Baseball augurs the beginning of spring,
but be careful in listening to the sports’ announcers.

Donald Demarco considers the joys – some unintended – of baseball

The truest harbinger of spring is not the appearance of crocuses or the arrival of swallows at Capistrano, but the reverberating crack of bat meeting ball.

Winter was long and dreary. Her characteristic sounds – the howling winds, the scraping of snow shovels, the grinding of stalled engines – were not music to anyone’s ear. But the sharp, clear crack of the bat is a sound of cosmic significance, coinciding with planet Earth tilting on its axis to allow the commencement of spring and another glorious season of baseball.

The highly respected political analyst and baseball aficionado, George Will, fully understands both the natural and supernatural significance of that special sound. According to the author of Statecraft as Soulcraft and Bunts, “When Thomas Aquinas was ginning up proofs of God’s existence, he neglected to mention the ash tree. It is the source of the Louisville Slugger and hence conclusive evidence that a kindly mind superintends the universe.”

Will’s proof, though not scientifically detailed, moves quickly from the Big Bang to the emergence of planet Earth and then to an atmosphere that causes rain to patter on Pennsylvania ridge tops where ash trees grow. These trees grow surrounded by other trees that protect the ashes from wind-twisting so that they grow straight and produce wood that is the ideal temper for making the musical “crack” that is “the sound the cosmos makes each spring when it clears its throat and says, ‘We made it through another winter.’”

For many, however, that ringing, musical crack will be heard, not on the playing field, but over the air through the magic of radio. Yet, what withdrawal symptoms many would experience if baseball-on-the-radio were turned off. Roger Angel, during the 1981 baseball strike, wrote an essay entitled, “The Silence,” in which he described his own intense sense of “the loss of that murmurous little ribbon of baseball-by-radio.” Radio connects with fans whether they are at the office, at the beach, driving their cars, barbecuing in their backyards or recovering in a hospital room. It keeps spring and hope alive in the human heart.

Baseball announcers, however, are a curious lot and not always equal to their lofty task. They have the capacity to hold legions of listeners spellbound as they report the game’s unfolding drama. On the other hand, imperfect as they are, they can achieve a dubious immortality by comically misrepresenting what transpires on the battlefield.

Blue Jays fans of old might recall with pained amusement some of Early Wynn’s unintended inaccuracies, such as his description of a fly ball to “mediocre” right field. They might recall with anger, however, Bob Costas’s deathless remark in Game One of the 1989 American League Championship Series that “Elvis has a better chance of coming back than the Jays.”

Dizzy Dean, one of many ballplayers-turned-broadcasters, was notorious for his bad grammar. “Old Diz knows the king’s English,” he once said on his radio show. “And not only that. I also know the Queen is English.” Nonetheless, for Old Diz, “Rizzuto slud into second,” players returned to their “respectable bases” and, at least once, “the tying and winning runts” were “on second and third.”

Not every announcer had the Tiger broadcaster Ernie Harwell’s flair for the poetic: “Baseball is a ballet without music. Drama without words. A carnival without kewpie dolls,” nor Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully’s penchant for the bon mot: “How good was Stan Musial? He was good enough to take your breath away.” Ron Fairly, an ex-Blue Jay who called Giant games, for example, was incomparably more prosaic: “Last night, I neglected to mention something that bears repeating;” “The wind at Candlestick tonight is blowing with great propensity;” “He fakes a bluff.”

The late Cubs announcer, Harry Caray, never known to be shy about stealing the spotlight (“The Lord wants the Cubbies to win the pennant!”) once exclaimed after observing a player drop a fly ball: “Aw, how could he lose the ball in the sun. He’s from Mexico.”

No less a luminary than former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, himself an ex-baseball broadcaster, could not resist seizing the microphone at the 1989 All-Star game. When Wade Boggs homered, following a centrefield shot by Bo Jackson, Reagan’s laconic comment was, “That looks like it’s going there, too.”

Frankie Frisch once told his listeners that, “It’s a beautiful day for a night game.” National League president Bill White once reported that, “Winfield robs Armas of at least a homerun.” Too bad. Baseball almost had its first five-base hit.

Former Blue Jay announcer Tommy Hutton observed that 45-year-old Tommy John is “not the fielder he was 10 or 15 years ago.” Mets’ legendary broadcaster Ralph Kiner explained that “all of Steve Bedrosian’s saves have come during relief appearances.” Typical of these Kinerisms, the former Pirate slugger informed his listeners that, “All of the Mets road wins against Los Angeles this year have been at Dodger Stadium.” In a more personal reflection as a TV announcer, he once confessed: “I don’t think we had the pressures then that ballplayers have now, because there was no television.” He played in the 1940s and 1950s.

Consider the following real, live calls: “He swings and hits a nubber to left, it’s off the wall on one bounce at the 390-foot mark …” “The Phillies scored two runs in the fourth, but the Braves countered with one run in the second.” “The Mets just had their first .500 or better April since July of 1992.” “The sky is so clear today you can see all the way to Missouri” (at a game played in Kansas City, Mo.). When the news of the passing of Pope Paul VI was announced at Yankee stadium, Phil Rizzuto’s comment was, “Holy cow, that would put a damper even on a Yankee win.”

If there were an award for baseball broadcasting’s most hilarious gaffe, it might go to Padres’ announcer Jerry Coleman, a former Yankee second baseman. Despite his familiarity with second base, he is remembered for describing one player “sliding” into second base with a “standup double,” and another “stealing” second base by “sliding standing up.” On another occasion, he exclaimed, “They throw Winfield out at second and he’s safe.”

Many Colemanisms are legendary: “There’s a hard shot to LeMaster – and he throws Madlock in the dugout;” “McCovey swings and misses and its fouled off;” “George Hendrick simply lost that sun-blown pop-up;” “Grubb goes back, back. He’s under the warning track;” “Enos Cabell started out here with the Astros. And before that he was with the Orioles;” “Hrabosky looks fierce in the Fu Manchu haircut.”

But the piece de resistence is Coleman’s description of a fly ball to outfielder David Winfield: “Winfield goes back to the wall. He hits his head on the wall and it rolls off! It’s rolling all the way back to second base! This is a terrible thing for the Padres!” And it was a terrible moment for baseball broadcasting, though highly amusing. One hopes that Winfield’s mom was not tuned to the game, listening to Coleman’s account. Winfield, of course, did not lose his head. In fact, he later led the 1992 Blue Jays to their first World Championship.

“Baseball,” as someone said, “is a game designed to break your heart.” But it is also a game that displays hope, courage, perseverance, dedication and fierce loyalty. And if the fortunes of the home team can ultimately break one’s heart, listening to baseball broadcasts on the radio can be more injurious – it can cause one to die of laughter.

Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.