Curt Smith, baseball broadcast historian: MLB hasn’t yet reclaimed September as Bud Selig vowed

There was a time when a foreign born Ivy League professor, said: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” Is it still true?

What if you gave a party, the old joke goes, and nobody came? What if baseball held a postseason, and much of the country didn’t know or care? Some years back, then-commissioner Bud Selig vowed that baseball’s expanded playoffs would “reclaim September” from the National Football League. Forget September. Even as the World Series begins tonight, it is impossible to name one month in which baseball boasts the primary share of media and public glare.  

This once-unthinkable reality didn’t spring from postseason’s rise in teams from the 1960s’ two to today’s 10—given the landscape, a surge that was inevitable. Instead, it results from the almost surrealistic lack of what former president George H. W. Bush called “the vision thing”—in particular, a national television policy that has made the pastime often unwatchable and inaccessible.

Smith did a popular biography of arguably baseball’s best ever

Insanity, it is said, means doing the same thing and expecting a different result. For the last three decades baseball brass have kept the game largely out of sight on network TV, making it largely out of mind. In a 2018 Gallup Poll, baseball for the first time was voted only our third most favorite sport—its 9 percent far behind football’s 37, trailing basketball’s 13, and barely beating soccer’s 7. Its postseason has been routed by the NFL in this month’s TV ratings—to tens of millions, falling in the forest, unheard.

This four-part series explores baseball’s plunge, and how the sport might halt it. Today evokes the second third of the last century, when baseball meant America. Part Two recalls its late 1960s wilderness and 1980s rebound, suggesting television lessons for 2018. Part Three recalls the last 30 years of likely the worst TV policy of any major sport ever, slashing big-league interest. Part Four offers a program for recovery. We begin before then, in another country.

Debating why baseball meant so much to someone growing up in the late 1950s and 1960s, I noted once how it mimed the mid-century’s pulse in an altogether thorough way—as George Will said, being “perfectly congruent with an era.” Baseball was the national sport: no other game came close. Network radio still thrived, especially pre-expansion’s 1950-60 Mutual Broadcasting Game of the Day, Al Helfer, Art Gleeson, and Van Patrick voicing on more than 600 affiliates. Increasingly, though, more fixed on an opiate some dubbed an idiot box.

In 1950, four million U.S. homes owned at least one TV set. By 1960, 44 million homes would. That year, all three networks aired baseball—on Saturday, ABC’s Jack Buck; Saturday and Sunday, NBC’s Lindsey Nelson, later Bob Wolff, and Joe Garagiola; each day, Dizzy Dean. Ol’ Diz began Game of the Week on ABC every Saturday in 1953, moved to posher CBS in 1955, and added a Sunday game in 1957. To protect local coverage, baseball banned the series in or near a big-league city. Unvexed, Game lured up to 75 percent of sets in use in the two in three U.S. homes not blacked out.

To horsefeathers with New York. To Main Street, Ol’ Diz fused Ma Kettle, Gabby Hayes, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Diz called the planet “pod-nuh,” sang “Wabash Cannonball” in the booth, and tied 300 pounds, a string tie, and Stetson—the whole rustic goods. To Diz, a batter swang; a runner slud. Fielders returned to their respectable positions. That “hitter stood confidentially at the plate.” They had “to be my words,” Dean said, “’cause no one else would have ’em.” In many towns businesses literally closed when he was commertating. “In Mid-America,” said CBS Sports head Bill MacPhail, “watching him was a religion, an absolute religion.”

Broadcasting’s fuel is wearability. Dean’s ran on charm. That was also true of October’s Voice for the second third of the century. If Mel Allen sold fish, wrote Bud Furillo, “he could make it sound as if Puccini wrote the score.” The 1940-64 Voice of the Yankees could also seem as artless as they come. One day the Alabaman spied two teenagers kissing at Yankee Stadium. “That’s interesting,” he said. “He’s kissing her on the strikes, and she’s kissing him on the balls.” Colleague Phil Rizzuto shook his head. “Mel, this is just not your day.” For a long time, most were.

