Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio

Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio

Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio

Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio


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The crack of the bat on the radio is ingrained in the American mind as baseball takes center stage each summer. Radio has brought the sounds of baseball into homes for almost one hundred years, helping baseball emerge from the 1919 Black Sox scandal into the glorious World Series of the 1920s. The medium gave fans around the country aural access to the first All-Star Game, Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech, and Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World.” Red Barber, Vin Scully, Harry Caray, Ernie Harwell, Bob Uecker, and dozens of other beloved announcers helped cement the love affair between radio and the national pastime.   Crack of the Bat takes readers from the 1920s to the present, examining the role of baseball in the development of the radio industry and the complex coevolution of their relationship. James R. Walker provides a balanced, nuanced, and carefully documented look at radio and baseball over the past century, focusing on the interaction between team owners, local and national media, and government and business interests, with extensive coverage of the television and Internet ages, when baseball on the radio had to make critical adjustments to stay viable.   Despite cable television’s ubiquity, live video streaming, and social media, radio remains an important medium through which fans engage with their teams. The evolving relationship between baseball and radio intersects with topics as varied as the twenty-year battle among owners to control radio, the development of sports as a valuable media product, and the impact of competing technologies on the broadcast medium. Amid these changes, the familiar sounds of the ball hitting the glove and the satisfying crack of the bat stay the same.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803277410
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 05/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 328
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

James R. Walker is a professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Communication at Saint Xavier University. He is the coauthor of Center Field Shot: A History of Baseball on Television (Nebraska, 2008) and The Broadcast Television Industry. Pat Hughes has been the radio voice of the Chicago Cubs since 1996.

Read an Excerpt

Crack of the Bat

A History of Baseball on the Radio

By James R. Walker


Copyright © 2015 James R. Walker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-7741-0


Early World Series Coverage

In the early 1920s, commercial radio was born, and Major League Baseball was reborn. KDKA's broadcast of the presidential election returns on November 2, 1920, from Pittsburgh is often seen as the birth of commercial broadcasting in the United States. As with many firsts, it was preceded by considerable activity, but this date provides a convenient starting point for radio's journey. Nine months later on August 5, 1921, KDKA broadcast an MLB game between the hometown Pirates and cross-state rival Phillies was broadcast from Forbes Field. Meanwhile, baseball was reinventing itself in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Major changes to the grand old game included the installation of its first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a federal judge; a jacked-up ball that produced an avalanche of home runs; and rule changes that stripped pitchers of their most deceptive tools. Radio waves moved at the speed of light, while Babe Ruth's homers zipped almost as quickly over the new Yankee Stadium's short right-field fence. Radio and baseball were entering the postwar Jazz Age, destined to exploit baseball's most compelling story: the World Series.

Although a public-relations nightmare, the 1919 Series scandal had shown just how ingrained this competition between two formally independent leagues had become in less than two decades. If the kingpin gambler Arnold Rothstein could compromise the "faith of fifty million" by fixing the World Series, it was because October baseball had utterly captivated them in the first place. Anticipating the efforts of television a generation later, the first radio broadcasters exploited two high-stakes sports events, heavyweight boxing and the World Series, to sell radio to the public. In the process they invented station networks, producing what the radio historian Erik Barnouw dubbed the "Golden Web," the era of radio history dominated by national radio networks.

The 1921 World Series: Radio's First?

The received history traces the first broadcasts of a World Series game to October 5, 1921, with separate broadcasts from WJZ in Newark, New Jersey, and KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Series was the first of three consecutive World Series matchups between two New York clubs, John McGraw's Giants and Babe Ruth's Yankees. Although many chroniclers of the game's history consider this the first broadcast of the World Series, there is some question about its primacy. The 1921 WJZ broadcast actually was an instant re-creation of the game from reports circuitously related from the Polo Grounds by telegraph to the Newark Call's newspaper office and then by phone to WJZ's announcer Thomas Cowan for broadcast. The station followed a plan similar to the one used by RCA to provide live reports of the Jack Dempsey–Georges Carpentier heavyweight fight on July 2, 1921. At that fight, J. O. Smith, speaking by telephone to the ringside announcer, J. Andrew White, repeated White's call of the fight word by word into a microphone at the RCA transmitter stationed in Hoboken, New Jersey. The Dempsey-Carpentier broadcast is considered the first major sports event broadcast to a regional audience, which was spread over an estimated 125,000 square miles.

