Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Good Way To Pass Some Time

I'm sitting home on this Wednesday night, without child, but cat nearby. He's not much for conversation though (much like the money you could be saving with Geico). Since I'm still fighting this nasty cold, I decided I was going to pass on reading and went with flipping the dial. That led me to my DVR and the broadcast of Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. Any semi-baseball historian knows that was the game in which Don Larsen was perfect.

I hadn't watched the broadcast from the beginning, and wasn't intending to watch as much as I did, but it's so utterly freaking brilliant that I can't stop.

A few observations:

- Bob Costas notes that there were 15 Hall of Famers involved in this game in one form or another. That includes players, managers, coaches, and broadcasters.
- The graphics are hysterical. For each player's first appearance, a picture of the player and their name are placed in a split screen. Later on, it's just the player's name superimposed.
- There are the obvious differences from what we see now. No closeups, no center field camera, no instant replay and, obvious, nothing in color. Almost no reaction shots, though there are some crowd shots.
- The ads are virtually all for the same sponsor - Gillette. Buy their blades and get a "vest size" version of the Baseball Encyclopedia.
- That encyclopedia gets mentioned at every turn. Mel Allen called the first four and a half innings and works the encyclopedia into a brief interview with Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell. He also mentions it after Mickey Mantle gets the first hit of the day for either team - a fourth inning home run.
- Ah yes, the broadcasters. They were selected back then based on the teams that participated in the Series. Thus, the Yankees always sent Allen, even though the legendary Red Barber also worked for the Bombers. Mel, of course, is still known as the "Voice of the Yankees." Allen and Barber, just as an FYI, were so good that they won the Ford C. Frick Award (the broadcaster's equivalent of Hall of Fame immortality) together in 1978 - the first two selected and the only pair.
- So you have Allen representing the Yankees. Thanks to Barber departing Brooklyn following the 1953 season, the Ol' Redhead had called his last Series. Thus his young protegee from the Dodgers was at the mic on this day. Kid named Scully. He's not bad - just a mere 28 years old.

SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT!! I look to my right and see a book called Pull Up a Chair: The Vin Scully Story, written by Curt Smith. Once we work out the details, Mr. Smith will join me on "The Press Box" for what I hope will be a very special show. As the man who has chronicled baseball broadcasting, beginning with Voices of the Game, I look forward to picking his brain. So I have to get better and start reading!

- As of 1956, there is no analyst, so while Allen mentions Scully playing baseball at Fordham (CHUCK COSTELLO!!), you never hear from Scully. In fact, Allen and Scully interact just twice to my knowledge - when Mel hands the play-by-play to Vin in the bottom of the fifth, and just after the final out.
- Both "voices" are brilliant at letting what is an albeit poor picture tell the story. They don't talk superfluously. There are a few little tidbits thrown in, and some ad mentions (not as prevalent once Scully takes over, due to Allen being the Gillette mouthpiece) and they do discuss things that the viewer can't necessarily see. Otherwise, they do their jobs.
- I don't think Scully ever uses the words "no hitter" or "perfect game" until it is over, but he does mention the number of consecutive outs. There's no doubt that the viewer knows that is going on. In fact, Larsen knew he was throwing a no-hitter but had no knowledge that he was throwing a perfect game, or even knew what one was! Larsen's would be the first one since 1922, when Charlie Robertson of the White Sox blanked the Tigers. A complete list is here.
- The commercial in the middle of the sixth, featuring Allen, Casey Stengel, and Jerry Coleman is just great - followed with a live tag by Scully, the one time that he's on camera all day. Allen shows up twice and each time, he's got a fedora on.
- In case you're wondering, the game is on NBC, but you wouldn't know it. There are no station ID's, no logos superimposed and most notably, no show promos. Thus no mention of "The Perry Como Show", NBC's highest-rated program for the 1956-1957 season. (Worthless note: The Como show was seventh - the top six were all on CBS, led by "I Love Lucy" and "The Ed Sullivan Show.")
- The action moves along quickly (that's no secret). Players don't adjust equipment after every pitch, and there are few visits to the mound and virtually no pitching changes. Imagine that! Pitchers work out of trouble and there are NO PITCH COUNTS!
- There's nothing maudlin in the broadcast. No forced stories - even in the early innings. Sure Jackie Robinson is there, but not once did I hear the words "breaking the color barrier." He's just a respected ballplayer by this point, along with Campy, Junior Gilliam, Elston Howard, and anybody that I'm not thinking of. Robinson was three games away from retirement when the day began.
- Scully, ever the master, gets the final innings (which no doubt killed the gregarious Allen). Scully maintains his cool (how would Joe Buck do today?), even going so far as to say, "Let's all take a deep breath" before the ninth inning. Perhaps my favorite line is, "Yankee Stadium. Shivering in its concrete foundation." Following the final out, his words are perfect: "Got him! the greatest game ever pitched in baseball history by Don Larsen."
- To me, you can't even tell that Scully is the "voice" of the Dodgers in this broadcast. That's the way Red Barber taught him.
- A quick postscript: I love watching the fans stream out of the stands onto the field to exit via the center field gate. Nobody is tearing the field up. That's the way it used to be. Sad we can't do that now.
- Scully and Allen in the final moments of the call, discuss how they will likely never see such a thing again. They're correct - 53 years later, no one has come close to pitching a perfect game in the World Series or playoffs (Jim Longborg retired 19 straight Cardinals in the 1967 Classic). Allen is gone now, having passed away in 1995 (I'm pleased to say I met him once - in 1991. It was an honor and he was most gracious). Scully is still broadcasting the Dodgers.
- To that point, many of the participants are dead. Jackie Robinson, Walter Alston, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella (I met him once - 1978 or so), and Sal Maglie are among some of those who have passed on from the Dodgers. Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Hank Bauer, Casey Stengel, are among the Yankees we have lost. In fact, among the Yankees lineup, only Yogi Berra, Don Larsen, Andy Carey, and Gil McDougald are still alive, while Duke Snider is the only living Dodger. Incidentally, there were no subs for New York on that day and the Dodgers only used Dale Mithcell - the last out of the game - as a pinch-hitter.

I can't even imagine what it must have been like and remember: it was all played during the day. So work, school, and other responsibilities would have seemed trite that day.

This all probably confirms to many of the youngins that I have no life and am fairly pathetic. Yet it proves why I loved the original Classic Sports Network before ESPN got their hands on it and ruined it. Just as an aside, today, ESPN Classic ran the soccer match between Man U and Barcelona...a game that had JUST ENDED. Tell me how that is classic?

What I watched tonight was classic. Brilliant, gorgeous, and proof that there is nothing like the grand American Pastime.

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