Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Meet the Mets! Greet the Mets!

     Oh, I can see the whole scene even now, nearly a half century down the pike. You're eight years old, living out some place in the wilds of Nassau County, Great Neck, say. The clock has struck 9 P.M. (8 Central). Your teeth are brushed and you got your jammies on. You've said your prayers and kissed your parents goodnight. You turn off the lights and jump under the covers with your little transistor RCA radio scraping up against your ear with the volume turned down so low the occasional passing car obscures the sound of joy emanating from a soggy Busch Stadium in St. Louis on a cool early/mid-April 1962 Wednesday night answering what seems to have been a longstanding dream wish: National League baseball has returned to New York.

For download or stream, click here (selection #12):

     You are the product of a mixed marriage: Moms loved the Dodgers especially that Gil Hodges (pitter-patter) but Pops was a Giants guy — it wall about Bill Terry, Mel Ott and Willie Mays for him. But even though they bonded on their mutual hate of the Yanks, you were a secret fan of the Bronx Bombers — especially the exploits of the M&M Boys: Mantle and Maris as they chased the babe's single season home run record just a few months before.

     But all that has changed. The Dodgers and Giants are long gone, a continent away and ain't coming back except for the infrequent road swing. You were only three when they split and you say you remember them but you really don't.

     No, tonight it's just you, your little radio and your new heroes: the New York Mets. Little do you suspect — oh innocent one — what a lifetime of joy and heartache this long affair will wreak on your soul. The names of the players will at first become more familiar to you  than the voices singing their siren song. Hodges, Ashburn and Musial — Moms and Pops have mentioned them many times. Others like Zimmer, Craig, Neal, and Bell or Boyer, Brock, White, and Flood will be recalled, forgotten and recalled again and again as the seasons approach, are played and inevitably tumble past melding one into the other —­­ background music for the symphony of your life.

     Years later, when you happen upon a recording of the game, you'll marvel at the little things: the way the names evoke an epic novel of sorts, all more than mere characters in a narrative so dense and tangled not even Dickens or the guys who wrote "The Wire" could have given it an appropriate finale. Julian Javier, Minnie Minoso, Solly Hemus, Cookie Lavagetto, Casey Stengel... their apparitions live once again.

     The announcers will mention that Rogers Hornsby is in the house as a scout for the Mets and you'll hear the name Curt Flood and think about free agency and all that has wrought. And it might now occur to you that these two men represent alternate universes — a rush into the very distant baseball past (Hornsby was born in 1896!) and, in Flood's case (and in no way to fault his brave stand against ownership and the bit of slavery then known as the "reserve clause),  the orgy of greed that, sadly, marks not only our beloved game once played as a summer idyll but just about anything else touched by greenbacks and warbucks.

     You'll change as you grow. Tonight, along with the Mets, you love Chubby Checker but soon enough your older sister will bring home a Beatles record which — like the Yanks — you'll pretend to hate. In less than decade you'll break curfew by catching the Dead's late show at the Fillmore and a few years after trade that summer job as a lifeguard at Jones Beach for an internship on the Commodities Exchange. But the Mets will never be far away, just a quick flip of the AM dial, really.

     You'll be all of fifteen when the Flushing Miracle makes believers of even the most cynical and you'll fear for your life when — sitting in Shea's left field upper deck on an October afternoon in '73 — those lovable Met fans will go a little coo-coo when calling for the head (and balls!) of one Pete Rose after he tarred and feathered your little shortstop after a dust-up at second base. You'll cry when Tom "The Franchise" Seaver is sent packing to Cincy and you'll endure another decade of spring promises soured and scorched into mid-summer mediocrity.

     Your first kid — a boy! — will enter the world the same month Doc, Straw, Keith and the Kid bring a crown back to Shea. And you'll stand in the rain with that boy thirteen years later almost too hoarse to cheer when Ventura's 15th inning "grand slam single" clears the fence in deep right center. The Subway Series a year later? Well, you always were a closet Yankee fan and Jeter is pretty hard to hate so you took it in stride. A few years hence, you'll sell a couple of ducats on Stub Hub for a game at the new Shea (you refuse to call it Citi Field) to bury your second parent.

     But under the covers in 1962, you don't know from any of that. All you know is that you are hearing the voices of guys with names you never heard of (Bob Murphy, Ralph Kiner and Lindsey Nelson) lightly floating in the air of an early spring Long Isle eve. As you fight off sleep, you thrill to the team's first hits and runs, their first error and balk. You quickly begin to love these voices in the night as they describe Musial scoring and tying Ott's then-all time record for most NL runs scored in a career or Hodges' home run (his 362nd and the Mets' first ever) which placed him ahead of Joe DiMaggio on that then-all time career list. Between innings these faceless voices — remember you have yet to see them on the family black and white Magnavox ­— try to sell your little ass Rhingold beer and Tarryton cigarettes but that's just another secret to stow away in your stash of secrets.

     This Bob Murphy is a bit of a stiff but you can hear his big smile shining right through the little circuits on your transistor. He'll loosen up in time and oh how you'll relish his "happy recap" as the Mets notch the rare win in the coming years. With his relaxed and humble tone, you'd never know that Kiner was a former ballplayer, a power hitter who struck fear into the hearts of pitchers and fans in both leagues. He hasn't made one of his infamous malapropisms yet and you're too young to know if he had but now, all these years later, you remember them and all the great players you saw schmoozing on his post-game "Kiner's Korner" show on channel 9. And the weird Lindsey Nelson. He hadn't begun wearing those screamingly loud and awful plaid jackets yet but if he had you can be sure it was bright enough to practically see on the radio.

     For the next fifty years these voices would accompany your journey. They would become your friends, your strange uncles, your soul mates. Lindsey would split in '79 for San Francisco. Murph would eventually become the primary radio voice of the team until retirement and then death took him to baseball Valhalla.  And Ralph... well, Ralph is still around making the odd cameo on some televised games with today's version of the whacked-out trio: Gary, Keith and Ron.

     You don't know any of that as the eight year-old version of yourself slowly fades into the Land of Nod. You miss the game slip away amid bad pitching and a long rain delay. And you are not surprised when you wake up in the morning — radio still pressed to your ear — that the game was lost.

Box Score of the First Mets Game:

Bob Murphy Wikipedia Link: 

Ralph Kiner Wikipedia Link:  

Lindsey Nelson Wikipedia Link:

Monday, January 24, 2011

Of Braves, Bosox, Beantowners, Beaneaters and Britt

     So I'm making my way through these cobweb-filled archives, blowing ancient pixie dust off the audio zeroes and ones and thinking, just thinking, that there may be a dusky jewel just waiting to be unearthed. And sure enough, not a fortnight into my journey I have, despite myself, stumbled upon a couple of gems (a ruby and an emerald) from the 1948 World Series called in part by a giant of medium, a missing link of sorts that takes us back to that old, weird America whose shade diminishes with each half inning.

A link to the games can be found here (selections 1 & 2):

     His name was Jim Britt and if you never heard of him don't feel too bad... neither had I. But let me tell you, this guy was a monster — one of the best I've heard and someone, if you dug him from his moldering grave and put behind the mic in Fenway Park on Opening Day could pretty much pick up where he left off a half century ago and not only be pretty much right at home but accepted by the entirety of Red Sox Nation.

     I don't know about you but the 1948 World Series always struck me as a little off — detached as it was from the continuum of New York hegemony in the era's October Classic. Maybe it was because of the teams involved. Neither Boston's Braves nor the Indians from the Land of Cleve had made it to the Series in decades or even up to that point factored much in pennant races during their combined collective histories. Yes, the stars briefly aligned in the late summer and for the only time between 1947 and 1958, a New York team did not compete for baseball's crown after the final regular season games had played themselves out. Or maybe it was because the sun never seems to be shining in any of the photos I've seen of the six games played between — at least in '48 — two pretty fine squads. 

