Columnist

MLB lacks its once dominance of over-the-air network TV; In his day, Dizzy Dean was appointment viewing

Baseball’s 2022 regular season reaches mid-season with little exposure so far on daytime weekend network TV, the largest way to reach every U.S. home, especially youth. By comparison, Curt Smith, to USA Today “the voice of authority in baseball broadcasting,” below etches a golden age of network coverage—in particular, the CBS Game of the Week, said journalist Ron Powers, and its “broadcast phenomenon that was Dizzy Dean.”

Curt Smith

Turn on a television any April to September weekend afternoon. You will almost never see a daytime network, as opposed to cable or streamed, baseball game. By contrast, recall 1960, the three TV networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—collectively airing five major-league afternoon games each Saturday and/or Sunday. Did it matter? Did it ever. In that year’s Gallup Poll, 34 percent of America named baseball their favorite sport, far eclipsing others. Today a mere 7 percent do.

In 1960, the national pastime seemed, as George Will said, “perfectly congruent with an era.” By the time each weekend closed, many of America’s 44 million homes with at least one TV set had turned to ABC’s Jack Buck; NBC’s Lindsey Nelson and later Bob Wolff; and the Falstaffian Jay Hanna (Dizzy) Dean, whose 1955-65 CBS Game of the Week, preceded by two years on ABC, became must-seeing before the term was born. Baseball’s TV ubiquity stirred a large part of the country’s pulse.

In an age more bucolic than today’s, Diz evoked Ma Kettle, Will Rogers, and Gabby Hayes, born in an Arkansas sharecropper’s cabin in 1910 and leaving school in second grade—”and I wasn’t so good in first grade either,” he said. At 16, the migratory cotton picker’s son joined the army, dad vowing that Jay met the required age of 18. Stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Dizzy pitched for two years in barracks leagues on the base, wrote Joseph Wancho. His master sergeant commended him to a St. Louis Cardinals scout, despite being his outfit’s “dizziest [ever] kid.”

Inked by the Redbirds in 1930, Dean paid $100 to leave the Army a year early, a common peacetime rite. Assigned to St. Joseph, Missouri, in the Class A Western League, Diz, ignoring curfew, ran into its league president at 4 a.m. “So, the old boy is out prowling by hisself, huh?” he laughed. “Us stars and presidents must have our fun.” In September, Dean won his first big-league game, then charged $2,700 for bills in 1931 spring training. “He broke team rules, and was generally viewed as a pest,” Wancho noted. This set a precedent, as jurists say.

That year the Cardinals moved him to Class A Texas League Houston. One day Diz and manager Joe Schultz ordered scrambled eggs and bacon at a diner, the kitchen mistakenly subbing calves’ brains for bacon. Having cleaned his plate, Dean asked what had been served. Told, he snapped, “What? I didn’t order no brains.” Schultz said, “Be quiet, [the kitchen] knows what you need.” On June 15, Dean got what he lacked, wedding Patricia Nash, his subsequent business manager and bookkeeper. Married 43 years with no offspring, Pat likely felt that one child in the family was enough.

In 1932, he made the big club, winning at least 18 games yearly through 1937. His 30-7 apex helped the 1934 Cardinals win the pennant. Pinch-running in the World Series, Diz was knocked out by a throw: Papers plagiarized one another: “X-Rays of Dean’s Head Show Nothing.” Already a household name, the future radio/TV institution won a 11-0 final. In the 1937 All-Star Game, Lou Gehrig took Dean for a long home run. Irate, Diz then fired a fastball that Earl Averill caromed off the pitcher’s left foot. Doctor: “Your big toe is fractured.” Diz: “No, it ain’t. It’s broke.” He returned too soon, permanently hurting his arm.

In 1941, retiring with a 150-83 record, Diz began six and eight years of Cardinals and St. Louis Browns radio, respectively, saying, “I feel like a prisoner walking to his death.” The Ozark encyclopedist soon penned his reality. A one-handed catch was “a la carte,” fly “can of corn,” quarrel “like argyin’ with a stump.” Some play-by-play men swell language. Dean invented it. A batter “swang,” runner “slud,” and pitcher stood “confidentially” on the mound. A station offered a classical music gig. “You want me to play this sympathetic [symphonic] music and pronounce them composers names?” laughed Diz, who couldn’t enounce most big-league infields.

The St. Louis Board of Education wasn’t laughing, vainly trying to take Diz off radio. “They got to be my words,” he explained, “’cause no one else would take ‘em.” The 1944 The Sporting News gave its verdict, naming him “Announcer of the Year.” In 1948, Dean gave a speech, “Radio Announcing I Have Did,” that surreally addressed the Cold War. The Soviet Union then controlled Eastern Europe, Diz vowing to “get me a bunch of bats and balls and sneak me a couple of empires and learn them kids behind the Iron Curtain how to bat and play baseball.” Joseph Stalin—“Joe Stallion”—could run concessions. “[That way] he’d get outta’ politics and get in a honest business.” The Kremlin had no response.

