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Are announcers with degrees in broadcast journalism better in the booth than former players?

June 5, 2009, 8:44 pm

In the early days of radio and television, baseball announcers fell into their jobs. Mel Allen, “the Voice of the Yankees,” was a lawyer by trade; his partner, Red Barber, caught his break while working as a janitor at a college radio station. (A professor scheduled to read “Certain Aspects of Bovine Obstretics” never showed, so Barber picked up the microphone and read it himself.) Jimmy Dudley majored in chemistry, got drafted and, like Harry Kalas, began his broadcasting career calling intramural games in the South Pacific during WWII. Although all four of them belong to the Baseball Hall of Fame, they were amateurs.

The first great professional announcer, Vin Scully, studied broadcast journalism at Fordham. Following Scully’s success on both coasts, team owners and network executives decided that games were best called by people whose sober, understated delivery betrayed an intimate knowledge of the technical limitations of their equipment. No matter where in America you turned on your radio or television in the 1960s, you were listening to a college graduate whose vocal coach had taught him to speak the smooth, unaccented English of an imaginary Middle America.

With the exception of a few token athletes, like Joe Garagiola and Bob Uecker, by the early 1970s the voices that spoke for the game weren’t the voices of the game. Because the game on the field is so different from the one observed from the booth, I think it best that there be someone up there who, for example, understands in his bones that the depth of field required to keep both the pitcher and the batter (60 feet 6 inches away) in focus makes a 67 m.p.h. curveball look slow even though, were it a car, it would have exceeded the interstate speed limit in ninety-percent of the country.

I would hope that a wise former baseball player, with the richness of his playing experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion about a game situation than someone who hasn’t lived the life. But I’m not so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the game. Many are so capable. Gary Cohen could only play in Soviet Russia—when he picks up a bat, it swing hims—yet he is a tremendous announcer.

However, for someone who didn’t play the game to understand its nuances takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. Personal experiences influence the facts that announcers chooses to discuss. But this is not to say that only former players can understand the game. Sometimes they emphasize their own experience to the exclusion of others, as is the case with Tim McCarver, for whom baseball has not changed one iota since the day he retired in 1979, and Joe Morgan, whose greatness on the diamond is inversely proportional to his awfulness in the booth. For a former player to become a good announcer, he must extrapolate from his experiences into areas which with he is unfamiliar. Because what comes naturally to white, colleged-educated, broadcast journalism majors might not come easy to a poor kid from Oakland nicknamed “Mex.”

This is why the best Supreme Court broadcast team working today consists of Gary, Keith, and Ron.

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