Saturday, May 2, 2009

Voices of the Game (A Journey to the Past)

As a baseball fan I'm a man truly blessed. Every generation thinks their era had the best players, most exciting players, or the managers of greatest genius. These comparisons are the fodder of many a barroom discussion, or over the table on the 4th of July after Uncle Harry has a couple of belts and a few brews.

But there is one thing I will never concede to anyone about this aspect of my personal baseball history- when I was coming of age, in the late 1960's and early 1970's, my generation was schooled by the best damn radio announcers that ever were, or ever will be.

I'm going to leave out certain legends like Chicago's Jack Brickhouse, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg in Los Angeles, Ernie Harwell in Detroit, or Byrum Saam in Philadelphia. And I apologize in advance; I only heard those greats in rare occasions or during a World Series. I'm going to concentrate on the broadcasters of the two cities and the three teams that I followed in the summers of my childhood and of my youth- St.Louis and the Cardinals, and New York and the Yankees and the Mets.

I was thinking about the old timers today while working outside, trying to do some spring cleanup, and listening to the Yankees and Los Angeles Angels on WCBS from New York, the game called by John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman. Now, the very fact that Suzyn was doing commentary on a radio broadcast of America's Pastime would be something too alien to be believed in the old days...women, we were told, were meant to be teachers, nurses, and librarians. A female sportscaster? That seemed about a likely as ever happening as a non-Italian Pope. Or a black President of the United States.

We have come a long, long way....and for the better.

Baseball is unique from other sports in several ways; its seemingly leisurely pace, the fact that its the only sport where the defense has control of the ball, and its rich and lengthy history. And it is the one sport that translates perfectly to the medium of radio.

Back in the days before every at bat had its own sponsor, and every batter or pitcher had their own selected music, the soundtrack of summer was provided by some of the richest storytellers the medium of radio had ever seen or heard. From April to June I would be in New Jersey attending school. In late June I went to visit my grandparents in the farm country of Illinois just out side of St.Louis for two months, returning to New Jersey on Labor Day. And from September on, I remained in New Jersey. The cycle repeated itself each year for 10 years.

Baseball was in a state of flux in the early to mid 1960's, but we had yet to recognize it. The Yankees Dynasty would soon collapse, with stars like Mantle, Ford, and Berra aging and with mediocre talent on the way to the Bronx to replace them. The National League returned to New York with the birth of the Mets in 1962. Not even a Hall of Fame manager like Casey Stengel could win this cast of castoffs. They had glimmers of hope, a couple of good players like Ron Hunt and Jim Hickman, but that was years before the arrival of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, and the Miracle of 1969. The St. Louis Cardinals were on the rise. Hall of Famer Stan Musial retired in 1963. The National League pursued integration more intently than the American League; there were more African Americans in the senior circuit, and the National League had the lions share of African American superstars. The St.Louis Cardinals would dominate the National League in the years between 1964-68, led by players like Hall Of Famers Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Orlando Cepeda, and a player who would gain notoriety from a court case, centerfielder Curt Flood. All of these players were men of color.

The St. Louis Cardinals games were heard on KMOX radio, which had a signal that could be heard north to Iowa, south Oklahoma and Arkansas, west into Kansas, and east into Indiana. Before the Braves moved to Atlanta the Cardinals WERE the team of America's Southern states. The broadcast team for the Cardinals consisted of former catcher and master storyteller Joe Garagiola, the dry witted and velvet voiced Jack Buck, and the King of the Ozarks, Harry Caray.

No one was ever on a fence about Harry- you loved him, or you hated him. His detractors saw him as loud overbearing, often ill prepared showboat. His fans embraced him because of his love of the game, and that he did present himself as the teams #1 cheerleader, which he was while employed by the Cardinals (and later by the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs).

Near Fairground Park in Northwest St.Louis, bordered by Dodier Street, Grand Boulevard, Sullivan Avenue, and Spring Avenue, stood old Busch Stadium, originally called Sportsman's Park. It was first the home of the old St.Louis Browns (1902-53), and then of the Cardinals (1920-66). I remember it being intimate, seating just over 30,000, with an iron upper deck and greenery in what was called "The Pavilion" in right-centerfield. August Busch owned the Cards in the 1960's- a neon Budweiser eagle would flap his wings with each Cardinal home run.

