Radio Days: A Treasure Trove of Old-Time Baseball

Listening to baseball on the radio is unmatched in sports. (via James Case)

What does a baseball fan do when the season is over?

Rogers Hornsby had a reply so famous (“I stare out the window and wait for spring.”) that it’s now a cliché. Hornsby also had far fewer options than we do today. If we need baseball for the four months when major league baseball is in hibernation, we can get it.

A non-exhaustive list of alternatives starts to the south. Winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela keep the flame burning. Their respective champions join up (along with a Cuban team in recent years) for the Serie del Caribe to crown a Caribbean champion. This year, it was Criollos de Caguas of Puerto Rico defending their title, bringing joy to a hurricane-ravaged region much as the World Series did for the Houston Astros.

The traditional crutch for American baseball fans is the Hot Stove. While it had an intriguing start this offseason with the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, since then there has been much more talk about what hasn’t been happening (and why) than about what has. This may be adequate for commentators but for few others.

If looking toward the future is unsatisfying, there’s the past. There are DVD collections of famous baseball games one can plunge into, and I’ve done that in the past. There is an even bigger collection of old games at the MLBClassics channel of YouTube, and I have made use of that in years past as well.

This winter, however, I turned the dial in another direction.

Several years ago, I found a modest collection of old radio baseball broadcasts at the Internet Archive. I downloaded a couple, headlined by the 1949 Yankees-Red Sox regular-season finale that decided the pennant race between them. Despite its technical problems (some short stretches were missing, filled in with voice-over on lost results), it was a fascinating keyhole view into the game–and the radio coverage–of two-thirds of a century ago.

Then I forgot about the collection until a couple months ago. A link from a message board led me back to the Internet Archive, where I found a new collection. The old one had been maybe a couple dozen files. This one had 360, spanning from 1934 to 1973. There were a few repeats, and one radio broadcast from the grand opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame, but that still left hundreds of games to explore.

What a cornucopia this was! In this age where things that aren’t available on video may as well have not happened, this was almost like a time machine. A time machine with a lot of static and other technical glitches, but hey, they can’t all be DeLoreans.

That’s how I came to spend much of my winter in the midst of summer, or quite often the early fall. My explorations ranged from Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang to Charlie Finley and the Mustache Gang. I heard voices long passed, and only recently gone, and a couple who are still with us. The one great flaw was that I usually knew how the game would end, but I found the roads to my destinations were worth the traveling.

What did I find along the way? I’m glad somebody asked the question, because I am going to tell you.

Coverage

Our benefactor, whoever it was, seems to have lived in the New York area. There are plenty of Yankees games, not just from the World Series but also the regular season, especially in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. There are also plenty of Mets games, from 1962 onward, during an era when you’d think Mets fans would want to burn the tapes. The Brooklyn Dodgers even get into the act, with a nice sprinkling of ordinary games in the mid-’50’s before the move west.

There are plenty of World Series games, but not nearly all for the extensive period, especially early on. There’s not a complete Series until 1948. Four from between 1940 and 1950 are missing altogether. Things finally become mostly complete later on. The 1967 to 1973 World Series are all there—except for 1972, which is skipped altogether. Even for a gift, it’s frustrating sometimes.

(Also, at least one World Series game wasn’t a radio broadcast. Game Seven from 1952 was the audio track from the television broadcast. You can see that game on YouTube’s MLBClassics channel, as I did years ago.)

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The collection is geographically concentrated but not geographically limited. An early World Series was carried by a station in Chicago. One Angels game I heard came through Arizona. This person appears to have been a serious collector of taped baseball radio-casts, the way others might have been with VHS tapes in the 1980’s and ‘90’s. That dedication redounds to our gain today.

Can You Hear Me Now?

There is a price to pay for taking a plunge this deep into baseball history: Audio quality is a mixed bag. There is static; there are cuts in the tapes; there are some distortions you can hear come and go, round and round, as the reel turns.

Though the trend is for older recordings to be worse, the degradation isn’t uniform with time. Broadcasts from the 1970’s can have as many flaws as those from the 1940’s. It’s probably best to say that the old games have a lower baseline, from static introduced by the less refined recording methods of the day, while newer games can still fall well short of their potential.

