Art of baseball: Radio deities who call the shots
Seattle Times staff reporter
Marty Brennaman, longtime voice of the Cincinnati Reds, has a new fan in Bath, England. The far-flung fellow, who e-mails Brennaman periodically, has recently discovered the joys of baseball on the radio, a sport he scarcely understood but became entranced with over the airwaves.
Such is the 21st-century power of satellite and Internet broadcasts, which merely reinforce what became evident shortly after 26-year-old Harold Arlin executed the first baseball broadcast on Aug. 5, 1921, at Forbes Field on Pittsburgh's KDKA, using a converted telephone as a microphone.
Baseball is radio's game. Radio is baseball's medium.
"There's never been a greater marriage than radio and baseball," Brennaman said.
Melded, it creates what broadcasting historian Curt Smith calls "the hypnotic tapestry of radio on the air," what Bob Costas calls "the soundtrack of your summer" — all played out, as former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti put it so memorably, "in the enclosed green fields of the mind."
"It's where the creativity is," said longtime Mariners voice Dave Niehaus. "It's where you really have to be master of your craft. You have to be really good to have somebody in the palm of your hands."
And the great ones? They become icons of their cities, the voice of a generation (or generations, because as the legendary Bob Wolff, longtime voice of the Washington Senators, points out, "A good radio announcer lasts forever; they have one great trait: They wear well.")
No one is more redolent of Chicago than Harry Caray, of St. Louis than Jack Buck, of Los Angeles than Vin Scully, of Detroit than Ernie Harwell.
In Seattle, Amaury Pi-Gonzalez correctly calls Niehaus "an institution" — as Leo Lassen, voice of the Seattle Rainiers, was for an earlier generation.
Said Pi-Gonzalez, the Spanish voice of the Mariners, "Kids have been born listening to Dave Niehaus."
The leisurely pace of baseball requires that an announcer deliver more than just the frenetic play-by-play of his basketball counterpart. He must be a storyteller par excellence, a troubadour of the airwaves.
"Baseball announcers are the conduit between the team and the fans," said Harwell, now 88 and retired from broadcasting. "He goes wherever the listener goes — the mountains, or the beaches, or picnics. He's always there.
"I've always felt that if a fellow worked in a region five or six years, he almost becomes a part of the family. He grows on people."
And if he works for 57 years, as Scully has done calling Dodgers games, then he becomes the most beloved figure in the history of the franchise. And, arguably, of the medium.
"To be around Vin is like playing pepper with Babe Ruth, and I get to do it every day," marveled current Dodgers announcer Charlie Steiner. "There's elegance to him on the air and off. He's almost regal, yet he has a common-man quality."
Scully and other local legends are developing a new cult following on XM Radio, which offers home broadcasts from around the majors each night. In a survey of new subscribers last year, 25 percent of respondents cited baseball as the impetus for their subscription.
"That's a remarkable testament to the power of baseball on radio," said David Butler, director of corporate affairs for XM.
Butler said he hears constantly from fans delighted to be introduced to the likes of Niehaus, Milwaukee's Bob Uecker, San Diego's Jerry Coleman and Kansas City's Danny Matthews — but no one is mentioned more frequently, and reverently, than Scully.
Now 78, Scully doesn't travel east of the Rockies, and he works solo, without a color man. Why? "Poets don't need no straight man," explained Steiner.
Scully learned the craft from an equally revered legend, Red Barber, who arrived in New York in 1939, along with Mel Allen. That's when the Dodgers, Yankees and Giants wisely decided to lift their ill-advised ban of radio broadcasts, which they felt would hurt attendance.
It was quite the opposite. The radio accounts supplied a context and continuity that turned the season into an ongoing soap opera, the players into living, breathing entities, and made the ballpark itself come alive.
"You are the eyes and the ears and the imagination, as well," Scully told The Associated Press in 2002 in a rare interview about his craft. "It's an empty canvas."
Harwell put it slightly differently, explaining why most baseball broadcasters prefer radio to television.
