Recently, a national columnist asked a question to help observe the release of my new book, The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House—the first to exhaustively explore the tie between America’s two great institutions: the national pastime and the presidency.
Noting the grand announcers parading through its text, the writer asked whom I would choose baseball’s best-ever of the bunch. Since a serious query deserves a thoughtful response, below are my top five of the more than one thousand broadcasters to call the game since 1921. Each said the pastime’s everyday grace around the table—the link between the public and its players.
No one grasped grace better than a Voice who showed it—the Roy Hobbs of baseball play-by-play—as a phrase from The Natural said, “the best there ever was.”Vin Scully started each broadcast by inviting us to “pull up a chair”—the total goods of term and mood, a daily classic sans text. He called Don Larsen’s perfect game, Kirk Gibson’s triumph of mind over matter, and Sandy Koufax’s fourth no-hitter like Hemingway at the keys. Once Vin said, “It was so hot today the moon got-sunburned.” From 1950 to 2016 he helped link baseball’s sun, moon, and stars—67 years!
Second was the only broadcaster on Variety magazine’s 1955 list of “the world’s 25 most recognizable voices,” joining, among others, Churchill, Ike, and Sinatra, his boom box of a voice baseball’s most distinctive. Mel Allen began a game with “Hello there, everybody,” termed a home run a “White Owl Wallop” or “Ballantine Blast,” and made “How About That!” a household word. The 1940-64 definition of the Yankees, World Series, and All-Star Game showed baseball in full flower. Bob Costas grew up on 1960s Long Island: “His voice should be in a time capsule,” he said of Allen, “how baseball was for us.”
Third on the list, Ernie Harwell meant baseball to millions of others, for 55 years announcing for five clubs, especially his 1960-91 and 1993-2002 Detroit “Tiges.” To W. Earnest, a homer was “long gone.” A called third strike stirred “He stood there like the house by the side of the road.” Ernie could make even a foul ball personal, saying, “It’s snagged by a guy from Alma, Michigan”—or any other town! As a boy, I correctly told Mom that Harwell had a lot of friends. Ernie showed brilliantly how baseball was best seen on radio—a theater of the mind.
Lay preacher, author, lyricist, Ernie was possibly baseball’s most beloved man. Or was that list No. 4?—a play-actor different from soft-voiced Harwell in every way but one: Each cared madly about the sport. “It might be! It could be! It is!” bayed Harry Caray to 1945-97 America. “Holy Cow!”—another homer for his Cardinals or later Cubs. Caray conducted a game like a bartender singing an aria: hits, runs, and errors rising and falling in rate and tone. A paper wrote: “The greatest show, no ifs or buts, is to hear … Caray going nuts.”
Despite a stroke in his sixties, Harry at 50 percent was more compelling than many Voices at 100. They did not include No. 5 on this list, a distant cousin of author Sidney Lanier, Walter Lanier (Red) Barber. The oldest complete TV games on record are aptly Six and Seven of the 1952 World Series voiced by mid-century’s two great rhetoricians, Allen and the Dodgers’ Barber. What a show they put on.
Red in particular climbed a summit of syntax and lexicon. “Big Jawn” (Mize) becomes “The storybook fella.” A “trickle ball [reached] the right side.” The see-saw day was “enough to give you the high spirits.” Red was Brooklyn’s 1939-53 heartbeat before high heat with Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley led Barber to the Bronx. Axed by the Yanks in 1966, he later began NPR “Morning Edition” commentary, winning broadcasting’s Pulitzer, the George Foster Peabody Award.
Still, where is Jack Buck on this list—or Bob Prince, Jack Brickhouse, or Curt Gowdy? The same applies to Lindsey Nelson, Chuck Thompson, or Bob Uecker, the Uke—still “Mr. Baseball”—or Jon Miller, Ned Martin, or two dozen more. Each climbed baseball’s radio/TV stairway: huckster, reporter, balladeer, cornball self, and/or personality of their team. Who comprises your Top Five? The baseball term for dispute, “rhubarb,” which Barber helped to coin, is never far away.
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