Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"Our minds were tubes that seldom blew": Mark Harris on watching baseball on the radio

Mark Harris
We were all watching, it seems. On television, that is. The 1980 World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the Philadelphia Phillies is tied with the '78 Series for the highest overall television ratings to date. The six games averaged a Nielsen rating of 32.8 and a share of 56; the sixth and final game, which ended with Tug McGraw dramatically striking out Willie Wilson, remains the most-watched game in Series history, with a television audience of 54.9 million viewers. Two days before the Series started, Mark Harris published an essay extolling the virtues of listening to baseball on the radio, a somewhat-mournful piece at odds with the game's then-dominance of television.

Harris is known chiefly for having written the novel Bang The Drum Slowly (1956); the book was adapted into a feature-length film in 1973 starring Robert De Niro and Michael Moriarty. Harris started out as a journalist, but in the late 1940s moved into academia, where he had a long and distinguished career; he died in 2007. Harris wrote often about baseball, in fiction and in essays, and many of his nonfiction pieces were collected in 1994 in Diamond: Baseball Writings of Mark Harris, where I came across "Recalling the Joy of Watching Baseball on the Radio," originally published in the New York Times on October 12, 1980. As NBC and its booth crew of Joe Garagiola, Tony Kubek, and Tom Seaver were readying a state-of-the-art television production, Harris, who was born in 1922, was looking back—at a childhood and adolescence where baseball lived as much in his imagination as it did on the field.

Harris's piece is terrific, if old-fashioned, managing the balancing act between sentiment and sentimentality so often botched by writers pining for the game's "golden" past. Harris's thesis was simple: baseball on the radio isn't necessarily better than baseball on TV, but it's different in profound ways. His tone is elegiac, but accepting. "For almost everybody, a game of professional baseball was an image before it was a reality," he begins. "We heard about it before we saw it."
Depending on the year of our birth, it came to us first as a voice through the air into that blind box we called radio. Or it came to us in more recent decades as figures moving on a screen that, in its early stages (I’m remembering the Yankees and Dodgers in the World Series of the early 1950s), often appeared to be men gallantly struggling through a snowstorm.
In time the picture was fine-tuned or cabled, the snowstorms ended, color was introduced and the visual transmission of the game equaled any dream we could have generated out of our imagination. This perfect colored clarity was known as television.

Is television better than radio? Each instrument brings a different kind of satisfaction. Each has different uses and emphases. When radio was all we knew, it was good enough, marvelous beyond telling. One set oneself up with a scorepad and beverage and followed the action without the slightest sense that he was somehow deprived by the fact that he was following something he could not see.

Harris writes about the "stadium of the mind" where he impossibly saw Ruth point and Hubbell mow down five consecutive All Stars.
It does not now occur to me that I did not literally see those things. I saw them as truly as I saw Dave Parker in the 1979 All-Star Game make his remarkable game-saving throw from right field, saw Parker make his throw not once, not twice, but half a dozen times at least by the miracle of instant playback and slow motion. Of playback, nobody had ever heard in 1933. And life itself was slow motion.
Harris evokes mid-century details that, if you're a fan of baseball's long history, you're familiar with: the giant radio in the living room (not everyone owned a portable radio); a line score helpfully hung on a banner in a store window; the agonizing wait for the seven o'clock news for game results; incomplete box scores in newspapers (Chicago was "West"). Rather than inhibit his enjoyment of baseball, such waiting dovetailed with the tantalizing imagery brewing in Harris's head, the narrative ingredients of which were supplied by listening to games on the radio. " Radio left things to the brain, to the imagination, and to fantasy," he writes.
On radio we saw the whole baseball field because we saw it in our minds through wide-angled fantasy. We knew no limits upon our vision. We were our own camera. Pictures arose in our imaginations from the merest hints of things. Our minds were tubes that seldom blew.
Fans listening to the 1929 World Series at the Sturges radio store on Wilshire Blvd.
That last line is great, and there are several gems in the piece, such as "Radio was awe. The awe was produced by remoteness." And he offers this neat argument:
The voices of radio are no longer the voices of excitement, as they were when they were the only voice. They have modulated themselves, striving to be informative, as if they know that they are only holding actions; you will tune them out as soon as you can get to a TV set.
The voice of radio came to us in duet with a roar of the crowd, but radio can no longer hold us on a plateau of indiscriminate excitement. Radio conveyed excitement. Television brings an accurate, hard image out of which everyone may make his own excitement out of beckoning moments.

In television the voice of the announcer is not so much provocation to excitement as background to the action. The announcer does not excite us, he informs us. Our eyes now see that scene our fantasies created in the days of radio. Our vision forces modesty, silence and discretion upon the television announcer; only a fool dares to describe what we can see for ourselves.

History has ordained that the pattern of broadcast baseball follow from excitement to information. Radio served the fantasizing fan; television serves the viewer watching the game for himself.
Harris, writing as Election Day neared, ends the piece with implicit references to Watergate and the Vietnam War. "Television," he laments, "is closeup. In politics and in warfare in recent years television has cast a cruel but salutary light upon realities. Baseball is neither war nor politics, and whether it required the cruel light of television I do not know. " But he shakes himself free of doldrums, recognizing that television broadcasts of games are highly informative and instructive, that in fact "we may he better off than we were for its having brought us closer to an understanding of the way the game is played afield, and the way it is played by the men and women at every level of enterprise. Truth is better than fakery, and we are better off for having come to the end of the spurious excitement that was radio at worst. We are free to enjoy the act of observing for ourselves the real rhythm of the sport."

Which medium does Harris prefer? His evocative close to the piece offers no firm answers: "The voice of the television announcer is low. The voice of radio was shrill, fast. The voice of television is cool. The voice of radio was high and hot."


I wonder what in the future we'll lament of today's game? Access to broadcasts, statistics, and video is so startlingly fast now, that it seems we can't go any faster. Bet we'll go faster, of course, and half a century from now someone might muse bittersweetly about an era of slow Internet. Or perhaps he'll look back on this time as a tipping point of sorts, when the speed of access peaked, or began to reveal diminishing returns. Who knows? One certain thing is that we will look back on 2014 as the gold old days when we had to [ ] this and [ ] that, as opposed to kids today with their [ ].

For what it's worth, the venerable Vin Scully called the 1980 World Series for CBS radio (with Sparky Anderson providing the color—I wish I'd listened to that!). I'm not sure that even Scully, the greatest living baseball radio announcer, could evoke Tug McGraw's triumphant mound leap as effectively and memorably as did NBC's camera crew.

Photo of fans listening to the 1929 World Series via Martin Turnbull.

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