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Voices of the past

Before TV, the rich sounds of baseball danced across airwaves into our cultural imagination. Stirring action to life were the announcers, familiar as old friends.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 17, 2002


We listened to the games through their eyes and saw them with our imagination.

There might have been television then, but the picture was black and white, the screen not much bigger than a batter's glove.

Cable? That usually was bad news you signed for at the front door. Instant replay? Kids called it a do-over and the arguments went on forever.

Baseball came to us through the radio then. You didn't just hear it. You absorbed it.

And the voice coming out of the Philco, the Crosley or the Stromberg Carlson was as familiar and comfortable as the easy chair next to it.

Mel Allen, Bob Prince, By Saam (By Saam cq), Jack Brickhouse, Russ Hodges, Harry Caray, Red Barber, Bob Elson . . . their names evoke voices in our minds: sepia-toned and soft-edged like daguerrotypes of our grandparents.

They could be the guy who sat next to you in the ballpark, game after game, and became your friend.

We watched the radio, stared at it, seeing subtle details. Our emotions ebbed and flowed would ebb and flow with descriptions so vivid all our senses experienced it from the best seat in the ballpark.

"Radio was the most important piece of furniture in the house," said Ernie Harwell, voice of the Tigers, retiring this season after 56 years as a broadcaster. "That was when families stayed together and they felt a loyalty not just to teams but to players.

"Now we're listening to it in cars, on headsets. Radio has a niche because of its portability to the beach, the workplace, the kitchen. Radio is with us all the time. It's background that TV can't match."

For many it is a second-rate substitute for television. "When you listen to the game on radio in your car you're sort of saying to yourself, "Where's the TV?' " said Bob Costas, broadcaster and unabashed fan born 50 years ago when television still was grainy shades of gray. "Even when you're at the ballpark you want to see a replay."

* * *

Harwell's voice and a few others of an earlier era are still around -- Vin Scully with the (former Brooklyn) Dodgers, Ralph Kiner with the Mets, Jack Buck with the Cardinals . . . They and their contemporaries represent the final link to what baseball used to represent -- stability and dependability in the decades before free agency. The world might change but our baseball team didn't.

Harwell and Scully are more a part of their teams than the interchangeable players, even stars. They're the only ones still around.

We tend to mythologize indelible moments in our minds, thinking of long-gone ballparks with their quirky outfield fences, and frankfurters slathered with mustard and served at our seat. Far less vivid are the terrible sightlines and nasty smells.

"Even when we had 16 teams we had bad players," Harwell said. "People tend to forget that. As they look back, everything's a little more golden. They don't remember the bad players. They remember the Babe Ruths and Hank Greenbergs. Even the old players don't remember all the bad things. They remember the camaraderie, the good times."

Scully has broadcast Dodgers games since 1950, before they fled Flatbush for Los Angeles. "People will forever say to me, "I love to hear your voice because it reminds me of when I heard it a long time ago,' " he said. " "It reminds me of summer nights in the back yard with my dad,' or fishing or something."

They are a vanishing breed, men who spoke to us before television obliterated our inner vision, before baseball's radio voices began to sound alike, talk so much more and say so much less.

"The Barbers and Scullys came up with radio," Costas said. "They had to be able to paint the picture. The attention to detail, having to describe the whole thing, was part of how these guys came along.

"The craft is different now. Even the talented guys on radio today have been influenced by having come up with television. Rarely do you hear a guy say what a player's number is or what his stance looks like or talk about adjustments in the outfield alignment. Sometimes you hear a guy call a home run and not even say where in the ballpark it went out. Like, "Oh, that's gone.' "

The home run call is a broadcaster's signature. Allen's was "Going, going, gone!" although Harry Hartman is credited with having said it first at a 1929 Reds game. They were simple yet dramatic: Harwell's "It's long gone!" Kiner's "It's gone, goodbye!" Caray's "It could be, it might be, it is. A home run!" Prince's "Kiss it goodbye!" Hodges' "Bye, bye, baby!"

Scully never has had a home run call. It is its very absence that builds the drama. "When I first started, I would follow the outfielder. I'd say, "Long fly ball to left. Hermanski going back. . . . Way back. . . . To the track. ... At the wall. ... Gone!' "

Some of today's calls have something of a manufactured sound to them, like Ken Harrelson's "You can put it on the board. Eeee-yessss!" with the White Sox and Paul Olden's "Take the grand tour!" with the Rays. But they, too, carry on a tradition born in Arch McDonald's "There she goes, Mrs. Murphy!" with the Senators, and Rosey Roswell's "Open the window Aunt Minnie, here it comes!" followed by the sound of shattering glass and "She didn't make it!"

"That stuff was a little corny, but it was more acceptable then because we had a cornier view of baseball anyway," Costas said. "That was part of its charm."

It wasn't just a matter of painting a picture. They orchestrated the sound and feel of a game with pauses, letting the crowd fill in the silences.

"That was part of the trick of broadcasting, not talking," said Kiner, a Mets broadcaster since their inception in 1962 and for the White Sox before that. "Letting the crowd noise carry through could dramatize the event better than we could by trying to explain it."

They also had an historical perspective, recalling some long-forgotten name or moment, putting the game aside for a while, telling a tale interrupted occasionally by a pitch. "That part of the game has changed a lot," Kiner said. "You don't have those tie-ins with the ancient history of the game."

True, said Charley Steiner, first-year Yankees broadcaster after 14 with ESPN Radio, "but we're talking about a frame of reference. We're just not old enough to have been there with Ruth and Gehrig. But we are old enough to have been there with Yastrzemski and Gibson and Musial and Koufax and Clemente. And for these (younger broadcasters) it'll be Ripken and Gwynn and McGwire and Bonds." Today, the trap is statistics -- what a batter does with runners in scoring position and fewer than two outs in a night game on the road.

"The most important thing we have to do these days as broadcasters is to learn to edit," Olden said. "We get so much material that we have to know what's important and what's not. I think it promotes a lot of extra talking because some announcers feel they have to repeat everything in those stat sheets."

And Steiner noted: "In the old days they didn't have computers and all those numbers readily available. If they did I suspect they'd have used them."

Gone, for good -- they would be a laughable anachronism now -- are the re-creations. In a simpler time they were a particular kind of magic.

When a broadcaster didn't accompany the team on road games, he sat in a room reading Western Union ticker tape that read sng rf or s3. What it really was, he didn't know. He decided whether the single to right was a bloop or a liner, whether Strike 3 froze the batter or had him flailing away.

And when the wire broke down, which it often did, that was when the real creativity kicked in.

"We'd make up rain delays," Kiner said. "We could talk about anything we wanted to. Or there'd be a fight in the stands, a dog on the field. It was amazing what you could do and how you did it."

With recorded crowd noise, a make-believe crack of the bat, and an imagination, we heard games so authentic that -- despite the clicking of the telegraph -- we willed ourselves to believe we were seeing it.

For home games we knew every nuance of the ballpark and its fans and we were there, watching Del Rice block the plate in Sportsman's Park or Lum Harris taking another pounding in Shibe Park.

We no longer see baseball our own way. If we hear the game on the radio, we know we'll see highlights on SportsCenter, televised replays from different angles and in slow-motion.

We all see it the same way.

And we leave our imagination next to the remote.

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