Baseball Broadcasting from Another Day

by Pat Doyle

Baseball fans who grew up listening to minor league games on the radio may be familiar with the word re-creation. Not “wreck-reation” as in entertainment, but “ree-creation” as in broadcasters using a printed account of a game and turning it into a play-by-play description of the action.  During the 1920’s, most games were broadcast in this fashion, and even into the latter part of 20th Century many minor league teams used this vehicle for games played away from the home field.

   As technologies have improved, re-created ball games have been relegated to the history books. In their day, however, they were a state-of-the-art component of minor league baseball across America. Fifty years ago, while Mom and Dad were downstairs watching "Lights Out” or “Boston Blackie” on their 12-inch Admirals, countless aspiring ballplayers lay in bed listening to the home-town announcer describe the feats of their heroes. As those young minds pictured in vivid detail the flight of the ball and the crash of runner into catcher, little did they know that the image-weaving broadcaster was sitting in front of a blank wall, translating the barest of descriptions from a roll of yellow paper and summoning all his imaginative powers to make the words come to life.

   This writer was fortunate to be part of that process for three summers in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The following paragraphs will describe the scenes behind the words and sounds that were heard by radio listeners in Rochester, New York.

   In the 1950’s, the St. Louis Cardinals farm system included more than the players on the field. Managers, coaches, general managers, trainers, and even radio broadcasters made their way up the chain as far as their skills and the brass at 3623 Dodier Street in St. Louis would allow them.  Among those earning high marks was announcer Jack Buck, first in Columbus, Ohio, and then in Rochester. Following the 1953 season, Buck was promoted to be Harry Caray’s all-too-often silent partner, and was replaced in Rochester by Tom Decker, a graduate of Syracuse University and World War II veteran.

   For the next eight years, Decker would be known as the Voice of the Red Wings. He spent most of those summers in the employ of WVET Radio, a since-departed station located in a since-demolished building in downtown Rochester. WVET was known for broadcasting popular music of the day through a signal strength that dropped precipitously after sunset, and many of the Wings’ fans had to wait for the late news or the morning paper to learn how the locals had fared after the first few innings.

   By the time this observer was hired in 1959 as statistician and broadcast assistant, Decker’s routine was well established. He had been promoted to anchor the station’s 6 P.M. and 11 P.M. television newscasts, and the situation required his juggling baseball and news. Two local announcers, Jerry Flynn and Gary Smith, were brought into the baseball broadcast team to cover during scheduling conflicts.

   That team, with Decker in the lead, followed a format of broadcasting the home games live from Red Wing Stadium and of re-creating the road games from the WVET studios on Clinton Avenue South.

   Home games were reported from the radio booth, a small structure adjacent to the press box on the stadium roof. The booth accommodated four persons – the broadcaster, his assistant, and one or two guests who might occasionally appear. No producers, directors, or engineers were present. The only communication devices available were a telephone (which rang more often from wrong numbers than for station business) and a radio, whose volume was turned up to listen to between-inning station breaks. The other equipment was a set of binoculars, which were used for identifying pitchers warming up in the bullpen beyond the left-field fence or for viewing an occasional distraction sitting in the bleachers. The binoculars came to an unfortunate demise one day when the assistant left them on the counter used for scorebooks and advertising copy, and a foul ball sailed into the booth, bounced off the rear wall, and returned to propel the binoculars out of the radio booth and down to an empty stadium seat below. A reprimand from general manager George Sisler, Jr., brought the assistant’s employment perilously close to termination.

   At Red Wing Stadium, home games were easy and fun, as that aging but lovely ballpark afforded a view of the greenest grass on earth, a panorama of a diverse but welcoming neighborhood and, on the brightest of days, a glimpse of Lake Ontario far beyond the left field fence.

   Road games were a different matter in sight and sound. To listeners, they seemed much the same, with only a critical ear noticing vague differences in background sounds. To the broadcaster, however, they were the contrast between the breezes of the ballpark and the confinement of a studio, the telling of what you see and what you read. To the assistant, they were the variance between the smells of hot dogs and stale coffee, the cheers of the crowd and the clatter of the newsroom.

   The main action took place in the broadcasting studio, a small room surrounded on one side by a large window to the lobby, on another a window to the broadcast engineer’s cubicle, on the third a window to the adjoining news studio and, on the fourth, a wall in which a door leading to the newsroom was encased.

   In the rear of the studio sat a large Western Union teletype machine, separated from the announcer and his microphone by the flimsiest of portable partitions.  The partition was intended to block out the sound of the machine, but even the most casual listener could hear the constant clicking of the teletype keys indicating that this was a road game.

   The teletype machine was activated shortly before game time, bringing information about starting lineups, umpires, and weather conditions. Occasionally there was a brief “what’s new?” between the operators at the stadium and in the studio.  Such exchanges were rare, however, due to unseen but ever-present figure known as “WC”. A Western Union wire chief monitored each game, scrutinizing transmissions and protecting the hallowed lines from profanity, frivolity, or any syllable exceeding the barest minimum needed to describe the game. The penalty attached to transgressions was unstated, but the sudden appearance of “Cut out the garbage. WC.” was enough to return the participants to a proper level of verbal economy.

   Once the game began, the stadium operator settled into teletype-speak.  An example follows:

Burton up.
B1OS.
B2LO.
S1C.
S2 Foul.
Out. Flied out to right.

