At Gameday Radio, we say we are bringing a professional radio play-by-play experience to youth baseball. When people first hear that, they often wonder how we could possibly place a live broadcaster at each of the over 10 million youth baseball or softball games that are played every year. Obviously we can't -- our broadcasts are actually automatically generated from data captured by coaches and parents using mobile score-keeping applications like iScore and GameChanger. While this feels new and exciting, knowledgeable baseball fans know that what we're doing is actually not very new at all. The first professional baseball game was broadcast in 1921, and until the 50's many baseball games, especially road games, were produced through what is called 're-creation'. In those days, the radio network would have someone in the park relaying the game action back to the studio using a telegraph and later a telephone, and the broadcaster would 're-create' the action like he was there.
Many of us were first introduced to re-creation by watching the 1988 film 'Bull Durham', that somewhat sappy reflection on the toils of minor league baseball and exposition on baseball mirroring life. When the Bulls were on the road, their announcer would be in their home press box, cracking a miniature bat on a block of wood to simulate a base hit, then would cue the crowd noise to give his listeners a full play-by-play experience.
Re-creation was the brain-child of the great filmmaker Orson Welles. He envisioned the Western Union normally wires used by newspaper men to report their stories being leveraged to provide real-time updates for games in progress instead. This idea evolved into a Western Union service called 'Paragraph One' with an operator in the press box at the game and another in the radio studio, sending and receiving an abbreviated summary of every inning via Morse Code.
"-... .---- ...."
is Morse Code for "B1H" indicating that ball one came in high.
"... .---- .-.."
would tell the receiver that the next pitch was a strike, low ("S1L").
The technology to bring these re-creations to the radio was the first step, but back in the twenties radio was just getting started and no one knew precisely how to leverage this new medium, or what it could mean to their businesses. Baseball owners were quite leery of the technology, fearing that ticket sales would suffer if fans could experience the game from their homes. Despite the incredible radio growth that was occurring, in 1932 the Dodgers, Yankees, and Giants owners collectively banned all radio broadcasts for not just their teams but their visitors as well. Even though 18 million Americans owned radios, New York in the '30s was a baseball radio-free zone. Despite their short-sightedness, radio eventually introduced millions more to the game of baseball and created legions of devout fans. Byrum Saam, voice of the Philadelphia Phillies beginning in 1937 and the Athletics in 1938 was heavily involved in re-creations and didn't travel to an away game until the late 40's. "Re-creations planted the seeds of our coverage -- they were the nectar from which most listeners drank," said Saam.
The first re-creation was on October 5, 1921 by Tommy Cowan. It was the 1921 World Series featuring pitting the Giants against the Yankees and was aired by the Westinghouse-owned WJZ in Newark, New Jersey, and by WBZ in Massachusetts. Another re-creation pioneer was Jack Graney, broadcaster for the Cleveland Indians. His re-creations were done from the showroom of an auto dealer in Cleveland. In Chicago, re-creations dominated the dial with both the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox leveraging re-creations for their fans in Chicago and across the country. Well before his film and political career, Ronald Reagan re-created Cubs and Sox games on WHO in Des Moines, Iowa. By the 1930's, re-creations became an off-Broadway production that utilized sound effects and 'canned' background tracks to add to the realism of the game, and Reagan's WHO broadcasts were no exception. Reagan later remarked that "In those days a team didn't have its' own announcers, and so there were about five or six of us doing the same game. We had to kind of compete for the audience. Even worse some of our competitors were at the ballpark. And, of course, I was doing ours in Des Moines, hundreds of miles away. I'd get something that said S-I-C. And you can't sell many Wheaties if you just excitedly yell, 'S-I-C'. So, I would say 'Dean comes out of the windup, here comes the pitch, and … it's a called strike breaking over the outside corner to a batter that likes the ball a little higher.'"
Reagan also experienced a common situation when re-creating a game -- when the line went dead. In one Cubs/Cardinal game with Dizzy Dean on the mound game, the line dropped mid-pitch. Reagan made Dean use the rosin bag and shake off a couple of signs to stall for time. Then he creatively called how Billy Jurges, the batter, fouled one into the stands sparking a fight over the ball among a few young boys, and yet another long foul ball that missed being a home run by only a foot. Reagan continued this fantasy broadcast for nearly seven minutes when the line came back and he learned that Jurges had actually popped-up on the first ball pitched.
The "Rembrandt of the Re-Creation" was Arch McDonald who served as voice for the Washington Senators for 22 years on WJSV and WTOP. McDonald is credited for creating some tried-and-true baseball phrases such as declaring there are "ducks on the pond" when the Senators had men on base, or calling a pitch going "right down Broadway" for a ball delivered in the middle of the strike zone. Arch often staged re-creations in the window of the People's Drugstore on G Street in Washington DC, which was three blocks from the White House, usually gathering a crowd to watch and listen. Later, he erected a studio in the basement of the drugstore complete with bleachers, and a gong. Many people thought it was "The best show in town."
Red Barber, the first broadcaster to join the Baseball Hall of Fame (in 1978, with Mel Allen), re-created games for the Cincinnati Reds throughout the 30's. Red's philosophy was different than most broadcasters, preferring a tone-downed, accurate broadcast. "I never tried to fool anybody," said Barber. "I couldn't be -- didn't intend to be -- like most [other broadcasters]. They deceived by omission. [I] intentionally arrange[d] for the sounds of the wire to be in close proximity to the mic. I wanted the sounds to be heard -- nobody was going to con the fans. I always felt that even with a re-creation, if you were a professional, if you had the talent, the audience would be pleased."
Major League re-creations continued into the 50's, with the Pirates being the last major-league team to regularly re-create games on radio. Minor-league teams regularly re-created games through the 1960s. By the mid 80's, however, very few minor-league teams were broadcasting re-creations.
In a sense, Gameday Radio is re-creating the re-creation. We don't use our phones the same way they did in the 20's and 30's, but the parallels between what Gameday Radio is doing and how games used to be re-created are astounding. What was done in the studio is now done on computer 'servers'. Instead of Morse Code, we use XML. Our radios are the smartphones, tablets, and home computers that play our streaming internet broadcasts.
So, while technology has made changed dramatically since that first professional baseball radio broadcast in 1921, baseball has stood fast. There are still three strikes in an out and three outs in an inning. It's still 60 feet, 6 inches from the pitchers rubber to home plate, and there's 90 feet between the bases. Just as baseball has kept up with the times while staying true to its roots, Gameday Radio's broadcasts embrace the century of traditions on which baseball and baseball broadcasting was formed and give the medium new life and a new audience. Our broadcasts stand on the shoulders of broadcasting giants and our style and delivery pays homage to the great work done by all those great men. We respect Red Barber's broadcast sincerity while also trying to create an entertaining product that can adapt when flaky internet connections interfere with our scorer's efforts. We want to share our unknowing mentor's art with a new generation of fans, and build new connections with today's youth players and the history and magic of baseball on the radio.
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