Former Doger pitcher Don Drysdale made his debut this week, pleasantly if unspectacularly, as the third voice with Keith Jackson and Howard Cosell on ABC's Monday Night Baseball. Unfortunately, three voices are too many on a baseball telecast, especially if one is Cosell's.
The first of 18 Monday evening games recalled the roar of disapproval aroused by Cosell's presence on last year's World Series telecasts. Even those curious, masochistic souls who like Howard's nasal pomposity on other events, including the vastly more popular Monday Night Football, find it hard to deny that he is a blight on our national pastime, but he epitomizes it.
Boxing and football, with which Cosell is most closey indentified, ate forceful, even brtuish sports. They lends themselves, if anything does to his overbearing manner and delivery Cosell is a one-man percussion section, pounding ceaselesssly on our eardrums, and his outlandish verbosity blends numbingly with the hard shots in the ring or on the gridiron.
Baseball is more subtle, gentle, lyrical game. Cosell is hardly lyrical.
Perception of the game and achievement of a tone that suits it are painfully lacking in ABC's approach to baseball. For all its technological skill, innovativeness, and skill in handling other sports, the network has not been able to appreciate and capture the pleasures of baseball.
Producer Chuck Howard and director Chet Forte, who have been instrumental in making Monday Night Football a colossal success, try to use the same velvet-covered-sledgehammer techniques with baseball.
They pummel us with words and graphic: the three commentators, pre-taped interviews (in moderation, a good device), scores and endless plugs for upcoming show. Meanwhile, we yearn for a blessed moment of silence. Baseball is a reflective game, but ABC takes away its natural pauses.
Instead of the siren song lovers of the game find so intoxicating, a baseball telecast on ABC becomes a full-scale assault on the senses, and ultimately an earache.
ABC likes to proclaim itself "recognized around the world as the leader of sports television," but in baseball land nobody does it better than NBC. Its "Game of the Week" telecasts are far superior to ABC's Monday night efforts because they are more attuned to the game than it self-glorification.
NBC has the baseball director in Harry Coyle, whose knowledge, three decades of experience and anticipation result in nearly flawless picture selection.
ABC camerwork is not as crisp, its reactions less swift. On Monday the cameras completely missed a play in which a Texas runner went to second base on a missed bunt because Yankee catcher Thurman Munson threw wide of first base, behind the runner. Drysdale explained that, but we never saw it. The camera stayed on the baserunner.
An attempted replay missed it again, showing the same unrevealing sequence and freezing on a shot of the wide-open spaces, with no player in sight. One cannot imagine Harry Coyle bungling a play so bandly. Or more than once.
Both of NBC's top commentary team, Joe Garagiola - Tony Kubek and Dick Engerg - Maury Wills are better than the Monday night first team. Again, twovoices are better than three; NBC's men complement each other, ABC's inevitably get in one another's way.
Drysale - who replace Bob Uecker, the humorist ex-catcher now on the Monday night second team with Al Micheals and Bill White - has an appealing voice and breezy style. His initial effort, however, did not produce the kind of incisive analysis we have come to expect from Kubek and the improving WIlls, men who know baseball and can communicate its secrets.
Drysdale is an experienced broadcaster. Having apprenticed with Montreal, St, Louis and Texas, he is currently in his sixth season as radio-TV voice of the California Angel, teaming with Engerg. "We have loose broadcasts," he says, and in that format he is undoubtedly good.
The danger is that on Monday nights he will be sufforcated, at least in part by Cosell's enermous ego.
"A lot of people have asked me about working with Howard," says the easygoing Drysdale, who has a 209-167 record and 2.95 earned-run average in pitched a record 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. "I say, 'Christ, it can't be tougher than pitching to Mays or Musial or Aarson.'"
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Cosell cannot seem to resist making himslef bigger than his collegues and the events they are broadcasting.
He is compelled to endorse every useful observation with an "Exactly right" or a "That's entirely correct," as if only his concurrence authenticates it. He utters all his pronouncements - the obvious as well as the enlightening - as if they were handed down to him exclusively, on stone tablets. He tramples on the play-by-play, even while promising not to.
And he insists on playing the Don Rickles of the broadcast booths, needling every convenient target."If Drysdale had had a screwball, he would have been a good pitcher," he said at one point Monday night, then filled the air with his uniquely grating laugh.
Even Cosell's introductions of Drysdale at the beginning of the telecast was self-serving. "Right now, I have to special privilege," he began. "Back in 1956, a 19-year-old pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers for the first time, beat the Phils 9-2, came up on the network show with me, then came to my apartment for dinner. The rest is history . . ."
Presumably Drysdale loved the roast beef , and couldn't get a word in edgewise.