Although WJZ had broadcast musical recordings during the previous week, the World Series' broadcast was part of the Call's launch of the station, and the staff always considered it the station's "opening day." Like many newspapers in the 1920s, the Newark Call saw radio as an inexpensive way of promoting the newspaper and establishing a beachhead in the new medium. Covering the World Series was a sure way to gather public attention for the new radio venture.

Thomas Cowan, WJZ's first World Series voice, in his contribution to Columbia University's oral history collection on early broadcasting, described his station's first home. The station was located in a shack at the top of the Edison plant in Newark, New Jersey. The facility was primitive at best, with not even a staircase leading up to the shack. Employees had to climb a fifteen-foot metal ladder and then work their way through a hatch in the roof. Once inside, they encountered an interior of a fifteen-by-twenty-foot "contractor's shack" anchored to the building. The room was ringed by windows and contained a radio transmitter, a bench, and a telephone. There were no draperies and no heat. Cowan reported that the shack was nothing like a modern radio studio, "because we hadn't as yet imagined anything of the kind."

From this primal radio perch, Cowan "parroted" every word spoken to him on the phone by the Sunday Call's sports editor, who was receiving telegraph reports from the ballpark: "We couldn't use telephone lines to broadcast, as we do today, on the remote. We solved that problem by putting a telephone in the box ... where the game was played. The Sports Editor of the Sunday Call, Sandy Hunt, called me in Newark and for the first game I held that infernal receiver to my ear until my arm was nearly paralyzed and my ear was sore."

The next day a telephone headset relieved Cowan's arm "paralysis." By the third game, he "actually grew into the personality of Sandy Hunt." Cowan reported that the assignment made him so "fagged out" that he "couldn't even collect [his] thoughts enough to tell who had won": "The pools down in the shop would say, 'Who won, Cow?' and I'd say, 'I don't know, I just work here.'" Cowan concluded that he "was just a parrot all the time on this first World Series."

It is clear from Cowan's description that there was no announcer at the ballpark, only an observer who related the game action. If we define "radio broadcast" as the transmission of the voice of an announcer directly observing the contest, the 1921 World Series was not the first broadcast, since there is no evidence that the games' observer reported what he saw directly to the audience. Indeed, this was not the first time that detailed radio reports on a World Series had been related by wireless (as radio was known at the time). Although the information may have been relayed more quickly in the 1921 contest, the Detroit News' station, later given the call letters WWJ, reported on the 1920 Series. In addition, the U.S. Navy cleared its frequencies so amateurs could relay 1920 Cleveland Indians–Brooklyn Robins World Series action to ships at sea. According to the Boston Globe, the navy's "reports of the games, play by play, will be received at the Charlestown station by telegraph and they will instantly be relayed by wireless."

At least one other radio description of the 1921 Series originated from the New York area. During the New York Electrical Show in October 1921, the National Amateur Wireless Association also broadcast play-by-play coverage of the World Series. J. O. Smith, apparently using telegraph reports of the game, offered "play by play, by voice" as well as an evening summary of each game. At one point the coverage was interrupted by the message "Ku Kux, Ku Kux." Smith thought that the Ku Klux Klan was offering a secret radio code, but the signal turned out to be code used by two Japanese ships outside the three-mile limit.

Another issue with the 1921 Series coverage concerns the alleged participation of KDKA as a second originator of broadcasts direct from the ballpark. In Voices of the Game, author Curt Smith reported that the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, "fedora-topped" with "earphones clamped over his head," was "linked by direct line to KDKA" with two other stations—WJZ in Newark, New Jersey, and WBZ in Springfield, Massachusetts—connected to a Westinghouse network. The same three-station hookup reported by Smith also is mentioned in the Sporting News on October 28, 1972. This account has Rice on a telephone at the Polo Grounds reporting the action to Cowan, who then broadcast it on WJZ. Other secondary sources report that the Pittsburgh station covered the game on the basis of information coming by "wire" or "direct line" from the Polo Grounds, but none of the sources, including Smith and the Sporting News, identifies how they learned of KDKA's broadcast or provides detailed descriptions of the coverage. It appears that the 1921 KDKA Series broadcast advocates may have combined information about the 1921 and 1922 World Series' radio coverage.