     Somewhat lost to history is just how close the '48 Series came to being an all-Boston affair — only an 8-3 Red Sox loss in a one game playoff with the Indians separated  Beantowners from a baseball bash that might still be talked about had both teams survived to square off in the Series.

     So when Mel Allen and Britt settled themselves in the Braves Field radio booth in the minutes before the first pitch of the Series for a national broadcast, who knew that that the next half dozen contests would be remembered and cherished on several levels.

     Happily, at least two of the games (one and five) survive on recording and allow instant transport of us baseball bodhisattvas into the boom of post-WWII yore with these strains of audio ore. Bob Feller, Eddie Stanky, Joe Gordon, Tommy Holmes, Larry Doby, Lou Boudreau, Satchel Paige, Warren Spahn and Johnny "Pray for Rain" Sain are just a few of the bright lights shining out of the Avalon mists and live once again if only for a few fleeting moments on these still quite listenable reels. Somewhat amazingly, both these games preserve Rapid Robert Feller's only two Series appearances and — even more amazingly — he lost them both!

Here is some cool old footage from the 1948 Series with some fab glimpses of Braves Field:

     The Mutual Broadcasting System — once an industry powerhouse that stood alongside CBS, NBC, ABC and Dumont — carried national big league baseball games from 1935 to 1956. And, with television still in its relative infancy during this period, Mutual was the outlet on which most Americans kept up with the action. Tapping Britt to ride point at the mic was — pre-planned or not — a stroke of genius on Mutual's part as he was familiar with every major league team.

     Britt was (as previously alluded) the voice of Boston baseball in the 1940s and 1950s and — oddly enough — called the home games and only the home games of both the Red Sox and Braves. This, as far as I know, is a one-off in the history of the genre and something I suspect had more to do with budgetary considerations (the cost of broadcasting road games with its concomitant travel and technological expenses) than any novelty act or gimmick. And for those doubters who question what happened when both teams were slated to play in Boston on the same day, apparently this did not happen as schedule makers were careful not to overlap the teams' home appearances. I, for one, remain skeptical that it never occurred, who knows? Were there no make-up games to account for rain outs wedged in there somewhere?

     As the first pitch of the inaugural 1948 World Series tilt approaches, we are treated to a young Mel Allen, chipper and hyper-professional as he sets the scene amidst all the pre-game fanfare. And how things have changed in some sixty-three years. Can one imagine a modern day Indians or Braves game stepped with references to reservations, wigwams, peace pipes, potions, tee-pees, headdresses, tomahawks, or war dances? Allen's pre-game spiel includes just about each of these unfortunate stereotypical allusions. Yet there remains a certain naive charm to it all, a kind of lost innocence that while maybe not entirely forgivable certainly was not out of place in its day. Don't make it cool or right, only a little more palatable. And, hey, if you're telling me that whoever was calling the 1995 Series that brought these two franchises together once again wasn't at least thinking about all those same dated, very un-PC racist clichés, then you be the naïf.

     With two of the game's great hurlers — Feller and Sain — taking the mound, Game One delivered on its promise of a taut pitchers' duel that took less than two hours to complete. Hits are scattered, batters K'd, leather-flashing fielders play crisp defensive ball and keep things moving along until the bottom of the eighth when the game turned on controversial, barely recalled, blown call. Feller's pick-off throw to player-manager Lou Boudreau  nailed pinch runner Phil Masi by (as all photos clearly indicate) by a mile and a half. But second base umpire Bill Summers called Masi safe and — wouldn't ya know it — Tommy Holmes knocked Masi in with a two out single for the game's decisive and only run. And if you enjoy a cherry atop of your mid-winter archival baseball listening, taste this: Sain strikes out mild-hitting right fielder Wally Judnich with a man on second to end the game and preserve a win for the upstart Braves.

     The Indians took the next three, closely contested, low-scoring games setting the stage for Feller's return to the mound if not his renaissance. Squaring off against the Braves' Nels Potter at Cleveland's gargantuan Municipal Stadium in front of 86,288 (then the largest crowd to enjoy a Series game), Feller faltered immediately, giving up two quick hits and then a three-run blast to clean-up hitting third baseman Bob Elliot. Potter wasn't much better in the early going, giving back a run in the bottom of the first. Both pitchers settled down  before the game devolved into a slug fest. The Indians' chased Potter in the fourth with four runs and seemed on their way to grabbing baseball's crown. But the Braves brought in Spahn who spun 5.1 innings of one-hit, no-run ball and with their own big six run seventh were able to stave off elimination and live to fight for at least one more afternoon.

     A clip from a rare, weird film The Kid From Cleveland featuring the local ball club:

     Britt's tour-de-force call of these games are keepers. A little bit of research into his life and art revealed something I began to suspect during my elongated listening session: that Britt cut his teeth as one of those broadcasters who recreated baseball on the radio by embellishing on the pitch-by-pitch feeds he read off a telegraph machine. My sense that Britt had developed his approach to calling his game as a re-creationist came, I think, because he reminds me of Gordon McLendon, another somewhat better known broadcaster from the same era and probably best known for his call of the cataclysmic 1951 Giants-Dodgers Bobby Thomson "Shot Heard 'Round the World" game (a recording of which I will review in the middle future).

     Both Britt and McLendon began their careers doing these recreations and in these few extant examples of their later play-by-play exhibit a flowing, flowery, grandiose style that sustains itself in a kind of logical and hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness and packed with unique phrasings, baseball lore, between pitch and inning banter, strategic insight as well as vivid and fluid description of the action. And both men were, it must be noted, extremely well-educated and hailed from well-to-do, semi-influential families. But where McLendon was more of a national voice, Britt's association with Boston and its two ball clubs was a locally cherished figure whose voice was synonymous with baseball on the Fens and by the banks of the River Charles.

     Think about those re-creationists for a moment. There they were sitting in a nondescript studio, a microphone on a desk before them, an engineer or producer of some kind retrieving pitch-by-pitch info on a ticker-tape that might read: "Strike. One ball two strikes." The re-creationist would then have to do some serious embellishing and turn that bares piece of info into something like: "Gomez readies himself on the rubber... he gets his sign from Dickey and takes a deep breath... there's his wind-up and here it comes... strike two catches the inside corner and Greenberg doesn't like the call and if you know ol' Hank as well as me, you know he hardly ever looks twice at an  ump's call."

     Yeah, that's right, they just made stuff up. No wonder that our nation's 40th president had the same gig, using his persuasive voice to recreate Cubs' games in the early 1930s.

     But Britt was also a born reporter. Whether coloring the varying arcs of Feller's pitch arsenal, mentioning which two fingers of Masi's hand are blood bruised, noting the batting skills of pitcher Potter, or sharing some inside dope, Britt comes off a guy who was rubbing shoulders with players, managers and management alike with Runyonesque ease. How about this for a taste of Britt's old school, yet still totally cool, verbal splash: "Paige throws the ball every possible way but left-handed."

     It is something of a letdown when Britt departs the game at its midway point in both games in favor of his partner for the Series, Mel Allen. But, you know, they didn't call Mel Allen Mel Allen for nothing. Well into his career at this point, Allen provides an equally vivid, tightly wound rendition marked by two stirring moments in the fifth game: the Braves' 7th inning 6-run deluge and Satchel Paige's entry and dominance in that same inning to at least get Cleveland back in the dugout.

     This was before Allen worked up all his "How about that!" and "Holy Cow!" shtick and settled into a more laid back broadcasting persona. Of the baker's dozen of recordings available in this wing of the archive, Allen is present on more half of them and there does seem to be some distinct change in styles between his work in the late 1940s and what we hear a decade later.

