcast on August 5. The
following year, RCA-Westinghouse broadcast the 1922 Series from the Polo Grounds, arranging for famous sportswriter Grantland Rice to report to an audience, which was called by the New York Tribune “the greatest audience ever assembled to listen to one man” (qtd. in Tygiel 65). Even competing stations in New York went silent so that listeners could hear the broadcasts. But for all of Rice’s brilliant poetry, the creator of the famous image “the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” failed in on-air reporting. He simply described what happened in “a little flat, atonal voice somewhat awkwardly modulated and unmistakably Southern.” Of this experience he would later report, “The broadcast officials wanted me to keep talking. But I didn’t know what to say” (qtd. in Tygiel 68).
The tradition of the personalized broadcast began in 1923 with Graham McNamee’s conveying the atmosphere and the imagination of on-air baseball. A singer brought to New York to develop his talent, he “understood pacing, style, and performing for an audience, even one he could not see” (Tygiel 69). Whereas the Western Union operator was expected to remain, “perfectly cool and collected, no matter what happens … and would be chided by the manager if he did bring in personality,” McNamee recognized that the new medium required a different approach: “to avoid dead silence, I found myself more than ever falling back on general description. And that is where the imagination comes in” (qtd. in Tygiel 69).
Though sportswriters groused and criticized the showmanship, McNamee successfully made every listener a spectator, enabling them “to use their eyes” by “paint[ing) word pictures that other minds could feast upon…. Very little imagination was required … especially when the announcer turned his microphone on the roaring, booing and cheering crowd” (Tygiel 71). Very soon teams in the Midwest began regular season broadcasts, especially in Chicago, but not in the eastern cities where there were larger population centers as well as many more major newspapers. In more scattered areas of the Midwest, broadcasts could extend the drawing area to 100 miles or more. Even the Sporting News, self-described as “baseball’s bible,” criticized broadcasts because of economics—fans wouldn’t pay for what they got free. Essentially, radio coverage democratized Major League Baseball, making it more accessible and intimate to those far away from the stadiums; as Jules Tygiel observes, “the process had become more familial or individualistic, replacing the communal experience with a more isolated one” (72).
As the listening audience expanded, so too did the need for announcers like McNamee who approached the game with a showman’s view. Many of the most popular announcers of the 1940s and 1950s were southerners, including industry legends like Red Barber, Mel Allen, Arch McDonald, Ernie Harwell, and Russ Hodges, all of whom made famous peculiar southern expressions and maintained a narrative rhythm reminiscent of the southern oral traditions of local color and humor. Perhaps it is this storytelling tradition—and their professionalism—that enabled so many of these broadcasters to approach baseball games as story, humor, and spectacle while maintaining the reportage narrative that was their main duty. Harwell, recently retired after 56 years of broadcasting, accounts for the distinctive southern voice as a natural result of the southern oral tradition, so many stories told at evenings on the porch or in the kitchen (Kaufman).
One might trace this loquaciousness back to Mark Twain and the southwestern humor tradition, but there remains a significant difference. Whereas the point of a Simon Wheeler or a Eudora Welty character is to stray far afield from the initial conversational subject, southern baseball announcers restrained themselves to commentary between pitches (Harwell says he never told a story he could not finish within the inning and he insisted upon giving the score as often as possible). It was a studied but natural patter of talk, not an extended yarn. And also there was the distinctive southern accent:
Ernie Harwell still sounds like old radio…. His style is conversational, sure, but he’s not just talking. He’s broadcasting…. People talk about his Southern lilt, and you can hear it on the air if you’re listening for it, but more noticeable is the precise, clipped diction of a 1940s radio man who has to make himself understood through the static and noise of a distant Philco (Kaufman).
