If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I admit to being flattered. Baseball literature debates players, parks, and managers. Missing: a book to rate its best-ever mikemen from the more than 1,000 airing the bigs since 1921.
This summer I released "Voices of Summer: Ranking Baseball’s 101 All-Time Best Announcers." Since then, the Harris Interactive Poll/XM Satellite Radio, USA Today, and USAtoday.com have authored spinoffs, evaluating and rating the men who call the game.
The more, the merrier. Baseball broadcasting evokes existential pleasure. Problem: Ranking can be dicey, like throwing darts in the fog. Buy a drink, start a fight. Who was better: the Yanks’ Phil Rizzuto, or Mets’ Lindsey Nelson? Today, same town/choice: John Sterling, or Gary Cohen? Who is the greater hoot to hear, ESPN’s Jon Miller or or Fox’s Joe Buck?
The solution is Plato’s: "Before we talk, let us first define our terms." "Voices of Summer" uses 10 specific criteria, each rated on a 1-10 point scale. Perfect score: 10 times 10, or 100 points.
Each Voice’s total decides rank from 1 (hint: He does/is the Dodgers) through 101 (first man to air a baseball game). Each’s essay airs high- and lowlights, turning points, and play-by-play — ultimately, a life and work. The book does not claim infallability. It does try to be fair.
"On the field often not a heck of a lt if happening," said the Orioles’ late Chuck Thompson. Broadcasters try more or less to compensate. In the end, many seem as family as your Uncle Fred.
The Key Criteria
LONGEVITY: Ernie Harwell played the big leagues for 55 years; Gordon McLendon, three. CONTINUITY: Ned Martin did the 1961-92 Red Sox. The Astros are Milo Hamilton’s eighth team. NETWORK: Al Helfer aired Mutual Radio’s 1950s regular/post-season. Byrum Saam never televised a Series in 38 years. KUDOS: Which Voices won a Peabody Award; nearly retired The Sporting News "Announcer of the Year"; and almost became National Sportscaster of the Year? (For those of you keeping score, Red Barber, Joe Garagiola, and Curt Gowdy; Mel Allen and Harry Caray; Bob Costas, respectively). "
LANGUAGE: Ralph Kiner said, "The Mets got their leadoff hitter on only once this inning." Bob Murphy bred "The happy recap"; Hamilton, "Holy Toledo!"; Marty Brennaman, "This one belongs to the Reds!" POPULARITY: In Pittsburgh, Bob Prince was Mr. Baseball. The Northwest deems Dave Niehaus more exciting than the game. PERSONA: Joe Angel speaks in English and Spanish. Earl Gillespie became the "Fish Net Man." Dizzy Dean mixed Ma Kettle, Billy Sunday, and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
VOICE: Van Patrick’s pipes could fill the Mormon Tabernacle. Miller mimes Scully in English, Spanish, and Japanese. KNOWLEDGE: Jack Buck said, "Baseball fans know their sport better than fans in other sports." Which announcers blur baseball and boccie ball? MISCELLANY: Garagiola wrote a best-selling book. Bud Blattner was world table tenis champion at 16. Thompson grew up in a boarding house which rented to Connie Mack: baseball, as connecting tissue.
Which franchise has the most announcers among "Voices of Summer"’s 101? (Yankees, with 21. Others leaders: Giants 16, White Sox 15, Braves, Cubs, and Red Sox 13, Dodgers 11, and A’s and Cardinals 10). Which has none? (None.) Does ex-Cubs Voice Ronald Reagan crack the list? (He got detoured.) What of those who nearly made it? (They are saluted: John MacLean, Nat Allbright, Jack Quinlan, the Dodgers’ grand Charley Steiner.)
Some Voices have an identical point total: Longevity, continuity, network coverage, and kudos break the tie. Since they change, ratings even five years from now may, too. Let today’s reader screech, curse, or stomp over any pick. From a rhubarb, baseball never wanders far away.
Next Week: Rankings
"Here lies the summit," British prime minister Edmund Burke once described a colleague. "He may live long. He may do much. But he can never exceed what he does this day." Game Six, 1952 World Series: Allen and Barber, on NBC-TV, climb a summit of syntax and vocabulary, tying elegance of phrase and mood.
Mel terms John Mize "a sentimental hero, in any case." Rizzuto and Pee Wee Reese show "shortstopping by two great exponents of the art." "We acquainted you yesterday," Allen reminds a listener. Cameramen, atop the roof, silhouette "the uneven fringe of shadow." Mel glowingly introduces Red, who dubs him "the pot calling the kettle black."
Big Jawn becomes "the storybook fella.’" A "trickle ball [reaches] the right side." The Yanks are "down a game and down a run." The see-saw day "is enough to give you the high spirits." It evoked your first visit to the park — fielder crouched, batter cocked, and pitcher draped against the stands — above all, surety that there was no place on earth that you would rather be.
As Scully says, "Pull up a chair." Recall play-by-play wafting from a friend, or passerby. Hail the enduring word. "The sky overhead is a very beautiful robin egg blue," Barber said in 1936, "with very few angels in the forms of clouds in it." Remember: "Football and basketball carry the announcer," notes the A’s Hank Greenwald. "The announcer carries baseball."
Next week: the complete list of "Voices of Summer: Ranking Baseball’s 101 All-Time Best Announcers." Until then, remember that only God has a monopoly on truth. Likening Voices, we make do with fact, instinct, and an almost Tinker Bell kind of faith. "All sports do play-by-play," said Barber. "Only baseball’s shows your soul."