Baseball, radio still go hand in hand

Announcers such as the late Harry Kalas (left) and Richie Ashburn, who called Phillies games, become like family members because their voices are heard by fans every day.
Announcers such as the late Harry Kalas (left) and Richie Ashburn, who called Phillies games, become like family members because their voices are heard by fans every day.
Posted: June 28, 2009

After waiting in line for hours at Richie Ashburn's 1997 public viewing, grown men, tears in their eyes, left behind transistor radios. At a 2002 memorial service for St. Louis broadcaster Jack Buck, a 61-voice chorus and full orchestra serenaded the mourning multitudes.

Tributes like those and the recent outpouring of grief that followed the death of beloved Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas were more than touching testaments to popular announcers. They were also reminders of the powerful allure of baseball on the radio.

It's been nearly 88 years since Pittsburgh radio station KDKA first broadcast a ball game, an 8-5 Pirates victory over the Phillies on Aug. 5, 1921, and yet the marriage remains strong, the romance just as enticing.

Even in this summer of 2009, when every game is televised and Webcast, and when fans can watch on cell phones or laptops, radio has its diehard devotees. Many listen even at the ballpark. Others prefer radio for their audio while watching on TV. And nothing enhances a backyard barbecue, a day at the beach, or a long car trip like a ball game on the radio.

"Radio is the perfect medium for baseball," said Curt Smith, the author of the definitive biography of baseball announcers, Voices of the Game.

"It's active, not passive," he said. "It's theater of the imagination. The structure of the game makes it perfect for radio and imperfect for TV.

"If you were to ask for the most identifiable sound of an American summer, the answer would almost have to be baseball on the radio. You hear it at the beach, in cars, in backyards, in bars. Radio still matters enormously to the game."

According to experts such as Smith, as well as the scores of Phillies fans who called or e-mailed The Inquirer following Kalas' death this spring, the attraction of baseball on the radio is multifaceted.

There's a nostalgic component, of course, one that connects the familiar sounds with youth, summer, and parents.

There's the way the best broadcasters can stir imaginations. There's the game's easy rhythms, which mesh so well with a cool medium. There are, unlike TV, occasional silences, and, maybe most important, there are the intimate connections fans make with broadcasters.

"The only reason I still have a radio is so I can take it to the beach," said Lori Hoffman of Somers Point. "Phillies baseball on the radio and catching some rays. There ain't nothing finer. I only wish these newfangled radios weren't headset only. I miss hearing all the other radios on the beach creating a sound wave that equals the noise of the seagulls or the crashing of the waves."

Though it's been decades since radio enjoyed a broadcast monopoly, its numbers remain strong. According to Rob Brooks, the Phillies' manager of broadcasting, their average radio audience is 150,000, more for Sunday games. (By way of comparison, an average of 154,000 households tune into the Phils on TV, according to Sports Business Journal.)

Nationally, even amid this computer-age cacophony, baseball on the radio is enjoying a renaissance. The satellite-radio network, Sirius XM Radio, which carries every major-league game, estimates it has 20 million subscribers, many of them Phillies fans who live beyond the team's broadcasting reach.

"I have the opportunity to listen to all home broadcasts when the Phils are home [because of XM]," said Jim Cumiskey, a Philadelphian transplanted to St. Louis. "We listen during dinner, lawn work, or just sitting around the house. . . . My brother lives in Denver, and we always talk about the radio broadcast and how much it reminds us of growing up listening to Andy Musser, Whitey, and HK.

"I don't foresee ever living back in the Delaware Valley, but I'll always listen to the Phils on the radio."

Tim Dougherty, a Phils fan who moved from the area in 1980 and lives on Long Island, still does it the old-fashioned way. Decades ago, he put a pencil mark at 1210 on the AM dial of his radio just so he always knew where to find a Phillies game. When he can't get it on his now-28-year-old set, he hops into his car.

"My wife and kids think I'm goofy," he said, "but there is nothing like baseball on the radio."

Raise the subject and men and women eagerly volunteer stories of listening to Phillies games with their fathers on city steps or suburban porches. Often, especially for the children of emotionally stifled World War II veterans, those moments provided their most intimate memories of the relationship.

"As a kid when I used to ask [my father] why he preferred the radio to sitting with me in front of the tube, he would respond with this gem: 'I can see the game better on the radio,' " said Phil Heron of Downingtown. "All seemed right with the world when you looked out the window into the backyard and saw only that red glow from his cigarette and the dial on the radio."

Smith, who has just finished a book on Vin Scully, the 81-year-old who has been doing Dodgers games for an astounding 60 years, said he was constantly amazed by how many middle-age people tell him that when they were children they hid a transistor radio beneath their pillows.

"It was a baby-boomer rite of passage," he said.

Paul Seaton of Wayne said his five children "never went to bed without the radio tuned to the Phillies."

 "Harry Kalas was the best baby-sitter we ever had," Seaton said. "Even when the Phillies made it to the World Series, we turned on the television, turned off the sound, and listened to the game on the radio.  Please don't dismiss us as relics of the past. The radio is the only way to enjoy baseball."

In some ways, it all seems counterintuitive. After all, unlike basketball or football, a three-hour game might have just eight to 10 minutes of action. That's a lot of time when nothing at all is happening.

But the best radio broadcasters - Kalas, Scully, Red Barber, Ernie Harwell - use that time well.

They paint vivid word pictures. They tell stories. They reveal themselves, opening up their personalities as pleasantly as they describe a 4-6-3 double play.

"Richie and Harry would talk, swap stories, engage in banter, each one trying to one-up the other," said Smith. "As a result, we thought we knew more about them than we did our Aunt Ethel and Uncle Fred. That couldn't happen in other sports because the action transcends the announcers."

What Phillies fan didn't feel as if he'd been to Tilden, Neb., the bucolic hometown that Ashburn spoke of so often during his 35 seasons as a broadcaster here? How many street-smart Brooklynites forever invoked Southern-fried phrases like in the catbird seat or can of corn that they'd learned from Barber, the Mississippi-born wordsmith who called Dodgers games for decades.

The more listeners feel they know an announcer, Smith said, the more they respond to him. That connection often becomes so strong that fans dislike hearing anyone else call their team's games.

It's why Phillies fans complain so vehemently about national broadcasters and why it takes even the best announcers several seasons to win acceptance.

That loyalty was particularly evident at Dodger Stadium, where fans at that ballpark traditionally brought radios to hear Scully's vivid descriptions.

Phillies TV announcer Chris Wheeler recalled a game there early in Mike Schmidt's career when so many radios were tuned to Scully's broadcast that the young third baseman could hear it as he left the dugout.

"Schmitty said he could hear Scully saying, 'Here comes young Mike Schmidt from Dayton, Ohio, to the plate. The Phillies think he's their third baseman of the future,' " Wheeler recalled. "He said it took a little longer for him to make that long walk from the dugout to the batter's box because he wanted to hear what Scully was saying about him."

But Scully now does television almost exclusively, as did Kalas in his final years. While a team's signature announcer could once be found on radio, they're almost all confined to TV.

That means young radio voices, like the Phils' Scott Franzke, are now looked on as the second string, making it harder for them to develop deep relationships, especially with older listeners.

"Mine might be the last generation to believe that radio is the ideal way to 'watch' a ball game," said Marc Meklir, a Phillies fan living in Columbia, Md. "But with today's technology, a new generation can experience the same thing. Who knows? Someday they might be telling their kids about the long-ago nights when they listened to Scott Franzke and Larry Andersen on their iPod touches as they drifted off to sleep."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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