We live in the age of video, but radio still has its uses, broadcasting baseball foremost among them.
Baseball on the radio remains an iconic American sound. One hopes that if — God forbid — archaeologists generations from now ever have to strain to recover what American civilization was like, they will stumble upon a recording of at least a couple of innings called by Mel Allen or Jon Miller.
During night games in July and August, the murmur of the crowd — just like the sawing of cicadas, the chirping of crickets, the calling of frogs, and the clatter of innumerable other critters — speaks of the delicious languor of an American summer, of long days and hot nights, of drives to the beach, of talking on the front porch, of the yells of kids running in the yard after dinner, of carefree, seemingly endless hours.
Oh, how I adore that sound!
There’s no doubt that baseball is the sport best suited to radio. It’s a game of a few fairly simple, regular movements, so it’s easy to convey what’s happening. Still, the descriptions, no matter how precise, leave something to the imagination. In that, a radio broadcast is more like a novel than like a movie.
It has a metronomic structure. Every at-bat has its routine as it runs through the count, every inning is punctuated with the same kind of rundown, No runs, two hits, two left, and at the end of five and a half . . . Yet, each game has its own distinct occurrences and storyline.
The game breathes, and allows time for storytelling and historical comparisons and talk of stats.
The truly great announcers are capable of a lyricism on the fly that stands up even when read on the page. Writing some of, say, Vin Scully’s calls after the fact would be pretty good; speaking them spontaneously is an art form.
When I was a kid growing up in the baseball-less Washington, D.C., area, it was relatively rare to see games on TV. When we were desperate, my dad and I — Yankee die-hards — might play with the antenna and try to get a fuzzy black-and-white image of a local Baltimore broadcast of the Orioles playing the Yankees.
Otherwise there was radio. I was the clichéd kid who had a little transistor radio and took it to bed with him.
Chuck Thompson was the Orioles broadcaster, crisp and professional with a signature phrase or two (“Ain’t the beer cold!”). In this pre-ESPN, pre-Internet world, he was also the only source of in-game updates of Yankee scores. I’m pretty sure I followed the famous Boston Massacre in 1978 in part via Chuck Thompson’s updates, each more thrilling than the last.
The streaming service of the time was the night, which allowed you to pick up AM signals from all around the country.
My dad had an excellent, especially sensitive radio. We’d occasionally take it out and see what we could find. We’d tune, wait a little to distinguish between random static and crowd noise, and then pick out a broadcast. That’s Cleveland. That’s Detroit. It felt like dipping into another world, a broadcaster’s voice we didn’t know talking about a team we didn’t follow during a game in progress.
I watch more TV now, of course, but there are still plenty of circumstances where the radio is the only alternative, or the more desirable one.
Once, earlier this season, I was left a temporary bachelor at home and I got transfixed watching a ridiculous Yankees–Twins slugfest that stretched into the night. I finally decided I needed to turn in but couldn’t bear to let it go. I compromised by going to bed — with the Yankee radio broadcast playing on an app on my iPhone.
The Yankees were up 14–12 but the Twins had the bases loaded with two outs in the bottom of the tenth. Given the effortless scoring of both teams in the late innings, I wasn’t optimistic. Sure enough, “there’s a drive to left-center,” and then the agonizing pause — the wait while the ball is suspended in your mind, Schrödinger’s-cat-like, between an insomnia-inducing, game-ending extra-base hit and a satisfying game-ending out — until finally . . . “Oh, what a catch!!”
The next morning, I had an interview with a New York–area news station and the game came up. “Did you see that catch?” one of the hosts asked. No, even better — I’d heard it.