Airing the 1950-51 Yankees, Dean next ferried radio’s 1952-54 Mutual Game of the Day to almost 700 affiliates, partners including Al Helfer and the Browns’ Bud Blattner. A major sponsor, Falstaff Beer, wanted a national niche. That required TV’s newly magical glow. Before 1953, no network had telecast a major sport from opening to closing day. “Baseball had always been local,” then-CBS sports director Bill MacPhail noted. A network series would need a thread to make, say, Des Moines watch Washington-Detroit. Only “a mythologizing presence,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Ron Powers of Dean, would do.

With fewer outlets than CBS or NBC, ABC was “more receptive to Game,” said then-ABC aide Edgar Scherick, aware how unlike “football, fans watch[ing] regardless of team,” baseball’s watched largely because of team. Game of the Week’s core was the culture of the 1950s. President Eisenhower named 1951’s Angels In the Outfield his favorite film. John Wayne was myth and megastar. Many play-by-play men were, like Dean, Southern. Transcending teams, Diz defined the series: to Powers, “a prodigious bubble of Americana who would keep [people] tuning in even if he did the play-by-play for ballroom dancing at Arthur Murray.”

Like any revolution, the idea was easier than the execution. Dean had to get on the air. A blackout of each big-league city to protect local gate and TV chilled potential sponsors. Networks then paid no rights, only a per-game home fee to teams they televised: at first only the A’s, Indians, and White Sox. “The rest said, ‘Don’t do anything to hurt attendance,” said Scherick. Game debuted in late May 1953 on just 18 outlets, Powers summarizing, “Howdy, Pod-nuhs, this is Dizzy Dean f’um Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium.” Unvexed, Dean—“Ol’ Diz” his self-coined name—by late summer forged a 10 to 15 A.C. Nielsen rating,  seen in almost 100 affiliates by a jumbo 2 in 3 sets in use.

“Had Game failed,” said MacPhail, “maybe TV sports has a different future.” Instead, the response was “stunning.” Head-to-head, Diz’s Nielsen rating routed future Hall of Fame Ford C. Frick honorees for “broadcast excellence”: ABC’s Buck (Game of the Week) and NBC’s Nelson, Wolff, and Joe Garagiola

(Major League Baseball) by 3 and 4 to 1. Weekly Dean sang “The Wabash Cannonball,” the great American folk song that Roy Acuff and the Carter Family made famous. He often dozed in the booth, left in mid-inning for heaping plates of food, hymned “Amazing Grace,” and brandished his 300 pounds, cowboy boots, string tie, and Stetson—the whole rustic goods.

“We’d get reports from Phoenix, Cedar Rapids, and Little Rock, and they’d close down when Dean was on,” said MacPhail years after Game moved to wealthier CBS in 1955, Diz’s audience and affiliates soaring. Most marveled at his prose. “That batter shakin’ his head down there—he don’t know what’s goin’ on. I don’t know what he don’t know, but I know he don’t know,” he said. In the small town of my Upstate New York childhood, you could tell from its nearly empty downtown when Dean was “commertating.” For millions, said MacPhail, “watching Dizzy Dean was an absolute religion.”

By 1957, NBC outlets convinced their network to start its own Saturday series, Major League Baseball, Nelson on balls and strikes. “NBC’d got zero audience [v. Dean],” he laughed, “so we started baseball and got almost zero!” That year CBS added a Sunday set, NBC countering in 1959. A year later ABC’s weekly Game with Buck invaded Saturday. CBS often buying the Yankees’ entire weekend schedule. In 1952, no network aired a single regular-season set. “What came next,” said Lindsey, “stems from Dean.”

Ironically, Game’s big-city ban made many at CBS New York unaware of Diz’s effect. At a sponsor meeting, his name was inadvertently raised, a network mogul tut-tutting that “We would never have on our network a person as uncouth as him.” MacPhail gulped, saying, “But … he’s on our network … every weekend.” Twice weekly, CBS’s sports head watched, knowing “I had no control, just wondering what Diz’d say or do.” One year Dean exclaimed, “I don’t know how we come off callin’ this the Game of the Week. There’s a much better game—Dodgers-Giants—over on NBC.”

Most Voices embroider language. Dean incinerated it: “Syntax? Are those jokers up in Washington putting a tax on that, too?” Once he bashed an umpire even after the final out: “That was quite a game. What a shame you didn’t get to see it.” Another day Ted Kluszewski, Bob Borkowski, and Fred Baczewski filled the bases. “I was sweatin’,” Diz said, “hopin’ that nobody’d get a hit so I didn’t have to pronounce them names.” Famed “Peanuts” comic strip creator Charles Schultz caught Diz’s verbal mayhem, having Lucy quote Dean about an outside pitch: “He shouldn’t hadn’t ought-a-swang!”

