The first baseball radio broadcast was on August 5, 1921. The game was broadcast by KDKA of Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Philadelphia Phillies, 8-5. It was broadcast by Harold Arlin, KDKA's announcer. That year, KDKA and WJZ of Newark broadcast the first World Series on the radio. However, the broadcasters were not actually present at the game, but simply gave reports from a telegraph wire (recreation).
In those days many radio stations often did not have the budgets or technology to broadcast games live from the park. Instead, stations would re-create the games in studio. A telegraph operator would transmit the information back to the studio from the ball park where broadcasters and engineers would recreate game action from the ticker tape. Crowd noise, the crack of the bat, the umpire on the field and other sounds of the game were all manufactured in the studio as the game was being played live elsewhere.
The number of times these re-creations were broadcast was relatively small, but their early creativity and ingenuity continue to capture the imagination of modern-day fans accustomed to live baseball action on radio, television and the Internet. Interruptions in the telegraphy reports would lead to an immediate "rain delay" announcement at the station to mask the problem.
Radio broadcasters recreated baseball games in their studios from information received by telegraphy transmission. (Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)
At the Polo Grounds, New York, in 1921. G. A. Falzer, gives a play-by-play account of the game over the phone which was recreated in the radio station studios and broadcast.
I received my first fulltime announcing job in 1951 at KVVC, Ventura, CA. We were a 1,000-watt directional station (two towers) broadcasting from a bean field on the edge of town. The cramped studio-transmitter building, a cracker box block structure with a flat roof and dusty parking, also housed our manager, offices, and sales staff.
There I was, trusted behind a microphone, operating a transmitter as a “combo-man.” I loved every minute reading commercials and news, playing 78-rpm records, and 16-inch electrical transcriptions (ET) where I got to say--like the big-voiced announcers on the networks: “The following program is transcribed.”
In the early ‘50s, Ventura had a professional baseball team (a farm club) in the California C League. We broadcast games live via telephone lines from Ventura’s Seaside Park, and when Ventura played nearby Santa Barbara. League teams were spread throughout California.
Big Jim Williams
When baseball games were played “on the road” we “re-created” them, using a Western Union observer tapping his telegrapher’s key at away games. Another WU employee, in our station, translated the dots-and-dashes into an abbreviated script. Our broadcasts usually began about 30-minutes after the actual start of the game.
Re-creations avoided the expense of transporting our KVVC sportscaster to away games, and paying for broadcast phone-lines from distant ballparks.
For re-creations, I ran the station’s master control board, provided background “crowd noise” from 16-inch ETs, and, from our limited sound-effects library, clapping, cheering or booing when needed, while our play-by-play man (John McCormick or Jim Deering) re-created the game behind glass in Studio A.
A baseball bat hung from the ceiling where the sportscaster struck it with a wooden ruler to duplicate hitting a ball. A baseball glove in his left hand, and a ball in his right hand, replicated catching a pitched ball. It all helped to make our re-creations sound like we were actually in a ballpark. I loved it.
A small speaker behind the sportscaster, allowed me, through a separate microphone, to sound like the ballpark’s PA announcer, thus adding additional authenticity to our broadcasts. “At bat is...”
I occasionally added a recorded voice in the background, shouting: “Get your peanuts, here. Get your red hot peanuts.” I also read the commercials--few in number because listeners and advertising dollars were being siphoned off by the new medium of television.
Although we began and closed such broadcasts with disclaimers, we frequently received calls from listeners, arguing (often betting) with friends...”Is this game live?” Most calls came from bars.
One night Ventura played Modesto, there. We had a telegrapher, Harry Parsons, in our station accepting dot-and-dasher signals from his counterpart in the press box in Modesto. The away telegrapher opened with player lineups and positions, and added something like: “...85 degrees...cloudy... rain possible...wind 5 mph from SW...587 in stands.”
When play began, a simple outline of each half-inning followed. “Ventura up. Sam Jones, LFielder, at bat. S-1...swings high. B-2...low. S-2...no swing. Hits deep to Rfield...Rollins stops on first bounce...throws to first...close, but safe. Fans boo ref.”
After typing up a half-inning of play, Harry silently entered Studio A and gave the original to our sportscaster, a carbon copy to me. The sportscaster could then adlib the game, adding background and color as needed to slow or speed up the action. After working together on several broadcasts, we had re-creations down to a fine art.
However, the night we played Modesto, everything went wrong, worse than Earnest Thayer’s poem, “Casey at the Bat.”
About three innings into the game, Harry rushed into master control, shaking his head. “I don’t know what’s going on up there, but something’s weird.” He handed me the script he’d just typed. “Look, at this, Jim.” I did. Modesto had had FOUR outs, retired its side, and then come right back up to bat again. “This is crazy,” said Harry.
Our confused sportscaster wasn’t sure what to do. He began sweating, adlibbing about the weather, the crowd, the players, the crowd, his kids, the crowd, his WW II experiences, and making up stories about the ballpark’s peanut vendors or arguments or fights in the stands, anything to kill time. He was desperate. There he was with an open microphone, and a telegrapher’s script that didn’t make since.
There was always the ploy he had used before: “The grounds keepers need to drag the field,” or, “it’s suddenly raining here,” or “the stadium lighting has gone out,” or “we’re getting a dust storm, so back to the studio for some music.”
I filled with music while Harry hurriedly phoned the press box in Modesto. The phone rang and rang before the telegrapher answered with hiccups and slurred speech. He was drunk.
Harry was suddenly faced with getting information (begging is a better word) from a reporter covering the game for the Modesto Bee newspaper. Working hurriedly, Harry typed a new cue sheet, picking up action prior to where Modesto supposedly had “four outs.”
After about 20 minutes of music, we returned to the re-creation and eventually finished the broadcast.
Don’t ask me who won, because I don’t remember. But the Modesto telegrapher got fired. It was a terrible evening. Now, over 50 years later, it comes back as one of the most memorable events of my long career in small-town radio. However, it may have been the night I took up drinking. I know the sportscaster did.
Jim Williams (email@example.com) now broadcasts for KZSB (AM 1290), Santa Barbara, CA. He’s also the author of the audio books, THE OLD WEST, and TALL TALES OF THE OLD WEST. His westerns and detective stories have appeared in WESTERN HORSEMAN, SHOOT!, TEXAS LIVESTOCK WEEKLY, AMERICAN WEST, ORCHARD PRESS MYSTERIES, and others magazines. He resides in Goleta, CA, and “still loves radio.
A note from Big Jim Williams received 10-25-13
A couple of years ago you posted my story about re-creating baseball games back in the 1950. It was a piece I wrote for RADIO WORLD MAGAZINE several years ago that involved Ventura and Modesto.
WBUR, Boston, found the story a couple of weeks ago on your site and used in its Oct 19 "Only A Game" broadcast heard on 200-plus radio stations. They did a nice job in both print and audio. Thought you'd like to know. If you hadn't posted my piece, WBUR would never have found it. Thanks for making my day.
Just thought you'd like to know. You've got a great radio museum. Keep up the good work.
(aka western author Big Jim Williams)
PS--The late Bob Mohr, a great Modesto sports broadcaster, was a longtime friend. We had worked together in Ventura radio years back. I too miss Bob, a nice guy.