Quality isn’t uniform in a single broadcast, either. I keenly remember the day I was shoveling out from a snowstorm while listening to Game Four of the 1941 World Series. I was so pleased with the relatively good quality of the recording—until in the last few innings it grew muddy, requiring much more concentration to make out the call of the game.

I had a similar experience with Game Two of the 1934 Series, but with a sharp twist. Already somewhat smothered by static, the announcer’s voice grew ever more nondescript in the eighth and ninth. Finally, at a ninth-inning climax, it was swallowed altogether by the noises of the cheering crowd at Navin Field in Detroit.

My disappointment was followed closely by new voices explaining matters. The main announcer had been fighting a cold and had lost, his voice finally giving out on the game-tying hit! His substitutes shouldered the load through the end of the contest, in 12 innings.

Lost pieces of a broadcast are also a hazard. Often it is a second or two, or even less, but there are definitely exceptions. A 1969 recording was missing two full innings, plus two batters. The space was filled with a modern voice-over, telling listeners those innings were pretty boring anyway, then giving a play-by-play that confirmed this assessment. Other games are merely partial, and sometimes but not always labeled as such. For example, a quarter-hour into Game Three of the 1950 World Series recording, we’re already in the fifth. (They kept the anthem but promptly lost four innings.)

Game Five of the 1956 World Series was quite rough in this respect, but someone found a creative work-around. That file was spliced together from three separate broadcasts of the game, usually cutting at inning change-overs, one filling in what another missed. It was my bad luck that Vin Scully was by far the smallest patch in this crazy quilt of a game.

Other times the stitch work was less precise. I found a few games where tape splicing led to hearing the same piece of action repeated. The repetition could last for less than a minute or as long as four or five minutes during one World Series game. It’s better than losing plays, but it’s still not ideal.

Occasionally, game action would be lost not through recording or editing failures but during the broadcast itself. The third game of the 1962 National League playoff (Giants versus Dodgers) was interrupted several times for news bulletins. Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra was completing his mission orbiting the Earth, and every stage of his descent, splashdown, and recovery received a special report. This cost listeners a couple pitches or a play here and there.

[Spoiler alert: Schirra got down safely.]

Now, the pennant race yielding to the Space Race is one thing, but to a horse race? That happened in the New York Mets’ last game of the 1973 regular season, when they beat the Cubs to clinch the NL East. An upstate New York station interrupted baseball for a recreation call of the second race at Belmont, apparently sponsored by OTB, the state government’s Off-Track Betting corporation. Not the Kentucky Derby; not the Belmont Stakes. Just the second at Belmont.

Good thing Rusty Staub got his two home runs out of the way early. I would have been irked if I’d missed one.

Pace of Play-By-Play

There is a lot of talk nowadays, some of it by me, about games getting ever longer. Is this in evidence in the radio archives? Yes and no. It is clear those earlier games are shorter than today’s. There’s also a mild trend within the ‘30’s-to-‘70’s stretch of games taking more time, but there’s a signal-to-noise (or sometimes lack of it) matter that jumbles the numbers: advertisements. Many of the recordings have the ads cut out; others leave them in.

Which you prefer as a listener is a matter of taste, not to mention how much time you have to spare. I was glad to have the commercials trimmed for Game Two of the 1973 World Series. That 12-inning tussle clocked in as the longest postseason game yet played, at four hours and 13 minutes. (There have been 59 longer postseason games since then, including five in the last three World Series alone.)

But old radio commercials can be part of the immersion into the era you’re visiting, and they can also show a clear historical pattern. In the 1934 World Series broadcast, there were next to no advertisements. The sponsorship of Ford was announced before the game began, and a few times between innings a short statement was read saying Ford hoped we were enjoying the game. In our hard-sell age, that is so soft it seems like it would blow away at a breath.

By 1941, the Series had recognizable in-booth advertisements. The sponsor that year was Gillette, early in a campaign that would make its brand name, and a certain jingle, close to synonymous with radio and TV sporting events for a couple decades. Fortunately, nobody was singing in the radio booth in ‘41: you need pre-recorded ads for that.

Those had come along by the early ‘60’s. “Quaint” isn’t a word I use often, but when listening to 55-year-old ads for Studebaker and Schlitz, it recommended itself to me. I’m sure some people back then found them tedious and annoying, evidence of the decline of standards. It makes me wonder how baseball fans looking back from 2070 will regard the ads that make us roll our eyes or reach for the remote control today.

