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Guest Post: Jesse Goldberg-Strassler on doing ‘re-creation’ broadcasts

Minor Leaguer

Tom: This is a repost from 2014. Jesse is doing his annual ‘re-creation’ broadcast tonight (and since there is no Blue Jays game today, is is great timing). It is a cool look back at the way minor league radio broadcasts were done ‘in the old days’. If you can listen in, it is a lot of fun.

Every August, during an otherwise routine evening at the ballpark, I re-create a live Lansing Lugnuts baseball game.

I stand in the open press box, a baseball glove, a ball, and two broken bats at the ready, and receive minimalist messages sent in from my broadcast partner: “Ball,” perhaps, or “Single.” Then I sculpt the play, from the pitcher heaving a deep breath as he bends over to receive the sign, straightening at the waist, cranking back and letting it fly... cracking the bats together... a chopper up the middle, past the diving shortstop, into center field, base hit!

My August tradition comes with the origin of my industry. On August 5th, 1921, a telephone in his hand, 25-year-old Harold Arlin - formerly a Westinghouse foreman - described the Philadelphia/Pittsburgh game to the best of his ability, his words carried out over the KDKA airwaves. (The hometown Pirates won, 8-5, thanks to some marvelous relief work from Jimmy Zinn. Check it out here.) Arlin was only getting started as a sports pioneer. On August 6th, he brought tennis to the radio, calling the Davis Cup match between Australia and Great Britain. On October 8th, he delivered the play-by-play of the big Pitt/West Virginia tilt, the first college football game to be aired.

As it so happened, October 8th was an off day during the 1921 World Series, pitting the powerful New York Giants against the upstart crosstown New York Yankees. The Yanks won the first two games of the best five-out-of-eight classic, and built a 3-2 series lead, but the Giants wrested control with victories in Games 6, 7 and 8, winning the Fall Classic via a 1-0 four-hit shutout twirled by Art Nehf. The World Series was carried along the radio airwaves to the loyalists tuned in at home - but it was not described by any on-site witnesses. The games were re-created, thanks to the power of telegraph, sound effects, and a focused team of operators and broadcasters.

The 1921 baseball season thus began two traditions at once: the daily game broadcast, and its resourceful cousin, the artful live re-creation. Two years later, the iconic Graham McNamee was engaged to aid and raise the level of the sportscasts, beginning on color commentary before taking over as the voice of the game. With McNamee behind the mic, the baseball broadcast began to capture imaginations and insert itself into the national culture.

I do not know what specific date I began listening to baseball on the radio. I do know that it was Baltimore Orioles baseball, carried on WTOP-1500 AM in Washington, D.C., with the catchy musical jingle of “Hear the thrill of baseball, on the radio.” Years later, I heard a different jingle, to the same tune: “Hear the thrill of baseball, on WBAL.” Since WBAL was the Orioles’ flagship, it made me wonder if that was the original, and WTOP had simply used a secondhand version - a re-created jingle. My liaison to Orioles baseball was Jon Miller, accompanied by longtime voice of Baltimore Chuck Thompson and, depending on the season, Joe Angel, Ken Levine, or Fred Manfra. Growing up in a house without cable, the radio broadcasts provided my best connection to live baseball. Otherwise, I had to call up a special 1-800 number to listen to sportscaster George Michael’s latest recorded scoring updates, wait for the :15/:45 updates on the all-news radio station’s broadcast, or read the next day’s newspaper before heading off to school.

I’m equally uncertain of that precise moment I determined that I too would become a baseball broadcaster, but somehow the ambition took hold of me. After college, I gained my first baseball internship, hired to assist the media relations department and host the pre-game and post-game show for the independent Brockton Rox. The Rox were a Goldklang Group team, known for their ingeniousness and headline-grabbing promotions. Ed Nottle, “The Singing Manager,” was the team’s skipper; Oil Can Boyd was a member of the starting rotation. We held a “You Be the Official Scorer” Night in which the fans determined all scoring decisions. On another evening, we gave away a Curt Schilling bobble-ankle doll, complete with realistically painted bloody sock.

The team president was Jim Lucas, a former broadcaster who had gained notice while working alongside blind color commentator Don Wardlow, and still an idea-man extraordinaire. The idea came to him that the Rox should conduct a throwback re-creation broadcast, an idea he kindly mandated to myself and Matt Meola, the team’s broadcaster for its Quincy radio affiliate. Voice of the Rox Dave Raymond took a seat on the bench - or rather a seat in his car in the parking lot, where he tuned in to see how Matt and I performed. It was an admitted experiment and a promotional gimmick, and Matt was far better at it than I was, but it was an overall success as tribute to our broadcasting ancestors.

Working with Jim Tocco with the Southern League’s Montgomery Biscuits in 2006-2007, we considered repeating the promotion. (Jim brainstormed 1920s phrases that he wanted to be certain to include.) But my next opportunity to hold a re-creation broadcast came by force of necessity. In 2008, while I was calling games for the independent Windy City ThunderBolts, a Chicago-area thunderstorm swept through and knocked out internet in the press box but not the team’s front office. The ThunderBolts were hosting the road-only Midwest Sliders, who did not have a broadcaster. If the game was going to be called, for both teams’ sakes, it would have to be from the office, out of the view of the playing field. My second opportunity at a re-creation had arrived.

I borrowed two mini-bats from the retail shop, grabbed a glove and a ball, and set up the equipment behind the box office. Broadcast partner Nick Kovatch messaged the goings-on, and we got the game on the air. That might have been that, except that this particularly contest turned historic. A scoring decision in the ninth changed a previously-ruled Sliders base hit to an error, allowing ace lefty Isaac Hess to complete the first no-hitter in franchise history. I interviewed Hess in the front office during the postgame show, and asked him all about details that I had not seen. (There was a protest from fellow broadcasters around the league, wondering about the dubiousness of such a late official scoring change, but I had not seen the play and so was unable to judge one way or the other.)

From 2009 through this past summer, I have continued to conduct these re-creations, experimenting with different sound effects each season. The mini-bats provided too high-pitched of a sound, and were replaced by combinations of mini-bat, wooden spoon, and now broken bats from former Lugnuts. The recorded atmosphere from a mundane Sunday afternoon game provides the background hum to the broadcast, replacing what had been only silence behind my words. Every now and then, when I’m feeling confident, I can toss in an audio clip of a cheer during crowd-pleasing moments. (I have four different degrees of cheers to choose from.)

Each year I continue to learn what I suspect Harold Arlin and Graham McNamee each discovered all those many years ago. For all that we wish to pepper our broadcasts with analysis and entertainment, there is no substitute for the painting of the picture: Where is the game being played, and what is the atmosphere? Who’s batting, and how does he stride to the plate? Who’s pitching, and how does he wind up? And when the ball is struck, can the listener picture that frozen rope to the alleyway, their heartbeat racing as the ball is hurriedly retrieved whilst the runners fly around the bases?