Except for music and news, radio stations fill more air time with major league baseball than with any other subject, which may come as something of a surprise to avid radio listeners. How can baseball possibly outdistance broadcasts on religion and pullet and hog prices? Well, by conservative estimate, there will be approximately 435,000 hours of baseball on radio this season, an increase of about 31,000 hours over 1975.
The big news about baseball on radio, however, is not that there will be more of it, but that in many cities it will have an unfamiliar sound. While most fans are aware of the extensive turnover in managers since last July, the number of changes in announcing assignments was even greater and, at least to baseball's owners, more important. During a stretch when a dozen managers were leaving their jobs, 17 broadcasters were retiring, being fired or moving to new positions. Club executives consider these changes significant because a good announcer almost always sells more tickets for the old home team than the manager does.
The most publicized switch involved the firing of Pittsburgh announcer Bob Prince and his sidekick Nellie King. Prince is funny, clever, loud, partisan and uninterruptible. He also knows baseball, and for 28 years the baseball he knew best was played by the Pirates. He was the Pirates to many fans in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and beyond.
Despite Prince's talents and following, the Pirates' owners did not vigorously fight his firing by station KDKA, where he reportedly had been having personality conflicts with his bosses. Despite the owners' denials, the reason they did not back Prince probably was money. Although Pittsburgh has won five of the last six National League East titles, it has had to struggle to draw a million fans in each of the last three seasons. And radio ratings, although they are often inexact, also were used to build a case against Prince. In 1967 the Pirates were listened to by more than 50% of those who had their radios turned on when games were being broadcast. In recent years that rating dropped as low as 26% during some late-season games. But more Pirate games are televised late in the season, and Prince appeared on all those telecasts. On those occasions, it was no wonder radio ratings declined.
Prince is now working out of that terrarium in Houston where the hapless Astros play. He has replaced Loel Passe and should become a big hit with Houston listeners. But can his expertise and partisan style draw people to the Astrodome? The Astro franchise is in serious financial straits, and Prince, even at his very best, is going to find Houston a hard team to sell.
Milo Hamilton, who replaces Prince as the voice of the Pirates, was fired by the attendance-poor Atlanta Braves before Ted Turner, the 37-year-old whiz kid of Turner Communications, bought the team this winter. The Braves dismissed Hamilton, who seemed to go out of his way to be controversial, even though he apparently knew what he was doing. In 1972 Atlanta drew an average of 32,700 listeners per 15-minute segment on station WSB. By last season that figure had increased to 56,000. Nonetheless, Hamilton was axed, presumably because it was decided that he was partly responsible for all those unsold seats in Atlanta Stadium.
Hamilton's former color man, Ernie Johnson, now becomes the play-by-play voice of the Braves, and Pete Van Wieren, brought up from Tidewater of the International League, becomes the color man. While Turner admits he knows nothing about baseball, he is a broadcasting expert. The radio booth in Atlanta could become a very warm place should Turner start breathing down the necks of his announcers.
Although longtime announcer By Saam retired at the end of the 1975 season, the Phillies' problems are not in the booth but at the transmitter. One of baseball's best draws (1975 home attendance, 1,909,233), the Phils now find they may not be able to reach all those fans by radio. WCAU, Philadelphia's prosperous 50,000-watt station, served as the Phillies' flagship station for eight seasons, but this year it changed to an all-news format that does not include baseball coverage. The Phils will be heard on a 25-station network, but if you live in North Philadelphia you may have to drive toward the New Jersey shore to listen to their games. The new flagship station, WIBG, has signal troubles. "We'll probably miss 700,000 out of 4.9 million potential listeners," says Dick Yancey, one of WIBG's owners.
Just the opposite of the Philadelphia story will unfold in Oakland. For several seasons while 5,000-watt KEEN carried their games, the A's could barely be heard in their own stands. Now Oakland games will be beamed all over Northern California on 50,000-watt KNBR.
With all the changes in announcers and call letters, it is comforting to find that Halsey Hall, 81, still will be broadcasting a few games in Minnesota this season. Rumors that Hall rigged antennas for Marconi are untrue, but he has been around long enough to have developed an announcing philosophy that has nothing to do with filling seats. It does say a lot about the transient nature of the profession, however. Whenever Hall travels, he carries a large assortment of liquor bottles in his suitcase. His reason: "When you are a baseball announcer, you might get into some town where they are having a primary and you couldn't get a drink. Then where would you be?"