Ten Times We Changed the Way We Watch Baseball

I watched the All-Star game on television last night, while also spying on the pitcher’s mound, home plate and first base from my laptop computer on Major League Baseball’s website. In a few days, I may watch highlights of the game, or I may check out highlights of Miguel Tejada from the regular season. I can almost literally watch anything I want, whenever I want. I watch baseball games: hear me roar!

When I was a kid, the only way you could watch most World Series games was to skip school. They didn’t play World Series night games, and we didn’t have videotape, DVD players or TiVo. I didn’t even get to watch the game that I consider the highlight of my youth: the Mets’ 1969 World Series clincher.

Baseball coverage has come a long, long way in my lifetime, and “watching” the All-Star game made me a bit nostalgic and very curious about how people used to follow baseball games they couldn’t attend in person. Based on a lot of not-really-exhaustive research, I present the following 10 events, trends and changes that impacted how we follow baseball games:

Newspapers covered baseball like a blanket.

Newspapers and baseball were natural business partners in the early days. Even before professional baseball leagues were formed, newspapers were covering the games played between local teams. There were over a dozen newspapers in New York in the 1850s and many more baseball teams. Baseball provided something newspapers needed: news. Not only news, but news that changed every day. The more games were played, the more newspapers would be sold. It was a natural symbiosis from the start, and in many ways newspapers made baseball the “national game.”

In fact, The New York Mercury coined the phrase “the nation’s pastime” in 1857. And Joseph Pulitzer of The New York World formed the first newspaper sports department in the 1880s as a recognition of the role sports played, and would always play, in the news business.

Henry Chadwick standardized the box score and baseball statistics.

Henry Chadwick was a baseball journalist who covered his assignment with religious zeal. Through the 1850s, printed statistical results were similar to simple cricket box scores, listing just runs and outs. But in 1859, The New York Clipper presented Chadwick’s new version of a box score—an essential, sublime format that would remain the standard to this very day.

In 1860, Chadwick also published the first baseball annual, Beadle’s Dime Base Ball Player which would do more than any other publication to standardize a set of baseball statistics that are also used today—to the chagrin of many sabermetricians. But Chadwick’s groundbreaking work and influence standardized the “language” of baseball coverage, which would be critical to its future popularity and integration into other media.

Telegraphs, saloons and scoreboards

Games in progress were broadcast by telegraph to saloons as early as the 1890s. Until radio came along in the 1920s, telegraphic accounts were the only way for fans outside the ballpark to track a game in progress. In the 1890s, these evolved into baseball “scoreboards,” which converted the telegraphic messages into something that engaged the local fans.

At the Atlanta Opera House, for instance, young men wearing the names of specific players would run the bases in front of an audience to represent the game’s progress. The “Compton Electrical System” was a 10-by-10 scoreboard used in the 1890s that tracked the game closely and featured lineups on the side. By the 1900s, entire theaters would be rented out to display the progress of games through scoreboards, baseballs held by invisible wire and “mechanical athletes.” During a World Series, hundreds and thousands would gather in town squares or outside newspaper offices to follow the local game on a scoreboard. For many, many baseball fans, this was the way they experienced a game.

Radio Changed Everything.

Commercialized radio had its beginnings in Detroit in 1920, and the first major-league baseball game was broadcast by KDKA of Pittsburgh in 1921. In 1922, sportswriter Grantland Rice broadcast the first two games of the World Series over WJZ, and as many as 5 million people listened, the “greatest audience ever assembled to listen to one man” according to the New York Tribune.

But the real turning point for radio came in the 1923 World Series, when more American households had radios. AT&T transmitted the feed over more stable telephone lines and Graham McNamee, a former concert singer, announced the game. Unlike Rice, McNamee understood how to convey the drama of a situation, and he became the first star baseball announcer. According to Heywood Broun, McNamee “individualized and particularized every emotion. He made me feel the temperature and tension. The wind hit him and it deflected off to me… McNamee allowed you to follow the ball on the wing.”

Incredibly, baseball owners were leery of this new technology, fearing that fans would stay home if they could listen to the game on the air (a fear that has appeared with the introduction of virtually every new media technology since). William Wrigley decided to transmit all Cubs and White Sox games in 1925, and the Cardinals soon followed. But it wasn’t until 1939 that all baseball teams broadcast all their games on the air.

Baseball Under the Lights

In 1935, Larry McPhail of the Cincinnati Reds held the first major-league baseball game at night. Night baseball had been discussed for many years and successfully implemented in the minors and Negro Leagues. Although many major-league owners (and Commissioner Landis) opposed the idea, McPhail managed to get just enough votes for permission to try it out at Crosley Field.

Twenty thousand fans (many more than the typical weekday draw) showed up on May 24, and the Reds played six more night games that year. In all, 124,000 fans attended the night games, and the Reds turned a profit for the first time in several years. When he moved on to the Dodgers in 1938, McPhail held night games there, and other teams started to follow the trend in 1939 and 1940. It wasn’t until the late 1940s, however, that most teams had played at least one night game at home.

Although Tiger owner Frank Navin claimed night games would be the “ruination of baseball,” just the opposite occurred. Night baseball made games more available to fans and arguably increased the “entertainment value” of the game. What’s more, night baseball would be critical to the success of televised baseball games later in the century. The first night World Series game was broadcast in 1971, too late for my beloved Mets and me.

