Perseverance being a commodity not always in full supply these days, the men who announce baseball on TV have to be admired. They toil without complaint through the warm months, dueling with gnats for their composure and with reruns of Mayberry R.F.D. for their audiences. They carry manfully on even though baseball is hopelessly ill-suited for television: an ordinary base hit ranges over a landscape too sweeping for the camera to capture in a single squint, while the game's dawdling pace offers opportunities to trip over their own tongues that even the most cautious of them sometimes find irresistible.
The long season makes them the drudges of sports telecasting, the more so because the moments they are not announcing the game on the tube they are apt to be off doing so on radio. To their labors they nevertheless bring the enthusiasm of a Loel Passe, one of the announcers for the Houston Astros, who exults, "When you love baseball the way I do and broadcast major league games from the great cities of the country—man, that's living." If Passe has any complaint, it is that he finds himself on radio far more than he would prefer, Houston's 14 telecasts a year being the skimpiest TV fare of any big-league team. Of course, 14 games are a full season's work in pro football, but the number amounts to pale underexposure compared with baseball's TV binge in Chicago, where the Cubs' Jack Brickhouse and the White Sox' Jack Drees will announce a staggering 277 televised games between them in 1971.
That kind of saturation, together with the sport's easy atmosphere, gives baseball's men in the booths a communion with the fans unique among sportscasters. But intimacy can lead to annoyance, which explains why Brickhouse, who has telecast baseball in Chicago for 23 years, still receives niggling four-page critiques from viewers in the habit of keeping score on him rather than the game. Similar static disturbs the repose of the Baltimore Orioles' Chuck Thompson, whose wont it is to describe Oriole outfielders as "looking up for a fly ball," prompting more than one viewer to comment: "Where else would an outfielder look for a fly ball?"
With the possible exception of such talk show hosts as Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, who also occupy the screen with numbing regularity, few TV performers evoke as much extreme reaction. Pirate Announcer Bob Prince is surely a beloved character in Pittsburgh, yet he still has to contend with dissenters like the steelworker who approached him before a night game in Forbes Field a year or so ago. "I want to meet you," he said. "I can't stand you, but I can't turn you off either."
It is this last weakness, multiplied many times through the television audience, that endears the game to sponsors interested in insistent, season-long selling. Baseball especially attracts products like gasoline, soft drinks and beer that do a big part of their business in summer. It is all lucrative enough to bring baseball roughly $40 million for broadcasting rights, not far off the NFL's $46 million. But where pro football owners share their TV money in the interest of equal prosperity, baseball winds up with haves and have-nots. It pools only the $18 million it gets in its package deal with NBC for such attractions as Game of the Week and World Series. Each club is otherwise free to work out its own broadcasting deal, a liberty that includes picking its own announcers, too.
One effect of this decentralization is that most big-league telecasts tend to be parochial affairs, wedding the technology of TV with the resonances of the small-town game that baseball sometimes still fancies itself. Thus, the Orioles' Thompson, or St. Louis' Jack Buck, celebrities in their home towns, would go unrecognized should they suddenly turn up in, say, Minnesota. There the local favorite is 72-year-old Halsey Hall, an ex-newspaperman who at those moments when he is not starting a fire in the Twins' broadcasting booth with one of his ubiquitous cigars is generally reading get-well wishes to convalescents in a raspy voice redolent of happy days at grandpa's house.
The plain-folks flavor infects even the ex-athletes that baseball, like every sport, increasingly insists on passing off as sportscasters. Basketball has its flashy Hot Rod Hundleys and football its well-coiffed Frank Giffords, but baseball appears to have less taste for such glamour. For every Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale, the former Dodger pitching stars now doing color commentary for NBC and the Montreal Expos respectively, you can find a Nellie King, who as a Pittsburgh pitcher 15 years ago compiled a lifetime record of 7-5 and who today helps Prince on Pirate telecasts. Even when a better-known player is elevated to the booth, it is likely to be somebody like Phillies Announcer Richie Ashburn, whose 15 years in the majors failed to erase a corn-belt twang that is in evidence when he muses in midbroadcast on such matters as summer heat waves back home in Tilden, Neb.
At its best, this relaxed atmosphere lends itself to thoughtful, gracefully presented commentary not always possible during the more frantic action of football, basketball or hockey. One thinks of the Washington Senators' Ray Scott, whose spare style, sharpened by a Lombardiesque discipline developed while announcing Green Bay Packer football games, seems even more ideally suited to the leisurely pace of baseball. Then there is Buddy Blattner, a world table-tennis champion in the 1930s and later a National League infielder, whose play-by-play work for the Kansas City Royals mixes expertise with a conversational manner that eludes most of his colleagues. A relative newcomer is 36-year-old Dick Enberg, who brings to his job as announcer for the California Angels a Ph.D. from Indiana University and a knack for using the TV camera as a teaching tool, most notably on a pregame show featuring brisk instructionals on catcher's signs or the art of making the double play.
By common consent the best of the baseball broadcasters is Enberg's Southern California neighbor, red-haired Vin Scully, 43, who has been announcing Dodger games in Brooklyn and Los Angeles for 18 years. Scully's natural element is radio; he is the reason that transistors abound at Dodger Stadium and that Angelenos by the thousands tune in to Dodger games on the freeways, all of which has made the club one of only a few—the Angels, Astros, Twins and Red Sox are others—for whom radio revenues exceed those from TV.
Scully also announces the 21 games, all of them on the road, that Walter O'Malley condescends to allow on TV. There are dangers, such as talking too much about the obvious, that make the switch from radio to television perilous, but Scully avoids them.