Likewise, southerners also played a significant role in the lost art of re-creating live baseball games for later broadcast. In the first radio recreated games, which date to 1921, a reporter telephoned details of the action to a radio announcer, who in turn dictated the game to a very limited audience. Many re-creators made no bones about the fact that they were re-creating but others went to great lengths for the illusion of reality. Willie Morris, in North Toward Home, praises McNamee for making each game an epic contest and recounts how he won money from his childhood acquaintances by predicting upcoming events in re-created games after he had heard the real games earlier via shortwave. And even though, according to Dodger re-creator Nat Allbright, the law required re-creator announcers to make a statement that the game was re-created at both the beginning and the end, most listeners thought the games were real. In the ’30s and ’40s, almost all teams—major and minor—re-created games,with most teams re-creating only away games to save money. Many older fans recalled how they preferred the created game to the actual, since the re-creator had a 10 to 30 minute lead time, except that occasionally the teletype would fail. Ronald Reagan, who did Cubs games throughout the Midwest, had to invent, on more than one occasion, marathon foul balls, fights, or power failures.
Perhaps the most popular of the studio broadcasters, Allbright led the second largest network (next to Mutual’s Game of the Day) –26 states and 117 stations—out of Virginia from 1950 to 63. Allbright
calls what he did a science, using both high and low technology. High-tech resources included tape recordings of “background roar” and “excited crowd” noises; a recording of each stadium’s separate singing of the national anthem; and having a colleague listen to the live game in the next room, or following it via Morse code. Low-tech tools included rapping a pencil against the table for the crack of the bat, crinkling a cigarette wrapper for thunder, or having someone in a nearby bathroom play the role of the echoing PA announcer (Allbright).
Although they had a lead-time from the actual games, the successful re-creators also had to follow the broadcast atmosphere created by McNamee and other live announcers. To Allbright and other re-creators, the artful process required pacing, pause, timing, and building to control the whole tempo of the broadcast. Having the extra time gave a re-creating announcer an opportunity to add the effective comments for his team. For example, broadcasting live, Russ Hodges is famous for screaming after Bobby Thompson hit the “shot heard around the world” in the Giants -Dodgers playoff in 1951:”The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” Allbright, the Dodger re-creating announcer, did it this way:
I announced that Clem Labine was coming in to pitch, then had to change it to Ralph Branca when that was corrected. Suddenly, my associate in the next room started waving his arms like the ball was gone. When he handed me a piece of paper confirming what had happened. I said, ‘A drive to left field—back, back, and that ball is gone! … Unbelievable! It’s out, and I’ll see you next season” (qtd. in Heller).
To further illustrate the pacing and process of re-created games, Allbright, during a personal interview, agreed to re-create a game from the ’50s, while sitting in the glass-enclosed office. While the action below likely only exists in his mind, one should notice how he still uses pacing, byplay, tempo, imagery, and building to make this imaginary game come alive:
Alright, Let’s see…. We’ll open it up in the top half of the ninth inning. The Dodgers lead 3-2. The Giants have the tying run at third and the go-ahead run is at first base with one down. Mueller is on at third and he’s talking now to Leo Durochcr. That’s the tying run and Dusty Rhodes at first for the New York Giants. Dusty came in and hit for Jorgenson here in the ninth and singled to right in front of Carl Flunk. And the batter will be Willie Mays—number 24. He has one for three, right-handed batter. He doubled in the fourth and drove in a run.
Don Newcombe on the mound for the Dodgers, pulls off his cap, walks over now, picks up the rosin bag, looks toward third.
Gil Hodges with the go-ahead run at first base will play close to the bag. He will play the runner Rhodes. He will not be in back of him. Andy Palko back in deep left. Duke Snider, left center. Carl Furillo in right-center field. With Don Hoak third. Pee Wee Reese at shortstop and … Jackie Robinson at second and Gil Hodges at first.
Campanella, in front of the plate, holds up one finger now. Runners on the corners as Willie Mays moves into the batter’s box. Don Newcombe cannot pitch around Willie Mays because the on-deck hitter is Bobby Thompson.
Mays swinging his club back and forth. Newcombe stretches. Looks back to first. Now takes his foot off the rubber. Wipes … pitching hand across DODGERS on the front of the uniform.
Game time tomorrow evening. Friday, will be at seven. Saturday afternoon at one and Sunday at one. And that will finish up the four game set.
The Dodgers lead the National League by four games over these Giants. Newcombe ready, comes in with the pitch … and it’s … inside, close for a ball.
Mays steps out of the batter’s box … goes down for a handful of dirt. It’s a bright sunny day with a temperature of about 84 degrees … at Ebbets Field and the wind is blowing … toward right. [Three second delay.]
