Baseball on the Radio: HOF announcers recalled, Red Sox– best current booth duo

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Why do so many baseball fans still prefer radio baseball?

“[The radio announcer] sees the game for his listeners, he interprets it, and it is his skill his preparation, his approach that are important. There is a direct relationship between announcer and listener. The announcer uses the listener’s imagination.” [Red Barber, Hall of Fame announcer, Brooklyn Dodgers, N. Y. Yankees]

Great baseball luck had placed me in NYC during the Golden Age of radio baseball.   Over the wireless in 1956 the gentile tones of a Mississippi native Red Barber described the dodgy doings of the Dodgers perched above the crowd of 6,711 fans inside Ebbets Field, while the entire borough of Brooklyn [2.6 million]–outside–held its collective breath for the bases loaded, 2-out, 3-2 pitch that would determine the game’s outcome.

Barber brought Southern rural cliches to the urban streets of Brooklyn:

  • “They’re tearin’ up the pea patch” – used for a team on a winning streak.
  • “The bases are F.O.B. (full of Brooklyns)” – indicating the Dodgers had loaded the bases.
  • “Can of corn” – describing a softly hit, easily caught fly ball.
  • “Rhubarb” – any kind of heated on-field dispute or altercation.
  • Sittin’ in the catbird seat – used when a player or team was performing exceptionally well.
  • “Walkin’ in the tall cotton” – also used to describe success.
  • “Slicker than boiled okra” – describing a ball that a fielder was unable to get a grip on.
  • “Easy as a bank of fog” – describing the graceful movement of a fielder.
  • “Tighter than a new pair of shoes on a rainy day” – describing a closely contested game.
  • “Tied up in a croker sack” – describing a one-sided game where the outcome was all but decided.[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Barber]

Here’s the “Old Red Head” describing the outfielder in this famous call from Game 6 of the 1947 World Series. Joe DiMaggio was the batter:

  • “Here’s the pitch, swung on, belted … it’s a long one … back goes Gionfriddo, back, back, back, back, back, back … heeee makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen! Oh, Doctor!”

The film clip shows the normally nonplussed Yankee Clipper kicking the infield dirt in frustration.

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SrtxVs8uMI]

We were staunch Giants’ fans and “hated” the Dodgers, but all of us NL fans were united in ignoring the effete and efficient Yankees in that other “Country Club” league; until, inexorably, it came time for the “high and mighty” Bronx Bombers to deign to face the latest NL pennant winner in the “World Serious.”

Under the black felt GIANTS’ pennant on the wall at the head of my bed, I sureptitiously, under the covers at night, tuned into the Dodgers’ Barber, who I preferred over the monotone “voice of the Giants,”– the stodgy Russ Hodges.

In 1951, I heard HOFer Hodges call Bobby Thomson’s famed “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” famously exclaiming:

“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” 

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrI7dVj90zs]

Russ was also famous for his home run call: 

And, its’ BYE-BYE baby!” 

[4:15 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFgJoTxoceU]

Mel Allen’s voice dominated the listening area;  sounded like the bass on the radio was turned up too high and his broad baritone barely bragged about the indomitable Yankees; he described the games with the glib expectation that the Yankees would inevitably subdue their opponents and seemed confounded when, incredibly, they lost the occasional game.

His famous catch phrase was:

“How a-bout that!”

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=re7O5q3xuTg]

In 1950 a kid right out of Fordham University joined Red Barber in the Dodgers’ booth; 32 later he would be inducted into the Broadcaster’s wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.   Even at age 5, I could tell that Vin Scully was the best baseball announcer, forever.

[3 minutes of highlights: http://archive.org/details/ClassicVinScullyHighlights]

The word “nonpareil” may best describe Vin Scully; he is in the Hall of Fame, but he should be awarded his own category, because he is as different from other baseball announcers “as syllable from sound.” [Emily Dickinson]

He was not just a savant of the game and its history; he was not just an auditory artist, who could paint scenes in the ether, who could perfectly frame a moment; he also had the remarkable distinction of working alone; he would not brook another announcer in the booth;

would Monet have let another painter take turns with the brush?

When my Giants and “The O’Malley’s” Dodgers pulled up stakes and headed to California in 1958, we NL fans were about to resign ourselves to Yankee broadcasts or no radio baseball at all.  But Les Keiter, the master of recreated baseball games saved us.  Keiter sat in a small studio with a microphone and a few sound effects—the “thwack” sound made when the bat met the ball was imitated by striking a wooden drum stick  on the table.

Keiter read the ticker tape code as the game was in progress and was usually an inning or so behind the live action.  He would see a cryptic symbol, like “K” or “9’ on the tape and fill in the blanks on strikeouts or fly outs to right and when “2b” came over he would amp up the crowd cheers and say:

“2 and 2…Spahn winds and delivers [hits the drum stick on the table] and McCovey sends a liner to right field… BOOM! Off the wall!  Aaron snags the carom and rifles it toward second…here comes McCovey…he slides…and he beat the ball! He beat the ball!”

One night the ticker tape broke down and Keiter needed to fill time. Since it was a home game in San Francisco, he vamped creating–at least in the mind’s eye of his listeners–a sudden layer of fog over the field.  Another night he filled a slow tape hiatus, just after a Giant hitter was called out on strikes, by describing the fans in Candlestick Park throwing their orange seat cushions on the field.  The actual game was never delayed and seat cushions were never launched onto the field from the upper deck to delay the game.