And in back of home plate, in the pressbox in the second deck, a man with thick glasses has a fishermen's net hung out to catch any and all fly balls coming in his direction. That was Harry Caray.

Harry had his distinct home run call..."it might could be...its is! a home run". And of course,he claimed "Holy Cow!" as his own- Phil Rizzuto often disputed it saying he had it first. But Harry was doing games for the Cardinals while Phil was still playing shortstop for the Yankees, so I guess "possession is nine-tenths of any catch phrase.

Harry used to forget names on occasion; sometimes he'd give the wrong first name to a surname. And sometimes to kill time and keep himself and the audience amused, he would recite a player's last name backwards.

"Up next is the thirdbasemen Joe Foy. His last name backwards is "Yof"

One time centerfielder Jose Cardenal lost a fly ball in the sun. Harry quipped, "I don't get it. How can he lose a ball in the sun? He's from Mexico, isn't he?"

Harry was an unabashed and unashamed homer- he was up when the team was up, and down when they lost. He felt homerism was part of the job. When he moved on to Chicago he took the homerism with him...and became the #1 Sox (and later Cub) fan on the planet.

Grandpa had KMOX and the Cardinals on for drives to dinner every Sunday in those days. It was Joe, Jack and Harry...part of the extended family along for the ride. and on to the soundtrack of my youth.

The Yankees had a dynamite broadcasting team in those days- old veterans Mel Allen, Red Barber, and former players Jerry Coleman and Phil Rizzuto. Phil, "the Scooter", was my favorite of the quartet. Phil was the uncle we all wished we had. If somebody did something he didn't like, that person was a "huckleberry". He would never let broadcasting a game get into the way of giving a restaurant review, or saying "hi" to someone in the hospital, or reading his list of birthday greetings, or talking up a school or church group. Of course, because of all of this sometimes Phil would miss something on the field.... his scorecard would have a "WW" written in by Phil- that stood for "wasn't watching".

Phil broadcast Yankee games for 40 years. In those later years he would refer to his broadcast partners only by their last name..."Seaver", "White", "Olden", etc. The running joke for the older Rizzuto was his having to leave the booth early to beat the traffic on the George Washington Bridge- he had to get the cannolis home to wife Cora while they were still fresh. He's sneak out during the eighth inning, with a camera following him into the parking lot, while his broadcast partners commented on his progress to his car.

During a promo that also featured Tom Seaver and Bobby Murcer, Phil once introduced the broadcast team this way...."Good evening everybody, I'm Tom Seaver" as Murcer and Seaver broke into uproarious laughter.

When Phil died on August 13, 2007 at age 89, I like thousands of others, felt like there had been a death in the family. Because for all of my time following the Yankees....and baseball...Phil was always there.

And I still miss him.

The original New York Mets broadcasting team consisted of former slugger Ralph Kiner, Lindsay Nelson, and Bob Murphy, a man who painted pictures with words better than just about any of his peers. Bob was not like Rizzuto or Caray, in that he was understated and not flashy. He was a consummate professional and was never a homer. During the postgame show he would present a "happy recap" with each Met win, and a "recap' for a loss.

The Mets broadcast team remained intact and unchanged for a remarkable 17 years (1962-78) when Lindsay Nelson left. While Caray and Rizzuto moved to the TV side in time and stayed there for the majority of their careers, Murphy stopped doing TV broadcasts for the Mets and moved into the radio booth from 1982 until his retirement from broadcasting in 2003. Less than a year later he passed on from lung cancer.

In my eyes, Bob Murphy might have been the last of the great radio only baseball broadcasters. His personality and skills were perfect for the medium of radio, where attention to detail were a necessity, as well as having that Sixth Sense to know know what the listener wanted and needed to know. He was the best at what he did.

These were a few of the great ones.

And they don't make 'em like this anymore.

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