Newcombe ready on the mound, looks in for the sign, set and delivers. And a SWING and a MISS for a strike.
It’s one and one for Willie Mays. We’re in the bottom half of the ninth inning. Bobby Thompson on deck and it’s a 3-2 ball game. The Dodgers lead by one. Tying run is at third.
Newcombe … on the mound. This guy can let it go. He can make that ball look like an aspirin tablet.
Don Newcombe. Ready. Set. Comes down with the pitch. There’s a GROUND ball past the mound, going to Reese. Reese up with it, over to Robinson. THERE’S ONE. Back to first: A DOUBLE PLAY AND THE DODGERS GET OUT OF IT IN THE NINTH and WIN THE BALL GAME by a score of 3 to 2 over the New York Giants.
So they win the first game of this four game set. And Newcombe and Roy Campanella down below celebrating. There’s Reese, Jackie Robinson, and Gil Hodges. And it’s the HATED Giants GO DOWN in the first game of this four game set.
This is Nat Allbright at … Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York. Re-created and … tomorrow game time will be at seven.
I’ll be back right after these words from … YOUR local … beer dealer.
Without the constant noise level of the imaginary crowd, the hum and buzz of excitement, note how Allbright moves in a controlled tempo, with few breaks in the delivery and only one mistake (calling the Giants’ inning the bottom half though the game was at Ebbets Field—perhaps unconsciously thinking of the infamous Thompson home run?). In fact, Allbright’s abilities to convey the color and tension of a real game by his delivery stand out even more without the canned noise. Notice also that Allbright makes the event and his “telling of it” personal without intervening in the game: ‘It’s a bright sunny day with a temperature of about 84 degrees … at Ebbets Field and the wind is blowing … toward right,” hesitating, as if he were actually checking the pennants blowing in the outfield. Another aspect of the “personal” in Allbright’s above sample that differs from some earlier broadcasters and many current ones is that he functions first as a reporter, rather than a fan. Though obviously a “homer” he refrains from pulling directly for the Dodgers, an element many modern team network broadcasters bypass.
The Allbright re-creation transcribed above reveals how “reportage” can be made vivid by rhythm, figurative language (Newcombe “can make that ball look like an aspirin tablet”), pauses, and pacing. As an indication of the difference in engagement between re-created baseball by Nat Allbright and on-site baseball broadcasting, one might compare the 1950s’ broadcasts of Mutual’s Game-of-the-Day (live) and Nat Allbright’s re-created Dodgers games. By that time, many major league teams were playing games at night during the week and so many weekday games came from Wrigley Field or from minor league venues. I recall coming home from school September afternoons to hear those Mutual games from Chicago and even sometimes from Yankee Stadium when the weather turned too cold for night games: those were long afternoons filled with leisurely and slow games, the action interspersed with banter, such as how announcer Bob Neal’s last name backwards seemed to spell “Lean,” a conversation I somehow recall from fifty years ago! Though I did not perceive of it until recently when I heard the Allbright re-creation, the re-created games from the Dodger network were far more appealing because of the constant hum and ebb and flow of canned background ”noise far louder than any real stadium could be, each inning rising to a climactic sound level, almost like eighteen horse races. In another indication of the ”reality” of the re-created broadcasts, Allbright recounted during the interview how some of the thousands of listeners from small towns of the South and the Midwest attending spring training games in Florida would seek out the Dodger’s broadcast booth and refuse to accept that Red Barber was the only on-site announcer. Indeed, I remember my own friends in 1957 ready to fight me for telling them that Nat Allbright’s broadcasts were re-created, a fact I had learned from the Sporting News.
Allbright remembers Mel Allen telling him that the baseball re-creator had the best of both worlds, broadcasting the games yet getting to remain at home and “sleep in (his) own bed at night.” In many similar ways, the lucky listeners of those re-created games also had the best circumstances possible: the ability to hear the results of the game, the opportunity to listen to a word artist’s re-creations, and the pleasures of the imagination to participate in the game itself in one’s mind’s eye—and ear.
Allbright. Nat. Personal Interview. 1 Match 2006.
Heller, Dick. “Nat Allbright was the Dodgers to many fans in the 50s.” The Washington Times 10 March 2003: A10.