The telecasters are notorious for crimes of omission, for avoiding saying anything that hints of criticism, and some of the worst offenders are ex-ballplayers. Ostensibly hired for their insights into the game, they are often the most protective of all, which leads to the inescapable conclusion that their real mission is to lend their more or less illustrious names to the struggle for higher ratings. Yankee Announcer Phil Rizzuto is one of the few who occasionally offer even gentle criticism, as when he takes note of Horace Clarke's erratic fielding, but the exercise obviously pains him. "I try not to overdo it," Rizzuto says. "I played baseball and I know that errors are part of the game."
At large in an ethical no-man's-land, the ball clubs differ widely in their avowed policies, with the Expos, for example, claiming to give their announcers a completely free hand ("Boosting the club is not expected of them—they just do it," says Broadcasting Director Jim Faszholz enigmatically), while the Cincinnati Reds expect their announcers to refrain from saying anything negative about the team. Another that makes no pretense of objectivity is the Phillies organization, which wants its telecasters, Vice-President Bill Giles says, "To make us look as good as possible."
Given the Phillies' less than glorious history, credit Telecaster Byrum Saam for a valiant effort. Saam, an exuberant fellow whose career reached a high point of sorts the day he came on the air and said, "Hello, Byrum Saam, this is everybody," has broadcast baseball in Philadelphia since 1938 for both the Phillies and, until they departed in 1955, the Athletics, which gives him an association with probably more losing teams than any sportscaster—or perhaps any human being—in history. Yet seldom is heard a discouraging word from Byrum Saam. "If the team is going bad, I talk about an opponent, a Clemente or Mays, who's going good," he says. He even managed to smile his way through the Phillies' record 23-game losing streak in 1961. "I wasn't depressed. I just stuck to the basic things and hoped this was the day we were going to win."
Not every announcer has been quite so willing to put a happy face on disaster. The most memorable act of rebellion occurred in the last days of the 1966 season when only 413 fans, the smallest number ever to watch baseball in 65,000-seat Yankee Stadium, showed up for a game against the White Sox. When Red Barber, the Yankee announcer, asked the cameras to show the empty seats, a club vice-president refused, even to the extent of forbidding cameras to follow foul balls into the stands. As Barber recalls in his recent book The Broadcasters, "I knew what the New York Daily News would do—they'd cover the whole back page of the paper with pictures of the yawning emptiness of Yankee Stadium."
His news judgment challenged, his sense of duty to his viewers aroused, Barber defied the ball club. He leaned into the microphone and said simply, "I don't know what the paid attendance is today—but whatever it is, it is the smallest crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium. This smallest crowd is the story, not the ball game." Barber and the Yankees were already heading for a parting of the ways, and four days later Barber was told that his contract would not be renewed.
The restraints imposed by the owners come on top of difficulties baseball broadcasters face that are inherent in the nature of the game, difficulties they are fond of dramatizing with an endless succession of queer little facts. They will tell you, for instance, that every hour of baseball contains only two minutes of honest action. Or they will tell you that 85% of the game occurs between the pitching mound and home plate. Or that only one of every four pitched balls is hit into fair territory. There is the additional problem of the awkward interview of the kind that Ralph Kiner, another of the Mets telecasters, once conducted with New York Catcher Choo Choo Coleman.
"How did you get your nickname?" Kiner asked by way of openers.
The camera showed Choo Choo deep in thought. Kiner waited and so did the TV audience. Finally Coleman replied, "I don't know."
The only known antidote for so sure a show-killer is preparation—a ballplayer's nickname is easy enough to check out in advance—and the best announcers devote a surprising amount of effort to it. "There's an average interval of 15 seconds between pitches," says Kansas City's Blattner, offering another of those queer little facts. "You've got to fill some of that dead air. You can't keep saying over and over that 'the pitcher gets set on the mound, tugs at his cap, etc.' " Blattner has broadcast baseball for two decades, but he still puts in three hours of homework before every game, talking to players, poring over press releases, newspapers and magazines.
Assembling material makes sense if it is properly put to use, of course, and the acknowledged master at this, as at most aspects of his trade, is Scully. "Vin is patient with his good pieces of information," says Scully's friendly rival, Enberg. "He has the patience to hold off using a note in the first inning when it might better sustain the drama of the eighth." Beyond this, Scully realizes that a good game provides its own excitement and that his job is to tell, not just sell. Scully himself says: "Many a time I've said the Dodgers blew the game or it was a bad play on somebody's part. We're strictly reporters."