The ratings for Monday night baseball on television are on the rise and headed out of the park. ABC has struck it rich again. The Yankees versus Detroit claimed a 26 per cent share of the national audience Monday night, a conspicuous climb from last year's average of 22 per cent. For each one-minute commercial willing sponsors are now picking up a $52,000 tab, another new high.
ABC is happy. The fans like it. Howard Cosell is happy, and Bowie Kuhn tried to bar from the TV booth in last year's pennant playoff games on the grounds Cosell had been no friend of baseball.
It was not easy for Kuhn to embrace the same fellow who had been sniping at Kuhn's game during all those years when he was flaking like fury for pro football on Monday nights and other days of the week. But Kuhn lacked bite against the network that feeds baseball $50 million on a four year arrangement for TV rights.
ABC also has gotten lucky with its Monday nights. The seven games seen in the Eastern region have been beauts. The hot Red Sox-Yankee rivalry has been on the tube twice with contentious Reggie Jackson hitting homers in both games. Jackson provided more excitement last Monday night in another glaring adventure. He lost a fly ball in the dazzle of the the stadium lights and it became one of the runs in a 2-1 Yankee defeat. He also drew a glare from manager Billy Martin, no Jackson fan, he But for ABC it was great theater.
For all of the success of the telecasts, there are still a couple of soft spots. These are located in the TV booth where Cosell and his deputy commentator, Bob Uecker, flank Keith Jackson, the knowledgeable play-by-play man who maintains an excellent descriptive flow. But under the rules of their game. Jackson is forced to yield mike time to Cosell and Uecker. Often, that is too bad.
Uecker is tolerable and often perceptive. He did, after all, make it to the major leagues as a second-string catcher, and knows the difference between a breaking pitch and a fast ball. But he's too unctious toward Cosell, with his frequent. That's right, Howard," responses to The Voice. And with the last out, they should lock Uecker in the booth instead of sending him out on such postgame errands as interviewing winning pitcher Mark Fidryeh the other night. He was less interviewer John a cheerleader with hand-held mike.
The only substance Cosell brings to the show is his excellent pregame interviews. These taped jobs with top personalities are spotted within time units throughtout the game. Call it abrasiveness, call it persistence or what you will, Cosell's tenacity paid off the other night.When the Yankees ducked accusations that lack of hustle got Reggie Jackson benched by Martin, Cosell persevered until he badgered Thurman Munson into saying flatly, "Yes, he loafed."
Cosell also nailed a sweating Martin on the subject of all those stories that his dismissal as Yankee manager was imminent. He got the unhappy Martin to admit the awkwardness of his position, and when he finally permitted Martin to get away from the mike, it was with an endearing "I have ya, Billy."
Poof! went all of Cosell's self-proclaimed objectivity as a journalist, which was always overrated anyway, it ever existed in even small measure.
Once the game starts, Cosell is a Monday night earache. His constant barbs at Uecker for failing to make as a big-league regular, accompanied by his unfunny ha-has, are not only cruel but a bore. Cosell arro gates to himself a special responsibility - that of detecting whether somebody is warming up in the bull pen, and saying if not, why not? Big ideal.
The other night, they all messed up on their baseball history. It was Keith Jackson, I think, who observed that, "Don Gullett looks as if he has a pretty good fork ball," and Cosell, I think, who said, "I wonder who introduced the fork ball?" And it was Uecker who said he didn't know, and Jackson ventured it could have been Clyde King. Cosell chimed in with, "ElRoy Face could throw a prety good one," and none of them had any sense of history, because back in the late '30s, Spurgeon (Spud) Chandler of the Yankees was very famous for throwing his good fork ball, and won 109 games with it.
Mostly, Cosell's contribution once the game starts is his recitation of trivia concerning the guy at bat, or next up, or the fellow who just made that play. It comes right off the bubble gum cards, or the poop sheets provided him before the game.
The other night in Detroit, he drifted into an outrageous observation of his own: "This is a city with a great baseball tradition," Cosell said. "Great players like Gehringer, Greenberg, Mickey Cochrane . . . (pause) . . . and Rudy York."
Yes, Howard, and great players like Ty Cobb, who played in Detroit for 22 years, an dmade 4,191 hits, and was the American League batting champion 12 times, and batted 400 three times, more often than any other man. Also stole 892 bases. His career average of 367 still evokes latter-day incredulity. In 1928, he slumped to a 323 average, but of course Cobb was 42 years old at the time. The first memento to go into the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame was Ty Cobb's gleaming spikes.
The question is, what else did Cobb have to do to merit recognition by Cosell as a Detroit tradition. Or a couple of other fellows named Sam Crawford and Harry Heilmann, who hit 400 and are in the Hall of Fame but got no mention from Howard. Nevertheless, the conclusion here is that Monday night baseball has been a good show, Cosell notwithstanding.