There is little evidence to support the assertion that Grantland Rice had anything to do with the radio coverage of the 1921 Series. In the preface to his autobiography, Rice claims that his first of many "radiooutbursts" was during the 1922 Series. His most recent biographies also identify his World Series premiere as the 1922 Fall Classic. In contrast to the paucity of documentation of KDKA's reporting on the 1921 Series, several sources provide detailed explanations of how WJZ in Newark used the 1921 Series coverage as a coming-out party for this new station. Cowan's own first-person account also makes the case compelling. In addition, although WJZ coverage received modest attention in the press, no contemporary newspaper accounts have been found documenting KDKA's "phantom" coverage. In addition, summaries of the station's early activities published in Wireless Age in 1922 and the New York Times in 1924 do not mention any World Series coverage in 1921. On the other hand, the 1924 Times article does reference WJZ's 1921 World Series coverage.

The best historical evidence supports WJZ as the lone station broadcasting play-by-play reports of the 1921 World Series. Although the announcer was not live on the scene, he was in real-time telephone communication with a Newark Call sports reporter, Sandy Hunt, who was receiving telegraph reports from the game. But if the game's announcer is required to be on the scene, the most reasonable candidate for first radio World Series is the 1922 Fall Classic. The coverage of these games on WJZ was reported extensively in both the New York Times and the New York Tribune.

The 1922 World Series: The First Live Broadcast

The Tribune's coverage was clearly self-serving, as Grantland Rice, one of the paper's two great sportswriters, was the 1922 Series' announcer. The Series featured a rematch between the Giants and Yankees and resulted in a Giants repeat victory. Three stations, WJZ, WGY in Schenectady, New York, and WBZ in Springfield, Massachusetts, were linked for the broadcasts. Just as in 1921, all of the games were played at the Polo Grounds, eliminating the need for setups from different stadiums. Rice spoke from a press box not far from home plate, into a telephone-receiver microphone connected to Newark station WJZ. He assumed the rigors of a live broadcast with little to prepare him for a very new communication challenge. Although probably the most famous and poetic sportswriter of the first half of the twentieth century, Rice found the immediacy of radio challenging, later telling Red Barber, one World Series radio at bat "was enough for me for all of my life." He also complained that radio required all of his focus, forcing him to sacrifice extra income from writing about the Series in magazines or syndicated articles. However, at the time in the pages of his own paper, Rice wrote about the experience as if it were no more challenging than a walk in the park. He describes the ease of talking "to a million people, scattered over two hundred thousands square miles, in a single address." After "the pleasant shock" of realizing no one could interrupt him, this job was "as simple as talking to one man, a dumb man who isn't deaf; as simple as asking for a cigarette or ordering a peck of potatoes from the grocer over the phone."

Rice's performance was reviewed in Wireless Age, an enthusiastic supporter of the emerging medium's presentation of the World Series live from the ballpark. "Play by play, ball by ball, strike by strike the report came from Grantland Rice. We listeners could tell from the volume of cheering whether it was an out or hit.... And wonder upon wonders, we could even hear the boys going about the stands crying their hot dogs and cold drinks! ... Several times we even heard the crack of the bat on the nose of the ball—or was it just our imagination? We all but saw!" Wireless Age did note that Rice would "rest his throat" from time to time. This meant he went off the air and simply relayed what he saw to a WJZ announcer, who broadcast the description. Wireless Age also observed that Rice's occasional errors were sometimes prophetic flaws. When the Giant outfielder Irish Meusel scored from third on a hit, Rice barked, "Meusel scares. Beg pardon, scores." While Rice's call was factually wrong, it was emotionally true. Meusel did scare the Yankees fans. The magazine concluded that the WJZ broadcast had transported them to the ballpark. "We heard it all. Almost literally, we were really at the Polo Grounds." As an aid to listeners, Wireless Age published a sample "radio player board" that fans could use to record the moves of each player while listening to the broadcasts.

