Radio did wonders for baseball in its early years


In the true-to-life movie "Murder in the First," the first words uttered by Alcatraz inmate Henry Young, after battling to retain his sanity through more than three years in a medieval pit called solitary confinement, are, "What kind of a year is DiMaggio having?"

It is the early 1940s, Joe D is the crown prince of the diamond and Young, speaking to an attorney who is to represent him on a murder charge, cannot understand why this man has no interest in baseball. He scolds the lawyer for passing up the chance to listen to all the games denied him through incarceration.

Hollywood did not play fast and loose with the truth during the depiction of this meeting. There was no need. That is the effect baseball, as delivered over the airwaves, had on thousands of youngsters back then. It's where the game started for them, with the radio and the imagination.

"Atlantic keeps your car on the go . . . . for business or pleasure, in any kind of weather." I probably haven't heard that ditty in at least 40 years and, chances are, the brand of gasoline has been gone that long. But commercials like it, as well as ones for a beer ('Gansett), a brand of cigarettes (LS/MFT), a cigar or cereal just seem to hang around.

Anyone with a radio that could pull in games from the Big Apple, for instance, knew that when the Yankee Clipper or Yogi Berra smacked a home run for the Yankees, it was either a "Ballantine Blast" or a "White Owl Wallop," depending upon which, the beer or the cigar, was carrying that three-inning segment. Over in Brooklyn, a Dodger homer was an "Old Goldie."

Forgotten is what a "Post Toastie" was and the name of the team involved, but the product name remains clear. No doubt it was effective advertising.

Radio coverage of the game through its first several decades spawned the voices kids knew nearly as well as those of their parents. Every town and region had one, a favorite uncle, if you will:

Mel Allen, "the Ol' Redhead" Red Barber and Russ Hodges in New York. Bob Prince in Pittsburgh. Harry Caray and Jack Buck in St. Louis. Jack Brickhouse in Chicago. Ernie Harwell in Detroit. Chuck Thompson in Baltimore. Byrum Saam in Philadelphia. Jimmy Dudley in Cleveland. Curt Gowdy in Boston. Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola seemingly everywhere. Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Jon Miller and other great practitioners known mainly through television these days. Bob Wolff, who trooped into the broadcaster's wing of the Hall of Fame yesterday.

"Storytellers" is the name of a book authored by Curt Smith that's just hitting the stands, and a more apt description of the contents is not available for that's what they were: Men who could not only hold your attention no matter what the circumstances of the game, but inform you, entertain you, educate you and, most important, keep you coming back clamoring for more.

They had the time during a broadcast to do enthralling things, not being forced into the role of product pitchman half the time, and the game was the beneficiary. Once a kid's radio discovered baseball, he couldn't wait for that magical moment when he would witness it live. But that was back when the broadcast was mostly a service and an instrument to increase fan interest, not to wrench every possible nickel, dime and quarter out of the public.

In " 'Tellers," Mel Allen says, "Incredibly, New York was the last big league city to allow games on radio. From 1934 through '38, the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees agreed not to broadcast on a daily basis. They thought, mistakenly, that if you aired games, people wouldn't pay to see them."

Almost as ridiculous as that sounds now is what baseball appears to have accomplished with its radio broadcasts. The rights fees that are demanded have pressed rights holders into a never-ending battle to dredge up sponsors to the point where the once masterful evocator has been transformed into a busy traffic cop for commercials.

Advertisements come crashing down like meteorites and game enhancement by the broadcaster is nearly a thing of the past as "we'll be back after these messages" become the words he says over and over.

When you think about it, the listener is paying far more these days (via purchase of advertisers' products) for far less of the ballgame, and the once-gifted announcer may soon be in as much trouble as the spotted owl.

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