Wednesday, December 22, 2010

1960 Game Seven telecast easy on the eyes and ears - maybe the time has arrived to ban batting gloves and color men

I'm going to feel old writing this.

Twice thirty-one.

And, I'd like to think that's not the point. The point is purely aesthetic ... and practical, I might add.

The Major League Baseball television station has been playing this month Bing Crosby's kinescope of game seven of the 1960 World Series between the upstart, underdog, Pittsburgh Pirates and the inevitable New York Yankees. You could write a novel about this game. It has everything you could want -- pathos, redemption, power, excitement, suspense, and ... like all game sevens ... finality.

So, it is wonderful to watch and MLB television staged it in a brilliantly classy manner, showing it to an audience of Pittsburgh natives in a theater distinguished by the presence of some of the players who took part in the game. And, for a kid who grew up with the Kansas City A's, the names of many players were pleasantly familiar because they had either been traded to both league champions by our hapless team or would soon arrive in Kansas City via the same connection.

Ok, the old man is drifting into nostalgia now. Got to catch myself...

What I noticed watching the game, however, is instructive today. You know how that back workroom of yours has gotten so cluttered you can't find anything in it? Notice how you've sort of cleared a path to your chair in the hobby room? Or, have you noticed how you can no longer fit your car in the garage or you need to lose weight to get in and out of it scrunched between your tools and boxes of discarded toasters, microwaves, bread makers and Christmas presents from the last 10 years?

Or, if you are a writer, visualize your writing desk? You're an hour from deadline, you're trying desperately to double-check a quote and you have to riffle through three reporter's notebooks and a couple of scribbled-on napkins to find the place where you wrote it down? Or, is it still on the tape recorder? Now, where is that damned thing? Oops... coffee spill. Wait a minute... I know. I wrote that one on the back of a 2-foot long Lowes receipt. Where's my wallet? I think it's in there.

Oh, I've been in that situation a few times across the last forty years. My chair once collapsed in the middle of such a search and I finished writing the story standing up. I don't think I even realized the chair was gone until I was finished.

Then, if you're like me, you clean up once the story has been filed. You take everything off that desk and sweep it into a box and you get ready for the next assignment. Remember how good it felt to come back to that desk and see nothing on it but a broken handled coffee cup full of pens and pencils and your closed up laptop? Remember how inviting your desk looked then... kind of like a blank canvas waiting for your imagination?

Well, this 1960 NBC baseball broadcast was like your clean desk: A blank canvas for the viewer to paint his or her understanding of the game on.

The only thing on the screen, literally, was the game. The action. Once in a while a player's name appeared at the bottom for a few seconds, but that was all. If you wanted to know the score, you had to either be paying attention or wait until the end of the inning when the camera focused on the actual scoreboard at the stadium. Think about the incredible clutter on the screen during a baseball game today, the way you squint at the tiny window where the action happens, then think about watching a game with only the game on the screen.

Unless you've seen one of these ancient broadcasts recently, you can't imagine the difference.

And, speaking of paying attention, the broadcast featured no slow motion replays. In fact, it featured no replays. How strange it was, too. One spectacular play at first, Mantle diving headfirst under the tag, begged for replay. But, no, the game went on. You had to just fix that play in your mind, and, believe me, you started paying even more attention, knowing you would have to commit whatever you saw to memory.

I guess you would have to pay attention. And you'd need to know something about the players because in 1960 their uniforms sported only numbers. You needed to know it was Kubek at short and Richardson at second, Moose at first, Mantle in center and Maris in right, Smoky Burgess behind the plate -- of course, you had his baseball card so you had a rough idea of his stats -- Bill Virdon in center, Groat at short. But you knew these things, so it didn't matter that the screen didn't include a novella of text.

A brief aside: What message about teamwork vs. fame did we send to players and fans, and to the rest of society through our ongoing cultural conversation, when we began stitching the names of players to the backs of their uni's? Oh well, that water's long under the bridge.

