Dizzy Dean Easily Halls Best Broadcast Choice
Each February the National Baseball Hall of Fame presents the Ford C. Frick Award — tantamount to induction — to an announcer. The 2006 ballot lists, alphabetically: Tom Cheek, Jacques Doucet, Ken Coleman, Gene Elston, Bill King, Tony Kubek, Graham McNamee, Denny Mathews, and Dave Niehaus.
Most deserve the Hall’s broadcast wing. None rival the ballot’s final/surpassing name: baseball’s TV Arcturus or Capella, a Falstaff behind the mike. In 1953, Jay Hanna (Dizzy) Dean entered Cooperstown as a player. If he makes this year’s shrine as an announcer, the Hall’s getting that is good will become even better.
In 1953, Diz began the ABC "Game of the Week" — TV sport’s first network series. Two years later it entered CBS’ posher home. For a decade Ol’ Diz sang "The Wabash Cannonball," read telegrams to "good ol’ boys," and razed the language. Batters "swang." Pitchers "throwed" the ball with "spart." Runners returned to "their respectable bases."
Mayberry loved the 300 pounds, string tie, and Stetson — the whole rustic goods. "Pod-nuh," Dean called us: his dowry, our badge. "In the hinterlands it was incredible," said CBS sports head Bill MacPhail. "Watching Dizzy Dean was an absolute religion." Each Saturday and Sunday afternoon Middle America closed down.
Inducted as a player, Dean told the Hall, "The Good Lord was good to me. He gave me a strong body, a good right arm, and a weak mind." As a 1960s child I was unaware of Diz’s pitching genius. I knew only how he made of baseball existential joy.
The son of a migratory cotton picker was born in an Arkansas shack
January 16, 1910. Schooling stopped in second grade. "And I wasn’t so good in first, either." At 16, Dean crashed the Army for $21 a month. Next year, joining the Cardinals’ Western League team, he bearded its president at 4 a.m. "So the old boy is out prowling by hisself, huh? Us stars and presidents must have our fun."
Diz won his first bigs game in 1930 — and at least 20 a year from 1933-36. "Hold that success against the country’s tone," wrote baseball historian Bob Broeg. "In the ’30s states around St. Louis were reeling, and you wouldn’t draw flies," the exception being Sunday.
Invariably St. Louis played a double-header. Gates opened at 9 a.m., outlanders filling Sportsman’s Park. Among them: the Fellers of Van Meter, Iowa. "We’d muster a couple dollars, and sit in the bleachers," said son Bob, knowing that Diz would pitch, since the Redbirds stacked their schedule.
Baseball exudes single-season art. 1912, Joe Wood, 34-5; 1968, Bob Gibson, 1.12 ERA; 1999, Pedro Martinez, 23-4. Each was child’s play v. Dean’s 30-7 1934. The Cardinals clinched Closing Day. A headline prefaced the World Series v. Detroit: "Dean: ‘Me ‘n’ [brother] Paul’ll Win Four.’" In Game Four, Diz, pinch-running, was hit in the head by a throw. Papers plagiarized one another: "Headlines of Dean’s Head Show Nothing."
Diz won the 11-0 final. "He threw so smoothly," said Broeg, "that my guess is with luck he’d have pitched into the ’50s." Instead, hurting his arm, the Ozark encyclopedist began Browns and Cardinals radio in 1941. A one-handed catch was "a la carte," fly "can of corn," quarrel "like argyin’ with a stump. Maybe you city folks don’t know what a stump is. It’s somethin’ a tree has been cut down off of." Don’t fail to miss tomorrow’s game, Dean brayed. Listeners seldom did.
One batter had an "unorsodock stance," said Diz, voice deep, full, and twangy." Of Ed Hanyzewski, "I like to broke my jaw tryin’ to pronounce that one. But I said it by holding’ my nose and sneezing." A station offered a job spinning classical music. "You want me to play this sympathetic [symphonic] music and commertate on them Rooshian and French and Kraut composers? Me pronounce the composers’ name?" Dean couldn’t ennunce Boston’s infield.
The St. Louis Board of Education vainly tried to yank Diz off the air. They had to be his words, he said, because no one would take them. Amazingly, the 1944 Browns won a flag. NBC Radio named Dean to the all-St. Louis Series; whereupon Commissioner Landis jibed, "His diction is unfit for a national broadcaster"; at which point Diz said, "How can that Commissar say I ain’t eligible to talk?"
Dean missed the last Series where each team shared a site. Behind, 2 games to 1, the Cardinals won. "We should have known better," said a Browns official. "It was too good to last."
