Play-by-Play

Playing Solomon: Are voices calling games straight down the middle? Tell more stories than share stats!

How Some Announcers Have Taken the Charm Out of Watching a Baseball Game By Using ‘Math Baseball’ In Their Commentary.

In many ways baseball is the “everyman sport.” A person doesn’t have to be as tall as Mt. Rushmore or have a physique like your favorite line backer in order to excel. Professional baseball players are short, tall, fast and slow, just like the guys that fill out a team in a neighborhood pick-up game.

Maybe it is why collecting baseball cards is still a hobby of many fans, some of who use their collections as trade bait for a favorite player and others who hope to hit it rich by finding a rare rookie card of a superstar that they can sell for a profit.

The above aspects of baseball were around when I was in grade school and they still are. But some things about baseball have changed, and not for the better in my opinion. And the way some of today’s baseball announcers call the game is near the top of that list.

In the early days of radio and television, the only baseball lingo a viewer had to know was the meaning of hits, runs, errors and earned run averages. In addition to highlighting those statistics, announcers were story tellers.

It was not unusual for announcers to relate how player A honed his pitching skills by throwing a baseball thorough a tire hanging from a tree. Or how player B’s father would spend hours pitching to his son with a circle on the side of a farm house being the strike zone, or what player C did in the off-season to stay in shape.

Of course, in those days most broadcasters acted like team PR people, as many still do today, but in not so an obvious way. The baseball commissioner and league presidents were presented as demi-gods. There was scant, if any mention; of how players were treated as the property of the clubs and the prejudices of players were hardly mentioned.

Still, listening or watching a baseball game was fun if you were a youngster because talented baseball broadcasters could make you forget about your responsibilities for three hours a day, or so.

Today, most baseball commentators approach the game as if they were teaching an advanced class in mathematics.

Instead of concentrating on hits, runs, errors and earned run averages, as in the past, launch angles, the speed of a pitched ball, how hard a baseball is hit by a batter and the odds of a team winning a game are featured, all accompanied by graphics. Gone are the days when announcers would be storytellers.

Analytics and jargon inside the baseball world sports would have replaced what made baseball our national game — stories about the game’s stars’ baseball and non-baseball life, many of them fictionalized, that made them more interesting.

No longer do baseball announcers tell stories of how Casey Stengel, in 1918, doffed his cap and had a bird fly out, or how Babe Herman supposedly was hit on the head while trying to catch a fly ball or when he turned a triple into a triple play by faulty base running. Herman was a character embellished and did not detail what actually occurred, but they made for good storytelling.

Gone are the days when announcers told tales about Yankee catcher Yogi Berra or when Ted Williams entered the final weekend in 1941at .401. and sustained it.

Storytellers and voices humanized the game and harmed no one, unlike some announcers today who see no evil, downplay evil and refuse to talk about evil when it happens, the exception being Bob Costas, who is not fearful of expressing his opinion about the unsavory side of sports.

Storytelling is largely missing from all sportscasting today. Announcers rely on statistics that only physics major can appreciate. And that makes for a less interesting experience.

Informative John Madden could entertain an audience. Red Barber could charm an audience with his homespun regional phrases like, “He’s in the catbird seat.” Vin Scully could make the audience appreciate his poetic-like use of the English language, which I suggest you Google to see why he is considered the best baseball announcer of all time.

As for me, I’d rather listen to a sports announcer like Bill Stern, perhaps the greatest of the sportscaster story tellers, add a little fiction to his tales than listen to an announcer consistently, talk about the speed of a batted or pitched ball or the launch angle of a home run.

In 2012, Alan Barra, writing about announcers using inside the diamond baseball lingo, emoted in an article in The Atlantic, wrote, “Announcers once used simple, straightforward language. Now they rely on terms like “walk-off home run.” …“Sometime around the mid-1970s or early 1980s—it’s difficult to pin this down — baseball language took a turn for the worse. It became obscure, ostentatious, and to the uninitiated, impenetrable.”

The use of analytics by baseball clubs has been around for a few decades, but it has only been several years that it has become a staple of some broadcasters, joining some announcers who use statistics as a crutch.

A 2022 post by the UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS URBANA-CHAMPAIGN offers a course called “Stat 430: Baseball Analytics is a new course that familiarizes students with the practice of breaking down complex data sets into more digestible information.”

Much of the charm about listening to baseball broadcasts in the past was the story telling about the players that made fans feel they knew them.

Story telling today is an only occasional happening as announcers now fill the gap between pitches with analytics. Doing so might make a physics major happy, but it has reduced the talented story-teller announcer of the past to the broken bat pile. Maybe that’s a contributory reason why baseball is no longer our national past time and why many of today’s announcers are a carbon copy of each other.

 

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Arthur Solomon

Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications and consults on public relations projects. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.

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Michael Green
7 months ago

May I shout amen?

Joe Davis, whom I consider the best of the young announcers, said in succeeding Vin Scully that Dodger fans expect a lot of anecdotes, and he intended to provide them–and he does, at least on Dodger broadcasts. What Fox wants might be a bit different.