Before very long, the institutionalization of lengthening between-inning breaks becomes clear. By 1969, one-minute pre-recorded ads were standard, augmented by frequent 30-second station identification breaks that became supplemental local ad time. These ads sometimes ran long enough to swallow up a pitch or two of resumed action. And there was still a long way to go to reach present-day commercial lengths.

Before leaving the subject, I’ll relate a humorous anecdote. The recording of Game Seven of the 1962 World Series was from a re-broadcast by NBC Radio, years after the event. I thought I had pinned down how many years from a Pennzoil ad, featuring “two-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford.” Entering Sherlock mode, I looked up the dates of Rutherford’s second and third wins at Indianapolis, and concluded that the replay was aired between 1976 and 1980.

I—well, actually Pennzoil—was wrong. Post-game commentary revealed the game was re-aired to fill NBC Game of the Week space left vacant by the ongoing players’ strike. The year was 1981. Pennzoil had aired a celebrity endorsement whose central celebrity fact was more than a year out of date. Oh, well. This is what I usually get when I play Sherlock.

The Voices

While I was tailoring my listening choices to pivotal games and great performances, I also paid attention to the announcers. Well-known names and voices added extra flavor to the nostalgic mix, and occasionally unknown and unexpected names did too.

For the climax of the 1951 National League playoff, the radio voice was anything but a familiar one. The game had Red Barber, Vin Scully, and the soon to be immortalized Russ Hodges in the press box (though Scully didn’t even get to call the game). My recording, though, had someone you’ve probably never heard of: Gordon McClendon of the Liberty Broadcasting System.

McClendon didn’t work for Liberty; he owned Liberty. He had founded the network to do primarily re-creations of baseball games, where announcers read news tickers describing the games and made up the action in a radio studio far from the field. For this game, though, he was in the Polo Grounds and giving the action live. Though he wouldn’t make anyone forget Red Barber, he may have been the best owner-announcer the game has known.

(It was close to a last hurrah for him. Commissioner Ford Frick soon massively hiked the licensing fees for re-creations. A suit by McClendon failed to overturn this ruling, and he folded Liberty.)

Another game filled in an early period for a big name in sportscasting: Al Michaels. I had not known that he worked for the Cincinnati Reds in the early 1970’s (which perhaps just proves that I should have read his recent memoir). But there he was, calling the final game of the 1972 NLCS alongside Joe Nuxhall.

(I had forgotten the ignominious end of this game, the Pirates being eliminated by the Reds when pitcher Bob Moose uncorked a wild pitch to bring home the winning run. The pang is multiplied, for it was the final game of Roberto Clemente.)

From 1967, I got to hear a St. Louis-Boston World Series game called by Harry Caray while he was a Cardinals announcer, before the Cubs claimed him as forever their own. From the following year, with Detroit facing St. Louis in the Series, it was Ernie Harwell and Jack Buck trading duty. Each time, the road team had its man in the national-broadcast booth. Also, each time their color commentator was Pee Wee Reese, whom many do not remember as having called baseball games. Something more I learned.

One of the earliest games I listened to came after a sad event: the death of Dick Enberg. In tribute to the beloved sportscaster, I selected a game he called at the end of 1973: Angels hosting Twins, with Nolan Ryan 15 strikeouts short of tying Sandy Koufax’s single-season mark of 382.

To claim the record, Ryan could either put up a huge K number that day or save some bullets for a last chance in the season finale three days later. I won’t spoil the result, but it doesn’t give much away to observe that Ryan didn’t make half-efforts.

Enberg was fully up to covering a chase after history, but it was his booth-mate who had the call of the night—not that his was an unworthy voice. With Enberg that evening was Dave Niehaus, who four years later would join the expansion Seattle Mariners and call their games for a third of a century. He had the mic in the top of the seventh, with two outs and George Mitterwald behind 0-and-2. As Nolan came set, Niehaus said, “We’ll let the crowd tell you this one.” A second later, the cheers of 9,000 Angels fans told me Ryan had notched his 14th strikeout of the game.

You show-off, Niehaus. You wonderful show-off.