     Coming upon these two games reminds me of stumbling upon an old Ellington or Basie recording and being truly struck by the performance of one of the sidemen — tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, say — and having a whole vista of delight captivate, enlighten or otherwise surprise you.

     No, there is no plaque in Cooperstown or anywhere else enshrining Jim Britt's contribution to the art of baseball on the radio... but maybe there should be.

Game 1 Box Score:

Game 5 Box Score:

A heartfelt biography and reminiscence about Jim Britt:

And Jim Britt's Wikipedia entry:

Monday, January 17, 2011

Holy Cow! And Pass the Cannolis!

     Phil Rizzuto was a really fine baseball radio broadcaster. Wow! I can't believe I actually just wrote that but goddamn if it at least for a long spell wasn't true.

     Somewhere between the time he hung up his spikes and began applying the aural oils to the 1010 WINS-AM airwaves canvas and the time he downed one too many cannolis, the Scooter displayed some serious chops as a voice of the Yankees.

     When I took my first steps into baseball Never Ever Land as a wee lad in the early and mid-1960s and began watching the Bronx Bombers on WPIX channel 11, it was Rizzuto, the timeless Red Barber and Phil's former teammate Jerry Coleman sharing the broadcasting duties. Of course, I had little if any idea who any of these guys were, that Phil and Jerry were former Yanks or that Barber the veritable Norman Rockwell of the genre. It was all about Mantle and Maris with a dash of Kubek, Richardson, and Ford thrown in for me.

     In my mind's ear, before all the Scooter shtick kicked into high gear and took on the proportions of something resembling Commedia dell'arte more than baseball, I can conjure him as an observant and insightful if excitable homer. Scooter was only a season and a half into his broadcasting career when the Yanks visited Boston during August's Dog Days in 1958 and if the game preserved from the 16th of the month is any indication, Rizzuto was an absolute natural.

Access to a download or stream of the game can be found here (selection #9):

     Rizzuto was teamed with Mel Allen in his first years as a broadcaster. And when a game was televised they carved up duties as is the case here where we are given healthy doses of the Scooter in the early and late innings with Allen squeezing in a couple of the middle frames. And while Mel frankly sounds like he's phoning it is, the Scooter shows himself to be something far more than a wanna be Sorcerer's Apprentice.

     In those early days of his broadcasting career Rizzuto is spry, informative and chatty. He had yet to weave the signature Philisms into his narrative that would endear to Yankee fans in the coming decades. No one gets called a "hucklberry." He never exclaims "Unbelievable!" or, more famously, "Holy Cow!" He never mentions his wife Cora, riffs about stromboli or bitches about the traffic on the GWB. About the closest we get to the Rizzuto we came to know and love (or hate) is when he notes a cooler than expected breeze blowing into the booth with some degree of irritation. Really, what comes off here is a washed-up, forty-year old shortstop making his bones in front of a mic atop Fenway Park on an unseasonably cool summer day.
     I imagine Phil as a rather glib soul and one who listened to a lot of baseball on the radio. That would explain his apparent ease at the mic and descriptive cadences on display on this surviving reel. Certainly his experiences as a ballplayer are bound to come through so when Yankee third baseman fouls one off the top of his foot, Scooter empathizes as only one who has been in those very same cleats can. More saliently, he presents an ongoing stream of narrative (if not quite yet surreal conscious) or mostly baseball focused commentary with scant breaths of dead air. No long pauses between pitches on this day.

     One wonders where Scooter gathered the tricks of the trade. He is already so fully formed. I like to think that he must have done a fair amount of listening to games on the radio at least as a teenager when the Yanks commenced to allow broadcast of their home games in 1938. I'm a little unclear as to how often games were aired. Watch any of those old baseball movies like Pride of the Yankees or The Winning Team and one gets the distinct impression that baseball on the radio was relatively commonplace. Re-creations of games in which an announcer embellished on ticker feeds emanating from the ball grounds were somewhat de rigueur but actual broadcasts were rather novel until the late 1930s. The ownerships of all three New York clubs, in fact, appear to have banned radio baseball for the most of the '30s fearing that "giving the games away for free" across the AM ether would cut into gate receipts. While this was ultimately refuted — hearing games on the radio, it turned out, actually inspired folks into forking over their hard-earned money for a ducat — it still begs the question as to how Rizzuto was able to develop such impressive chops with such rapidity.

     I envision the Scooter catching bits and pieces if not complete games on the radio while boning his bat in the clubhouse, hanging out in hotel rooms on road trips or cruising in the family car on a grocery shopping excursion. Based in New York as a player in the '40s and '50s, he would have heard the likes of all the eras best: Red Barber, Connie Desmond, a young Vin Scully, and Russ Hodges to name the most prominent local voices. Where, how and whenever, Phil Rizzuto absorbed the techniques as if by some cosmic osmosis. Or, maybe like Robert Johnson "King of the Delta Blues" who in the lore of the genre is said to have sold his very soul to Beelzebub hisself at a lonely crossroads at midnight under the glow of a full Mississippi moon in exchange for his prowess on a cut rate Stella, Rizzuto made a similar pact with the dark side.

     If the Scooter did sell his soul, I would think that it came twenty years hence when he began shilling for the Money Store, some kind of semi-legal loan sharking outfit, this being around the time Yankee broadcasts (especially on the tube) listed into the seriously surreal.

     Though marked by special moments, the Bostons 7-4 win over the New Yorks on August 16, 1958 was nothing special. The Bosox nickle and dime their way to an ultimately insurmountable seven-zip lead through five as they slowly get the timing of Yank starting pitcher Don Larsen's no wind-up deliver down and make just about everybody forget that this was the same guy who tossed a World Series perfecto not two years before. Mickey Mantle gets crossed up on a pop-up with second baseman Gil McDougald in short center opening the doors to a two-out rally, Ted Williams (always a presence) plays a Yogi Berra double off "The Wall" (the term "Green Monster" — or "Mawnstah" — was a later designation), Jimmy Piersall reveals himself to be a deft and daft base runner, and Marv Throneberry (yes, the original Mets' "Marvelous" one) plays first for the Yanks and drops a ball as if on cue. Mantle's late game two-run bomb deep into Fenway's right centerfield bleachers is, without question, the day's keepsake call.

     One of the great joys of these vintage recordings is the between-inning spots that color the era or otherwise give glimpses into mid-20th century American life. And Rizzuto serves up a whopper here plugging the next day's Negro League double dip between the storied Kansas City Monarchs and the Detroit Clowns (featuring the athleticism and no doubt a few antics of Reece "Goose" Tatum and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton's from basketball's Harlem Globetrotters) at Yankee Stadium. Really, this was the last gasp for the Negro Leagues when it had been reduced to a minor low rent barnstorming spectacle a decade and small change past the integration of the so-called "major league" rendition of the sport which diminished the demand to witness the exploits and antics of all-black squads in games that meant something. Ironically (as the best as I can figure), there was but one African-American even suited for play that day: back-up Yankee backstop Elston Howard. Both teams, it is well known, were among the very last clubs to put roster a black.

     Another notable aspect to the recording is its coming on the tenth anniversary Babe Ruth's death, marked by a moment of silence in a pregame ceremony involving the two teams the with whom the Bambino was most closely associated and whose ghost (and curse) lingered over the teams' bitter (if generally one-sided) rivalry until finally lifted when the Bosox upended the Yanks in that memorable '04 ALCS. Coincidentally it was also two years to the day of the Scooter's final game and while he does not mention that, he invokes Ruth and covers his stats (batting and pitching) with the kind of awe anyone might still hold in considering the Babe's amazing numerical legacy.

     Yeah, the Scooter could really call a game... at least back in '58. But, in time, he became a poet without even knowin' it. Consider this late entry from his final avant-garde phase:

The legs are so important.
In golf, they're very,
People don't realize
How important legs are in golf,
Or in baseball,
And football, definitely.
O, in track.
Is there anything, what?
Is there anything where the legs
Are not the most important?

