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How Radio Changed Baseball Fandom Forever

From Vin Scully to MLB At Bat, the rise of commercial radio continues to influence the way fans experience baseball today.

Mabel Rosenheck

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The first radio broadcast of a baseball game occurred on Friday, August 5, 1921. Harold Arlin, a foreman for Westinghouse—an electronics company that made radio receivers—had the call. We know it was aired by station KDKA in Pittsburgh, and we know that the Pirates won by a score of 8 to 5.

Though the rudimentary broadcast likely lacked the kind of descriptive detail that announcers are now famous for, listeners could use their imaginations to situate double plays and home run balls in the requisite infield dirt and the familiar outfield bleachers. Diving into their own memories of afternoons at the ballpark, they could paint a mental picture: the modernity of the concrete and steel of Forbes Field would match the modernity of radio as a new medium. In this moment, in this space, baseball entered a new era that was marked by new technologies. The broadcast collapsed time and space, inviting those listening at a distance into the community of the ballpark.

It still does. When we listen to games on the radio, we commune with our cities and our fandoms. Why radio particularly persists has something to do with nostalgia, certainly, but it also has to do with particular relationships of privacy and publicity that were created in the first half of the twentieth century and which are still with us in the twenty-first.

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For all we know about that first broadcast of the national pastime and for all we can imagine about it, we know less about who heard it. In 1921, commercial radio was still in its infancy. The airwaves were used for military communication and they played a role in the rescue of passengers aboard the Titanic, but radio was certainly not a mass medium where one voice could reach out across hundreds of miles and arrive at the homes of thousands and millions of listeners. Indeed, besides the Navy, the majority of radio listeners were amateur tinkerers, ham operators tuning in to a chaotic array of sounds on crystal sets.

As the medium developed throughout the course of the 1920s, networks like CBS and NBC established the commercial viability of radio through its ability to literally broadcast, to communicate from one to many. They hit upon a commercial model of making profit by marketing content to advertisers as a way to reach potential consumers and sell receivers.

Commercial radio didn't immediately set up shop in the private space of the living room, where we can imagine the archetypical 1930s family gathering around to listen to Roosevelt's Fireside Chats, or sitcoms like Amos 'n' Andy, or Red Barber broadcasting Dodger baseball. Before radios became domestic furniture, broadcasts aired in public spaces, on sidewalks outside electronic shops, in plazas outside newspaper office buildings. Before the radio waves were privatized by networks and listened to behind closed doors, they were a public good and they were listened to in public. The history of baseball media systematically bears out this transition.

Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, home of the first MLB game broadcast on the radio. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Starting in the nineteenth century, newspapers often sponsored billboards outside their offices that displayed box scores of baseball games, scores which they received over new, instantaneous forms of communication like the telegraph and the telephone. They would list lineups, monitor scores and counts, and sometimes feature drawn out diamonds where little figures would be moved from first to second to third to home.

With the coming of regular radio broadcasts, however, onlookers had more than an outline of the action played out visually. Now they could stand with fellow fans and, for free, listen to the action described to them as it happened in vivid detail over public address systems.

It took time for the broadcast to evolve from the bare bones of simply stating what happened, but eventually announcers would describe the grandstand and the outfield grass. They would describe the woolen uniforms with New York or Chicago spelled out in felt block letters. They would describe the batter standing in and winking at the pitcher as if he knows what's coming, a fastball or a curve. All in real time, the best broadcasters painted with words a picture of the game. Vin Scully is the living legacy of these early forms of broadcasting; then, there were no television images. There simply was language and imagination.

As the 1920s turned into the 1930s and PA systems were developed, games would be heard in those public spaces like the exterior of the newspaper office or the sidewalk outside the wireless shop. Unlike the ham radio tinkerers who would have needed middle-class time and money to pursue their hobby, here we could find people of all classes and all nationalities: the poor listening alongside the middle class, recent immigrants from Italy and Poland alongside native-born Americans. People would gather listening to the radio the way they would at Fenway Park or Griffith Stadium, though without an entrance fee. Anyone, in theory, was welcome.

Radio in public extended the modern, democratic space of the urban ballpark with even fewer barriers to participation. Like the ballpark, however, there were limitations. Women likely would have been absent from these scenes, but neighborhoods like Harlem would have provided parallel spaces in which blacks might hear the game, albeit in a segregated context.

Over the course of the 1930s and into the 1940s, however, the nature of radio changed. As radio receivers became simpler and more consumer-ready, they required less technical know-how. Prices came down. Standard frequencies were established. Programming was divided up into day parts with regularly scheduled programming. Now anyone could easily listen in from the comfort of their own living room without confronting the messy nature of the urban environment or the technological apparatus. National networks like NBC and CBS emerged, and advertiser supported programming targeted directly to the domestic consumer became the standard mode of doing business and profiting off of the publicly-owned airwaves.

