Tag Archives: Grantland Rice

Grantland Rice’s Legacy in the Deadball Era

The Deadball Committee of SABR has done terrific yeoman’s work in expanding the knowledge base of the baseball that was played during the era 1900-1919. There are nearly four hundred super-dedicated and knowledgeable members in the Committee; they have a solid library of historical newsletters available; they even have a very active Yahoo Discussions group.  The Committee is chaired by John McMurray, who also happens to be the vice-chair of the Baseball and the Media Committee as well.

While there is an impressive body of work detailing the players of the era, they also contemplate the era’s non-players, in this case, the sportswriters.  McMurray has recently published an overview of Grantland Rice, considered one ofthe most famous writers from the era, and he has graciously consented to allow us to reprint it here in full for your enjoyment.


 

McMurray: Grantland Rice’s legacy in the Deadball Era

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the SABR Deadball Era Committee’s February 2016 newsletter. To learn more about the Deadball Era Committee, click here.

By John McMurray

Even with the large number of new books on the Deadball Era published annually, it is worthwhile on occasion to recall prior works which illuminate figures who may have fallen a bit outside of the Deadball Era Committee’s view. One such person is writer Grantland Rice. Known best for his writing for the weekly magazine Collier’s, Rice himself was never a major league beat reporter, recognized instead for his prolific columns that touched on many sports and which often included a poem and clever twists of phrase. While Rice’s connection with baseball may seem attenuated relative to, say, the more regular interactions with players that Ring Lardner or Heywood Broun enjoyed, Rice nevertheless was influential in several important episodes of the Deadball Era.

Rice’s impact is given a comprehensive and thoughtful treatment in Sportswriter: The Life and Times of Grantland Rice by Charles Fountain, published in 1993. That Rice — a colossal figure in American sportswriting — has been the subject of only a few biographies (though two other volumes on him were published in the 1990s, including one by William Harper of more than 600 pages) may suggest that Deadball Era researchers would be better served to spend more time examining the role of reporters of the time, as these writers served as an essential liaison between the game and its burgeoning fan base.

Consider that when Ty Cobb famously sent postcards under various fictitious names to try and promote himself as a young player, he sent them to Rice, recognizing the impact of the then-local reporter’s writing. “He is a terrific hitter and faster than a deer,” said one, while another asked: “Have you seen Ty Cobb play ball yet? He is the fastest mover I’ve seen in baseball.” Rice subsequently wrote a column about the budding star which was overflowing with praise. That Cobb was in the major leagues within a year is often credited in large part to his surreptitious interactions with Rice.

In 1916, as Babe Ruth was firmly establishing himself as a star pitcher, it was Rice who suggested that praise for Ruth’s pitching prowess was overblown. Fountain noted that, in contrast to the praise that Rice often bestowed on young stars, he chided Ruth for being out of shape and exclaimed that “Ruth is still too young at this business to be classed with Rube Waddell or Eddie Plank or Nap Rucker.” Rice went on to say “quite a stretch of time lies between Ruth and lasting greatness.” It is reasonable to infer that the biting comments from Rice’s widely-read column made Ruth’s eventual switch to being a full-time hitter somewhat more palatable to his readers.

In 1917, Rice also used his platform to insist that John McGraw should be suspended for an incident with National League President John Tener. Rice’s columns, along with those of several of his contemporaries, drew attention to to the matter, applying pressure which resulted in McGraw’s eventual suspension.  Still, Rice is recognized more so today for helping to shape opinion of the Black Sox as the 1919 World Series scandal grew. He pointed out inconsistency in Eddie Cicotte’s play, for instance, saying, “Eddie, instead of jumping swiftly for the ball, took his time with all the leisure of a steel striker.” Playing up what Fountain called “the out-of-character aspect of (the team’s play),” Rice also used the word “fix” in print early on and also was outspoken on the deleterious effects that the performance of the Black Sox had on the game itself. Again, Rice moved and shaped popular opinion, having an effect on events that followed.

Of course, all contemporary baseball writers enjoyed outsized influence, essentially serving as the voices for particular teams to an audience which had few other outlets. But Rice himself had a disproportionate impact on the sporting scene of the early 20th century. In an interview with The Inside Game, Fountain said: “Rice was a combination of baseball-reference.com, the whole ESPN empire, and whoever passes as sports journalism celebrity today.” His column had an extraordinary influence.

There were other moments when Rice was ahead of his contemporaries. Rice himself noted “Every one (sic) knows the reserve clause in baseball will not stand the test of American law,” a sentiment uttered by few in the press at the time. There was also an element of craftsmanship to his writing, as Rice was strategic in his pronouncements while retaining an air of positivity. As Fountain points out in the book, although Rice disapproved of Connie Mack selling his Philadelphia Athletics players, thereby plunging the team into mediocrity, Rice did not take Mack to task for it in print; rather, he praised Charles Comiskey for being aggressive in purchasing players, as Rice knew that his own opinions about Mack would be inferred by readers.

