Play-by-Play's Clutch Hitters
Sunday, June 26, 2005
It took more than half a century for radio to improve on the most glorious period in its extended love affair with baseball. But finally, this season, listeners across the country can do something that hasn't been possible since 1952 -- get in the car, head off to your summer spot and tune into baseball games from across the land.
Beginning in 1949 and lasting less than four years before the lords of baseball shut down the operation, Gordon McLendon's Dallas-based Liberty Broadcasting System offered listeners on nearly 500 stations across the heartland radio re-creations of at least a couple major-league games every day.
Announcer Lindsay Nelson and McLendon would embellish -- liberally and sometimes quite poetically -- the raw details that came over the Western Union ticker, using crowd noises recorded on vinyl discs to help listeners imagine the scene at Griffith Stadium in Washington, Fenway Park in Boston or any of the other classic ballparks.
Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick silenced those re-creations to protect team owners who wanted their local broadcasts to be the only games on the air. From then on, fans were limited to their hometown team's games, supplemented only by a game of the week on network radio and whatever distant signals their AM antenna might pull in at night.
This summer, however, the 4 million subscribers who pay $13 a month for XM Satellite Radio have their pick of any major-league game, complete with the home team announcers and local station's ads -- the full romantic experience, whether from Dodger Stadium, Wrigley Field or RFK. (Computer users have access to an even wider selection of broadcasts at MLB.com, which offers, for $15 a season, both the home and away teams' call of each game. The MLB.com version deletes local advertising, covering it with silence or crowd noise.)
Fans who know Bob Uecker only from his appearances on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" or his goofy roles in movie comedies can now hear him in his 34th season as the Milwaukee Brewers' play-by-play man, a jocular voice who comes off as far more knowledgeable in the gentler rhythm of nine innings than in the fleeting seconds of a movie cameo.
In one-third of major-league cities, legendary longtime voices -- a few reaching back to the time before television -- are still going: Herb Carneal in Minnesota (his 44th season there), Denny Matthews in Kansas City (36th), Harry Kalas in Philadelphia (34th), Jerry Coleman in San Diego (34th), Marty Brennaman in Cincinnati (32nd), Skip Caray in Atlanta (30th), Lanny Frattare in Pittsburgh (30th), Dave Niehaus in Seattle (28th), Tom Cheek in Toronto (28th), Bill King in Oakland (25th). It's worth the price of a subscription just to be able to tap into the broadcasts of KFWB in Los Angeles, where Vin Scully is in his 55th year narrating the work of the men in Dodger blue.
At 77, Scully handles only three innings a night on the radio side -- he also does TV -- and doesn't make many road trips, but he handles radio the old-fashioned way, by himself. No color commentator, no one to banter with during slow spots. Scully's elegant, crystalline tone and perfect pacing take you back to a time before sportscasts became manic, wall-to-wall productions in which every lull in the action is filled with pop tunes and anxious verbal hype. Scully sounds like the place he covers, an aural evocation of palm trees, Dodger dogs and eternal sunshine.
A scan across XM's baseball channels delivers Ron Santo's plainspoken ex-player's approach to Chicago Cubs games and Jon Miller's golden tones and impish imitations in San Francisco (he might still be in Baltimore had Orioles owner Peter Angelos not sent him packing for refusing to don blinders about the team's decline). In general, the older announcers sound more distinctive, more in character with the cities they serve. Too many younger voices sound generic -- excited but not quite passionate, well-informed but lacking the relationships with coaches and players that make their older colleagues' broadcasts so intimate.
A new book by baseball broadcasting historian Curt Smith, who was a speechwriter for the first President Bush, attempts to rank the Top 101 baseball broadcasters of all time. Smith's "Voices of Summer" uses numerical scores for categories such as longevity, persona, voice and knowledge, coming up with a Top 5 of Scully, Mel Allen, Ernie Harwell, Jack Buck and Red Barber. Among current local announcers, Smith's Top 5 are Scully, Uecker, Miller, Coleman and the Astros' Milo Hamilton. Washington Nationals TV play-by-play man Mel Proctor makes the all-time list at No. 96.
The Nats' radio team of Charlie Slowes and Dave Shea are too new to make Smith's book, but after a few weeks on the job, they sound as comfortable together as Phil Rizzuto and Bill White did in their Yankees heyday. Although Nats fans are suffering through an inaugural season with precious little TV coverage, radio would seem the natural beneficiary -- except that the Nationals broadcasts are on two stations with weak signals that many in this region cannot receive. Slowes and Shea, and Washington's surprise success on the field, come in loud and clear off the satellite.