Before 1976, local-team Voices split World Series play-by-play. Mel inherited the Classic, the Yanks making 13 of 15 between 1949 and 1963. He merited it, anyway. Allen aired his first Series in FDR’s second term, two more in his third, and seven under Truman. Reaching full flower, he broadcast a maximum eight Series (1953-60) under Eisenhower and maximum three (1961-63) under JFK—11 in a row during baseball’s last duration as Big-Game America and 21 overall. Hearing Mel was to marvel at the voice—melodic, histrionic, and buoyed by unpredictability—one reason among a myriad to follow the game on and off the air.

Blending his two loves, Smith wrote about the intersection of the White House and baseball

Robert Creamer evoked its ubiquity in 1950s Sports Illustrated, writing “how large a role baseball plays in the warm-weather life of the average American life. It occupies an extraordinarily large part of [a fan’s] time. [The average American male] listens to baseball on the radio while he works on the garden or lolls on the beach. He reads about it in the morning paper the next day. He talks about it at the office. He reads about it in the afternoon paper. He talks more about it that night.” It did not interfere with his job or family. It was not obsessive. “But it is always with him.” Reading, you remember life in Baby Boom America and how much you miss baseball’s overwhelming presence and how wonderful it was.

In 1954, Parisian-born Columbia University professor Jacques Barzun wrote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” Startling is the mom-and-apple pie niche that the pastime filled. All during the 1950s and mid-’60s, its regular-season network television audience trounced rival programming. The Series and All-Star Game were TV’s first- and second-rated sports events, respectively. The age’s baseball fostered period culture, from 1951’s film Angels in the Outfield, set in Forbes Field, to 1962’s wretched Safe at Home, with Doris Day, William Frawley, Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris. In 1959, the Dodgers-White Sox six-game TV audience reached a composite-high 120 million in a U.S. of 160 million—three of four watching—including the final set’s record 90 million.

Through 1970, each Series game was played in the afternoon, “our national life practically stop[ping],” said TV’s Brooklyn Bridge creator Gary David Goldberg. “The whole country came together—people on farms, factory workers, kids in school—everyone following the progress of the game.” A daytime Series was magical in a way youth now can’t fathom: a radio smuggled into class; faint play-by-play heard; the score passed like wildfire. If lucky, a portable TV moored recess or study hall. In 1956, Ike entered the opener through the center-field gate at Ebbets Field—the first president at a Classic since FDR in 1936—greeting each Dodger and Yankee on the field, particularly Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Yogi Berra, and Enos Slaughter—veterans all.

The two foils met again October 6, 1963, playing to baseball’s newest TV record, 25.6 million homes, cross country at Chavez Ravine. In role reversal, the Yankees trailed the Dodgers, three games to none. In the fourth set, Frank Howard’s homer reached the second deck: 1-0, L.A. “The first man to hit it at Dodger Stadium!” caroled the Dodgers’ Vin Scully, on NBC with Allen. Like the Classic generally, the duel of ancient foes wholly absorbed the culture. The Yankees—16 pennants in the past 20 years, 20 Series titles since 1923, evil or righteous empire, sport’s mightiest in the world—lost, 2-1, swept by the Dodgers. Shock was not too strong a word.

As a young boy in the early 1960s, unaware of Thomas Wolfe, I knew why he said, “Almost everything I know of spring [also fall] is in it.” George Will spent his childhood hallucinating in Illinois: “You’d hear the Series sponsor’s ‘Gillette Blue Blades March’ and then the camera panned Wrigley Field”—home of the Cubs, who wouldn’t make the Classic till 2016. Much earlier, future talk host Larry King had grown up in Brooklyn. “You’d talk about the Series in the morning at school,” then “listen to it or watch on TV,” he said. Afterward “the street corner replayed every play of every game.”

This feeling imbued almost every city, suburb, and Mayberry in the land—regular- and postseason baseball a synonym for the republic. Few dreamt that it would begin to erode in the mid-to-late 1960s, most improbably for Baby Boomers. Part Two will show how ignoring network TV helped the pastime fall far and fast—and how adeptly using it in the mid-to-late 1970s and 1980s helped rescue a bruised and battered sport.

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.

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Michael Green
5 years ago

Am I incorrect, or is there an error here (the idea of catching Curt Smith in an error is egotistical on my part for sure)? As I recall, Jack Brickhouse and Russ Hodges did the 1954 World Series on TV and Jimmy Dudley and Al Helfer did it on radio, leaving no room for Mel Allen.