Not only was the screen clear of distraction -- except for the agony of The Crawl which this night reported over and over and over about only one subject... the heartbreaking trade of Zack Greinke to Milwaukee -- the camera angles and the edits were lazy and right. The camera seemed to be looking exactly where you would be looking if you were sitting in the stands at Forbes Field. I haven't counted the typical number of cuts between pitches in a modern broadcast but I would guess the number is between five and 10. The standard for commercials is five scenes per spot so the going rate for a baseball game must be similar. The idea is that you'll somehow be bored if you are forced to watch the pitcher picking up the sign and rocking back into his motion.

Of course, the 1960 game revealed another interesting phenomena, the way clearing away your desk reveals the nice grain you'd forgotten in the wood. In 1960, the hitters did not wear batting gloves. My lord, the time between pitches was short in those days. The game featured 19 runs. 21 hits and a parade of relief pitchers, and it was over in two hours 36 minutes. That's three or four innings of a one-run Yankees / Red Sox's game today, and not in the World Series.

Without the distraction of those incredibly fiddly batting gloves the hitters stayed in the box, their bats at the ready. Today, a hitter steps out between pitches, chats with the umpire about the location of the last pitch, glances down at the third base coach as if wearing Ryne Duren's coke bottle glasses barely making out the signs, adjusts his gloves -- both hands -- adjusts his elbow and shin armor, pats the top of his helmet for a fresh load of pine tar on each hand, discovers in the process his gloves have become untenably loose again so he readjusts each, holds up his top hand like a stop sign to the umpire, tentatively replaces his back foot in the box, stares out at the pitcher patiently waiting, lugs his front foot into the box and sets his bat to twitching over his head.

Contrast to Mickey Mantle taking a pitch in the dirt, not budging from the left hand side of the box as Smoky Burgess fires the ball back to the mound; Mantle, bare hands on the bat quietly at rest on his shoulder, studying Bob Friend on the hill, nothing moving, statue-like, as Friend rocks back and delivers, the bat slicing through the zone of the plate sending a crisp, clutch, RBI line drive into left center.

A ban on batting gloves would speed up the modern game by an hour, at least. This World Series contest took just two-and-a-half hours without batting gloves. Of course, it was Oct. 13, not late November, so batting gloves weren't so necessary in 1960.

The audio on this 1960 telecast was just as spare. Oh, for a world without color men! Mel Allen and Bob Prince had the call and they were steady as a lamp post. One at a time, they just told you who was hitting, who fielded the ball, how many were out when you needed to know, and the barest facts about the players, something like where they called home and whether they were having a good season, whether they featured power or finesse, and what a splendid job Bobby Shantz was doing in relief. They let you know Whitey Ford was warming in the bullpen but you didn't have to hear ad nausea what the statistics are for starting pitchers brought in to relieve in late innings of World Series games.

What you could hear, believe it or not, were the fans. Start us off, Gino. Just a little bingo now, Gino.

Allen and Prince kept you informed about curve balls, screwballs or fastballs after each pitch. But you didn't have to listen to the minutia of the hitter's statistics with runners on first and third after the seventh inning of day games, his hot and cold zones, what kinds of pitches he had been out on late in the season or the complex hitting instructions the color man would be giving him if, indeed, the color man could find a job as a hitting coach. You didn't have to listen to the banter between the color man and the play-by-play man either, which can, occasionally, ignore the fact that a game is going on. And, you didn't have to endure the endless repetition of the notion that a right handed hitter is only in the zone if he is hitting the ball to right field. Whew! What a relief it was to the ears.

Watching the seventh game of the 1980 Series was a revelation. You just don't realize how cluttered and busy, distracted and disorganized your world has become, how much static is filling your ears, how much bullshit you are listening to, how much everything has become about face time, how far, how very far, we have come from the game in the new century until you sit back and enjoy a 50-year-old kinescope Bing Crosby righteously kept in the cellar with his finest wines.


1 comment:

  1. Lofflin, I love this piece. I saw the article in the Star about this tape being found; I'll have to watch this game.

    It is a bit strange how little brainpower a baseball broadcast requires of the viewer. Although, today's halfass broadcasters seem to get the simplest facts wrong -- so if you REALLY want to know what's going on, you've got to be a reader.

    I fully agree about the batting gloves. Get rid of them.