In the early days of sportscasting, the roar of the crowd and the crack of the bat didn’t always come from the ballpark. Dick Meister, a longtime Bay Area journalist, describes how the radio play-by-play sometimes came from creative announcers who weren’t watching the game.
Panoramic camera shots from high above the field of play, shots from so close we can see sweat dripping from the players, instant replays, slow motion shots from the right of plays, from the left, from the rear, head on ….
Despite today’s technological razzle-dazzle, it’s not anywhere near as exciting as baseball was on the radio in those far away days before television.
I remember back then, back in the 1940s when we’d sit fidgeting in my living room, three or four of us usually, pounding our baseball gloves and staring with great expectation into the glowing green eye near the top of the tall radio that stood in a corner.
Suddenly there’d be the muffled sound of a crowd roaring, and we’d jump to our feet as a homely, compelling voice shouted out to us:
“It’s going … going … it’s gone! Right through Aunt Maggie’s window! A home run! A homer! It was Jack Macdonald, the radio voice of the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League in the 1940s. He was the wondrous source of inning-by-inning reports on the progress of our team, at home in Seals Stadium or, especially, on the road in Hollywood, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle and other West Coast cities that seemed as far off and exotic as any places on earth.
“The Old Walnut Farmer,” Macdonald called himself, although it’s unlikely he had ever been any such thing. Actually, he was a native San Franciscan and graduate of the nearby University of California, where he had been a not-very-successful pitcher on the varsity baseball team.
But somewhere along the line, maybe during his lonely rounds as a bakery wagon driver while working his way through the university, Macdonald taught himself to talk the way us city folks thought farmers talked, and otherwise developed an imagination that was more than a match for even those of the most fantasy-prone 8-year-olds.
Imagination was a great asset in Macdonald’s occupation. Its leading practitioner, Bill Stern, “the most inventive sports broadcaster since Baron von Muenchaussen,” as sportswriter Red Smith once recalled, “solemnly assured us that when President Lincoln lay dying, the man he called to his bedside was not Andrew Johnson, his vice president, or Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who had just accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, but Gen. Abner Doubleday. ‘General Doubleday, don’t let baseball die,’ the president whispered, and breathed his last.’ ”
Macdonald’s inventiveness fairly burst on us when the Seals were playing outside the city. Macdonald rarely traveled to those games. Like every other baseball announcer of the time, he stayed behind in a radio studio when his team was on the road, while at the far-off ballpark a Western Union operator tapped out a pitch-by-pitch summary of the action in Morse Code.
Another operator in the studio typed up a terse running translation and tossed it in front of the announcer as he leaned into a fat black microphone emblazoned with his station’s call letters and maybe a jagged streak of lightning or some other racy symbol of the marvel of electricity.
“S1C [strike one, called] … S2 [strike two, swinging],” the studio operator’s summary would report, “B1L [ball one, low] … double to right … .”
Through Macdonald’s voice, S1C became “a wide-breakin’ curve that sure didn’t look like it went over that old platter from here, folks … C’mon, ump, give us a break.”
S2 was “an air-shatterin’ ripple at the horsehide that coulda ramycackled that pill right outa here!”
Macdonald thanked the umpire when he called the B1L, a pitch so low “it dang near bounced off’n old Frenchy’s toe.” And that double, what a wonder! It went “back, back, back,” a sure homer through Aunt Maggie’s window — until it inexplicably sailed down at the very last moment and “banged like a sledgehammer off’n the fence,” as outfielders ran themselves dizzy trying to catch up to the ball, and Frenchy Uhalt of the Seals went “a-churnin’ like a freight train” into second base.
The cryptic symbols passed to Macdonald were all he needed to put us in the ballpark. That and recorded game sounds swelling up behind him, fans roaring, fans heckling, vendors singing out — “hey cold beer, gitchyer cold beer here” — and other noise appropriate to the action he was describing, including people calling out the names of particular players.
Macdonald was helped, too, by his own strong belief in poetic license and that of radio technicians, like the sound engineer who blew a factory whistle exactly at 10 p.m. during the broadcasts of night games in Portland, because just beyond the centerfield fence of the ballpark there stood a foundry whose shifts changed exactly at 10 p.m.
Macdonald also made a lot of his own sounds. He’d strike a pencil on a baseball bat hanging beside him and — crack! — someone had smacked out a hit. He’d pound his fist into a glove and, slap, someone had made “a really sensational catch.” Or at least “a great catch.” Routine catches were almost as rare as left-handed shortstops. So was the hitter who didn’t step from the batter’s box to wipe at sweat pouring down his face, who didn’t glare at umpires.
Fans always tussled in the stands for foul balls, flags always billowed in the ballpark breeze, becalmed though the park actually might be. Macdonald, certainly, never failed to describe thick clouds of black smoke that seemed to “belch” with astonishing regularity from the foundry behind the ballpark in Portland.
Nothing stopped the patter of Macdonald and the other announcers, not even frequent interruptions in Western Union transmissions. Rarely did they admit to “technical difficulties.” Instead, they conjured up field-drenching rainstorms, the sounds of thunder and pounding rain provided by their engineers; fist fights in the stands so fierce the game had to be stopped while park police grappled with the combatants; players who got into lengthy arguments with umpires or who stepped out of the batter’s box to confer at great length with managers.
Anything could happen, and often did, depending on the fertility of the announcer’s imagination. Few, if any, broadcasters admitted, as did Dizzy Dean in a moment of rare announcer candor while describing a St. Louis Cardinals game, that “we ain’t gettin’ the stuff the way we’re handin’ it out to you. They send us a few words from the ballpark and we have to make up the rest. It’s a lotta bunk.”