"There's a facetious saying in radio: Nothing happens in a baseball game until the announcer says it does. That's not true on television."
That sentiment was echoed by another legend, Houston Astros broadcaster Milo Hamilton, who made his name calling Hank Aaron's 715th home run and has been the lead announcer for four teams in six decades.
"It's not just me, and I don't mean this with braggadocio," said Hamilton, who is in his 55th year calling major-league games. "It happened with Jack Buck, Ernie Harwell, [former Mets announcer] Bob Murphy — about 10 years ago, we all said, get us off television. We won't do games; the [production] truck does it. You don't get to develop anything."
Wolff is a rare exception who finds television more creative.
"My job was not to explain the picture, but amplify something about the picture," he said. "To me, it's more of a challenge."
Baseball on television, Giants broadcaster Jon Miller has said, is a movie. "But baseball on radio is a novel."
On television, Niehaus said, "You are putty in the hands of a director. All you can describe is what you see on a little square box right there. At least to me, baseball is more a game of stories than statistics."
The great ones knew that inherently, and it made them essential narrators of the season.
In the 1940s and '50s, a Dodgers fan could walk down any street in Brooklyn and not miss a play of the game as Barber's broadcast wafted down from each window.
In the 1960s, youngsters smuggled transistor radios under their bedcovers at night, not willing to succumb to sleep until Harry or Ernie or Jack or Vin had told them who won, and how.
When Buck died in 2002, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz relayed an e-mail from Frank Mankiewicz, a Democratic Party honcho and transplanted Cardinals fan in Washington D.C., who had driven around D.C. to find the best locale to pick up KMOX, the powerhouse station that carried Cardinals games until last year.
"To get reception," Mankiewicz wrote, "you need to take the car up to the highest point in Washington, alongside the Cathedral, where the game comes in just fine. I've met some good friends and devoted Cardinals fans up there ... over the years, silently in our cars at midnight in a tight pennant year."
Such is the hypnotic power of the radio broadcast, which at their best are so evocative you can see, in your mind's eye, the batting stance of each batter, the windup of each pitcher, the route of each fielder (and smell with your mind's nose the hot dogs and garlic fries).
At their worst, of course, broadcasts can be a mind-numbing assault of homerism and meaningless statistics.
Hank Greenwald, a superb announcer for the Giants and Yankees for more than 20 years, is retired now, listening to games on satellite radio and the Internet — including those called by his son, Doug, a fast-rising broadcaster for Class AAA Fresno.
Greenwald loves his son's work, but admits to wincing at some of what he hears around the country.
"They probably said the same about me, but I find myself saying, 'Why don't you just shut up?' " Greenwald said with a laugh. "One guy is in the process of describing something, and the other guy wants to show what he knows, when it's not called for."
The great ones, like Scully, understand the profound impact of silence. But ultimately, it's all about the words, said Smith, who has written three books on broadcasting and was a speechwriter for the first President Bush.
He remembers nearly driving off the road when he heard Scully, calling the 1991 World Series on national radio, liken a Minnesota Twins runner on second base to Arthur Miller's tiny ship looking for safe harbor in "Death of a Salesman."
"He did it effortlessly, without reaching, without a cheat sheet," Smith said. "People today don't utilize English. They don't understand how language can be, as Churchill put it, a marvelous spear, or weapon, on their behalf."
Niehaus tells of the first time he saw Sportsman Park in St. Louis, which he had idealized into nirvana by listening to the descriptions of Harry Caray on KMOX as a youngster in Indiana.
"I was quite disappointed, to tell you the truth," he said. "I put all these guys on such a pedestal because of what Harry had described them as. They were almost deities to me. When I saw my first game, they were just normal human beings. I was kind of shot down."
Niehaus, who has spent the past 30 years turning Mariners players into deities, says the most meaningful award he ever won was a citation from the Washington Association for the Blind.
"They said their members could see the game through my eyes, which is the ultimate compliment for a broadcaster," he said. "And you can only do that on the radio."
That brings to mind the time Scully was told a special fan was eager to meet him — none other than sightless singer Ray Charles, who was delighted beyond words when they eventually were introduced at Dodger Stadium.
