The vision-disabled who listen to play-by-play; They appreciate the artistry and craft better than anyone

As a blind man, Ed Lucas was a fixture who strived to not only listen, yet also did some work himself.

As a blind man, Ed Lucas (pictured above) was a fixture who strived to not only listen, yet also did some work himself. Ed wrote too. Phil Rizzuto helped his career at Yankee Stadium.

Sightless fans, more so than others, rely on their announcers to keep them informed and engaged. From their perspective radio brings them to the ballpark, because the medium’s mandate is to paint a picture. And so it’s been, beginning in 1921 and it’s irreplaceable. We’ve listened to and watched play-by-players, be they on television or radio, whether they helped put the blind in the ballpark or given them their fair due to appreciate the emotion of sports.

Television announcers too, caption games with some spice, personality and color but less obvious detail. Yet for the blind, the preference is understandably radio because of the spontaneous and sentimental bonds built through the description by the voices. Some actually listen to both mediums at the same time with remarkable and unbreakable concentration. Local broadcasters have their own styles and distinct voices. Most career-long radio voices draw radio pictures of their own that blind listenership appreciate. Baseball soothes and community fans love it.

In baseball, Red Barber deviated from Mel Allen. Dulcet toned Vin Scully was different from throaty Harry Caray, particularly by the sightless. Every-word is measured.

For generations, play-by-players have painted vivid yet varying pictures, team-by-team. Men like Scully, Harwell, Prince, Thompson and Miller have wafted their their sounds around the American airwaves. Some announcers are better at it than others. But for most who can’t see, love their own, those in their own markets, the ones who’ve worked in their own markets for generations. The visionless get to know their own sports commentaries as well as they do members of their own families.

When he owned the Cleveland Cavaliers, (1983-2005) George Gund III, listened perpetually to the flawless Joe Tait, the Voice of the Cavs’ games through some pieces of five decades. No one was better at hoops.  He gave you the game with no headaches and never lost a dribble. That good! His focus always amazed me. He can multitask and not deprive anyone of anything. Gund himself lost his vision at age 30 and he had no choice other than to listen to Tait who never groped for the right word. Joe influenced careers like those of Kevin Harlan, Chick Swirsky and many others who started excelling in the 1970s. They would listen to him on the Cavs’ powerful 50,000 watt powerhouse.

So why am I bringing this up?

Yesterday, I visited an elegant looking hospital in South Miami, Lennar. It was constructed into a large atrium that extends into a sizeable skyline. I came to realize that the hospital put its spacious first-floor lobby to effective use during many lunch hours. A blind pianist plays a grand-piano during lunch hours for visitors to the hospital and  perhaps patients too. The music is soft and recaptures the life of my childhood.

The music was almost creamy and certainly enjoyable. Remember Mama Cass and Dream a Little Dream of Me.  You couldn’t help but love it. It reverberated so nicely. From a distance, I had no sense that the man on the piano-chair was disabled, indeed unable to see the person next to him. He even used braille notes to play hours longer melodies. When he hit intermission, I tiptoed over to introduce myself. It wasn’t until I faced him that it was obvious he was destitute of vision. (Hall of Famer, the late Jimmy Dudley left)

He might have heard my footsteps too, but it wasn’t until I caught his attention that he returned a strong and warm hello. The man is  Jeff Zavac. When I told him that I was in the sports broadcast business he told me that he grew up outside Cleveland, following the then Indians and counted on the radio for coverage.

I then interrupted him. “Jimmy Dudley?” He then shouted ecstatically about him, talking about him until he had to start playing the grand-piano again. One of the greatest thrills in his life, he told me, was when his father brought him to old Municipal Stadium to meet Dudley, a young hero of Jeff’s.

Among the blind, Dick Barhold was an absolute genius. His memory was impeccable. Dick remembered everything he experience from age six. Give him a date and he’d share what he remembers of that exact day. He lived in Corona, Queens and grew up in New York. Without the now deceased Dick I could never have written my book in 1999. Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History. I learned enormously from Barhold. We could spend hours upon hours on the phone.

In Brooklyn, a baseball fan told the now defunct, yet once prominent New York World-Telegram how an enthusiastic Dodgers fan, a blind woman, said she had never seen her beloved team (the Dodgers) play until she heard Red Barber’s broadcasts (started in 1939): “I listen on my little radio. . . . Red Barber describes it so well. I can visualize all the plays, just as though I were right back of first base.”

These are special folks!

David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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Michael Green
10 months ago

Amen to all of the above!

Jimmy Dudley once said in an interview that a little boy who could not see wrote to him once and said, “Remember, Jimmy, you are my eyes,” and that guided him.

Vin Scully’s brother-in-law–Sandi’s brother–has serious vision issues, and talked about how listening to Vin, he could see what was happening. The great ones do that.