Wednesday, June 22, 2016

America's Game: Baseball's Hidden Heroes

America's Game: Baseball's Hidden Heroes

While many will associate baseball teams as merely comprising of the athletes, the direction from the dugout and the folks behind the microphones are just as important. Imagine your home team without its leader, or the voices that provide play by play commentary! Many of these coaches and announcers once had on-field careers.

The first full-time coaches in professional baseball date to 1909, when the New York Giants’ John McGraw hired Wilbert Robinson and Arlie Latham as coaches. By the 1920s, most Major League teams had two full-time coaches, although the manager often doubled as third-base coach, and specialists, such as pitching coaches, were rare. You had to know it all to coach! After World War II, most MLB teams listed between three and five coaches on their roster, as managers increasingly ran their teams from the dugout full-time, and appointed pitching, batting, and baseline coaches to assist them and the baseline coaches. Because of the proliferation of uniformed coaches in the modern game, Major League Baseball now restricts the number of uniformed staff to six coaches and one manager during a game. A benefit to having former players as coaches is they know what it’s like to be directed and how to play the game every day, and can have reasonable expectations for their players.

Wilbert Robinson (center) and Arlie Latham (Right)
New York Giants dugout, 1909
Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons

In most sports leagues, the coach is easily identified by his clothing. However, in baseball, the manager and coaches typically all wear numbered team uniforms, just like their players, with few exceptions. Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack always wore a black suit during his 50 years at the helm of the Philadelphia Athletics, and Burt Shotton, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the late 1940s, wore a Dodger cap and a team jacket over street clothes in the dugout. After the widespread adoption of numbered uniforms in the early 1930s, Joe McCarthy, another Hall of Fame manager, wore a full uniform but no number on his back for the remainder of his career (with the New York Yankees, then the Boston Red Sox). Coincidentally, all three men retired during or after the same season — 1950.

Teams may also employ individuals to work with players in other areas or activities. These positions sometimes include the word "coach" in their titles, but these people do not dress in uniform during games, to avoid not putting the team outside of the MLB restrictions. The most prominent of these positions are the athletic trainer and the strength and conditioning coach. Other members of the coaching staff include bullpen catcher and batting practice pitcher. Some teams also employ additional coaches without specific responsibilities.

Ronald Reagan, WHO Radio Sportscaster
Photo Credit: Des Moines Register 
While the coaches give the teams feedback, broadcasters give the fans their own. The first baseball game ever broadcast on radio was a Pittsburgh Pirates versus Philadelphia Phillies game on August 5, 1921. The game was broadcast by KDKA of Pittsburgh, and the Pirates defeated the Phillies 8-5. It was broadcast by KDKA staff announcer Harold Arlin. That year, KDKA and WJZ of Newark broadcast the first World Series on the radio, with Grantland Rice and Tommy Cowan calling the games for KDKA and WJZ, respectively. The next year, WJZ broadcast the entire series, with Rice doing play-by-play.

Often, the broadcasters were not actually present at the game, but simply gave reports telegraphed to them from the stadium. From the years 1933-36, a young Ronald Reagan provided commentary for the Chicago Cubs. During one game, he lost his feed, and simply ad-libbed possible scenarios to avoid dead air.

For the 1923 World Series, Rice had a partner for the first time: Graham McNamee. Rice was the leading broadcaster, but during the fourth inning of Game 3, he turned the microphone over McNamee, making him the first “color commentator” - a person ad-libs when the game isn’t actually in progress. Although frequently criticized for his lack of expertise, McNamee helped popularize baseball.

As the Golden Era of the 1950s wound down, radio broadcasts were gradually eclipsed by television. The World Series continued to be broadcast on the radio, with NBC Radio covering the Series from 1960–1975, and CBS Radio from 1976–1997. However, after 1960 there would not be regular-season baseball broadcast nationally on the radio until 1985 when CBS Radio started a Game of the Week. Most teams do have a local broadcasting outlet to provide games to their fans.

Richie Ashburn's Hall of Fame Plaque
By Peter Bond, via Wikimedia 
The broadcast booth is another place for a player to have a second career. Two of the most famous players to do so are Bob Uecker and Richie Ashburn. Uecker lasted only six seasons (1962-67), yielding a low .200 batting average and only 14 Major League home runs on the field, but he has been the Milwaukee Brewers’ announcer since 1971. His comedic timing earned him over 100 invitations to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where Carson dubbed him, “Mr. Baseball.” Richie Ashburn began his baseball career with the Philadelphia Phillies, spending 11 years on the team, including the 1950 World Series team before being traded to the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets. He had a .308 batting average for his career, and his career 2,576 hits places him in top 80 career hitters of all time (as of May 2016). When he died in 2007, not having “Whitey’s” voice calling the game was a strange experience for generations of fans who had been listening to him since 1963.

Another memorable broadcasting voice is Harry Kalas.  During the summer, he was known by Phillies fans for his hallmark "Swing...and a long drive...this ball is outta here!" when a home run was launched to the stands, and leading the crowd in post-game performances of the song "High Hopes."  Kalas broadcast for the Phillies for nearly forty years, until literally the day he died.  (Kalas collapsed in the booth just before the start of the April 13, 2009 Phillies-Nationals game, and died shortly after being taken to the hospital.)  However, many outside of baseball recognize his distinct voice because he was also the announcer for  Inside the NFL during the baseball off-season, and provided voice-overs to the NFL for nearly 30 years.

A wise man once said, “Sometimes it’s what you don’t see that matters the most.” That certainly is the case with these “hidden” heroes at the ballpark. While many believe a baseball team to comprise only of the athletes at the plate, the coaches that train them and the broadcasters who popularize their names are equally important.  Commentators and broadcasters allow fans to experience the game as if they were in the stands themselves watching the payoff of a coach’s hard work.

Harry Kalas Cover Photo Credit: Sons of Penn

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