Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Art of Baseball: Radio Deities Who Call the Shots

From the Seattle Times
By Larry Stone
Seattle Times staff reporter
June 4, 2006

Marty Brennaman, longtime voice of the Cincinnati Reds, has a new fan in Bath, England. The far-flung fellow, who e-mails Brennaman periodically, has recently discovered the joys of baseball on the radio, a sport he scarcely understood but became entranced with over the airwaves.

Such is the 21st-century power of satellite and Internet broadcasts, which merely reinforce what became evident shortly after 26-year-old Harold Arlin executed the first baseball broadcast on Aug. 5, 1921, at Forbes Field on Pittsburgh's KDKA, using a converted telephone as a microphone.

Baseball is radio's game. Radio is baseball's medium.

"There's never been a greater marriage than radio and baseball," Brennaman said.

Melded, it creates what broadcasting historian Curt Smith calls "the hypnotic tapestry of radio on the air," what Bob Costas calls "the soundtrack of your summer" — all played out, as former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti put it so memorably, "in the enclosed green fields of the mind."

"It's where the creativity is," said longtime Mariners voice Dave Niehaus. "It's where you really have to be master of your craft. You have to be really good to have somebody in the palm of your hands."

And the great ones? They become icons of their cities, the voice of a generation (or generations, because as the legendary Bob Wolff, longtime voice of the Washington Senators, points out, "A good radio announcer lasts forever; they have one great trait: They wear well.")

No one is more redolent of Chicago than Harry Caray, of St. Louis than Jack Buck, of Los Angeles than Vin Scully, of Detroit than Ernie Harwell.

In Seattle, Amaury Pi-Gonzalez correctly calls Niehaus "an institution" — as Leo Lassen, voice of the Seattle Rainiers, was for an earlier generation.

Said Pi-Gonzalez, the Spanish voice of the Mariners, "Kids have been born listening to Dave Niehaus."

The leisurely pace of baseball requires that an announcer deliver more than just the frenetic play-by-play of his basketball counterpart. He must be a storyteller par excellence, a troubadour of the airwaves.

"Baseball announcers are the conduit between the team and the fans," said Harwell, now 88 and retired from broadcasting. "He goes wherever the listener goes — the mountains, or the beaches, or picnics. He's always there.

"I've always felt that if a fellow worked in a region five or six years, he almost becomes a part of the family. He grows on people."

And if he works for 57 years, as Scully has done calling Dodgers games, then he becomes the most beloved figure in the history of the franchise. And, arguably, of the medium.

"To be around Vin is like playing pepper with Babe Ruth, and I get to do it every day," marveled current Dodgers announcer Charlie Steiner. "There's elegance to him on the air and off. He's almost regal, yet he has a common-man quality."

Scully and other local legends are developing a new cult following on XM Radio, which offers home broadcasts from around the majors each night. In a survey of new subscribers last year, 25 percent of respondents cited baseball as the impetus for their subscription.

"That's a remarkable testament to the power of baseball on radio," said David Butler, director of corporate affairs for XM.

Butler said he hears constantly from fans delighted to be introduced to the likes of Niehaus, Milwaukee's Bob Uecker, San Diego's Jerry Coleman and Kansas City's Danny Matthews — but no one is mentioned more frequently, and reverently, than Scully.

Now 78, Scully doesn't travel east of the Rockies, and he works solo, without a color man. Why? "Poets don't need no straight man," explained Steiner.

Scully learned the craft from an equally revered legend, Red Barber, who arrived in New York in 1939, along with Mel Allen. That's when the Dodgers, Yankees and Giants wisely decided to lift their ill-advised ban of radio broadcasts, which they felt would hurt attendance.

It was quite the opposite. The radio accounts supplied a context and continuity that turned the season into an ongoing soap opera, the players into living, breathing entities, and made the ballpark itself come alive.

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