A link to the game's box score:

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Hello There, Everybody!

     Twenty-nine years to the day before Bucky Dent lofted his long fly ball into the netting above Fenway Park's Green Monster, the game that probably defined and inflamed sport's greatest rivalry, the Yanks 5-3 win over the Bosox on the 1949 regular season's 154th and final game must be considered on high.

A link to a recording can be found among the games posted here:

     The pennant races of both leagues in '49 were two of baseball's greatest with two of three the key games coming down to the final at bats before the deal was sealed. David Halbertram's opus on the subject, Summer of '49, will give the obsessive far greater insight and prose not only on baseball but the socio-political-economic backdrop informing the era than might be found here. But one basic fact might spell things out adequately enough: the Bostons traveled to the big ballpark in the Bronx for Saturday and Sunday afternoon games needing but a single addition to their W column to wave the AL flag high atop the Fens. After blowing a 4-0 en route to a 5-4 loss in the first game capped off by Yankee outfield Johnny Lindell's solo shot in the bottom of the 8th that ultimately gave the Yanks the win, the ears of at least both cities were adhered to their radios when the 20-10 righty Vic Raschi threw strike one shortly after 2 pm to commence the Sabbath Day hostility.

     The extant recording from this classic puts the venerated broadcaster, the still beloved and legendary Mel Allen front and center throughout. And from his trademark salutation, "Hello there, everybody" on through the clubhouse celebration, the Yankee radio host comes off as a compelling, mostly objective pro. Allen's excitement is more than palpable but, despite his acknowledged allegiance to the home team, he manages to bring equal enthusiasm to the clutch exploits of both squads.
     Some sixty-plus years down the pike, Allen's style might seem a little dated and, well, dry by most modern standards. Still, his gregarious tone abounds and his little catch phrases creep into the mix contribute to the prevailing attitude that he was breaking some sort of mythopoetic ground. Dom DiMaggio moves "like a greyhound" to gather a drive in center and when Raschi snares a rocket smashed up the middle, Allen remarks that he has a horse shoe in his mitt in reference to the pitcher's lucky catch. Mel even manages to squeeze in a plug for the Yank's longtime suds sponsor when he describes a hot shot down the first base line as being foul by the width of a Ballantine beer bottle cap. Those waiting to hear the most famous exclamatory Melism — "How about that!" — will be disappointed. Not sure when he began employing that particular signature phrase but he calls Tommy Henrich's key lead-off 8th inning homer to right with a "Going, going, it's gone!" we get a little taste of his longest lasting contribution to the national lexicon.

     A small added bonus is Allen's partner, a young Curt Gowdy who shared the Yankee broadcasting duties during the 1949 and 1950s seasons before going on to make his mark with long stints as a Red Sox broadcaster and a nationally renowned man in the booth. But, as Allen's sidekick here, Gowdy does little more than help sell beer between innings. And while he handles the mic for a half-inning or so in the middle of the game while Mel goes to take a leak, he presence is fairly negligible. I'm not sure he is ever even introduced by name and unless you knew it was him, there is virtually nothing to distinguish the son of Green River, Wyoming (a town that stranded me on a 1980 hitch hiking excursion taking me to the Yucatan). Not that I was ever much of a Curt Gowdy fan to begin with. Though I hear he was pretty great during that run as a Bosox voice, by the time I caught up with him as the "Game of the Week" guy on NBC, he was (even to my young ears) presenting a pretty bland version of baseball and just about any other sport he narrated which is probably exactly why he lasted so long on the national scene so very long ago. He was, at least, likable.

     I started sneaking my little RCA transistor radio under the covers around 1964 as a seven-year-old (my, how little things have changed!) so I probably heard a little Mel Allen at the end of his prime run with the Yanks which ended that year. Thereafter, he was mostly familiar to me as the host of TV's This Week in Baseball. And though I understand he handled the Yanks' cable television broadcasting duties in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was only a little more off-the-grid then than now to give much of a valuable critique of his artifice during that very late phase of his career.

    By all accounts he lived a rather fraught life, one of those great rags to riches to rags to riches American tales marked by controversy, isolation, rumor, and more than a little mystery. At least two biographies have been published chronicling his rise and fall and rise but a pretty good sense of things can be had here:

     Certainly as one who shares his roots in both Judaism and the American south, he remains to me an endearing figure.

     Allen's narrative of this apocalyptic 1949 Yanks-Sox game is mostly strikes and balls reportage with little strategic insight and certainly not the kind of historical gravitas such a monumental showdown would be handled in the new millennium's second decade. Still, the grinding strain of the whirlwind pennant race's roller coaster stretch drive are in his voice and permeate the stadium as each big out recorded or hit lands safely on the outfield lawn.

     The game itself more than lives up to its hype as a classic with all the familiar names (Ted Williams, Phil Rizutto, Henrich, les frères DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, et. al.) playing key roles with pivotal at bats and fielding exploits. Rizutto and Dom DiMaggio, in particular, have standout games —  it seems at times that every ball hit ends up in the mitt of one or the other. And Rizutto does it with his ash as well, leading off the bottom of the first with a triple before scoring the game's first run on a Henrich ground out. But after Joe D. reached third on a two out triple of his own, Boston's starting pitcher, Ellis Kinder, a little known righty from Arkansas who stepped to the mound that day with an eye-popping 23-6 record, took over and was nearly untouchable until pulled for a pinch hitter in the 8th. Raschi nearly matches him and combined with big Ks, rally-killing DPs, great plays, near misses, consequential managerial risks, and stirring 11th hour rallies by both teams, the Yanks emerge victorious as Boston leaves the go ahead run in the batter's box when the 27th out nestles in Henrich's first baseman's paw.

    And in the post-game clubhouse celebration (certainly a broadcast novelty at the time, no?), Allen lets it all hang out with gregarious generosity and enthusiasm of a good ol' boy, enjoying the moment as Stengel, Rizutto, DiMag, Raschi, and others rest on their laurels for at least a day.
The game's box score:

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Once There Was a Ballpark Here

Nothing like being in the frosty throes of winter to dive into this bag of aural goodies and take a meander into the past with a Mother Lode of offerings from, one of the more amazing websites one is ever likely to encounter. Grateful Dead aficionados proceed at your own risk when encountering this site as there are months of shows available for stream and/or download, not to mention scads of other music, sounds, films, books, software. etc. etc. etc. This is a rabbit's hole straight out of Wonderland and (from what I can gather) entirely or almost entirely on the up-and-up and on the square in re: copyright karma.

Here is the link:

As far as these thirteen ball games are concerned, there is two days worth of wall-to-wall old time, old school baseball here for your enjoyment and study. I've been walking around my neighborhood in Brooklyn in the cold and snow grooving on flashes and splashes of summers past these pieces of the audio Holy Grail provide. And while most of the games are of a semi-historic nature (some World Series affairs, the climactic Yanks-Red Sox 1949 season finale, the Mets' first game, an All-Star game), it is the three 1957 Dodger games which — mostly on the strength of some prime, early Vin Scully — really stand out in their conjuring of  sepia images of that ballyard in Flatbush (actually more like Crown Heights) not a half-hour walk from where I type these very words (or was that "woids"?).

Scully is, of course, at least tied for first as the greatest of all baseball word painters alive or not presently living, his dulcet delivery never failing to embellish even the tiniest of baseball diamond filigrees.  By 1957, he was the Dodgers' lead broadcaster and showing the comfort eight seasons on the job will do for anyone, sharing radio and television duties with Jerry Doggett and Al Helfer. My only real beef against Scully is, ironically enough, his voice.

