You can keep your flat-screen, your high-definition, your plasma-projection TVs. All I need is my AM radio, with its 9-volt battery, its Doobie Brothers hits, its Casey Kasem dispensing wise counsel: "Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reachin' for the stars."
The first big league baseball game that I "saw" was described to me by Herb Carneal on WCCO-AM in Minneapolis. My AM radio seemed to me then, as it does now, a technological wonder beyond words, pulling in the 50,000-watt flagship stations that have forever been affiliated in my mind with a ball club: the Reds on WLW, the Cardinals on KMOX, the Indians on WWWE ("Three Double-yew E").
Indeed, the first baseball game ever broadcast was carried by KDKA in Pittsburgh 80 years ago next week, and the electronic revolution in the ensuing decades has done nothing to alter the fact that baseball is still best experienced on the radio. It isn't merely because of the game's memorable voices, though many of them remain a marvel. (Listen to Marty Brennaman, his vocal cords smoked like a couple of cured hams, punctuate a Cincinnati win with "And this one belongs to the Reds.") It's not simply that the soundtrack of summer in so many cities—the background vocals issuing from taxicabs, beach blankets and backyard barbecues—has been the play-by-play of Vin Scully or Mel Allen or Ernie Harwell (or Jack Buck or Harry Caray or Red Barber).
No, there are countless reasons that baseball, unlike children, should be heard and not seen. Every ballpark is beautiful on the radio, and the great players even better when imagined. Babe Ruth, in the days before television, was whatever you wanted him to be and no less authentic for existing largely in the mind's eye. "What the imagination seizes as Beauty," wrote Keats, "must be truth." Which is to say, if the Phillies radio broadcasters tell you that the Vet is architecturally exquisite—and you believe them—why, then, it is.
Of course, baseball's lumbering pace is perfectly supplemented by radio, which abhors dead air and fills it with ceaseless sponsorships, one for every mundane moment of a ball game. So, during Yankees games on WABC radio, "the umpire's lineup is brought to you by Weitz & Luxenberg, setting the standard in asbestos litigation for over a decade."
I am a connoisseur of such promotional pairings (umpires presented by lawyers, that seems about right) and all the other rituals of baseball on the radio. I enjoy pausing for station identification. I breathlessly await the inevitable admonishment not to rebroadcast or retransmit the accounts and descriptions of this game without THE express written consent of Major League Baseball. I still love—when the announcers embark on a leisurely discussion of yesterday's lunch-removing the 9-volt battery from my radio and testing its potency with my tongue. (The resulting shock was, in an age before PlayStation, the greatest thrill a kid could have.)
Lately I've been listening to baseball games broadcast in Spanish on the radio. With a few exceptions—pelota, Heineken, Chuckknoblauch—I cannot understand a word, but each play is described with such urgent enthusiasm (you can almost see those upside-down and right-side-up exclamation marks bracketing every sentence) that I am enraptured. This is baseball the way it oughta be, in which even the laziest infield fly-out is reported in tones more appropriate to the crash of the Hindenburg.
What else do I like about baseball on the radio? Only everything: I like falling asleep to a night game on the West Coast and waking the next morning to Weather on the Ones and Traffic on the Twos. I like the impossibly cheap tokens of appreciation given to guests of the pregame shows. ("For stopping by the booth, His Holiness will receive a $25 gift certificate from Jiffy Lube, with 27 locations in the Tri-State.") And while I can't say I like them, I have come to accept the sponsor jingles that take root in the head of a regular listener by May and soon become unshakable even by exorcism.
Which is why the swingin' jingle of Foxwoods Casino (played relentlessly during Yankees broadcasts) has played relentlessly in my brain all summer: "Take a chance, make it happen/Pop the cork, fingers snappin'/Spin the wheel, 'round and 'round we go/Life is good, life is sweet/Grab yourself a front-row seat/And let's meet/And have a ball/Yeah, let's live/For the won-der of it all!"
There's a second verse, and I know that too, for baseball on the radio has taught me so much—new songs, the power of imagination, a new language. So I say to you, my fellow sports fans: