The Staticky Charm of AM Radio
There's something human in static. Record collectors are fond of saying vinyl recordings have a warmer sound than their digital brethren, but I think the real humanity is in the airwaves.
Medium wave amplitude modulation radio broadcasting was invented just a few years after the dawn of the modern era in baseball (when the rules we are familiar with today became codified). Guglielmo Marconi was awarded the first patent for the radio in the United States in 1900. Six years later, Reginald Fessenden propagated the first AM transmission from Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Radio remained a hobbyist's pursuit until it exploded in the wake of World War I. The 1920s heralded the beginning of the Golden Age of radio. It is no coincidence that the 1920s also represented the Golden Era of baseball.
Radio represented one of the first mass-media in the United States. Just as mass media were fueling national culture and the development of full-fledged consumer culture in the 1920s, so too was radio building the very first media markets. The first radio call of a live baseball game was broadcast on the first commercial radio station, Pittsburgh's KDKA. On August 5, 1921, Harold Arlin used a shoestring setup (he used a modified telephone) at Forbes Field to announce a contest between the Pirates and the Phillies.
The Pirates won 8-5. It was a brief game, lasting less than two hours, but featured a home run by Phillies centerfielder Cy Williams and a triple by Pirates third baseman Clyde Barnhart. It must have been thrilling to hear Arlin describe that moment when a runner approaches second base so fast that it dawns upon the announcer that the runner might just be headed for third.
For several years, subsequent broadcasts were not conducted live, but rather were recreations from play-by-play wire accounts. They often lagged innings behind the action on the field. But they also opened up the game to a broader audience. Despite owners' fears that radio would discourage fans from showing up at the ballpark in person, the prevalence of baseball radio broadcasts grew apace. As radios became centerpieces of the American living room, baseball enmeshed itself as part of the daily life of millions.
The reality of a live broadcast is that the time is difficult to fill, and the long pauses or awkward attempts at filler make the broadcasts intimate. Indeed, Harold Arlin remembered not being exactly sure what to do or say:
"Nobody told me I had to talk between pitches [...] Sometimes the transmitter didn't work. Often the crowd noise would drown us out. We didn't know whether we'd talk into a total vacuum or whether somebody would hear us."
What's remarkable about baseball on the radio is just how much sense it makes. Most sports are chaotic, with infinite possible constellations of players on the playing surface. In baseball, there is only the count (of which there are only twelve states), the base/out situation (of which there are 24 states), and the inning (which of course there are usually nine). When the announcer relays that the shortstop, batting in a 2-2 count with runners on the corners, has roped a line drive down the third base line, you can imagine just what it looks like. With that sort of information alone, millions of boys and girls have surreptitiously used a transistor radio to reconstruct the Polo Grounds or Shibe Park right there in English class.
For decades' worth of Opening Days, the transistor radio was a shibboleth for manic baseball fans celebrating for the first time all winter the rich sounds of staticky play-by-play in their ear. You can make us work or go to school, they secretly shared, but you cannot make us pay attention.
And the broadcasters were our friends. They spent so much time talking into the emptiness and to each other that radio broadcasts became intimate. Radio announcers Graham McNamee, Red Barber, Mel Allen, Jack Brickhouse, Vin Scully, Harry Caray, and Harry Kalas (and countless others) became as members of an extended family.
A few select stations pumped their frequencies with such potency that their broadcasts arced along the contours of the earth, through hills and mountains all but unimpeded, to even rural communities (the places we today call exurbs). Clear channel AM stations (like New York's WFAN and Chicago's WGN today) had no competition on their particular frequencies for hundreds of miles, allowing them to reach hundreds of thousands of households with every broadcast.
Slowly, radio broadcasters cottoned on to the cadence and style of a live broadcast. They began to fill up the empty space between pitches with players' statistics, provided to them on mimeographed sheets reproduced from media guides. Their catchphrases became just as reconstructable as the base-out state on the field. They were indelibly marked into memory.
Slowly, media markets emerged. Regional rivalries heightened as fans followed every play of every game and homer announcers embellished and enlarged the truth. Before there were regional television deals or network-neutrality violating online streaming video websites, a team's radio station provided the crucial link between fans and teams that remains the solitary reason why baseball became America's pastime.
The beginning of the decline of baseball on the radio was marked by one of baseball's iconic moments. It was one of those giants of broadcasting, the voice of the Giants, Russ Hodges, who penned its first epitaph. On October 3, 1951, Bobby Thomson roped a line drive off Ralph Branca over the left field fence at the Polo Grounds, giving the Giants a ticket to the World Series. Even to someone like me, much too young to have experienced the Shot Heard 'Round the World myself, it sounds more like this:
"There's a long drive--it's gonna be, I believe--THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!"
Coincidentally, the third game of the three-game tiebreaker was also the first coast-to-coast live broadcast of a baseball game on a different frequency band: VHF television. NBC broadcaster Ernie Harwell's pedestrian call ("It's gone!") goes unremembered. In fact it is a sort of cosmic accident that Hodges's radio call was recorded at all, as a fan happened to record the final few innings to share with a friend.
Even though millions caught the game on the radio, the fact that something so spectacular happened on the live television broadcast made everyone who saw it an instant convert. Brian Biegel, in Miracle Ball (which chronicles his search for the Thomson home run ball) quotes Hall of Fame curator Ted Spencer:
"It was a special moment because it may have been the first thing we saw on TV in our house--1951 was the year we got a TV. I've always talked about it as baseball's first TV event. That home run was played continually all that night. Remember, there's no satellite, there's no twenty-four-hour-a-day news. News was fifteen minutes in those days--6:00 to 6:15 local and 7:00 to 7:15 NBC. But it was all over the place. It was fabulous. I think from that point on, baseball and TV really came together."
Regularly scheduled television programming had begun just four years prior to the Shot Heard 'Round the World. In 1950, just 9.0% of American households had a TV set. By 1951, the number was 23.5%, the largest year-over-year percentage point increase on record. And for all those early adopter households, this was one of the first "event television" moments. While radio remained an important part of baseball broadcasting, it never again held the place it once did.
My experience with baseball on the radio has been very personal. As a young boy (an only child, no less), I would sneak to my family computer, which was the first I had used with a microphone. I would imagine a situation--inevitably the ninth inning and certainly with the bases loaded. Somehow it always seemed that Darren "Dutch" Daulton was at the plate (although on his nights off, John Kruk could pinch hit). Huddled next to the Macintosh SE, I would record myself doing Harry Kalas's home run call over and over again: "Outta heeeeere!" I can only imagine how many other kids have done the same thing (or perhaps some slightly less technological analog) since baseball was first broadcast over AM radio.
I don't dislike baseball on television; of course I enjoy watching it. I enjoy following a game on the computer with Gameday because it allows me the same sort of constructed reality that the radio did. Now that streaming video and audio are available on cell phones and laptops I wonder about the fate of that essential baseball institution, the radio broadcast. We live in a world of blackouts and interrupted coverage, of Joe Buck and Scooter the animated baseball. They spend so much time filling the pauses, and they say so little of much importance, because they really don't have to say anything. The action, after all, is right there to watch on the field. With the recent news that Vin Scully plans to retire after the 2010 season, I worry that we may be witnessing the final years of baseball on the radio.
I hope that the radios--the ones on workbenches and in cars, the ones stowed away in school lockers and backpacks, the ones perched on radiators in bathrooms and high up on the shelf at gas stations--I hope they don't disappear. Because to listen to baseball on the radio is to imagine the game, to imagine yourself there, to imagine the men in the booth. If it dies, I fear we will lose that imagination as well.