From 1953-59, partner Bud Blattner, a World War II veteran and ex-Cardinals, Giants, and Phillies infielder, “would come in,” he said, “and give all that Diz had missed, including the score.” Dean was busy gilding a persona as “the guy who fell off the turnip truck and wandered barefoot into town, saying, ‘Fellas, what’s it all about?’” Calling the planet “pod-nuh” was “a creative ploy to convince the public,” Bud said, “that “My God, Diz remembered me ’cause he called me pod-nuh.’” Once Dean did a grammatically correct inning. At break, he told Blattner, “That’s enough o’ that poop. Now I’m gonna start makin’ money.”

Their harmony imploded after the Dodgers and Braves forced a best-of-three 1959 National League playoff. Unable to afford exclusivity, Falstaff asked tobacco company L&M to co-sponsor. Refusing, since Diz trashed cigarettes, L&M said it would take Blattner—the lesser light—not Dean. Enraged, Diz vowed to quit Game if Bud did the playoff. In turn, afraid of losing Dean, Falstaff removed Blattner, who “out of self-respect,” he said, left Game. Bud voiced the Angels and Royals, formed the “Buddy Fund” charity, built a grand tennis complex in Lake Ozark, Missouri, and died in 2009.

Blattner’s Game successor, Harold (Pee Wee) Reese, a self-styled “country kid” born near Louisville, debuted at Ebbets Field in 1940, went to war three years later, and returned as Brooklyn’s shortstop in 1946. Next year Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier by joining the club. In Cincinnati, an anonymous crank threatened to shoot Jackie if he played. Pee Wee moseyed over in warm-ups, joking, “Don’t stand so damn close. Move away, will you?” Robinson started laughing, one player to another, becoming lifetime friends.

After the Dodgers’ 1958 move West, Reese retired, became a coach, and in 1960 was named Dean’s new sidekick by CBS. He had never aired an inning. Pee Wee bought a tape recorder, watched footage, and worked with Diz and Game producer Gene Kirby: “an exhibition, and I’m sweatin’!” Sensing his angst, Dean said, “Here’s all you do,” warbling “The Wabash Cannonball,” the song that his friend Acuff said “just pleased and thrilled him.” Diz calmed the TV neophyte, Reese saying, “I loved the big loaf. He protected me, eased pressure.”

One day at breakfast, Kirby said that with Diz on vacation, Pee Wee would do that week’s play-by-play, not color. “You okay?” said Gene. Reese nodded. “So how come you’re pouring coffee on your pancakes?” Kirby said. Another week, Diz told Reese, drolly, “Pod-nuh, let me pick this up. You just lost some sales.” The camera often showed Dean asking, “I’m going out for a hamburger. Want one?” Pee Wee: “Sure.” Frequently the next shot showed the bulbous Diz stuck on a narrow ladder below the booth.

Reese moored Brooklyn’s sole world title team in 1955, yearly captained a team of All-Stars, and was likely the most beloved-ever Bum. Still, he later noted how few of the countless people queuing to meet him at card and other shows mentioned Flatbush. “To this day,” he marveled a decade before his 1999 death, “folks tell me, ‘Baseball hasn’t been the same since you and Ol’ Diz left.’” Each weekend they rivaled two veins from a common mine.

In 1966, baseball sold exclusive Game TV rights to NBC, which hired more of a company man, Curt Gowdy. Diz later golfed and did Atlanta Braves color. Pee Wee became Curt’s analyst, then aired the Reds and Expos. In 1984, he made the Hall of Fame as a player, the year Gowdy received a Frick.

In 1973, Dean guest starred on NBC’s Monday prime-time Game of the Week with Curt and analyst Tony Kubek. Out of the closet came yesterday once more. Gowdy asked, “Where you do live?” Diz replied, “Why, in Bond, Mississippi.”

Where was Bond? Curt inquired. “Oh, ’bout three miles from Wiggins,” said Dean. Where was Wiggins? Diz said, “Oh, ’bout three miles from Bond.” After Dean died in July 1974 of a heart attack at 63, Reese was asked if he missed their heirloom of a series. “Nah, not the exposure, really,” he said. “But I sure miss Ol’ Diz.”

**

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 an official National Baseball Hall of Fame book, Memories from the Microphone: A Century of Baseball Broadcasting.” Smith also wrote the most speeches of anyone for President George H. W. Bush. Since 1998, he has been Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Rochester. curtsmith@netacc.net

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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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Michael Green
30 days ago

I’m not sure anybody could ever have made baseball must-see-TV in the way that Diz did. He and Bud Blattner should have long since gotten the Frick Award (Blattner also for his long career as a local broadcaster). But he’s a reminder that some announcers will get people to watch. At the network level I think it was true of Howard Cosell, both to love and to hate (and he should have gotten the NFL’s equivalent, the Rozelle). I think NBC came close to that kind of status with the wonderful teams of Scully-Garagiola and Costas-Kubek, and NBC with Enberg-Packer-McGuire.