Don't get me wrong: I love it. It makes for a beautiful and comforting listen. But Scully was a kid from the Bronx and Washington Heights and that there is nary a hint of his regional roots (excepting an Irishman's gift for gab) creates a bit more of a vanilla persona than I would prefer. It was as if he was consciously grooming his silver tongue for mainstream prime time.

Truth be told, of the two National League teams that shared the first year of my life with me in New York City, I became a Giants guy. I think it all had something to do with Willie Mays, the Bobby Thomson home run, the Polo Grounds, their uniforms, their name, and the whole San Francisco-Los Angeles/New-York City/Los Angeles thing. Even as a young lad in the mid 1960s, I instinctively knew that San Fran was the hippest and most beautiful of U.S. cities. Who knows?

'Cause other than Koufax, I never liked the Dodgers. I like to think that because I pretty much bleed equal amounts of Yankee and Met blood that if the Bums and Jints had never left Brooklyn or Coogan's Bluff, I'd be pulling for all three teams. I mean, the whole point of being a New Yorker is to enjoy and gloat over our embarrassment of riches. How great to have two or (in 1957) three teams to root for rather than turn our swords on one another. I never did buy into the Cold War or its version in New York City baseball miniature.

And I still loath the Dodgers though Scully has always softened their image for me. And you can see (or rather hear) why he became a national treasure and Doggett and Helfer mostly forgotten on these broadcasts. Helfer was really the veteran among the trio with a career in broadcasting and journalism that stretched back to the early 1930s when he began doing recreations of Pittsburgh Pirate games before joining Red Barber in the Cincinnati Reds' booth in 1935. By contrast to Scully and to a lesser extent Doggett, his delivery here is pretty rote though not completely by-the-numbers. Doggett was just beginning his thirty years-plus role as second banana to Scully with whom he followed the team west. All three, though, to one degree or another, are coming out of the Red Barber lineage. Think of Barber as Louis Armstrong and Scully, Doggett and Helfer as Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham and Buck Clayton, respectively, and some idea of the Ol' Red Head's influence can be gleaned.
The Dodgers June 4 contest versus the perennially sagging Chicago Cubs (on a clear day they could see 7th place) is the first of the archive's '57 offerings and may be the most eventful. Just to hear the names Snider, Furillo, Labine, Cimoli, Erskine, Hodges, and Reece flow off the tongues of Scully and company still make the heart go a-flutter.

Scully handles the first three frames before heading to the TV booth for the balance of the evening. He endears himself immediately by telling his audience that he has just spilled a cup of coffee on his suit pants fresh from the cleaners yet never misses a beat though he must have been in some pain.

The game itself is memorable on several counts. Sure, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Ernie Banks all smash home runs, Roy Campanella gets plunked in the upper chest and forced to leave the game, and Brooklyn's own Joe Pignatano collects his first big league hit. The real story here is Sandy Koufax who — in a sign of things to come — no-hits the Cubbies through five before losing steam and allowing the North Siders back into the game by giving up a couple of long balls with men on base. In leading the Dodgers to a 7-5 win for his fourth win of the campaign, Sandy struck out twelve that night right on the heels of a multi K outing a week or so before. The electric excitement of a phenom on the cusp of greatness is palpable in the voices of all three announcers.

Along the way we get the predictable Schaefer beer and Lucky Strike cigarette spots, updates on the out-of-town scores (Musial smacks a home run at Forbes Field against the Bucs!) and reminders that tomorrow's game against the Cubs will be played not in Brooklyn but at Jersey City's Roosevelt Stadium (itself the site of some stellar Grateful Dead shows in the early and mid-1970s) which, if one was paranoid enough to read between the lines, might have served as a harbinger of home games being played quite a bit further towards the setting sun.

When Dodgers visited Cincinnati's Crosley Field on July 28 for a Sunday afternoon meet with the Redlegs before 28,524, the race for the National League pennant was very much still in play with Brooklynites right in the thick of it.

Scully and Doggett handle the play-by-play duties alone this time without the aid of Helfer for reasons about which I can only speculate. Maybe the game wasn't broadcast on the tube, maybe road trips were made with only a tandem. Who knows? As with the previous game, one thing that does stand out is the total lack of banter between the men. Doggett handles the first half of the game by himself with Vin supplying the between inning cigarette spots before switching duties for the last four-and-a-half innings.

But Scully's talent impresses immediately when he takes control of the game. Be it the precision with which he describes a curve ball or the placement of the pitches across the batter's letters or belt, the outfielders' tracking of a fly ball in the steamy midsummer glare, describing Snider "golfing" at a pitch, noticing the foam rubber in the on-deck circle waiting batters use to cushion their kneel, or noting the newly-installed AC in both Crosley dugouts, nothing seems to escape Scully's all-seeing fourth eye.

But this game is probably the least satisfying of the three '57 Dodger broadcasts, marked only by Carl Furillo's eighth (and last) career grand salami, half of which he struck right there in Cincy. Johhny Podres hurls a complete game and Frank Robinson gets a hit. But by the time Ted "Big Klu" Kluszewski drills one over the large screen and into the right center field bleachers to lead off the eighth for the hometowners bringing the score to 7-2, the outcome is pretty much a done deal.

By the time the Giants staggered into Brooklyn on the final day of August for a Saturday afternoon Labor Day weekend face-off, the race for the pennant was swiftly one in name only with both squads becoming but mere specks in the rear view mirror of the Milwaukee Braves.

Of the three 1957 Dodgers broadcasts, this game is the mostly closely contested, a real back and forth tussle particularly in the middle innings and featuring exploits by many a familiar name. Veteran Sal Maglie, rookie Johnny Roseboro, Whitey Lockman, Pee Wee Reece (two errors on one play in the sixth!), Koufax (he gets rocked in a brief relief stint), and even Bobby Thomson (back for his swan song with the Giants) all factor one way or another into the afternoon's narrative. Willie Mays is especially ubiquitous. With his .333 batting average and fleet feet, he seems everywhere all at once: collecting hits, stealing bases, making sensational plays in centerfield. And Hodges picks up a big home run to temporarily break a tie in the fifth. Strangely enough, the star of the game might be Dodgers' fireman Ed Roebuck who, along with pitching 3.1 innings of hitless relief, struck for two hits including his second and final career round-tripper.

Scully handles the first half of the game with his usual smooth grace. It's really his off-the-cuff observational between pitches haiku that set him apart from Doggett's by-the-book reportage.
There is a real poignancy to these Dodger broadcasts. Yes, I was born in January 1957 so I love the idea that I was at least alive when dem Bums and the Giants played their final season at Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds. But as these games and the season unfolds, glimpsing the human and civic drama — especially with 20-20 hindsight — is almost excruciating.

Because the Dodgers hinted  though did not officially announce their move to Hell Eh until after the '57 season ended, we know that these games represent the end of an era. We know that the young lefty on the mound for the Dodgers that night will carve a place for himself in baseball Olympia. We know that Don Zimmer will emerge as a Holy Fool of sorts for the next half century, that Drysdale will go on a career long head-hunting spree, that Pignatano will grow a victory garden in the Shea Stadium bullpen during his stint as a Mets coach during their Miracle years, that Cubs' skipper Bob Scheffing will go on not only to broadcast himself but helm the Mets' GM office, that the Duke of Flatbush will always play third fiddle to Mays and Mantle, that Gilliam will die young, Hodges die younger, that Campanella has but months to walk, that Ebbets Field and the wrecking ball have a date with destiny, and that the Borough of Kings is about to lose its mojo until the real estate boom disguised as a bohemian renaissance of the '00s.