Television and The Game of the Week

Larry McPhail was also responsible for the first television broadcast, of a Dodgers’ game in 1939 (the first year that all teams broadcast their games on radio). The experiment was so successful that he arranged for weekly broadcasts in 1940. The war years intervened, however, and the first televised World Series wasn’t until 1947. Just like radio, Major League Baseball was reluctant to embrace this new technology, afraid of keeping fans away from the ballpark.

TV baseball really came of age in the 1950s and, once again, baseball’s popularity boomed as a result. The first televised Game of the Week was broadcast in 1953, with Dizzy Dean at the microphone. Dizzy’s style and malapropisms made the Game of the Week a centerpiece of baseball media, and it would be the television staple of baseball fans for many years.

It was during the 1940s and 1950s that teams increased the range of their fan base, as better cars, roads and public transportation made it easier to get to the ballpark from farther away. Instead of undermining baseball’s popularity, broadcasting increased its reach immensely.

I remember Curt Gowdy, Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola with a special affection, but major-league teams never embraced television as much as they should have until cable TV forced their hand.

Ball Four

Jim Bouton’s Ball Four was published in 1970, and it caused an immediate sensation. Besides the insider revelations about Mickey Mantle and other baseball heroes, it made a folk hero of Steve Hovley (“Billy Graham is a cracker”) and most importantly, it changed the relationship between the media and baseball players.

Before Ball Four, baseball reporters treated players with respect in print, much like newspaper reporters treated politicians with respect before Watergate. In both cases, the respect was not always deserved. After Ball Four the media became more likely to report the true feelings and attitudes of major leaguers, humanizing them in the process. Some might say that we lost something as a result, but baseball established a more “personal” relationship with its fans after Ball Four, which suited the more personal medium of television.

Cable television

Although cable television has been around for quite awhile, cable broadcasts began to have a real impact in 1977. Superstations like TBS, WGN and WWOR made their local teams’ games available around the country every day, creating Cubs’ fans in Macon and Braves’ fans in Decatur. Then ESPN made its debut in 1979. ESPN hosted its cornerstone program, SportsCenter, from the beginning, scrolled scores on the bottom of the screen and introduced Baseball Tonight in 1993. And this made baseball games and baseball players more available everywhere, 24 hours a day.

Cable increased its reach over time. In 1982, cable television was in 35% of homes. In 1987 it passed the 50% mark, and it now reaches 70% of homes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reach all households, and the conflict between free broadcast games and games broadcast over cable only has yet to be resolved in many markets.

National newspapers

When I was a kid, spending my summers in Cooperstown, I traipsed down to the Hall of Fame every morning to see the game results from the night before, posted on a scoreboard by the main entrance. Because we didn’t get a newspaper, this was the only way I could get the latest scores.

Even if you did buy a newspaper back then, it probably only covered the local major-league team and gave cursory coverage to other teams. Most of the time, you had to wait for your weekly edition of The Sporting News to devour the box score of each game.

USA Today changed that. USA Today was founded in 1982, and although serious journalists thumbed their noses at it, serious baseball fans welcomed it with open arms. That’s because the paper covered every major-league team equally and ran the boxscore of every game every night. They used the sports section as a hook for readers, much like the newspapers of the 1850s, and strived to “cover every game, every score, and every statistic,” according to in-house historian Peter Prichard.

On top of that, they published the best statistics you could find on a weekly basis. Even when not traveling, I bought USA Today every Wednesday and Thursday so that I could read their league stats. For fantasy players, USA Today replaced The Sporting News as their favored source of stats. And other newspapers were forced to expand their own sports coverage to keep up with this new competition. In the late 1980s, a national sports-only newspaper, The National was introduced, spurred by the innovations wrought by ESPN and USA Today. It failed, but it would probably have been more successful if it had just waited a few more years for a new medium.

The Internet

The Internet was first developed in the late 1960s as a decentralized network of computers to support the military in case of an emergency. It became a public medium in the early 1990s with the adoption of HTML and the Mosaic web browser. And nothing has been the same since.

For baseball fans, the Internet served as a vehicle to connect fans with common interests as never before, allowing us to bypass traditional media for our news and gossip. Also, many of us used the Internet to read the online version of USA Today’s stats and box scores. But new game accounts and statistics soon developed, from sites such as ESPN and CBS Sportsline. And innovations like ESPN’s Gamecast gave us a whole new way of watching baseball games, with more information than ever before. With the Internet, we could even “watch” games at work.

It took them several years, but to their credit, Major League Baseball has embraced the Internet. Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) was formed in 2001 to manage the online operations of all 30 teams. The design of the site is still atrocious (overwrought and poorly mapped), but MLBAM moved quickly to consolidate the content and video operations related to MLB games. On the one hand, MLBAM runs the risk of strangling innovation if they control MLB’s content too strongly. On the other hand, their offerings so far have been terrific.

Imagine the near future, in which your TV, computer and TiVo have converged into one baseball-watching appliance. You can watch any game on a big screen anytime you want. You can rerun plays from any angle you choose. You can call up stats, scouting reports and other information that only announcers see today. You can watch big plays by favorite players in games past. The possibilities are infinite.

I watch baseball games. Life will only get better.

References & Resources
Jules Tygiel’s Past Time: Baseball as History was the resource for much of what I’ve presented here. Here is a link to his first chapter. It is a wonderful book.

My copy of Total Baseball includes Paul D. Adomites’ Baseball on the Air, which proved invaluable, as did Leonard Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball.

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