Ronald Reagan — he was Dutch Reagan the broadcaster in those days — used to brag about having a batter foul off 40 straight pitches after the telegraph wire broke down during one of the Chicago Cub games he re-created in the mid-1930s. Even Macdonald never went that far. His favorite, anyway, was a dog loose on the field. He’d have cops, players, umpires, fans, everybody but the Old Walnut Farmer himself chasing little black dogs all over the diamond for the longest damn times.
“Oh, he’s a cute little fella. White spots all over his face … Whoops, looks like Old Pard’s got ‘im … Nope, not quite. There he goes a-runnin’ to centerfield, lickety-split. Slippery little cuss.”
The announcers were as reluctant to admit mistakes as they were to acknowledge breakdowns in transmissions. One of the most creatively reluctant, surely, was Dean Maddox, who re-created road games for the Oakland Acorns of the Pacific Coast League. After inadvertently skipping over one of the hometown Rainiers’ half-innings during a game from Seattle one night and thus immediately following the end of an Oakland half-inning with the start of another Oakland half-inning, Maddox explained coolly that he was describing something that had “never happened before in baseball history — the Rainiers are so far ahead, they’ve waived their turn at bat.”
Sportswriter Scott Ostler recalled “the time a minor league manager stayed home with the flu and listened to the re-created game on the radio. At one point the announcer, Dick Stratton, realized he was somehow one out behind the action, so to correct the problem he had a runner picked off first base. The manager immediately fired off a telegram fining the player $25 for being picked off.”
Jack Macdonald wasn’t the only Scotsman in the re-creation business. There also was Gordon McLendon of the Liberty Broadcasting System, who re-created a “major league game of the day” over some 450 stations around the country.
McLendon called himself “The Old Scotchman” — an 87-year-old “Scotchman,” to be precise — even though he was in his 20s; claimed great experience, even though he had seen exactly one major league game before he began re-creating the games via Western Union from a subterranean studio in Dallas after World War II, and otherwise was at least the equal of Old Walnut Farmer Macdonald, if not of Bill Stern.
McLendon’s deep, rich voice was every bit as exciting and compelling as Macdonald’s, he could rap a pencil against a bat as convincingly, his crowds and players were as noisy and hyperactive, and his games seemed to attract just as many stray dogs adept at broken-field running. McLendon’s studio technicians weren’t slouches, either. He had an engineer who duplicated the sound of the public address system by sticking his head into a wastebasket to announce batters as they stepped to the plate, and to periodically alert doctors to please call their offices.
McLendon kept at it for more than four years, until his poetic license was revoked by major league club owners. They forced his independent radio network out of business in 1951 by denying his telegraph operators access to their stadiums, largely for fear that McLendon’s re-creations of big league games were keeping fans away from the vastly less entertaining games at the owners’ minor league parks.
If only we had been as smart as author Willie Morris, who listened to McLendon’s games as a kid in Mississippi but also listened to the live broadcasts of games that were beamed around the world by Armed Forces Radio. Willie, as he recalled in his autobiography, “North Toward Home,” would monitor the shortwave broadcasts of games from New York City, which McLendon re-created an hour after the fact because of a lag in telegraphic transmissions. Then, notes in hand, Willie would saunter into one of the grocery stores or firehouses where listening to McLendon was a daily ritual and accurately predict, pitch-by-pitch and play-by-play, precisely what the Old Scotchman was about to report.
“Yogi’s gonna hit a one-one pitch down the right field line,” Wilie would say, “and it’s gonna be fair by about three or four feet — I can’t say exactly — and Henrich’s gonna score from second, but the throw is gonna get Yogi at second by a mile.”
And sure enough, over the radio it would come: “Henrich takes the lead off second. Benton looks over, stretches, delivers. Yogi swings. There’s a line drive down the right side! It’s barely inside the foul line. It may go for extra bases! Henrich’s rounding third and coming in with a run. Berra’s moving toward second. Here comes the throw! … And they get him! They get Yogi easily on the slide at second!”
“Extra-vision,” Willie called the peculiar talent that made him the wonder of Yazoo, Mississippi — until his father spoiled it all by giving his secret away.
Some grownups sneered at the re-created games. They called McLendon, Macdonald and the others con men because, with few exceptions, they never let on that they were in radio studios rather than ballparks and led most people to think, like Willie Morris’ neighbors, that they were broadcasting live.
But so what? The re-creations were much more exciting than most live broadcasts. Thanks to the imaginative announcers, every game sounded like the biggest of the year. Jack Macdonald didn’t have to be at those out-of-town ballparks any more than we did. We had been at Seals Stadium.
Just mention the name of any player and we could see him, and the moves we tried every day to imitate. Frenchy Uhalt, we knew how he stood all crouched down on the left side of home plate, the way he ran so smoothly after fly balls, that fluid right-handed throw, how he shook his head in a slow, tongue-clucking way and stood right up next to umpires when he was arguing, the bow-legged walk, his every mannerism.
No one will ever see any players on television or maybe not even in person as clearly as we saw the San Francisco Seals during the Old Walnut Farmer’s radio broadcasts — or ever see any games that are more exciting.
We didn’t even mind the commercials, at least not when they involved players endorsing Wheaties, as they often did. That meant we could hear as well as see our heroes, and we liked Wheaties. We were sure they did, too. Ballplayers wouldn’t lie, and neither would announcers.
Postscript: Jack Macdonald died in 1962 in Scott’s Valley, four years after suffering a stroke.