Aided by an all-Gotham encounter, New Yorkers embraced WJZ's 1922 World Series coverage. Crowds gathered around radio shops throughout the city to hear the broadcasts. While the tradition of watching the Series results displayed on boards outside newspaper offices and other public locations was a well-established practice, radio brought the results to the crowd even faster, scooping the newspapers. Wireless Age reported, "radio dealers with their simple equipment of an antenna, ground, receiving set and loud speaker were able to beat the newspapers, beat them consistently by about half a minute." Many radio dealers stayed open on Sunday so potential customers could enjoy the Series' final game. Wireless Age speculated that such public displays accelerated the growth of radio. While most everyday radio listening was in the home and private, radio broadcasts of the World Series brought many new listeners to publicly located speakers. The spectacle of large crowds listening to the World Series sent the message that radio had arrived as a serious medium. In broadcasting the World Series, WJZ was lauded by Wireless Age for providing a public service to "homes and offices," "ships at sea," "keepers of lonely lighthouses," "the sick, the shut-in, the farmer." But the station faced some technical challenges in presenting the Series.

Maintaining the connection between Rice's stadium phone and WJZ in Newark required considerable effort. A growing feud between WJZ's owner, Westinghouse, and AT&T, owner of New York's most important station, WEAF, prompted AT&T to forbid the use of its phone lines to carry Rice's voice from the Polo Grounds to Newark. As the early radio historian Gleason Archer noted, "it was natural for [AT&T] to regard the Westinghouse Company and other radio station owners as trespassers on its special domain [networked radio stations]."21 AT&T was extremely comfortable with its near monopoly status in telephone and wanted the same domination of the infant radio industry. This conflict between the "Radio Group" (Westinghouse, RCA, General Electric, and others) and the "Telephone Group" (AT&T) erupted into a full-fledged war in the 1920s that was ultimately settled in 1926 with intervention by the Department of Justice. For the 1922 Series, Westinghouse's WJZ had to make do with refitted Western Union telegraph wires that added a noticeable hum to the transmission. The station reduced the line distortion by creating resistance coils and a transformers line filter for the Series.

Despite Rice's inexperience and less than optimal transmission from ballpark to station, the coverage was a major boost for radio; the Tribune estimated that the broadcast could be heard over a "300 mile area" by an audience of three million, including "fans far out at sea." The Tribune issued reports on each day's Series broadcast. For Game Four, the paper reported, despite a rainstorm, "Grantland Rice's Voice Distinctly Audible to Fans as He Tells Every Move of Baseball Game." According to the Tribune, crowds began to gather at noon at one store to secure a spot by the radio loudspeaker. The Tribune reported large crowds of listeners, while "some of the hotels in the city have even had special invitation cards printed inviting guests to listen to the series." Those guests heard Rice's narrative of the game, vividly punctuated by the "the crack of the bat," "cries of soda venders," "the Star Spangled Banner," and "umpire's announcements.'" The Tribune also reported that in deference to the Series' importance "all of the metropolitan stations have voluntarily agreed to forego their own periods of operation in order that WJZ can have full sway in the ether."

RCA ran a quarter-page ad in the Tribune urging fans to "hear the crowd roar! at the World Series' games with the Radiola" and to ask their nearest dealer for the "Radiola score sheet" so they could "mark up every move on a convenient chart of the field." DeForest Radio's ad told radio's early adopters, "Never Mind those World Series Tickets—You're Going to All of the Games—You're Going to Thrill with Every Big Play That Is Made—At Home!" Yoking World Series broadcasts and receiver sales became established practice for radio manufacturers and distributors in the 1920s and beyond.


Excerpted from Crack of the Bat by James R. Walker. Copyright © 2015 James R. Walker. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: A Game in Words and Sound,
Part I. The Formative Years, 1920–36,
1. Early World Series Coverage,
2. The Local Game Begins,
3. Inventing a New Craft,
4. The Baseball-Radio War,
5. The World Series Triggers a National Obsession,
6. Advertisers Expand Baseball Coverage,
Part II. The Age of Acceptance, 1937–60,
7. Re-Creating Baseball,
8. Baseball Reluctantly Embraces Radio,
9. An Explosion in National Coverage,
Part III. The Television Years, 1961–Present,
10. Radio in the Age of Television,
11. The Modern Baseball Announcer,
12. Baseball Broadcasts in the Digital Era,
Appendix: Number of Team Radio Stations by Year, 1936–2001,

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