With these developments, commercial radio entered the home. More and more people purchased receivers to set up in their living rooms for listening to The Goldbergs or taking in a ballgame. Radio went from public and collective to private and personal; it was now beamed into living rooms over elegant art deco receivers and state-of-the-art phonograph-radio combinations. The family sitcom format reflected the domestic setting of radio listening. Soap operas with their repetitive, open-ended structure reflected the rhythms of women's housework—and so did baseball.

Harry Caray began with the Cardinals in 1945. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Women have long been short-changed as sports fans, but because baseball games were played during the day throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the broadcast's obvious target audience was women at home. Thus the transition of baseball into the home, while limiting so much of the democratic potential of the public space, also encouraged new female fandoms that have been disavowed over and over again in the decades since.

The slow nature of baseball fosters the particularly literary quality of baseball writing and of baseball on the radio. The game invites speculation and conversation because it is characterized as much by silence as it is by action. The technology connects the announcer to millions of people, but it feels like Vin Scully is speaking just to you because he is beamed directly into your home.

But that warm feeling did not extend to the business side of baseball broadcasting. Though professional baseball has always been a business—notwithstanding its exemption from the Sherman Antitrust Act—radio introduced a new dimension to the game as a commercial enterprise, and the teams wanted to cash in on this, too. In 1939, a key court case—The Pittsburgh Athletic Company et al. v. KQV Broadcasting Company—decided that baseball broadcasts were private property that could be sold to networks.

The idea that the broadcast of baseball was in the public interest—and radio had to operate in the public interest, because the public, not corporations and networks, owned the airwaves—quickly eroded. As the Great Depression wore on, as people fought for unions, as they organized collectively, Major League Baseball responded by doubling down on its corporate identity, on its construction of the game as private property to be bought and sold.

According to the 1922 decision in Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League, baseball is not a business to be regulated by antitrust laws as interstate commerce; it is a game. But to this day, it operates like a business that owns things and monetizes things privately: "Any rebroadcast, retransmission, or account of this game, without the express written consent of Major League Baseball, is prohibited."

And yet. As much as broadcast baseball utilizes direct address to make audiences feel as if Vin Scully is speaking to me and me alone, as much as it represents broad currents of privatization in American life, the collective nature of sound persists. We still use broadcasting to come together and create face-to-face communities at the same time as we use the national pastime to see ourselves in broader terms as Americans. On city streets we can still hear games broadcast out open windows, listeners gathered on sidewalks. We can still hear games airing over mlb.radio on cell phones, listeners gathered together in public places where, for one reason or another, there is no television.

All of which is not just to suggest that the baseball past and the broadcast past are merely reflections of the histories of public space and private relationships. Or that MLB and the broadcast industries have failed the public by privatizing and profiting off of the airwaves that belong to all of us. Rather, it shows how the social relationships which radio and baseball constructed almost a hundred years ago are still with us, both for better and for worse. With mobile technologies, we can do the same thing kids in Brooklyn did in the 1950s, but the new image finds us sitting huddled around a cell phone instead of a transistor.

What has changed, though, is that we are not confined to home broadcasts or to the radius of a terrestrial transmitter. Wherever we are, we can receive digital signals from Citi Field or Citizen's Bank Park, from Wrigley Field or Dodger Stadium. We wait for our teams and our heroes to fail and to succeed on sidewalks as much as in living rooms and bedrooms, but we imagine new communities in the modern diasporas of displaced fans from far away cities. It isn't analog broadcasting anymore, though we still call it radio if it doesn't have pictures.

Meanwhile, for a few more months, there is one man who ties the past to the present, radio to television, analog to digital: Scully. Scully got his start in radio—apprenticing with Red Barber on Dodger broadcasts starting in 1950—and though his renown comes as much from national television calls as from his broadcast origins in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, his is a distinctly radio that blends play calling with rich description, attention to detail, and an ability to tell stories, both those with bearing on the game and those without.

His approach to announcing is a throwback to the intimate beginnings of radio's direct address. Scully has said that he broadcasts alone because he prefers the conversational feeling that arrangement produces, the feeling that he is speaking to you and you alone, the feeling that he is telling us a story, constructing narratives not just out of what happens on the field but also out of who is there on the field. He makes us feel like we know him, Vin Scully, but also that we know players like Sandy Koufax or Kirk Gibson, like Clayton Kershaw or Corey Seager.

The longevity of Scully and the longevity of radio speak to the adaptability of these old forms of address through new methods of distribution. Once upon a time, it was Dodgers fans listening to Scully on their transistors at Dodger Stadium. Now it's Dodgers fans switching cable providers so they can hear Scully call the game on the team's cable network.

Scully will retire at the end of the 2016 season. But the relationship he represents—that intimacy between listener and broadcaster—will continue to be at the heart of the fan experience, even as the medium continues to evolve.

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