Curt Smith - Historian

New Book hails the world of Hispanic Broadcasting; This is the first of Curt Smith’s Three Part Series

By CURT SMITH 

Curt Smith

In 1921, KDKA Pittsburgh aired baseball’s first game on radio at Forbes Field. In 1939, the major leagues debuted on television at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. For a long time, few Hispanics broadcast the bigs. By contrast, many now climb baseball’s announcing stairway, the pastime carried on radio, TV, and the Internet in this country and beyond.

Recently, a new book, Béisbol on the Air: Essays on Major League Spanish-Language Broadcasters, was released (McFarland). Edited by Jorge Iber and Anthony R. Salazar, it relates tales told by 13 prominent essayists about Spanish-speaking play-by-play and “color” mic men and women of the last century, all plucked from memory’s shelf. The result: a baseball first.

Salazar chairs the Society for American Baseball Research’s Latino baseball research committee. Iber, born in Cuba and raised in Miami’s Little Havana, is the author of four of the book’s essays, Associate Dean of and Professor of History at Texas Tech University, and arguably the leading authority on Hispanic baseball radio/TV. In 2021, Jorge notes, only 11 of 30 major-league teams broadcast games in Spanish. Twenty-one do now, ferrying baseball’s pastiche of hit, run, and error.

Today Hispanic coverage reaches more than one in six Americans; depending on where they live, hooked on Voices from the nearest city to thousands of miles away. In Spanish or English, baseball fuses frequent lulls and sporadic action, meaning that announcers in either language must inform and entertain. Thus, Béisbol on the Air links narrative and personality, a mix of humor, drama, syntax, and vocabulary forging a variety of phrase and mood.

I am privileged to write the book’s “Foreword.” To mark its publication, this Sports Broadcast Journal three-part series celebrates the craft and its practitioners. Part II will etch the mythic Buck Canel, lauded by Franklin Roosevelt to Fidel Castro. Part III will detail perhaps baseball’s preeminent Spanish-speaking franchise, the Los Angeles Dodgers, from René Cárdenas to Jaime Jarrín and beyond. This first part recalls Cuba’s baseball origins—and Hispanic household radio/TV names since then.

In the 1860s, U.S. sailors stationed in Cuba and Cubans once schooled here brought baseball to the isle. Esteban Bellán became the majors’ first Hispanic player in 1871. By 1911, Cincinnati still had to file affidavits to prove two Cuban players were European. In 1938, Miguel (Mike) Angel González managed the St. Louis Cardinals. Two years later Washington Senators scout Joe Cambria told a young prospect to forget professional baseball. Castro did, pitching instead at the Universidad de la Habana.

Music is frequently called the “universal language.” To an immigrant child in the early 1900s, baseball was a newcomer’s language and “essential . . . feature of my Americanization,” noted The New York Times’ Leonard Koppett, having left Russia for Depression New York at five. By the 1920s, daily papers in the city’s five boroughs—you could choose among a dozen—”provided the main opportunity to learn the new [English] language and practice arithmetic.”

At that time, most immigrant youth stopped using their native language at a young age.  Antipodally, today bilingualism, notably Hispanic, is accepted early on. Unchanged, however, is baseball’s role as assimilator. “It’s conversation,” announcer Bob Costas says of radio/TV broadcasting, especially luring story-telling people like Hispanics to baseball’s story-tellers’ core. More frenetic sports leave less time for anecdote. Baseball’s easy rhythm “lets you call baseball in an arresting way,” says post-1985 San Diego Padres mic man Eduardo Ortega.

One Béisbol on the Air story concerns Rafael “Felo” Ramírez, so famous that the mother of long-time Oakland A’s announcer Amaury Pi-González recalled how “Amaury would go in the patio of our house, grab a broom, turn it upside down to look like a microphone, and imitate Felo’s play-by-play!” No wonder. In 1949, Canel asked Ramirez  to help re-create his NBC Red Network’s El Juego De Hoy (Today’s Show) on 24-hour Latin American radio. “If you have cardiac problems,” Felo jibed, “back away from your radio now.” Few did.

In 1951, Ramírez did his first of 32 World Series, a foul ball once rolling down the Yankee Stadium net. “I reached out to try to snatch it, and got it,” he said. “Little did I know an immortal from the movies was next to me: Humphrey Bogart,” who roared. Felo began when many U.S. media Latinos were unfairly dubbed prop, joke, or foil.

He became 1993-2017 Voice of the Miami (née Florida) Marlins, cried Estan Ganado, Los Marlins!—“the Marlins are winning!—and aired Don Larsen’s World Series Perfect Game, Roberto Clemente’s 3,000th hit, and Hank Aaron’s 715th homer. In 2001, Ramirez got the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award for “broadcast excellence.”

In Béisbol, Ortega recounts a spectator dropping Budweiser beer on him while the announcer was trying to catch a foul near the booth. “An old ad ended ‘Tastes great, or less filling?’” Eduardo said. “This beer went 0 for 2.” Another tale references Panama’s Uri Berenguer, diagnosed at three with a rare form of cancer that almost cost a leg. Transferred to a Boston clinic, Uri never forgot a woman named Rosie Lonborg—“my play lady”—volunteering at his cancer clinic. Later he saw a 1967 video of Boston’s “Impossible Dream” pitcher Jim Lonborg. “Look! There’s Rosey’s husband!” Berenguer beamed, airing the Red Sox in 2003-19.”

A portion of this text is based on the author’s Béisbol “Foreword.” Our three-part series will resume with Argentine Buck Canel’s niche as a World War II correspondent and architect of Hispanic play-by-play. In one 1959 incident, ousting Fulgenico Batista in the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro led his army into the city of Matanzas. Spotting Canel, Castro began shouting above the din: “Buck … Buck … Buck.’” Finally, Fidel left the jeep to hug his old friend. Join us to see how Canel helped baseball bridge a great linguistic divide.

 

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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
1 month ago

I already had too many books to read and now this one? I have to work on catching up.

One of the thrills of my life was interviewing Jaime Jarrín for this site. What a great broadcaster and gentleman. I’m looking forward to reading more about him and his colleagues.

Also, unless I’m mistaken–and I very well could be–Bob Uecker just joined Felo Ramirez as the only nonagenarians to broadcast major league baseball.