Baseball and the Radio


On October 3rd, 1951, a single moment on radio and television forever changed the game of baseball and the way it was remembered by the fans. The Giants had come back from thirteen games out to tie the Dodgers for the pennant, resulting in a three game playoff. With the series tied 1-1, the Dodgers took a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth, with one out. Bobby Thompson stepped to the plate and made history.
The game, called on WMCA-AM radio in New York by Russ Hodges, took a dramatic turn that even the best Hollywood writers could not match . The pitcher threw, and Thompson swung, and Russ Hodges said this:
“there’s a long dive…it’s gonna be, I believe…THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands! The Giants win the pennant and they’re goin’ crazy, they’re goin’ crazy! HEEEY-OH!!!….I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I do not believe it! Bobby Thomson… hit a line drive… into the lower deck… of the left-field stands… and this blame place is goin’ crazy! The Giants! Horace Stoneham has got a winner! The Giants won it… by a score of 5 to 4…”

This call soon became known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round The World”, and is forever etched in the minds of those who saw and heard it. George Plimpton, a noted American sports writer, remembers hearing the call over the radio: “I remember hearing it in Cambridge, England, on an armed forces broadcast system, and I was playing bridge at the time, and being a Giant fan, I can remember going absolutely backwards in my chair, foot coming up and hitting the bridge table, and these English friends of mine startled by the motion…tremendous.”
The next morning, American sportswriter Red Smith wrote: “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”
In the space of a few minutes, baseball went from a game of batting averages, stolen bases and pitch-counts to a dramatic and exciting form of entertainment. While baseball was covered in the papers long before the crack of the bat was ever heard on the radio, or a home run ever seen on television, these two mediums propelled baseball into its status as the national pastime. The 1951 game is a prime example of how the radio-era of baseball had such a firm grip on the nation. The sports drama is unique in its ability to unite a nation despite race, ethnicity, religion or philosophy, and in its ability to entertain with the account of a “battle” for victory. Baseball historian Benjamin Rader commented that for everyone who watched the game live, on the first game televised nationally, listened to it on the radio or even read the account in the papers the next morning, “the game was high drama, and the drama of the sporting contest, unlike that in any other forms of entertainment, is authentic.”
Before 1920, baseball was only seen or heard by those who could afford to attend the games live. Everyone else had to wait at least a day, if not two, to read the box score and the game recap in the local newspaper. In 1920, a few enterprising fans used a variation of Morse code and primitive microphones to transmit the first “broadcast” of sporting events. A year later, with the advent of the more affordable Westinghouse radio, the game of baseball was changed forever. On August 5th, 1921, Harold Arlin of KDKA broadcast the defeat of the Philadelphia Pirates by the Pittsburg Corsairs using a wireless telegraph and converted telephone. The entire broadcast lasted just under two hours, but from that moment on, radio and baseball were indelibly linked, and neither would ever be the same.
That same year, Grantland Rice and Tommy Cowan broadcast the World Series for the first time for KDKA and WJZ Newark, respectively. Tommy Cowan repeated the play-by-play that was carried to him over a phone line from Sandy Hunt, who was sitting in a box seat at the game. Initially, teams were leery of radio broadcast, thinking that it would lessen attendance at games since the public could now sit at home a listen instead of come out to the parks. It actually had the opposite effect, and drove attendance numbers up. People heard the games on the radio, and then wanted to see what they had previously only imagined. Minor league teams especially resented radio, believing that audiences would rather stay home and listen to Babe Ruth than come out and watch Joe Nobody play ball for a minor league team. Teams ever went so far as to restrict live radio broadcasts of minor league games within 50 miles of the stadium. This, along with technological restrictions, led to the invention of the game “re-creation”. This was a method to broadcast games only a few innings behind, complete with sound effects and dramatic calls, without actually being at the park. The stats were transmitted via telegraph in an alphabet code that the announcer would then translate and transmit the game as if he were sitting there “live”. While many home games were done this way, it was especially useful for away games. It cost about $25 to produce and air a re-creation of an away game, as opposed to thousands if an announcer was sent with the team and his voice was transmitted back via telephone line to the home radio station. Gordon McLendon, Red Barber, and Mel Allen were some of the most famous voices in early baseball radio, with McLendon leading the way in innovation and devotion to as accurate and entertaining a broadcast as possible.
Most Americans in this time had never seen a live, big-league baseball game, either due to location or cost. The advent of radio brought the games to a wider audience, and names like Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Ruth, and Gehrig, and pitches like the knuckleball and curveball took on a whole new meaning to radio listeners. In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, New York Yankee’s star Yogi Berra recalled his childhood experiences with baseball and the radio. “When I wasn’t at games, I was listening to them on the radio…radio definitely allowed me to ‘see’ more of the games. The smack of the ball would just give me goosebumps.”
Another advent of baseball and the radio in the 1920s was the “color man” or “color commentator”. Nowadays, this commentator is usually a former player or coach who can put the game in a different perspective than the play-by-play announcer, to add a more personable story to the onslaught of statistics and pitch counts. Graham McNamee became the first color announcer in the 1923 World Series, when play-by-play announcer Grantland Rice handed the microphone over to him in the third game of the series. This broadcast was historic not only for the fact that it was the first World Series to be broadcast nationally, but also for what McNamee did for radio broadcasts. Well aware that the game was being seen in the imaginations of fans everywhere, McNamee did his best to “paint a picture” using sound and story-telling techniques to make the listener feel as he was there.
As radio’s “Golden Age” continued, the popularity of baseball grew. Clear channel stations in cities like New York, Boston, Detroit and Chicago began broadcasting every game, and in 1934, the World Series was sponsored for the first time. Baseball’s commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis had a firm hand on sponsors and broadcasters during this early period, a practice that continued well into the television age.
Not only was baseball on the radio lucrative for station owners and teams, it had a special impact on the audience. In the 30s, it was sometimes possible to walk down a neighborhood street and not miss a second of a game, as it was blaring loudly from a portable radio on many front stoops. Announcers captured the minds of a young generation of fans and created a shared experience of listening and the imagination. Author Pete Hamill, a novelist and journalist, recalled his experience growing up in Brooklyn: “[it] was something that involved gray scoreboards, Red Barber, peanuts…Gladys Gooding at the organ…the crack of the bat…beer, hot dogs, and laughter.” Legendary sportscaster Vin Scully echoed the same sentiment, recalling summer days of playing sandlot baseball, then sitting in the shade of a tree and listening to the broadcast of the local baseball game. This sort of activity inspired Scully to pursue a job as a sportscaster , which brought him to the Brooklyn Dodgers, and then to the Las Angeles Dodgers, where he has remained a staple of baseball broadcasting since 1959.
Today, the radio is experiencing a re-birth in regards to baseball. Now, you can listen to your favorite team, and the home radio station, from anywhere in the world. And if you happen to be close to your favorite team, you can tune into your local AM or FM station that carries the games. Though the technology is different, the way it is broadcast remains the same, allowing radio fans everywhere to experience this same thing that fans have experienced for almost a century.

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