Book Review:  Center Field Shot

How many ballgames do you attend, live, each season? Major league, minor league, college, high school—hey, even Little League—go ahead, count ‘em all.

Now, how many ballgames do you see on TV each season? Come on, be honest. How many?

You consume far more of your baseball via the tube than at the ballpark, don’t you? You can admit it; in this way you’re just like the vast majority of us. This has been the case for decades now, and the proportion is ever-increasing, with the proliferation of cable channels, the MLBAM package streaming video, and so on. Serious fans and casual fans alike witness thousands of plays, hundreds of innings a year, beamed electronically, in one form or another.

Yet while we’re power users of this product, few of us really know much about it. Sure, we all have strongly held opinions about this or that play-by-play broadcaster, but regarding the deeper aspects of the business and the technology that underlies this near-daily transmission of images and events into our consciousness—well, we tend to take it for granted. It’s just there. We’re largely ignorant of how it came to be there, the way this profoundly pervasive cultural and commercial institution was conceived, has developed and continues to develop.

But now there’s no more excuse for incomprehension. At last an intensive analysis of this complicated and fascinating phenomenon has been produced. Center Field Shot: A History of Baseball on Television, by James R. Walker and Robert V. Bellamy Jr., gives us a lot to learn and to ponder.

The book’s subtitle labels it a history, and it certainly is that: Walker and Bellamy begin their narrative in the “experimental years” of the 1930s and ’40s, and thoroughly cover every development in the decades since. But it’s also more than that, as the book includes significant focus on the current day, “a look at how the MLB and television relationship is evolving,” with informed speculation regarding likely scenarios to come. Moreover, while the core substance is meticulously annotated historical fact, Walker and Bellamy don’t hesitate to interject a sharply angled point of view.

Among the opinions presented is one that’s worked into a coherent theme, repeatedly struck:

Unlike many earlier commentators, we do not believe that television has harmed baseball …. Television has long been one of the major “villains” in baseball’s nostalgic narrative. Television is accused of “ruining” the game by inadequate coverage, slowing the game down with too many commercial breaks, and exacerbating the revenue disparity between rich and poor teams …. Such nostalgic mythmaking is a long-standing tradition in baseball and can border on the ridiculous.

To be sure, Walker and Bellamy don’t replace familiar tube-bashing with rose-tinted happy talk; a major section of the book is titled “Television and Baseball’s Dysfunctional Marriage.” Here another theme is intricately woven, exploring the manner in which these industries cyclically woo, bicker, stray, make up and uneasily face a new day.

This section is perhaps the best in the book. Walker and Bellamy put a multitude of tricky elements into motion, but the pieces work fluidly together in a sequence of powerful chapters that engage the economic and legal forces drawing baseball and television into their stormy union: “Television as Threat, Television as Savior,” “Television and the ‘Death’ of the Golden Age Minors,” “Baseball, Television, Congress and the Law,” and “Baseball and Television Synergy.” Distilling dry facts and complex concepts into brisk, witty and accessible prose shouldn’t be as easy as Walker and Bellamy make it appear here.

The book’s title Center Field Shot refers to the view provided by a camera (or, in the modern era, from one of two or three cameras) mounted beyond the center field fence, the standard shot we expect today on nearly every pitch of a televised game. This wasn’t always the standard shot, of course: It had to be invented. A particular strength of this book is its examination of the technical challenges and complexities of coherently and dramatically capturing and transmitting the action of a baseball game via video. While the tasks and contributions of familiar on-camera figures (Vin Scully, Joe Garagiola, Bob Costas, etc.) are discussed, more fresh and interesting is in-depth exploration of the difficult and innovative work performed by the technical crew. A particular figure who emerges from the “truck” and steps into a prominent role in this narrative is director Harry Coyle, who among many other things was the inventor of the center field shot.

The section “The Local Game” examines the approaches taken by various franchises in establishing and developing local TV broadcast arrangements. There was no standard for teams to follow when adopting, and adapting to, the new TV reality, and the diversity of modes that emerged in response to diverse circumstances (and from diverse prejudices, hopes and visions) is fascinating.

Walker and Bellamy’s original and insightful analysis identifies and elaborates distinct models, including “The Pinned-In Pirates,” “The Cardinals and the Hinterlands,” “The Cubs Embrace Broadcasting” and “The Relocators of the 1950s and 1960s.” Augmenting and informing this section is the book’s appendix, which provides comprehensive statistics on the number of televised ballgames from 1949 to 1981, broken down by season and by team, home games and road games.

Thirty-six photographs are integrated into the 300-plus-page narrative, helping draw the reader in, and adding to the lively mood.

Where Center Field Shot sometimes encounters difficulty is with seamlessness in tone and style. The authors are academics (Walker is professor and chair of the Department of Communication at Saint Xavier University, and Bellamy is associate professor of Journalism and Multimedia Arts at Duquesne), and this work charts an ambitious double-duty course—the book could aptly be employed as a text in undergraduate communications/media studies, yet it’s simultaneously targeted to the general baseball-fan reader.

That balance generally is managed well, but not quite as smooth is the flow from section to section. Occasionally a clunky, textbooky “we’re going to cover this, and then we’re going to cover that” formula becomes apparent. Nearly every chapter could stand on its own as an essay (or, perhaps, as the basis for a lecture), and while this is in some ways a positive, it has a tendency to interrupt the sense of linearity.

A minor quibble with content: while the book properly introduces the promise of pay-per-view television as a factor motivating the relocation of the Dodgers and Giants from New York to California, Walker and Bellamy address only the pay-TV plan within California (which would never actually get off the ground), and ignore the more intriguing scheme (which would similarly never go anywhere) of beaming Dodgers’ and Giants’ pay-TV games back to their established fan bases in New York, thus allowing Walter O’Malley and Horace Stoneham to gain the new markets while keeping a foothold in the old.

Also, the otherwise excellent chapter “The Announcer in the Television Age” somehow manages to make zero mention of the biggest star announcer of the current era, Jon Miller. And two even smaller quibbles: while broadcaster Al Michaels is mentioned in the text, his name is absent in the book’s index; and boxer Joe Louis has his name once misspelled as “Lewis.”

But these are quibbles indeed. Center Field Shot is at once a fun, engaging read that can be enjoyed in random five-minute snippets, and a serious full-length work of scholarship. Like the very best of television, it informs as it entertains.

References & Resources
James R. Walker and Robert V. Bellamy Jr., Center Field Shot: A History of Baseball on Television, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

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