Enberg didn’t end up fully eclipsed by this incident in my tour of the past. Some weeks later, I decided to catch the inaugural game—and as it turned out, the only Opening Day—of the Seattle Pilots. They began their 1969 season in Anaheim, playing the California Angels. To my surprise and pleasure, this was the first major-league game ever called by, yes, Dick Enberg. Even with two innings lost to the tape gremlins, as I noted above, it was a satisfying time with Enberg, not to mention a pretty good game by the end.

Highlights included Enberg invoking, during a staredown before the very first pitch, the 20-second rule! Wait, you mean umpires have a mechanism to keep the game moving along without an on-field pitch clock? Astounding. Then in the bottom of the first, he reported that his wife in the stands had just caught a foul ball! Given the career he would have, one might call that a very good omen.

The most educational highlight came when Diego Seguí entered in relief for the Pilots. Enberg observed that, just like Luis Tiant, Seguí had a “show the batter your number” turn in his windup. I know about Tiant’s gyrations, but I thought they had come about after the injuries that robbed him of his fastball and made him metamorphose from a power pitcher into a maestro of guile. Instead, he had the original twist while he was still pumping gas. I would never have known this had I not listened to the radio call of a baseball team that hasn’t existed for almost half a century.

Say What?

Another area where I hoped to receive some education was pronunciation. There are names in baseball’s past that are a little slippery in how they could sound. Hearing them named by announcers of the day seemed an easy way to confirm assumptions and clear up uncertainties.

Instead, it provided confusion. Charlie Gehringer had his last name pronounced with both a hard and soft final ‘g’ in the 1934 World Series, by the same announcer, sometimes within seconds of each other. Cookie Lavagetto, which one source told me had a hard ‘g’, got a soft one for the 1941 World Series. Earle Combs, whom I’d been taught rhymed with “tombs,” was pronounced just like the grooming implement when he was coaching in that same series. Tommy Henrich I thought I knew for sure, ending with a ‘k’ sound. In 1941, though, he was made to sound like a wealthy chicken: hen-rich.

Then there was Felipe Alou. Multiple broadcasters in multiple games (though in the same year, 1962) said his first name not with three syllables but with two. It made him sound almost French. One could automatically ascribe this to racism, yanqui radio men ignorant of–or indifferent to–Latin American pronunciations. After my previous experiences, though, I will not go that far. The problem transcended the boundaries of both America and the Dominican Republic.

Also, Ernie Harwell did nail the pronunciation of Julián Javier during the ‘68 Series. I figured we needed an upbeat ending.

On the Air

I had thought of giving my readers, at this point, a long retrospective of the games I had enjoyed via the radio archives over the past couple of months. The list would be replete with famous names (however they are pronounced) and celebrated moments in baseball history.

I could tell you how the crowd reacted when a pinch-running Dizzy Dean intercepted a throw to first base with his skull (producing the fabled, so-what-if-it’s-probably-apocryphal headline “X-RAYS OF DEAN’S HEAD SHOW NOTHING”). I could tell you whether and how the announcers broke the taboo to tell their listeners that Don Larsen was throwing, not just a no-hitter, but a perfect game. I could tell you how fast Willie McCovey’s liner reached Bobby Richardson’s glove. I could tell you whether Shea Stadium’s fans drowned out the announcers when the Miracle Mets won it all.

I won’t do that. If I did, you would have that much less reason to listen for yourself, and if you don’t listen, I will have failed.

There’s still a little while before baseball returns in earnest. Beyond that, sometime this autumn baseball is going to go away again. You need something to do while waiting for spring. https://archive.org/details/classicmlbbaseballradio” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>Here it is.

References and Resources


A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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sideshowraheem
Member
sideshowraheem

This was incredible! Thanks for including the link too. Really looking forward to listening to some of these when Im off the grid camping.

antone
Member
antone

I just started listening to 1934 WS Game 1 (first one I’m listening to) and the Ford commercial at the beginning sounds like something you might hear even today. Well, except for the inclusion of “Henry Ford.”

WVdave
Member
WVdave

Hey, thanks for the link to this amazing collection of radio games! Especially that 1951 NL playoff game with Gordon McClendon on “the second largest network in the world, the Liberty Broadcasting System.”