There is also real faded majesty here, a bygone era when local telephone numbers began with a couple of letters (YUkon, BUtterfield, GRamercy, etc.), when Yorkville was a neighborhood people actually referred to, when one could catch an afternoon ballgame, dine in the city's only Chinatown, catch Monk and Coltrane play their first set at the Five Spot and down a nightcap at the Cedar Tavern before heading home.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Put It In The Books! Howie Rose: A Homer in Metsville

     Maybe you’re the type of baseball fan that likes things old school. Maybe getting to the ballpark early for batting practice, really stretching during the seventh inning stretch while belting out the verses to “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” or just keeping score is your notion of pagan ritual. Maybe you could do with a little more tinkling of the organ ivories and less conversation-stifling pre-recorded pop bombast pulsating from the PA on an otherwise pleasant August afternoon. Or maybe you pine for the days when teams wore but two unis—home whites and road grays. And maybe sitting on your stoop, in your backyard, on a park bench, or even stuck in traffic on the BQE listening to a ballgame through the fuzzy AM ether provides a balm as a midsummer sunset slowly gives way to a starry night.

     In an age of impatience and high anxiety, when the world outside the green pastures of Citi Field seems as crooked as the numbers put up on the scoreboard by the visiting team, there is still a lone voice crying out in the wilderness of Metsville. It is a voice from a time and place quickly fading from the collective memory of a great metropolis. It is a regional, edgy New York voice—a voice of egg creams and sauerkraut, of Spaldeens and Pensy Pinkies, of holiday doubleheaders and stickball, of fifteen-cent subway tokens and bleacher seats that go for a buck and change.

     Pick a night, any night, from April Fool’s Day to the Harvest Moon, turn your radio dial to 660 WFAN—the 24/7 all-sports, all doom and gloom all the time echo chamber of radio agita that has carried Met games since its inception in July 1987—and prick up your ears. Sit back in an easy chair with a glass of lemonade or even something a little more lethal and listen to a master baseball announcer ply his trade. But Howie Rose is something more than that—storyteller, artist, tongue dancer, word painter, Rose draws from a palette that includes every color of the rainbow but always with heavy shades of Met oranges and the blues.

     The voice might sound a bit abrasive at first, a little pushy even. With its high-strung, know-it-all chattiness and still-youthful zeal, the veteran broadcaster comes on strong—a mélange of Marv Albert, Ralph Kramden and Ed Koch. But give the guy a few innings and settle in as events between the white lines unfold. Check out that voice and the brain behind it. It is a voice of many things: the smart aleck, the eccentric cousin, the sage wise man, the wisenheimer, the nerd, the advocate, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the kid in the candy shop, the vaunted historian, the curmudgeon, the beat reporter, the class clown, the griot.

     To be sure, New York has no shortage of local boys doing play-by-play for the home team. The Yankees, Giants, Jets, Knicks, and Rangers all boast home grown talent in the broadcast booth. In fact, the Mets have two of them—both Rose and Gary Cohen, the voice of reason on the team’s television feeds shooting the proverbial baseball breeze with Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling, are Queens natives who literally grew up with and rooting for the franchise they now cover. Most of these broadcasters betray at least a hint of regionalism in their voices but none wears it on his sleeve quite like Rose.

     At times a touch ornery, Rose exudes the rough-around-the-edges, sweat-stained-around-the-underarms exasperation of a season ticket holder jammed on overcrowded Number 7 train trapped on an el track somewhere in Jackson Heights as the game's first pitch looms.

     Hours later, when an opponent's forty-ounce hunk of tapered ash flails through the vapor of a humid night at the off-speed pellet settling with nary a thwap in the catcher's tired leather for the game’s final strike, Rose places his emphatic tagline signaling another digit in the W column for the Mets: "Put it in the books!"

     That's about as appropriate an exclamatory finale for a game as can be imagined. Baseball, after all, contains a natural literary resonance, more or less designed with a predetermined beginning, middle and end unless you're talking extra innings in which case all bets are off. Taken in its extreme, the sport has blossomed through space and time as if it were some epic poem reflecting the republic's history—from its British roots in the game of rounders, messy Reconstruction-era formalization and early 20th century legitimization through scandal, wars, uneasy racial embrace to yet more scandal, wars, and inevitable blind greed. Existing within this song of American songs are the individual seasons and their thousands of games—each representing a chapter of sorts. And, within these chapters are the innings or, if you like, corresponding pages of a book that continues to be writ. Every at-bat, every pitch become so many words or bits of punctuation that tell a story more or less condensed on the pencil scratches on the scorecards swept away by the stadium's maintenance crew in the early hours of the morning after.

     And Rose is a singer of that song of songs, a troubadour of the airwaves who can make a baseball game sound like it is the single most important event transpiring on Planet Earth.

     Rose's approach to calling a ballgame might place him in a new school of reportage but his journey to the broadcast booth began in the world's oldest school—the one with all the hard knocks and a past only slightly betrayed by a certain hardness he brings to the mic. The son of a Yankee-loving, Joe Dimaggio-worshipping hardware salesman with more than an ounce of Willy Loman-heavy baggage, Rose exudes the grit of one who passed through the city's public school system during the late 1950s and '60s. He learned his baseball basics from his dad on outings to Yankee Stadium when the great, green cathedral was host to the era's last, triumphant dynasty and the names Ruth, Gehrig and Joe D were spoken in hushed, reverential tones. And it was under the turquoise-tinted baroque copper facade encircling the old stadium's upper deck that Rose embraced his first baseball hero: Roger Maris.

     If there is a stop-the-presses moment lurking in these pages, you just encountered it. Yes, Met fans, read it and weep, Howie Rose grew up bleeding some Yankee blue. Never even became a Yankee hater truth be told.

     "I loved the Yankees and I loved the Mets," Rose confesses. "I couldn't understand as a kid what threat one was to the other. Gary [Mets TV broadcaster Cohen] and I have had this conversation and he's incredulous that anybody who was a Mets fan could ever have liked the Yankees. When I got into the business—that's when the Yankees were the Steinbrenner Yankees of '77—covering the World Series, I couldn't root hard enough for them."

     Granted, Maris' storied 1961 eclipse of Babe Ruth's record of 60 homers in a single season transpired as Rose was turning the impressionable age of seven—a good half year before the Mets first spring training game—so some slack is probably due to be given. There was no marvelous early franchise mayhem yet to woo the kid. But come Opening Day 1962, Rose was primed.

     "I became a Met fan on Day One," Rose proclaims with vehemence of a true believer. "I have one abstract memory of that game. It was a night game. I was in second grade and I hadda go to school the next day. I might have listened to some of it on radio but I knew I couldn't stay up for the whole thing. Marched right into my parents room first thing the next morning. My dad was still home, hadn't left for work yet. I said, 'How'd the Mets do?' He said, 'They lost.' I was disappointed. And so it goes."

     Like Beatlemania and at a remove of nearly a half century, it is a little hard to explain or fathom the love affair between the city's dormant National League fans (bereft of a franchise after the Dodgers and Giants packed up and headed for points West) and the Amazins. Playing their home games at the dilapidated, horseshoe-shaped Polo Grounds, the original Mets in all their fumblin' and bumblin' inglory, became the city's lovable losers, comic relief and perfect antidote to all the even then corporate polish and achievement epitomized by those wearing Yankee pinstripes playing just a hardball's throw across the Harlem River. Led by Casey Stengel—their non sequitur-speaking, Holy Zen Fool crustacean of a manager and staffed with a gumbo of over-the-hill all-stars and inept rejects, the '62 Mets live on as the single worst team in big league history, ending their inaugural season with but 40 wins against a record, count 'em, 120 losses—a badge Met fans wear with a degree of protective pride. If rooting for the Yanks was like rooting for U.S. Steel as the saying went, then rooting for the Mets was like rooting for Spider-Man.

     Rose was among the first crop young people upon whom that Met pixie dust was sprinkled by these tangle-footed pied-pipers of baseball tomfoolery with names that still echo in the halls of lame: Choo Choo Coleman, Galen Cisco, Hobie Landrith, and, natch, "Marvelous" Marv Throneberry.

