Baseball Broadcasting

BÉISBOL (Baseball) On the Air; Buck Canel was a true pioneer with lots of connections and versatility

PART II: BÉISBOL ON THE AIR—BUCK CANEL

 

Curt Smith

Welcome to the second in a three-part series on a new book celebrating Hispanic baseball radio/television, Béisbol on the Air: Essays on Major League Spanish-Language Broadcasters (McFarland). Today: how Eli B. “Buck” Canel beguiled generations—his 1937-72 balladry using radio, then TV, to gild the pastime. Sports Illustrated once wrote that he “leads a double life”: parts statesman and entertainer, Henry Kissinger, meet Javier Bardem.

In one sense, Buck was unsung, even anonymous, to much of America. In another, on “The Voice of America,” he became, said S.I., “one of the great figures of the age.” Canel was the George Washington of Spanish-speaking baseball announcers: the founder of his craft. Born in Argentina in 1906, he also broadcast in English: as Yogi Berra would say, “I guess you’d call him amphibious.” Buck’s nickname sprang from his middle name, Buxo—and a “rich bass voice that [even in memory] combines authority and virility,” wrote Robert H. Boyle.

Canel often said, “I tell ’em something, they believe it.” From afar or in person, his was a tale difficult to believe. As a boy, Buck moved with his family to New York City, becoming a bilingual correspondent. When dad died, Canel went to Cuba to live with his grandmother, Eva Canel, a noted playwright and novelist. By age 25, he also managed a winter league baseball team and had joined Associated Press.

In 1933, an obscure sergeant, Fulgenico Batista, helped overthrow Cuba’s provisional  government. Luckily for Canel, Buck worked in the radio studio Batista used to declare assumption of power as Chief of the Armed Forces. One day Cuba’s newest dictator told him, “Here. Do my speech in English. They’re probably listening in Florida.” Many were. Buck’s debut was flawless, the tyro never looking back.

Living 24/7 before the term, Canel returned to New York, joined the French wire service Havas, and found NBC about to start Spanish shortwave broadcasts. In 1936, Buck began a two-hat career by calling his first of a record 42 World Series. Soon his greatest concept, the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports on NBC’s Red Network, aired baseball on more than 200 U.S. and Latin American radio, then TV stations. Invariably, bilingualism made him special.

When Canel “finishes broadcasting a ball game,” read one account, “he writes two different stories for the wire service, one in Spanish for Latin clients, another in English for newspapers.” Buck confessed to having “two different personalities.” If Panamanian outfielder Hector Lopez got a hit for the Yankees, Canel said “I lead with that in Spanish.” Meanwhile, in English he might write that pitcher Whitey Ford hurled a shutout for New York.

To TIME Magazine, Canel became “the Graham McNamee of the Caribbean.” Buck immediately countered that McNamee was “the Buck Canel of the United States.” For more than a decade he interpreted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speeches over NBC to Latin America. Finally introduced to him, FDR asked, “How do I sound in Spanish?” “Very well, Mr. President,” Buck replied, also interpreting Winston Churchill—alas, without the brandy and cigar.

Canel broadcast the only Army-Navy Game done in Spanish—and funeral of a Chilean military horse killed in a practice jump for the National Horse Show. Once he covered the Asian Games in Tokyo, then went to Stockholm for World Cup soccer, abruptly realizing that “Here I am, an American of Scottish-Spanish ancestry, covering in Sweden for a French news agency a soccer game between Austria and Brazil—and using a Japanese pencil!”

Always, baseball towered. In World War II, NBC’s Today’s Game led its Latin American lineup, “a slice of the game” culled from Buck’s daily re-creation. Cuban coverage began at 6 p.m. as the short-wave reached the isle. In Puerto Rico, Canel did winter league ball. Buck, the Best Man at the Chicago White Sox’ Luis Aparicio’s wedding, announced the Pale Hose in Venezuela, the Yankees on then-Spanish WHOM for New York’s more than 2 million Latins and Puerto Ricans, and in 1957 the Brooklyn Dodgers’ last stand.

In 1959, Canel’s “double life” expanded to include the Cuban Revolution. He had long known its leader, Fidel Castro parroting Buck’s trademark phrase, “Don’t go away, this is going to get good!” A year earlier Fidel had heard Canel broadcast the Yanks-Braves World Series. Recalling it, Castro now asked why “[Milwaukee skipper Fred] Haney did not pitch [Warren] Spahn instead of [loser] Lew Burdette in Game Seven?” At dinner, Buck declined Cuba’s lead export, sugar, with his coffee, the bearded Fidel saying such a gesture was anti-Cuban. “I’ll take sugar,” Canel replied, “when you shave with Gillette!”

Buck assumed that Cubans would continue to be allowed to play in America. Instead, Castro quarantined them upon nationalizing the sport. By the 1960s, back in New York,

Canel faced the quandary of certain English terms having a different Spanish nuance. He adjusted by coining words, having invented, Buck laughed, “half” of “baseball’s Spanish lingo, anyway.” Canel even videotaped Puerto Rican winter league play-by-play in each language and flew the tape to Manhattan, saying that one year “We had a higher rating than the Mets!” (Buck Canel)

Buck died in 1980, at 74. In 1985, he became the first Spanish-speaking Voice to get the  National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award for “broadcast excellence.” Wrote Star Magazine: “His voice filled most Latin-American households with a radio … synonymous with baseball in Latin American and [U.S.] Hispanic areas.” A former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil once presented him to America’s then-Secretary of State, calling Canel “the best-known American in Latin America”—a tribute to his country, and to him.

Next: Part III concludes our tribute to Béisbol on the Air, the book’s essays etching a “Who’s Who” of Spanish-speaking broadcasters. Many helped forge likely baseball’s pre-eminent Spanish-speaking radio/TV franchise—the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers.

 

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Curt Smith

CURT SMITH is the author of 18 books, including Voices of The Game, recently named by Esquire magazine among “the 100 Best Baseball Books Ever Written.” His latest is the official Hall of Fame book, Memories from the Microphone. USA Today calls Smith “the leading voice of authority on baseball broadcasting.” He wrote more speeches than anyone for President George H. W. Bush, The New York Times styling his work “the high point of Bush familial eloquence.” Since 1998, Smith has been Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Rochester, teaching Public Speaking and Presidential Rhetoric. curtsmith@netacc.net

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