Crazy Like a Fox
Was Diz, 37, still good enough to pitch? The 1947 Browns threw him Opening Day. Dean singled, spaced three hits in four innings, then pulled a muscle. The soon-again-Voice gave a lecture: "Radio Announcing I Have Did." The Soviets domineered Eastern Europe. "Got to get me a bunch of bats and balls and sneak me a couple of empires and learn them kids behind the Iron Curtain how to bat and play baseball." Marshal Stalin — "Joe Stallion" — could run concessions. "[That way] he’d getta outta’ politics and get in a honest business."
Through 1948, Diz jazzed the tone-deaf Browns. "I slud along with them as long as I could, but I eventual made up my mind to quit." Joining the Yanks, he graced TV’s "What’s My Line."
"The guest could be Dizzy Dean," blindfolded panelist Arlene Francis said.
Dorothy Kilgallen: "Oh, no, this man is much too intelligent."
One day a rhubarb roiled the field. "That batter shakin’ his head down there — he don’t know what’s goin’ on. I don’t know what he don’t know, but I know he don’t know." In 1952, Diz rejoined Falstaff Brewery’s 20-station Browns network. Partner Buddy Blattner liked fact and strategy. Diz shunned biography. "People liked him giving everything but the score" — fishing, hunting, thanking Grandma’s Biscuits for meal — "but wanted me to restore sanity."
Some Voices script a program. Diz was the program. "He created the audience before we said a word." In 1952, they added Mutual. One "Game" was in Detroit. Dean’s first inning was "polished, so unlike the usual chaos." At break he winked. "’That’s enough a’ that poop. Now Ol’ Diz is gonna’ make money. I’m going to butcher this today," foreseeing what he would say, and when.
Dean could not predict crossing TV’s Rubicon. Edgar Scherick did.
Present At The Creation
In early 1953, Scherick was a bit ABC-TV aide — "a nothing network, fewer outlets than CBS or NBC." Upside: It needed paid programming — "anything for bills." Falstaff pined to go national. Edgar broached a Saturday "Game of the Week." ABC hesitated. Baseball was a regular-season local good. How would "Game" reach TV? Who would notice if it did?
"Football fans watch regardless of team," said Scherick. By contrast, Phils-Cubs needed a Voice surpassing team: "straight out of James Fenimore Cooper by way of Uncle Remus," wrote Ron Powers — Diz. In April, Edgar set out to sell teams rights: "’Game of the Week.’ I expected a breeze." Instead, he hit a gale. Only the A’s, Tribe, and White Sox signed. Worse, baseball barred "Game" within 50 miles of any bigs park. "’Protect local coverage!’ They didn’t care about national appeal."
ABC, which did, grasped that "most of America was still up for grabs." In many cities ABC was weak or nil. Unvexed, "Game" wooed an 11.4 1953 rating (one point: 1 percent of TV homes). Blacked-out cities had 32 percent of households. In the rest, 3 in 4 sets in use watched Diz. Had "Game" sunk, said MacPhail, "maybe sports TV has a different future." Instead, by 1955 its road led to the Network of the Eye pitched on floating clouds.
"CBS stakes were higher," said Blattner, leaving Mutual to rejoin Dean. "They wanted someone who’d known Diz, could bring him out": becoming "a mythologizing presence," wrote Powers. MacPhail mused: "The reaction was stunning." In Hollywood, Clark Gable golfed each Saturday. "Clark’d play nine holes," said Buddy, "watch us in the saloon, then play nine more."
CBS added a Sunday "Game" in 1957. Outlets cheered in Phoenix, Little Rock, and Cedar Rapids. Dean cracked the Gallup Poll’s 10 most-admired list. CBS offered a prime-time series. Hillary Clinton said it takes a village to raise a child. A baseball generation’s children were raised on Diz.
"America had never had TV network ball," said Blattner. "Now you’re getting two games a week [four, counting NBC, by 1959]." Dean cleaned the Peacocks, notably in the Plains, West, and South. CBS’ Eastern hierarchy was unwowed. "We would never have on our network a person as uncouth as him," an exec told a sponsor meeting.
"But … he’s on our network … every weekend, on CBS," said MacPhail, watching, he later said, in "suspended terror. I had no control, just wondering what he’d say or do."
Once Diz eyed Eddie Lopat. "See if you can tell why he gets everybody out. If you can’t, Ol’ Diz’ll tell ya." The junkman retired them. "Figured it out? Testicle fortitude." Buddy blanched. "Well," Diz said, quickly, "I think ya’ know what I mean." MacPhail did, loathing, but forgiving, him: "No manners, ran you over, but first to put comedy into a game."
Dean refused to air a Falstaff ad — because the date was Mother’s Day. United Airlines backed "Game." Hating to fly, Diz said, "If you have to, pod-nuh, Eastern is much the best." In 1958, he made MacPhail’s gray hair white. "I don’t know we come off callin’ this the ‘Game of the Week.’ There’s a much better game — Dodgers-Giants — over on NBC."