     At first blush, describing what Rose brings to the mic some hundred sixty games a ye
ar as "post-modern" might come off as a little snooty—especially for a blue collar mensch like him. But approach a game called by Rose with a literary or musical ear and a different, rather coded landscape presents itself. Nary a half-inning passes without some reference cut-and-pasted almost dada-like into the tapestry of his commentary. It might be a lyric to a '70s pop tune, a B-horror flick, White Castle hamburgers, The Honeymooners, or some other long forgotten TV show, or, more than likely, The Three Stooges complete with a half-decent quickie "nyuk nyuk nyuk" imitation of just about everyone's favorite Stooge, Curly Howard. Those native New Yorkers of a particular vintage will catch even more veiled Stooges references in Rose's fluid, extemporaneous riffs. Whenever Philadelphia Phillies' starter Joe Blanton takes the mound, Rose invariably refers to him as "Officer" Joe Blanton, a clear but never explicated nod to Officer Joe Bolton, the jovial, police uniform-attired, billy club-twirling host of the weekday afternoon Stooges show that ran on local New York television from the late 1950s until 1970.

     The craft of calling baseball on the radio has changed little since 1921 when the first game was broadcast from Pittsburgh's long gone Forbes Field. And a decent primer of its evolution can be gleaned with a little web hunting and pecking. A listen to any one of the offerings retrieved compare quite favorably with just about anything you might pull in on your little Radio Shack transistor after the sun crests the horizon. But it also reveals how pathetically static baseball play-by-play still too often tends to be. Between the swings and misses, commercial plugs, rote statistic recitation, clichés, homilies, and paint-by-numbers reportage, there's enough dead air to fill one of the few remaining domes under which the major league game is still occasionally played.

     In fairness, Rose is an adherent to the broad brushstrokes of this venerable legacy. For all its sometimes archaic presentation, baseball should sound a certain way when heard on the radio and Rose makes certain that it does. An i needs its dot and the t its cross, but it's what is accomplished with the balance of the alphabet that separates James Joyce from a chimp.

     But while the tradition of play-by-play broadcasting is rooted in a specific cultural milieu, there is a deeper, ancient linage afoot too—one that might be characterized as Homeric. The oral tradition of the bard sharing the news of the day, celebrating the heroes (or, when appropriate, condemning the heels) of yore is as old or older than the paintings on the cave walls of our earliest ancestors. In a very tangible sense, the baseball play-by-play broadcaster has assumed a folkloric role and function for a certain portion of American society.

     Much as the blind poet of ancient Greece chanted the epic verses of the Iliad and Odyssey to the populace under the shadows of Mount Ida, baseball on the radio has become a vessel of the community's shared and evolving history. Just as Homer spread his lyrical vision describing the trials and travels of the wily Odysseus, Achilles' hubris or Hector's fall, so too do Rose and his broadcasting brethren carry the collective experience and memory of baseball's pantheon and concordant mythology. Through the voices of the game everything old becomes new again. Be it Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World"; Ventura's "Grand Slam Single"; the catches of Mays, Agee, Swoboda, and Chavez; the saintliness of Robinson, Clemente and Hodges; the branding of those who strayed (Pete Rose and former Met chairman M. Donald Grant are high on Howie's shit list); or the hair-splitting parsing of strategy as an individual game unfurls pitch-by-pitch, Rose acts as a tour guide through the concentric circles of the Divine Tragic Comedy that baseball can often, joyously, be.

     Rose's seemingly photographic memory and encyclopedic knowledge of many things (one can sometimes get the very strong impression that he has a memory of every Met game ever played!) springs into action when called upon to describe his Met baptism: "I went to one game at the Polo Grounds which turned out to be kind of an historic game. It was in July of '62 and Rod Kanehl hit the Mets first grand slam in that game. And Gil Hodges hit a home run to pass Ralph Kiner on the all-time list."

     If Rose comes off at times as a bit over-opinionated, there is only one axe to grind in his woodshed. "I'll push Gil Hodges for the Hall of Fame forever," he often proselytizes. "Sadly I don't think he'll ever get in. When he passed Kiner, he became the then all-time right-handed National League home run hitter. That's significant. If that doesn't get you into to the Hall of Fame by itself, something's wrong."

     Fittingly, Hodges' blast that day in July nearly a half century ago would be the aging first baseman's last.

     And if you're thinking about broaching the subject of interdivisional or wild cards with Rose, don't bother. If it was up to him there would be but two leagues, a winner-take-all pennant, afternoon World Series games, and regular season Met-Yankee games where the only thing at stake were bragging rights and the long-gone Mayor's Trophy.

     Part of the charm of those early Mets was their triumvirate of quirky broadcasters: the ever effervescent and gnomish Bob Murphy, the plaid-clad Lindsey Nelson and the aforementioned Kiner, reigning king of the malapropism. The trio would share both the television and radio duties in those days and Rose grew up like so many of us—snuggled under the covers with a transistor radio turned down low and pressed to the ear as the innings passed into the nether reaches of the night.

     Their style and brand of baseball narrative was not lost on the kid. Listen close to Rose and notice how he pays an offbeat homage to Murphy when he wraps his yap around a name like pitcher Kiki Calero as only Murph could or his similar tip of the Mets cap to Nelson when he uses phrasings like "and the Mets are leading by a score of four to three" with the same diction as the original Mets 'caster. Think Charlie Parker wedging a Gershwin riff into an elongated bebop solo and an idea of Rose's connection to and celebration of his earliest baseball experiences can be gleaned. While neither Murphy or Nelson are, to paraphrase Casey Stengel, alive at the present time, Kiner does make the odd appearance in the television broadcast booth during a precious few spring training and regular season games and is as entertaining and sometimes sharper than ever even at the age of eighty-seven.

     When the Mets moved to Shea Stadium near the ass end of Willets Point in 1964, Rose and his running buddies from nearby Bayside became the earliest habitués of the new ballpark that looked like an orphan pavilion from the World's Fair in nearby Flushing Meadows Park. The team was still terrible, perennial cellar dwellers. But, with the acquisition of young players like Tom Seaver, Ron Swoboda, Jerry Grote and Bud Harrelson, the seeds of a miracle were being sown.

     "There's this one game—August 4th, 1966—I told myself on the way home that day that I just saw the greatest baseball game I'd ever see,” Rose recalls a bit dewy-eyed. “I was twelve years old. Mets playing the Giants, Juan Marichal is pitching, it's an afternoon game, and they're losing—at worst it was five to nothing. In the bottom of the sixth—I think it was four nothing at the time—Marichal is working on a perfect game. Five and two-thirds he's perfect. Dennis Ribant was the Mets pitcher that day and for some reason I never understood, Mets manager Wes Westrum let him hit. You're down four nothing and you haven't had a base runner all game but he's letting his starting pitcher bat. I don't remember now what the circumstances were—maybe the pitching staff was shot and they needed him to go another inning or two. But, wouldn't you know it, Dennis Ribant hits a little thirty-eight hopper through the middle of the infield for the Mets first hit. And they chip away and in the bottom of the ninth inning, Ron Swoboda hits a pinch hit, two run homer off Bill Henry, a lefty, and the Mets won the game eight to six. And the whole way home I said to myself I have to remember this date forever because this is the greatest baseball game of all-time and I've always thought back on that. August 4th, 1966. But I also really wondered how it sounded in the booth. Did Lindsey go crazy on TV? Did Bob go wild on radio? How would I have called it? I was already thinking about it along those lines even then."