Les Keiter was an audio artiste; he could turn a single symbol, like “3b” into a dramatic, frenetic, electric moment with balls arching into the OF, just out of the reach of colliding fielders and Maury Wills churning his knees rapidly, until he slides and…”He beat the ball! Wills beat the ball!”  The re-creations were part box score, part creativity by the announcer, and part imagination from the listener.

[http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2009/04/les-keiter-he-beat-the-ball-.html]

When the Mets and the Houston Colt .45s [now Astros] were created by MLB via a player draft from a brackish pool of aging vets and suspect prospects in 1962, WHN-AM in NYC returned live NL baseball to our radios.  But, after the lively, colorful descriptions of Les Keiter, by contrast, the Mets announcers folksy Kentucky native Lindsey Nelson  (1962-1978) and blustery Bob Murphy  (1962-2003), nearly put us to sleep by the bottom of the third inning.

Later they added the Pirates’ former NL HR slugger Ralph Kiner, who made things amusing with his frequent malapropos and gaffes.  Attempting to describe how a cyclonic wind was blowing debris and rubbish around the field, Kiner said: 

“That wind is blowing durbish all over the field.”

Kiner knew the game, but he also dropped some classic malaprop bombs:

“All of his saves have come in relief appearances.”
“All of the Mets road wins against the Dodgers this year occurred at Dodger Stadium.”
“Darryl Strawberry has been voted to the Hall of Fame five years in a row.”

“If Casey Stengel were alive today, he’d be spinning in his grave.”

“On Father’s Day, we again wish you all happy birthday.”
“Solo homers usually come with no one on base.”
“(Don) Sutton lost thirteen games in a row without winning a ballgame.”
“The Hall of Fame ceremonies are on the thirty-first and thirty-second of July.”
“The Mets have gotten their leadoff batter on only once this inning.”

“This one deep to right and it is way back, going, going, it is gone–uh–um–uh–No, off of the top of the wall.”
“There’s a lot of heredity in that family.”
“Tony Gwynn was named player of the year for April.”

In 1968 I followed my Giants to San Francisco and tuned into the wry wit and droll humor of the casually ironic Lon Simmons [1958-73; 1976-78; 1996-2001].  His laconic style was in perfect sync with the rhythms of the summer game.  His tendency to toss out impromptu social observations kept the censors’ finger on the panic button.

The rumor that he “had a few” before and—even during—broadcasts was never substantiated, but he definitely sounded like it was true.

Back in the 70s the Giants were getting pounded by the Cubs.  As the game drifted into the fifth inning Simmons said:

“And as we go to the bottom of the fifth, and I wish I was.”

Simmons coined this HR call: 

“And…you can tell it good-bye!”

[4:37 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFgJoTxoceU]

On the other side of the bay in Oakland Bill King, perhaps the greatest NBA announcer ever, was applying his vast intellect to baseball, during the A’s’ World Series’ years, 1972, 73 and 74.

An opera buff, King became famous as the voice of the Golden State Warriors and the Oakland Raiders. But his first love was baseball and–with a sense of elegance and intelligence– he informed A’s fans about the intricacies of the game, before his untimely passing in 2005.  They need to start a new wing in the Baseball, Basketball, and Football Halls of Fame honoring Intelligence in Sports Broadcasting and make Bill King the first inductee.

During the intervals of his astute play-by-play, Miller casually about baseball history and strategy; while Morgan was Old School and buttoned down, Miller was upbeat and colorful as a Hawaiian shirt on vacation.

After listening to almost all the announcers in MLB on my Sirius satellite radio, I was struck by the uneven quality of the broadcasters.  As a result of my subjective sampling, I can assure Red Sox fans that they have the best broadcast team currently in baseball.  Massachusetts native Dave O’Brien plays the perfect enthusiastic middle-aged, fan next door, role, serving as a perfect foil to the Wise Old Man, Joe Castiglione, the former DJ, and announcer for the Indians and Brewers, who marked his 30th anniversary in the Red Sox booth in 2012.

Sure, O’Brien’s foamy effervescence occasionally forms a rogue wave that overflows and breaches the dreaded Homerism seawall, but—like two seasoned fisherman–he and Old Joe understand that fishing and baseball have similar rhythms:  languid interludes of repeatedly casting out lines and casually telling the barnacled old stories; only to be suddenly interrupted by a strike, a hit, and frenzied action.

 

Q:  What are your memories of baseball on the radio?

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BOOKS:

Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat, Read Barber and Robert Creamer.

Fifty Years Behind the Microphone: The Les Keiter Story (A Kolowalu book) by Les Keiter and Dennis Christianson (Jun 1991)

How About That! The Life of Mel Allen by Stephen Borelli (Mar 1, 2005)

Pull Up a Chair: The Vin Scully Story by Curt Smith (May 2009)

Confessions of a Baseball Purist: What’s Right–and Wrong–with Baseball, as Seen from the Best Seat in the House… by Jon Miller and Mark Hyman (Mar 24, 2000)

My Giants by Russ Hodges (1963)

Hello Everybody, I’m Lindsey Nelson by Lindsey Nelson (Sep 1985)

Baseball Forever: Reflections on 60 Years in the Game by Ralph Kiner, Danny Peary and Tom Seaver (Apr 1, 2004)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tags: Announcers Featured Joe Castiglione Les Keiter Red Barber Vin Scully