Baseball Broadcasting

Sterling made up for his imperfect play-by-play with stories and a plethora of style

After 36 years of calling New York Yankee baseball games on radio, John Sterling hung up the mic. And that’s a shame because unlike most of today’s broadcaster’s Sterling made listening to the game fun. (Examples later.)

Sterling was “one of a kind,” according to Suzyn Waldman who served as Sterling’s sidekick since 2005. John left the Yankees on April 7th. Suzyn described each of their days working together as a “unique, funny, strange and wonderful experience.”

Prior to Waldman were the late Jay Johnstone, Joe Angel, Michael Kay and Charley Steiner.

Today, when listening to baseball, I get the impression that the game is secondary to aspects that do not require pitching, hitting or fielding or for that matter, anything else considered a baseball play. And are described by commentators as if they were reporting the end of civilization. 

Below are some examples:

  • The numbers on player uniforms are an open used topic of conversation between the play by play callers and the analysts.
  • The music that accompanies a relief pitcher on his trek to the mound is described by some announcers as if it was the initial playing of Rhapsody in Blue at Carnegie Hall.
  • The food that people in the stands are eating is always a good topic for commentators to discuss during a lull in the action.
  • So are announcers’ favorite restaurants when they travel from city to city during road trips.
  • And of course, the audience must be told about the travails of the announcers. They include traffic jams on the way to the ballpark, cramped announcers booths, and inadequate heating in the booths. (At least they no longer complain about the Covid-19 pandemic.)
  • Another staple of broadcasting is the rally caps worn by hopeful fans, whose teams most often has as much of a chance of coming from behind as most announcers have as differentiating themselves from other ones. And, of course, the trouble with the pitching clock is a constant topic.
  • I’m not a person who believes in the “good old days.” I do believe that history shows that the “good old days” were in reality the “bad old days.” But I also do believe that few of today’s baseball commentators compare favorably to those who entertained listeners and viewers of the past.
  • In my opinion, most of today’s announcers sound as if they are came out of Cookie-Cutter University and  pale in comparison to those of the past. What’s missing, in my opinion, after listening to more than 1,000 games is a lack of stories telling and what I call “announcer’s personality.”

Story Telling:

Two of the best sportscasters whom I remember were Red Barber, whose play-by-play and ability to paint a rich word-picture was strong and captivating.

Bill Stern used colorful profiles to draw radio audiences on NBC. His  stories were criticized by some journalists for being fictional, which many were, but they were always ear-catching and interesting.

In my opinion, those who criticized Stern should look in the mirror. It’s not as if the lost art of fictional storytelling resulted in a more honest commentary. Some team announcers still “God up” home town players as if they were purer than mother’s milk, even those whose off the field unsavory conduct, would result in the termination of non-athletes. In those days, print sports reporters often covered up the unsportsmanlike conduct of players. While that no longer is this the case on the print side, burying the sordid side of sports and athletes is still practiced by game day broadcasters.

Personality:

Unlike today, the personality of sports announcers made listening or watching a game, a joy. Sports play-by-play commentary today is too serious. It’s as every excellent pitch or hit, or lack of, can determine the fate of the world.

In actuality, there’s not much difference between baseball games. The names of the players and the teams might be different from game-to-game but the basics are similar, as are most announcers’ commentary, unlike some of the past greats who made watching or listening to a game fun. Those announcers of the past were entertainers as well as sportscasters and their personalities made listening to them a delight.

What today’s announcers have done is to take what should be a fun experience and make it sound like they were announcing from a war zone. And that’s too bad. At one time baseball was described as “men playing a boy’s game.” That description of baseball no longer applies and the ‘live or die seriousness commentary’ by today’s announcers has helped kill it.

What’s missing from the baseball announcer’s booth is a voice like John Madden, who introduced nuances to football telecasts.

Rosey Rowswell, (left) the old-time Pittsburgh Pirates announcer, who would shout “Raise the window,”  identifying the mythical aunt while breaking a light bulb. When the homer didn’t carry all the way, Rowsewell would say she didn’t open the window in time!

In time, the most entertaining, in my opinion, is the recently retired Yankees John Sterling, who played off hitter’s names when calling a home run. Two examples of his unique calls:

Back to Sterling:

1) After an Aaron Judge home run, Sterling said, “Here comes the Judge.”

2) After an Austin Wells home run, John quipped, ”All’s well that ends well!” So much more entertaining than the trite, “It’s outta here.” And there’s no one like Harry Caray, who would occasionally do Chicago White Sox home game broadcasts shirtless. From the bleachers, Harry would lead the fans in the singing of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game,” during the seventh inning stretch, a shtick he continued when he broadcast the Chicago White Sox games.

Most of today’s baseball announcers describe what’s happened as if it’s the fate of  the world. They’ve taken the fun out of baseball commentary. They are announcing from the safe confines of a ballpark announcer’s booth. It wasn’t the wartime  picture that Ed Morrow painted for CBS Radio. He did so from London, describing the Nazi blitz during World War II, when a bomb was really a bomb.

More than any other sport, a one time nostalgia was a part of baseball announcers’ tool box. Today, when I listen to a broadcast it often reminds me of the statistics course I took in college. And that was no fun.

Baseball needs more broadcasters like John Sterling, who was always fun. Viewing a game on TV or in person should be a fun experience and Sterling’s commentary helped make it so.

 

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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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Barry Kipnis
8 days ago

I didn’t listen a lot to the Yankees radio broadcasts, but the time I did tune in, I never heard Sterling tell any story. It was mostly dead air between pitches and if the Yankees were losing, rarely did you hear him even give the score. Otherwise, Sterling spent his time on nicknames and coming up with home run missives for Yankee players. He wasn’t descriptive. His signature HR call it is “high, far and gone” was the same even if it were line drives, not high at all.