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Radio connects baseball's past and present

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By John Shindlebower

It’s the middle of July and most American sports fans find themselves pacing the floors in front of their flat-screen television sets waiting for the month to pass and August to finally get here.

 Baseball is in the middle of its long 162-game regular season. While purists like me love to scan the boxscores and check the standings each day, many modern fans honestly tune out until late August when the pennant races really start to heat up – or otherwise known as the time when the Orioles are typically mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

For local fans however, this season is proving interesting with the continued emergence of the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central. For the better part of three months now, the Reds and Cardinals have taken turns leading the Division and all signs point to an amazing race between Cincy and St. Louis down the stretch. I wish I could catch more of the Reds on television, but FoxSportsOhio isn’t in my current television package. So I’ve turned old school.

 The last few days I’ve been feeling under the weather and have taken up residence on a reclining chair in the living room, next to a made-to-look-like vintage Crosley radio. When there are no early evening storms, reception from Cincinnati’s 700 WLW is pretty good and I’ve enjoyed a nice couple of evenings of listening to the Reds on the radio.

 It reminded me when I was a kid of about 10-years-old who would go to sleep with Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxall calling the Reds action from somewhere out on the West Coast. There’s few things as comforting as a familiar voice coming from a little box a few feet from where you lay your head. Man I miss Cawood Ledford!

 I was reminded of a time when I was working as a pizza delivery driver in 1986. I pulled the Little Caesars’ Chevette to the side of the road and listened to the ninth inning of Tom Browning’s perfect game for the Reds. Yes, somebody’s pizzas were a few minutes late in arriving and I may have missed out on a tip, but I didn’t miss out on the memory.

Baseball is the perfect game for radio and in many ways, the two institutions kind of matured together. The first game was broadcast by Pittsburgh radio station KDKA in 1921, but the broadcasters were not live at the stadium, but were simply reporting the action as it arrived off wire reports to the station.

Owners were a bit skeptical of radio at first, fearing that fans would opt to stay at home and listen to the game rather than come out to the park and spend their money. But they soon learned the two institutions could enjoy a profitable union.

Despite initial worries about attendance, owners also knew that baseball’s long season had an addictive element for fans. For the same reason owners paid newspapers to cover their team at home and on the road, radio booths soon became as much a part of the park as peanuts and crackerjacks.

 In addition to being the very first professional baseball team, the Reds also helped pioneer the radio age of baseball. In 1933, Powell Crosley, owner of radio stations and a radio manufacturing company, became part owner, and Cincinnati fans could follow their boys of summer by the pale yellow light of the Crosley radio. Red Barber was the first announcer for the Reds, but he later found much greater fame in New York.

Many baseball fans older than me can recall the summer sountrack of their youth by the crackling voices of a baseball game. If you ever spent time traveling in a car with only an AM radio, you’ve heard some of the most magical voices ever to grace the airwaves. Joe Buck from St. Louis was easily recognizable, as was Ernie Harwell from Detroit and Harry Caray from the Cubs.

Some announcers were known for their professionalism, like Buck and the Dodger’s Vin Scully. Others became cult-figures, like Caray in Chicago and Milwaukee’s Bob Eucker. Regardless of who you listened too, the broadcasters became like family as they not only kept you informed about the game, but engaged in some entertaining banter between pitches.

 Then there’s guys like San Diego’s Gary Coleman (not the late-actor of “whatchyoutalkin’about?” fame, although I’m sure many a listener posed that question while listening to Coleman’s broadcasts and numerous bloopers. Consider the curious looks his listeners shot at the radio when they heard him announce things like this:

“The first pitch to Tucker Ashford is grounded into left field. No, wait. It’s ball one. Low and outside.”

 Or how bout these for some excellent play-by-play calls: “Johnny Grubb slides into second with a stand-up double.’ 

 “That’s the fourth extra base hit for the Padres. Two doubles and a triple.”

 “Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen.”

 Some things really are better heard on the radio than seen on T.V.

 

In my opinion, baseball is one of those things. It’s an acquired taste, and listenting to baseball on the radio is an art you have to learn. It’s about allowing the broadcaster to paint a picture, listening for the crack of the wooden bat, the yell of an umpire calling “Strike Three!” or hearing some inebriated heckler just below the booth giving a visiting batter all sorts of grief.

 I’m constantly reminded by my 15-year-old son that I’m growing into an old codger, and I’m sure the sight of me nestled near a old wooden radio listening to baseball only amplified his notion. But I don’t mind the name-calling. It was baseball, it was on the radio, it was a familiar voice, and after a couple of hours, when Brennaman announced that “This one belongs to the Reds,” all was well in my world.