Rice in part set the tone for sportswriting of the time, writing with what Fountain calls “respect for the intelligence and the involvement of the reader.” The same approach applied when Rice was writing about minor league baseball for the Nashville Tennessean from 1907 through 1910, his only time as a baseball beat reporter. Rice’s approach was literary and classically-based, deriving in part from his appreciation for Latin and the subtleties of language more generally. A phrase such as “the tumult dies” (in Rice’s famous “Game Called” poem from 1910) or a reference in a column to “crack slabsmen” imbue his work with creativity.

With time, Rice’s reputation has suffered as the core principles of journalism have changed. No longer do reporters ignore or brush aside the off-field behavior of athletes, as Rice did, nor do they serve as universally-happy mythmakers, intent on shaping a positive view of sports from top to bottom. “The role of the sportswriter at that time was to sell newspapers and tickets, and not necessarily in that order,” Fountain said.

Fountain suggests in the book that Rice’s rhapsodic, and usually uncritical, approach to covering star players would likely see him today banished to a local paper reporting on the exploits of high school athletes rather than taking on the hard-hitting issues of the day in professional sports. But the opposite side of that coin, according to Fountain, is that even if Rice had wanted to expose the character flaws of players he covered, he likely would not have had a receptive publisher:

“Had Rice written a piece about Ty Cobb that showed Cobb in all his complexity and nuance, Rice would have had a hard time finding a place to publish that,” Fountain said. “I doubt very much whether his syndicate of newspapers would have wanted that in a sports column, and I doubt very much whether Collier’s or any of the magazines that he wrote for would have wanted that in a profile. Readers wanted heroes in those days, wherever they were. He delivered what newspaper publishers and readers and magazine publishers and readers wanted at the time. Had he delivered anything else, they wouldn’t have bought it.

Rice now is often impugned for his lofty prose, with critics typically referencing his effusive 1924 column about Notre Dame’s football team. (“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again,” Rice wrote. “In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.”) Still, whether he was analogizing major sporting events to Civil War battles or linking star athletes to figures from Greek mythology, Rice’s soaring prose helped to define sportswriting in his era.

Independent of whether one appreciates Rice’s writing style and approach, he is an important figure in the history of sports journalism and one who impacted the Deadball Era. Fountain’s work makes one appreciate how intertwined Rice was with the Deadball Era, even if Rice himself, because of the wide scope of his writing, is not viewed as a baseball reporter first and foremost. Rice’s baseball columns are one illustration of the impact that Deadball Era writers and reporters could have on the game, and his extensive body of work underscores how important a role a writer could play at a time when newspapers were indeed king.

JOHN McMURRAY is chair of SABR’s Deadball Era Research Committee. Contact him atdeadball@sabr.org.

The Humble (Ad-Free!) Origins of the First World Series Broadcasts

Committee member James Walker, author of such seminal baseball media books as Center Field Shot and the recently released Crack of the Bat, just published a terrific new article over at The Conversation about the origins of World Series broadcasts, the first of which took place in 1921.  Dr. Walker volunteered to us the article for a reprint in its entirety, and so we have, below.

There are some revelations that will surprise us media-savvy consumers of the early 21st Century, not the least of which is the commercial- and broadcast rights fee-free nature of those early broadcasts.  Another significant difference from today’s broadcasts is the multiple network coverage of the Series, as CBS joined NBC in broadcasting the Fall Classic in 1927, with Mutual becoming the third radio network to do so simultaneously starting in 1935.  Both these circumstances yielded a permanent solution starting in 1939, which you can read more about below.

As enjoyable as this article is to read, the most fun part about it might well be the two minutes and forty-five seconds you can spend watching various footage taken of the 1921 World Series in the video embedded within, which includes not only real-time speed footage, but also what can only be characterized as “super slo-mo” footage, which we are now used to seeing for events taking place in 2015 but which look completely and wonderfully anachronistic when seen for events taking place almost a century ago.

This is a fascinating read. Enjoy!


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by James Walker, October 27, 2015 6.09am EDT

This year, FOX Sports paid Major League Baseball about half a billion dollars for the rights to broadcast the national pastime.

While the package includes some playoff games and regular season contests, the crown jewel is still the World Series; despite decades of declining ratings, baseball’s postseason is still a revenue machine.

But World Series radio broadcasts had humble beginnings, which I detail in my recent book Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio.

In fact, for the first 13 World Series broadcasts, radio networks paid zilch to carry the national pastime’s showcase tournament. The broadcasts started as a promotion for a new radio station and coverage was amateurish. In fact, the first voice on the first live broadcast of a World Series didn’t even know the score at the end of one game.

In October 1921, WJZ, a new station based out of Newark, New Jersey, needed a big event to announce its arrival in the New York metro area. The all-Gotham series between the Giants and Yankees (eventually won by the Giants, five games to three) provided the perfect opportunity.

The voice for this first radio World Series belonged to a Westinghouse engineer named Tom Cowan, but its eyes belonged to another. Unlike Cowan, Newark Call newspaper reporter Sandy Hunt was actually at the Polo Grounds.

