June 16, 2019

Radio Games

January 21, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

The bitter cold in the dead of winter in most parts of major league baseball’s North American empire brings to mind how nice it would be to cozy in and listen to a game on the radio. Cold winter nights are a time to gather around and embrace stories, after all, and every baseball game has its own story, which is particularly well suited to radio narrative.

Baseball on the radio is like an audio book for easy and absorbing listening on a long drive or just relaxing at home, but dating far back in time to before audio books were even conceived. Because there are no visuals, radio play-by-players are storytellers, and storytelling is an art form. Their words and descriptions (copyrighted, of course) provide a vivid picture in the listener’s mind’s eye of all that is happening, covering the full breadth of the ball field whenever the action so demands. They engage us listeners as familiar voices, almost on a personal level, sometimes into the latest hours of the night or the wee hours of the morning (whichever you prefer) for those of us on the East Coast listening to our teams play on the West Coast.

As has certainly been poetically romanticized before, they are like family, which is why the baseball radio voices we grew up with are so beloved and never forgotten. It is why the best in the business become emblematic of the very teams whose games they call, sometimes even more iconic than the great players whose feats they narrate and extol–because, while players come and go, even the great ones, radio voices seem eternal. For sure, Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider, Maury Wills, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, the Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey infield that held together for nearly a decade, Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser all were heroes in Dodger blue, but their time in that blue was short-lived, not necessarily even relevant to the following generations of Dodger fans, compared to the instantly-recognizable voice of Dodgers baseball now going on 65 years, Vin Scully.

And it is why, for 162 games every year, we are loyal to, and feel most at home with, the baseball radio personalities whose voices reach our cars and homes in the city or region we live, even if we are not necessarily fans of the teams whose games they call (because so many Americans are transplanted far from where we grew up and where our rooting interests may be still–just ask the plentiful Yankee or Red Sox or Cardinals or Cubs fans all across this great land).

For me, living in the Washington, DC, area–sixty miles south of Baltimore–my radio guys are Charlie Slowes and Dave Jaggler, who call the Washington Nationals’ games, and Joe Angel and Fred Manfra, on the Baltimore Orioles’ radio network. Call me doubly blessed. When a game’s on the radio, I don’t even mind the traffic congestion and will usually wait out an inning in my car after pulling up the driveway. For me, the most vivid call in recent memory, because it turned out to be so poignant, was Charlie Slowes screaming over the crowd, “Can it get any better than this? Yes it can!” when Nationals Park was rocking with excitement and expectation (visions of a World Series dancing in heads) as the 2012 Nationals, up 7-5 in the ninth inning of Game 5, were one strike away from advancing to the NLCS–only to never get that last strike as the Cardinals ruined the dream by scoring four times before finally giving Washington that 27th out.

On radio, the baseball as narrative format lends itself to short form or long. If you followed the New York Mets last season, five games were the length of an epic novel going at least 15 innings and lasting more than five hours, with compelling turns and plot twists. And Mets announcers Howie Rose and Josh Lewin narrated them all. For baseball in the long-story form in particular, the oral (aural) traditional of storytelling can be just as absorbing as the visual of watching on TV or being at the ballpark with the advantage that the listener in their home, in their car on the road, or even in the office can do other things or just sit back and enjoy and be fully apprised of the situation, the possibilities, and the action. The visual requires a more demanding commitment, making it more likely the person watching or just being there will tire of what may seem like a never-ending spectacle and go forth and do other things.

From my perspective, the elements of the best radio baseball broadcasts include the play-by-play team setting up at the beginning a story line to frame expectations (is there something specific besides the outcome of the game that is at stake? is there a particularly compelling match-up? who’s hot? is a particular player struggling); identifying a narrative arc as the game develops (is a pitcher in command of his stuff or not? is there an on-field incident that increases tensions? how are umps calling the game?); and providing telling details in their play-by-play (insightful analysis that proves prescient, relevant observations about players’ positioning and posture on the field, dissecting defensive alignments in key situations, providing atmospherics about the ballpark and the fan experience).

The best commentary and analysis are absorbing and informative and have the merit of satisfying the well-versed baseball listener with all that he or she might want to know while at the same time keeping listeners who are much less knowledgeable about the game fully informed on what is happening. The best announcers do so without sounding superficially simplistic to the knowledgeable fan or too technical or esoteric to the less-versed. If a non-baseball fan happened onto their play-by-play on the radio on any given night (just to listen to something easy and relaxing), he or she will be drawn into an absorbing story complete with plot lines and character development that can carry them to another world.

Particularly with really cold weather and possible snow on the way within days here in the DC area, I can hardly wait for Charlie and Dave, Joe and Fred back at the mike.


One Response to “Radio Games”
  1. Paul Dunn says:

    I purchased some CDs a number of years ago which included the last game of the 1949 regular season Red Sox vs. Yanks, Tigers vs. Yanks 1961, and the complete 1949 World Series Dodgers vs. Yanks. When I was growing up I used to love to listen to Mel Allen but, I have to say that Red Barber was the better announcer. My favorites from that era were Chuck Thompson (Orioles), Ned Martin (Red Sox), Ernie Harwell (Tigers) and John Maclean & Dan Daniels Expansion Washington Senators,1961. I should also add Lindsay Nelson & Bob Murphy, Mets. Back to Mel Allen, I have a copy of the DVD for the 7th game 1960 World Series which featured Bob Prince and Mel Allen as the principal announcers. In those days the lead announcers for their repective teams called the World Series. Bob Prince was a shameless “homer” but what got my attention was the number of mistakes made by Mel Allen. For example, he miscalled a three-run homer by Berra in the 6th which put the Yankees ahead, got the Pirate runners mixed up when Pittsburgh rallied in the 8th to take the lead, etc. Perhaps David Halberstam was correct, television really eclipsed those great broadcasters when radio was king. On the other hand, the number of banal comments from today’s TV announcers makes me yearn for guys like Thompson, Harwell and yes, Mel Allen.
    Your article sure brought back a flood of memories.
    Many Thanks

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