Reconstructing a Baseball Game
Last night on Studio 42 With Bob Costas, the featured guest was Ernie Harwell.
Anybody who has been a Detroit Tigers' fan in the last sixty years knows who Ernie Harwell is. He was the voice of the Tigers for many, many years.
Harwell shared incredible insights into the game and the way that it has evolved over the years.
He spoke of meeting Babe Ruth and asking for an autograph and having nothing in his hands for Babe to sign.
He talked of knowing Ty Cobb and how Cobb's greatness was reduced over the years as baseball changed.
Harwell also talked of being a friend with Jackie Robinson and playing cards with Jack and playing golf with Jack and seeing the effect on Robinson of being the first black player in the major leagues.
But one of the most interesting parts of the show came when Harwell explained to Costas how radio announcers would re-create baseball games in the early years of radio.
I had heard of this practice before. In fact I have read that former President Ronald Reagan, when he was a young sports announcer in Illinois, would do exactly what Harwell described last night.
Apparently it was common practice for small radio stations, especially those covering minor league teams.
Harwell made the radio call for games for the Atlanta Crackers in the old Southern Association in the 1940s.
At that time, there was no way for a radio station to broadcast remote from another city. So when the Crackers would go on the road, the radio team had to improvise.
Harwell gave the example of when the Crackers would be playing the Barons in Birmingham. Harwell would be in a radio studio in Atlanta with a teletype machine.
Another teletype machine would be set up at the ball park in Birmingham and the operator there would be sending back cryptic messages over the teletype to Harwell.
For instance, all Harwell would get on his end was "S1C." But he knew that that meant "Strike One Called."
So Harwell would have to provide all the details and all the color to his radio audience.
He would say for instance: "The Birmingham pitcher, Hardrock Shoun, just threw a nasty curve ball that nipped the outside corner and Johnson took it for a called strike one."
Or Harwell's teletype might say "GB6-1.1 O"
Harwell would know that that meant a grounder had been hit to the shortstop, but he would have to add dimension.
So he would say, "Norton hits a hard shot in the hole. Sullivan snares it back hand and makes a flat footed throw to first. The umpire has called Norton out and I don't believe it. That play was just too close but it sure looked to me like the Cracker leadoff man beat the throw. Sometimes you just can't get the cow in the barn."
Harwell talked about growing up in the South and listening his entire life to his parents and uncles tell stories and make up jokes.
Costas asked him why so many of the early broadcasting greats such as Red Barber, Mel Allen, Lindsey Nelson, and Harwell were from the south and Harwell said he thought it was because of their culture of story telling and conversation.
Harwell also talked about the frequent times when the teletype would malfunction and he was left with no stats on his wire and lots of air time he had to fill.
So he would talk about the dog that had wandered on to the field and all the efforts that were being made to catch the dog so play could resume.
"Folks, it looks to me like just an old yella cur dog like I had back home as a kid. But anybody who's ever had a dog like that knows they got a mind of their own. Hard to corner an old yella cur like that. I just hope none of the home town boys get bit trying to get him off the field. Now, there's something. Somebody from the Barons' bench has a towel and he's trying to get the towel over that mutt's head to keep him from biting."
And the story about the dog on the field would go on until the teletype starting running again and nobody listening on the radio would know the difference.
Or Harwell would invent a "rhubarb", an argument between a player and an umpire to kill time. He said that the player would get home and his wife would ask him about the argument he had in the game in Birmingham and the player would have no idea what she was talking about because it had been a figment of Harwell's imagination to fill the air time until the tape was running again.
Or he would invent a sudden rain shower in the middle of a beautiful summer night:
"I'm tellin' ya folks, that little cloud just came up outta nowhere and its raining cats and dogs here in Birmingham right now. Don't know how long they're gonna be waiting to get back on the field with this. But you know it looks like it's gonna be over just about as soon as it started. Yep, it's lettin' up folks and I see the outfielders startin' back out to their positions. We'll get the next pitch any minute now."
This part of the old baseball game is almost unknown. What a delight to have someone such as Ernie Harwell to remind us of how the game used to be.
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