Footage from the 1921 World Series, which pitted the New York Yankees against the New York Giants.

 

Hunt relayed the plays by telephone to Cowan, who was lodged in a cramped 15-by-20-foot “contractor’s shack” atop Newark’s Edison plant, where the WJZ transmitter was located. In his calls of the games, Cowan simply parroted whatever Hunt told him – mind-numbing work that offered few breaks.

After one exhausting game, Cowan reported he “couldn’t even collect [his] thoughts enough to tell who had won.” When a WJZ colleague asked him who won, he could only say, “I don’t know, I just work here.”

In 1922, the two-person team was replaced by a single eyewitness at the games – and a famous one, at that. Grantland Rice, perhaps the best-known sportswriter of the day, traded in his typewriter for a microphone during the World Series rematch between the Yankees and Giants.

While offering solid description, Rice would occasionally take extended breaks to “rest his voice,” leaving listeners adrift for minutes at a time. Like Cowan, Rice found the new communication medium daunting; he would later tell legendary commentator Red Barber that one radio World Series “was enough for me for all of my life.”

For Grantland Rice, announcing one World Series was enough. irishlegends.com

After these early experiments, National League owners, fearing that broadcasts would hurt World Series attendance, voted to end all World Series coverage. But the new commissioner, a former federal judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis, overruled them. Landis viewed the nation’s newest mass medium as a potent promotional machine, and developed a policy promoting the widest possible coverage of the games: all stations and networks would be welcomed to cover the games for free.

The next year, 1923, Graham McNamee, a failed singer, became the nation’s first “superstar” sports announcer. For the next several years, he announced the World Series over RCA’s regional network and, later, NBC’s national network. In 1927, CBS joined NBC in providing national radio coverage for the World Series. A third radio network, the Mutual Broadcasting System, would join the fray in 1935.

Interestingly, the networks initially saw coverage of the World Series as a public service, with no sponsors and no commercials. The radio networks supplied the announcers, paid the AT&T line charges and essentially donated airtime to bring the World Series to the nation’s rapidly expanding radio audience.

In the process, Major League Baseball reached a national audience, while the networks became identified with the country’s most popular sport.

However, as attendance and revenues declined in the pit of the Great Depression, Commissioner Landis looked to radio for a new revenue stream.

Over the years, many companies approached the networks with offers to sponsor the World Series. But the networks feared a backlash if the games were broadcast with a commercial sponsor.

Back then, the advertising supported model of broadcasting was not fully entrenched; unlike today, listeners didn’t simply assume commercial interruptions would take place.

Even the pro-business, future Republican president Herbert Hoover thought it “inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for [radio] service…to be drowned in advertising chatter.”

As one NBC executive put it, “The minute we begin to commercialize this type of service we will soon have difficulties on our hands from various groups that are not friendly to broadcasting.”

Despite the chance of listener backlash for signing on sponsors, in 1934 Landis went on to sign a US$100,000 deal with the Ford Motor Company to sponsor the World Series.

The players got 42% of the take, and the clubs took the rest. Both parties were overjoyed with the commissioner’s radio windfall. The Ford deal made the World Series too valuable to remain unsponsored, ending the era of sports programming as a public service.

Landis still insisted that the maximum number of networks and stations carry the games, and throughout the 1930s, the World Series saturated the airways each October. Sponsors, however, balked at paying network charges for redundant coverage on multiple networks; by 1938 no sponsor could be found.

Landis quickly adjusted to the changing realities of radio advertising by granting exclusive rights to broadcast and sponsor the event, which would focus the attention of audiences on one network and one company.

In 1939, Landis granted Mutual exclusive rights to broadcast that year’s World Series, with an option for the 1940 contests. Meanwhile, Gillette signed on to sponsor the World Series at a cost of $100,000. But in paying only one network, they dramatically reduced the distribution costs. (Other stations could take the feed if they paid the line charges.)

Gillette would be the official sponsor of the World Series for over 25 years. Digital Deli Online

Mutual would maintain exclusive radio rights until 1957 while Gillette was the exclusive sponsor on radio – and, later, television – until 1966.

Landis’ contract established the modern structure of World Series rights: sponsorship on a single network. Network exclusivity made the games more valuable for the carrying network, but also reduced the radio (and, eventfully, television) footprint of the World Series.

As the NFL exploded in popularity and the number of postseason baseball games and competing television networks rose in the 1980s and 1990s, the supremacy of the World Series in the national consciousness faded. While networks continued to pay higher rights fees to cover the World Series, the television audience for the games declinedfrom a high of 44.3 million viewers in 1978 to a low of 12.7 million in 2012.

When it was unsponsored and on every network, the World Series became the “Fall Classic.” Meanwhile, sponsorship and exclusivity increased revenue beyond Judge Landis’ wildest dreams.

And, fortunately for fans, every announcer since 1921 has known the score at game’s end.