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Jim Murray

Baseball May Be Losing Its Voices

May 30, 1986|JIM MURRAY

Baseball, which is periodically worried about the disappearance of the .400 hitter, the 30-game winner or the 50-60 home run slugger might do well to worry about another disappearing species--the silver-tongued, golden-throated, non-roster player in the broadcast booth. It's not the arms they have to worry about, it's the larynxes.

On most scorecards, it's customary to think of the fastball pitcher or the cleanup hitter as The Franchise. But the real Franchise may be a guy who can't hit or throw a curveball, steal a base or drive in a run but who can weave such a mystique about the game that he's worth more to the box office than any three people who can.

Baseball needs dramatizing. All sports need dramatizing. "If you have to depend solely on the people who know and love this game for its own sake," the late Bill Veeck, who knew the game as few men did, used to say, "you will be out of business by Mother's Day."

This is not always readily apparent to those who do know and love the game for its own sake, nor is it always readily apparent to the athlete who knows and loves the money and thinks the game has always been around in its present form to provide it for him.

But the facts of the matter are, baseball became Camelot, a golden city shimmering in the distance for young imaginations, not alone on the skills of the players but the imaginations of their chroniclers.

Radio, like silent pictures, always left room for the free roam of imagination. We supplied our own dialogue for wordless pictures and our own glorified action for pictureless words.

The men who brought them to us became stars of the dimension of any they talked about--the Vin Scullys, Ted Husings, Red Barbers, Graham McNamees, Curt Gowdys, Harry Carays, Bob Princes. You wonder who is going to replace them when they're gone. Bob Prince is already gone. Gowdy has hung up his headset.

The new breed can't seem to see knights in shining armor in pursuit of a Holy Grail. The new breed seems to concentrate on the nuts and bolts of the competition, offering us "insights" on the arts and mysteries of the infield-fly rule and the nuances of the run-and-hit as opposed to the hit-and-run.

The romance of baseball has never been its technical data. It's not in how Sandy Koufax held his curveball, it's in how Pie Traynor got his nickname. No one wants to know where Babe Ruth gripped the bat, but everyone wants to know what it was like the day he called his shot. The compelling drama of Lou Gehrig's life was not how he faced Bob Feller but how he faced death. Sports as a metaphor for life is what gives it its fascination. The technical aspect is just pipe fitting. And no one wants to broadcast that.

Ernie Harwell, who has done the Detroit Tigers' games for the past 25 years, is one of the last of the old breed. Like Scully and Mel Allen--and like Ty Cobb and Henry Aaron--he's in the Hall of Fame.

Gifted with the melodious tones of a wood thrush, Ernie, like most of the Hall of Fame throats, learned his business at a time when a man had to make do with a ticker tape for inspiration, had to describe games he never saw, re-create action that may or may not have taken place. Real games were easy after that. On the other hand, it's easy to make people larger than life when they exist only in your head. The lesson was driven home: To give the game dramatic impact, you need more than eyes.

Ernie has described his career in a new book, "Tuned To Baseball," published by Diamond Communications, Inc., and it's a fun trip through the most nostalgic sport of all, also the most American, baseball.

It was Roy Campanella who said that, in order to play in the big leagues, you had to be a man--but you had to have a lot of little boy in you, too. What was true of players was true of their broadcasters. You had to have a lot of the wonder of the little kid watching the game through a hole in the fence.

"Burnout" is a word to describe what happens to those who don't love what they do. Ernie Harwell was never one of those. His book is a description of a 45-year love affair with the grand old game and the characters who walked through it.

Here is the late Paul Richards, the burning-eyed mentor and stern leader, sitting scowling in a steamy dressing room after a loss for three hours, knowing his players are forbidden to dress and shower until he has. Here is Charlie Dressen, eyeing a utility player, dying to be put in the game to pinch-hit, barking, "George! Grab a bat! And go in the clubhouse and stir that pot of chili I have cooking near the shower."

Here is Willie Mays coming up to batting practice the first time, a 19-year-old kid put together by someone who must have had baseball in mind, and spectators beginning to feel their scalp prickle as he goes after a curveball.

Here is Bobby Thomson's historic home run curving toward the stands and the announcer who has already told the country on television, "It's gone!" suddenly wondering if Andy Pafko is going to catch it, after all.

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