Batters had an edge: "The ball they’re playing with isn’t lively, it’s hysterical." Umps ranked under English. "That was quite a game," he told one. "What a shame you didn’t get to see it." Cincinnati’s Ted Kluszewski, Bob Borkowski, and Fred Baczewski filled the sacks. "I was sweatin’," Diz said, "hopin’ that nobody’d get a hit so I didn’t have to pronounce them names."
The batter hit toward left-center.
"There’s a long drive" — gulp — "and here’s [‘Game’ producer] Gene Kirby to tell you all about it."
Dean was "the guy," said Blattner, "that dropped off the truck and wandered barefoot into town, saying, ‘Fellas, what’s it all about?’" Reality was more complex. The boozer and eater ate and drank little. The public man loved humanity, but not people. "Hi, pod-nuh" became mask and sign. "He didn’t know you from Adam, but you thought, ‘My God, he remembered me ’cause he called me pod-nuh.’"
In 1959, Buddy resigned amid discord with Diz. His partner became a retired Dodgers shortstop.
Pee Wee and "Podnuh"
"In Pee Wee [Reese] they got a better player, but lesser announcer [than himself]," Blattner said. Dean called the first four innings. Reese asked what the pitcher threw. Diz: "I believe that’s a baseball."
Dean scored Washington’s syntax. "Are those jokers putting’ a tax on that, too?" At one time or another time he sang "Precious Memories," ate a watermelon on play-by-play, and said of a hitter, "He’s standing confidentially at the plate." Another week he fell asleep. Pee Wee requested a closeup. "Pod-nuh," he said, nudging Diz, "am I keeping you awake?" The two ex-jocks coursed through Idlewild Airport. Suddenly Dean, in Western boots and Stetson, yelled, "Hey, Pee Wee."
"How come you played here for 18 years and nobody knows you?
Everybody knows Ol’ Diz."
Reese laughed. "If I had that hat on, everybody’d know me, too." Later he ribbed the old pitcher in Dean’s room. "Dizzy Dean, high hard fastball. I wish I’d had a chance to hit your ****." In pajamas, Diz started winding. "You might have hit it, pod-nuh, but you’d be on your ***."
By 1964, they worked at Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field, St. Louis, Philly, and Baltimore. New York got $550,000 of CBS’ $895,00. (Six NBC clubs got $1.2 million.) "In ’53, no one wanted us," said Scherick. "Now teams begged for ‘Game”s cash." The NFL began a $14.1 million revenue-sharing pact. Turning green, baseball ended its big-city blackout, got $6.5 million for 1965 exclusivity, and split the pot. "A mint," said MacPhail, "so they thought."
ABC began mere 28-game Saturday/holiday coverage. Ratings tanked: Tigers-Twins left, say, Boston cold. Meanwhile, CBS aired a 21-game Yankees slate. In 1966, the Bombers joined NBC’s package: 28 v. 1960’s three-network 123. Soon Dean denoted an age so far removed that it was hard to recall it existed. It did.
Mine broke Saturday with grass stain, grounder, and broken window. Pickup games preceded late-morning TV: Sky King, Roy Rogers, and Dale Evans. Next: lunch, Cliff Arquette as Charlie Weaver, Dennis James’ TV newsreel, ‘toons culled from forgotten files. "Game" began at 2. Sunday wed the morning paper, church, and short walk home. Watching, we were "pod-nuh" — still are.
Selah and Amen
Dean did 1967-68 Braves TV, fished, hunted, and wondered at the pastime’s mind. An Alabamian wrote to The Sporting News: "We simple people really miss Dizzy Dean. He added life to the game … hours of clean, wholesome fun. Baseball has always been for ordinary folks like me. Please bring Ol’ Diz back." Astute and self-aware, Dean might have laughed — except that, enlarged in exile, he missed "Game," too.
One day he golfed with Reese. "Pod-nuh, lots of trees on the right." Next tee. "What’d you get on that hole?" after Pee Wee bogied. Next: "Sand traps on the left." A decade later Reese shook his head. "He’d loved the ‘Game.’ Still had the ego, but the forum wasn’t there. We were just a couple country boys that said things about which people knew."
On May 21, 1973, NBC put Diz on a Monday "Game." Out of the closet came a sense of time standing still. "When they told me I could say hello to all the fans we used to have, I was so tickled I almost jumped for joy."
Where did Dean live? Curt Gowdy asked. "Why, in Bond, Mississippi." Where was Bond? Curt said. "Oh," said Diz, "’bout three miles from Wiggins." Where was Wiggins? "Oh, ’bout three miles from Bond."
Diz died, at 63, July 17, 1974, of a heart attack, the fox taken as a buffoon who winds up taking the taker. "Podnuh," he often said, "you ain’t just a’ woofin’." Middle America ain’t a’ woofin.’ As a broadcaster, Dean belongs in Cooperstown.