As Costas told the Washington Post last year, Charles said, "To me, the picture doesn't mean anything. It's all about the sound. And his broadcast is almost musical."
The rollicking Caray once had an even more memorable fan encounter. When he was calling Cardinals games (yes, kids, Caray worked outside of Chicago, even spending one incongruous season calling A's games in Oakland), Caray got a call from someone who said his name was Elvis.
"Yeah, and I'm Perry Como," Caray replied, according to legend.
Indeed, it was the Elvis Presley, who eventually had an audience with the Harry Caray, his kindred spirit in iconoclastic appeal.
Certainly, no announcer in history has been as beloved as Caray, whose everyman persona — from the preposterously large glasses to the hyperbolic phrasing that lent itself to instant imitation — made him irresistible.
There was little pretense of objectivity with Caray, and fans loved him for his unashamed cheerleading for the Cubs — or before that, the White Sox — as much as for the peripheral stuff, like his nightly renditions of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame."
"I think his appeal was mainly that he was a fan," said Dutchie Caray, Harry's widow. "He just said things that were happening on the field, what came to his mind. If the game was boring and slow, he'd bring in other conversations that made it fun to listen to."
To Dutchie Caray, fun is the operative word.
"All the time, people say to me, 'God, I miss Harry. He was the greatest, and there will never be another.'
"I totally agree. I don't think there will ever be an announcer to take his place. They just don't have the ability to put the fun into the game. They're all into the thousands of statistics they give you all the time. It's all so statistical, and college knowledgeable — but so boring."
Dutchie stayed away from the ballpark much of the time, because she, like everyone else, wanted to hear what Harry would say next.
"He made it a good time," she said. "If there was some pretty girl, Harry would point it out. Then he would say, 'Dutchie, I don't mean that.' "
Harwell's trick was pretending he was broadcasting for one person — usually his father, who at the end of his life was an invalid, suffering from multiple sclerosis.
"In a sense," Harwell said, "I talked to him. I called him the fat man on Clifton road."
When Harwell was foolishly forced out in 1992 by new Tigers president Bo Schembechler — that noted baseball man — it caused an uproar in Detroit, creating an untenable atmosphere for whoever his unfortunate replacement happened to be.
It was none other than Niehaus' partner, Rick Rizzs, who never stood a chance. On opening day that year, a plane flew over Tiger Stadium trailing a banner that said, "Bring back Ernie." Fans held up Harwell masks to register their disgust with the move.
"That was one of the toughest jobs in broadcast history, I think, in the last 40 years," Rizzs said.
Said Harwell, "People were a little bitter about my dismissal. It didn't bother me as much as most people, because I knew that announcers don't last forever. I recommended Rick. It was tough for him, no question. He's a professional. I thought he did a real good job."
Harwell eventually returned on the Tigers' television broadcasts in 1993, and Rizzs landed back in Seattle in 1995, reuniting with Niehaus. The two have a strong personal and professional relationship, which is another key to a successful broadcast.
"It can make or break you," Niehaus said. "It's like partnerships in life. What about a bad marriage? Life can be miserable. I have never had that problem. All my partners have been very compatible with me, because I don't think I could put up with it. I'd leave, or he'd have to leave."
Thom Brennaman, Marty's son and an outstanding broadcaster for the Arizona Diamondbacks, believes the announcing talent now is just as strong as it was in the so-called "Golden Age," roughly defined as whenever you were young.
"Remember, the guys they bring up — Harry Caray, Jack Buck, Ernie Harwell — were the elite of the elite," he said. "There were also a lot of guys that were just good, solid guys. That's what you see in every era. Someone like Joe Buck would have been great in the 1930s, 1950s, 1970s, 1990s, and now the new millennium."
Harwell, who called his first major-league game in 1948 and his last one in 2002, is optimistic about the future of the medium.
"I think there will always be a niche for baseball on radio, no matter what inventions come along," he said. "It has an intimacy others can't touch. I think it will go on forever."
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company