   The hitter, Ellis Burton, took two pitches for balls, one outside and one low. He took a called strike and then fouled off a pitch. No mention was made of the type of pitches or destination of the foul ball. Burton ended the at-bat by flying out to right field, again with no description of short, deep, lazy fly, line drive, or any other helpful information.

The rest of the inning would follow.

Frey up.
S1C.
Hit. Single to left.

Oliver up.
B1HI.
B2OS.
S1S.
S2 Foul.
B3OS.  Wild pitch, Frey to second.
Out. S3C.

Easter up.
S1C.
B1IS.
Hit and out. Single to right, Frey out at home 9-2.

Buffalo 4, Rochester 2.

   With the briefest of descriptions, we learned that Jim Frey had singled to left, moved to second on a wild pitch, and was thrown out at home to end the inning.

   The nature of his hit, the description of the wild pitch, and the details of the play involving his being thrown out at home plate were left unstated.  With Luke Easter batting, the hit could have been a dribbler between first and second or a line drive off the wall. For the aged Luke, any hit that wasn’t a homer was a single.

   At the microphone, Tom Decker and his fellow announcers would enhance the facts with details that may or may not have matched reality.  Decker, a native of Buffalo, would have the advantage of visualizing the playing field on Offerman Stadium and its surroundings. All three were free to create scenes as they wished, limited only by the results that were printed on the yellow paper.

   Some stadium operators presented the additional challenge of linguistic accuracy. With International League teams in Montreal, Havana, and San Juan, one could expect a variety of spellings, terms, and descriptions. Other ballpark operators, usually experienced and occasionally bored, typed the play while it was taking place, and in their haste or boredom erred in identifying players or in clearly describing plays. Broadcasters quickly learned to stay two or three batters behind the play in case a correction was made after the play had been completed.

   One International League announcer of the day was known for two characteristics: First, announcing the play as it came over the teletype and, secondly, using caustic language to chastise operators for their errors. Such treatment did not go unrewarded, as the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of stadium operators occasionally conspired to modify reality. One such operator reportedly forgot to describe a runner being picked off base until after the following batter had hit a home run, thus requiring the announcer to reduce a two-run homer to a solo home run and to explain what happened to the missing baserunner. Most announcers and their assistants made sure the skills of the operators were appreciated and acknowledged.

   During the course of a game, the practiced radio listener could anticipate a play by listening to the quantity of teletype machine clicks in the background. The usual S1C, B1LO, were brief, and those few clicks followed by silence reflected a lack of action on the field. Extra-base hits, on the other hand, called for an explanation of where the ball went and what happened to any runners on base ahead of the hitter. Thus, lengthy transmissions usually meant action - good news for the batting team or an event such as an ejection, fight, or injury. A strong candidate for longest continuous transmission occurred during the early morning of July 26, 1959, when two players were shot on the field during a Red Wing-Havana Sugar King game. (Full information can be found at our “Gunfire in the Ballpark” article in this series.)

   In order to make the listeners feel more at home, WVET and other stations provided crowd noise in the background. The noise had been taped during a previous home game, with rises and falls of excitement being mechanically reduced so that a constant level of noise was played throughout the re-creation. An attentive studio engineer would elevate the volume when the level of play called for it. And an equally attentive fan would be able to pick out an occasional “Let’s go, Bilko”, years after Steve had made his way to another stop on his baseball journey.

   For the sake of realism, many announcers, including Tom Decker and his cohorts, produced the sound of bat hitting ball in various ways. The favorite local mechanism was to take a six-inch miniature bat and tap it against a cardboard center from the teletype paper roll. For the casual announcer, all taps were the same. The more creative could use various techniques, such as replicating the sound of a ground ball by holding the cardboard slightly above the announcer’s scorebook and deflecting the bat from the roll directly to the scorebook.

   Since the teletype machine was used only for the game itself, another source was needed for obtaining information about other games being played. That source was the Western Union tickertape machine, a much smaller and louder instrument similar in appearance to the business end of a bubble-gum machine. From under the glass bubble ran a printed tape that showed a constant stream of inning-by-inning scores, pitching changes, and home runs from other International League and major league games. Since the tickertape machine was very noisy, it had to kept outside the game studio. At WVET, it was located in a corner of the newsroom, and out-of-town updates were written on a paper form by the broadcasting assistant at the end of every half-inning of the Red Wing game.

   The entire operation, while normally smooth for the listener, was a procedure that required a high level of attentiveness and good communication between the individuals involved. For the announcer, the task of describing nine continuous innings demanded great concentration and energy.  Double-headers, a staple of minor league baseball, increased the strain. Many announcers stayed at this task for a decade or longer, less out of enjoyment than the hope that a major league team would happen to hear a broadcast and offer a job.

   Tom Decker reportedly had several such offers, including the Yankees and Red Sox. In the end, he chose to leave baseball after the 1961 season to pursue a full-time television news anchor career in Rochester. Professionally, he was a knowledgeable, eloquent, and mellifluous baseball announcer. Personally, he was a kind and generous man who encouraged interests and goals beyond baseball and challenged anything less than excellence in effort and execution.

  The sight of Red Wing Stadium and the sounds of WVET Radio are gone, as are the days of re-creations, teletypes, and tickertapes. For the aging multitude of baseball fans who grew up with them, those sights and sounds remain as pleasant memories of youth.