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Baseball on TV: When TV Came to the Ballpark

Sep 20, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By Tom Jicha

Baseball and television didn’t exactly go together like hot dogs and cold beer when the new medium took fans out to the ballgame for the first time on Aug. 26, 1939. At that time, baseball was already established as America’s national pastime, but TV-“radio with pictures”-was considered a novelty, something to amuse patrons at the New York World’s Fair, going on a few miles from Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, where the Dodgers were taking on the Cincinnati Reds.

That first televised game utilized two cameras-a main one high above home plate, with another down the third base line primarily picking up infield throws to first. It was a far cry from the two dozen or so cameras-stationary, hand-held and robotic, on the field, in the stands and in blimps above the stadium-that Fox used for this season’s All-Star Game and will use again for the World Series.

Fox is paying Major League Baseball $2.5 billion for broadcast rights in their current six-year contract, which runs through 2006. ESPN kicks in another $140 million annually for the cable rights, a deal that runs through 2005.

Both are a far cry from the cost of that first Dodgers-Reds telecast 65 years ago. Those rights were free.

There obviously were no graphics for that first game, no replays, no zoom lenses, no scattered natural sound microphones and no color. Just a grainy black-and-white picture and one mike featuring the descriptive calls of Red Barber, who had joined the Dodgers broadcast team that season.

Coincidentally, 1939 also was the year Mel Allen joined the Yankees. The dominance of the Bronx Bombers elevated Allen, renowned for his signature “How about that!” call of game-turning plays, into baseball’s first nationally recognized voice.

Most of the prominent announcers of the mid-20th century were known mainly within their home markets. However, because NBC used home team announcers for the World Series, and the Yankees were there 10 times in 12 seasons, Mr. Allen’s voice was given an almost annual coast-to-coast platform.

Dizzy Dean, the English-fracturing Hall of Fame pitcher, a sidekick to Mr. Allen for a very brief period in New York, became the first regular, national baseball voice with the premiere of a TV “Game of the Week” in 1953. Mr. Dean and one of his partners, Pee Wee Reese, were among the first former ballplayers to move into the TV booth after their playing careers were over. Some, such as the Yankees’ Phil Rizzuto, went to work locally for the teams for which they played. Others, such as another former Yankee, Tony Kubek, achieved fame as an analyst on national telecasts.

Where Mr. Kubek was dry and analytical, others such as Joe Garagiola and Bob Uecker relied on folksiness and humor to win over fans.

A very few analysts, most notably Tim McCarver, moved easily between local and national telecasts. The former catcher has worked for both current New York teams and three networks, including his current stint on Fox.

When announcers speak mainly to local audiences, they often become unabashed “homers,” with “we” and “they” staples of their calls; the enthusiasm in their voices rises and falls according to the hometown team’s prospects for victory. One obvious exception to the trend is Vin Scully, who, in his 55th year after breaking in with the Dodgers as a protege of Mr. Barber, remains baseball broadcasting’s beacon of excellence.

Even before ESPN became a player in 1990, cable was responsible for another seismic shift in telecasting baseball. Visionary Ted Turner bought the Atlanta Braves in 1976, primarily as programming for his independent TV station in Atlanta, WTBS. With the Braves constituting more than 500 hours of programming a year, Mr. Turner made WTBS the first cable superstation.

WGN in Chicago soon followed suit, with the Cubs as a viewer magnet. Enterprising distributors then made other stations with major league franchises, such as WWOR in New York (the Mets) and WSBK in Boston (Red Sox), cable superstations. Fans were able to get as many as a half-dozen games a day and adopt teams in distant cities as their own.

Technology escalated at a rapid pace. The really groundbreaking advance came in 1957 when a centerfield camera was introduced by the late Harry Coyle, the inventive director considered the father of televised baseball. Mr. Coyle, who had 36 World Series on his resume, never stopped tinkering. His prescient decision to point a camera toward home plate from inside the Fenway Park scoreboard for the 1975 World Series produced what might be the most memorable shot in history-Carlton Fisk’s frantic body English as his home run stayed just inside the left-field foul pole.

Resistance to Change

Almost every major technological advance since then has been accompanied by some wrangling. One produced a crisis at the 1993 World Series between Toronto and Philadelphia, according to Bob Fishman, who was directing the games for CBS. The network had done quite a few games that season at Toronto’s Skydome, whose roof afforded the opportunity to hang a stationary camera directly over home plate to give viewers a unique perspective on balls-and-strikes calls. Umpires were livid about the on-air second-guessing.

When CBS let it be known it planned to use this angle during the World Series, the head of the umpires union, Richie Phillips, threatened to pull his men off the game. Baseball backed CBS, warning Phillips the games would go on even if it meant bringing in replacement umps. The union called off its threat.

For all the grievances, the relationship between the game and the medium has improved in recent years. Fox Sports President Ed Goren said it took a conscious effort to appease all the political forces within the game-owners, umpires, players and their union leaders. “We felt we had to establish relationships with the entire spectrum,” he said. “It was a long shot but we made it work.

“Since 1996 the baseball product has seen more change than any other sport because of these relationships.”

Television is now permitted to wire players and managers for in-game sound and interview players who have left the game, concessions that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Viewers haven’t seen anything yet, promises Michael Weisman, who has been producing and directing baseball for the past quarter-century, most recently for Fox. With the advent of high-definition TV, the technology is available to show the audience things like the actual compression of the ball as it is struck by a bat, Mr. Weisman said.

“We have super slow motion that will show the stitches on the ball as it comes out of the pitcher’s hand,” he said.

Still, the glut of games available on broadcast, cable and satellite makes the Saturday Game of the Week “The Death Valley of ratings,” Mr. Goren said. Virtually the entire rights fee Fox pays is predicated on the value of the postseason.