     Aware of it or not, Rose was not only bearing witness to the team's history but priming himself as a kind of Boswell to their Johnson—not merely the wins and losses, the coming and goings of players—but to the very culture of the ballclub. And when the once raggle-taggle collection of misfits emerged as legit contenders in '69, Rose can pinpoint the moment when the whole Met gestalt did a one-eighty: Tom Seaver's flirtation with a perfect game against the Cubs on July 19, 1969 at Shea. When Jimmy Qualls (or Jimmy “Fuckin’” Qualls as he is better known in certain Met quarters) broke up Seaver’s perfecto with a soft liner to left-center, the crowd of 50,000-plus—after a moment of mourning—rewarded the franchise’s greatest star with a loving standing O.

     "This was profound,” Rose declares. “And I remember that ovation because we were standing and yelling—thinking during that ovation that it's almost like being Bar Mitzvah'd. That's the night they became men. That's the night the Mets grew up. That's the night I went home for the first time thinking, 'Wow! We can win the World Series!' But that ovation was all about the realization that we had our heroes. My dad had Dimaggio, others had Maris and Mantle—all those other great figures of baseball in New York belonged to somebody else from some other time. We had one now. This was our guy. And we're gonna talk about Tom Seaver for years to come in the same reverential tones that my dad did about Dimaggio and others did Mays and Snider and Robinson and all the way back. It was so exhilarating to be part of it not just for the moment but for the future. And it was encapsulated in that ovation because those were thoughts that were in the forefront of my mind and I'm sure for a lot of others."

     By then Rose knew exactly what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. There is the family legend of a four-year-old Howie "interviewing" family members but the real epiphany came in 1966 when Rose happened upon the voice that would clinch the deal. It was Marv Albert, then the very young voice of the Rangers and Knicks.

     "In one of the very first hockey games I ever listened to, Dallas Smith, a defenseman for the Bruins, had a penalty shot against Ranger goaltender Eddie Giacoman. And I'm telling ya, Marv made it sound like the most incredible event ever in a hockey game. A penalty shot! It was a great the rarity then. He built the drama and I think Giacoman stopped him. Just the intensity of his enthusiasm knocked me over."

     Shortly thereafter and as a bit of a goof, Rose and a couple of friends founded the Marv Albert Fan Club going so far as to write and mimeograph a newsletter that he sent to Albert. Marv, predictably surprised and flattered, offered to have the next edition typed and produced professionally. Thus began perhaps the most important relationship in Rose's life—a prolonged mentorship bordering on the paternal.

     The union came at a particularly key juncture in Rose’s early adolescence. Over the next decade the Rose family would be rocked by the father's painful and erratic decline in what was eventually diagnosed as Alzheimer's disease. The younger Rose persevered through this devastating stretch, never straying from his goal of landing in the broadcast booth. And always Albert was there offering advice, steering him to college, critiquing audition tapes Rose had made on a little cassette recorder he had brought to games and, eventually, recommending the apprentice for his first gigs as a sportswriter at WHN (then the Mets flagship radio station) and as a voice on Sportsphone.

     In the days before the web or even sports talk radio updated the out-of-town scoreboard in nanosecond blips, Sportsphone provided New Yorkers with regularly recorded local and national scores and Rose was among the small stable of phonecasters breaking the news, hearts and probably a few bank accounts of the eager callers.

     Deciding that his chances for a prolonged career fared better as a radio reporter than reading copy for a telephone tape loop, Rose committed himself to WHN. When the Mets' fortunes began to rise in 1985, the station instituted "Mets Extra," an extended pre- and postgame segment to feed the growing frenzy of Met diehards, Rose was tapped to take the helm. A couple of seasons later WHN morphed into WFAN and Rose's program was a keeper. This was the first time most Met fans had a chance to hear someone very much like themselves, someone who not only knew the trivia but had lived it—a guy with his hand on the pulse of the team and not afraid to ask the tough questions be it to players, coaches, managers or even the franchise’s top brass. This brashness did have its dicey moments and rumors still float that Davey Johnson, (Mets manager during the mid-1980s glory days) pulled strings in an unsuccessful attempt to give Rose the hook.

     But if the influence of Marv Albert can be heard in Rose’s approach, so, too, can Albert’s tutor, the late Marty Glickman whose ubiquity on New York sports airwaves from the 1940s through the early 1990s is the legend of stuff. While maybe not quite Socrates taking Plato under his wing and so on down through Aristotle and Alexander the Great, a torch passing of a shared New York Jewish style is in evidence. If a garlic bagel with lox and a schmear could talk, it might very well sound like Glickman, Albert or Rose calling a game.

    True to his working-class roots and example set by Albert and Glickman who were virtually year-round play-by-play voices, Rose keeps his nose to the grindstone and can be found behind the mic for most of the New York Islanders' eighty regular ice hockey season games during baseball’s off-season. Before the Mets and Islanders gigs, Rose's career had seemingly already come full circle when he was tapped as Albert's co-anchor for the New York Rangers. In the annals of famous sports calls, Rose's way over the top celebratory declaration of "Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!" after left-winger Stephane Matteau's sudden death goal in double overtime sunk the New Jersey Devils and launched the Rangers into the 1994 Stanley Cup Final is an evergreen.

     And just like Sandy Koufax, Rose never spent a day in the minor leagues. He went straight from "Mets Extra" to a seat as one of the club's cable TV broadcasters in a run that lasted from 1995 through 2003 when he joined Cohen in the radio booth after Murphy's retirement. Before Cohen's migration to the TV booth, these were the recent halcyon days of Mets radio when the two fed off each other's knowledge and enthusiasm with a joy that was palpably infectious.

     To cast Rose as a "homer"—one who crassly roots roots roots for the home team—is a misguided accusation. In truth, all home team broadcasters covering a local squad can be similarly charged. Some tip their hand with the palpable disappointment in their voices when a clutch enemy blast clears the fence or those who go so far as to use words like "us," "we" or "them" in drawing a line in the sand. Rose is rarely, if ever, so obvious in his bias. His tone always reflects the drama of the moment.

     "There's a responsibility that you have as a broadcaster for that team not to be waving the pom-poms in the air,” Rose muses on his sense of journalistic responsibility. “Even though you're especially excited to see them do well, you still have a job to do."

     The one catch to living the dream conjured as a twelve-year-old all those many goose eggs ago is the reality that such a peripatetic life might sometimes leave a family wanting. Rose has been married for twenty-plus years and has raised two nearly fully grown daughters in a comfortable Nassau County community. Missed school plays, parent-teacher conferences and family dinners are on the short list of sacrifices clans of travelin' men must endure. And Rose is quick to praise his wife Barbara, an in-demand interior designer, as the glue that keeps the family tight and quicker to castigate himself for the difficulties of being a well-compensated baseball nomad: "Part of the price you pay is your own guilt."

     Some more of the dues includes the grind of the long seasons and way too much time spent on planes and busses, in airport terminals, checking into friendless hotels at three-thirty in the morning, or stuck in towns like Saskatoon in February with a long afternoon to kill.

     On a recent blustery late April afternoon that made Flushing feel more like a day better suited for ice fishing than for baseball and some hours before the first pitch of a doubleheader against the Dodgers, Rose could be found wearing his reporter's cap scouring the catacombs of Citi Field collecting tidbits, dishing a little gossip, trying to make sense of a translation offered by Japanese southpaw Hisanori Takahashi's so-called interpreter, and canvassing for some inside dope on the dip in velocity exhibited by Johan Santana's recent fastballs.

     A little later, ensconced in the broadcast booth, Rose is deep into his primary pre-game ritual: diligently constructing his scorecard with the zeal of a young rabbinical student. After a bite to eat and a few moments of meditative, preparatory quiet time, Rose and his partner Wayne Hagin are primed as the curtain lifts on another day at the ballpark.

     Hagin, a handsome, jovial journeyman of the trade, plays something of a laid-back straight man or country rube in what often turns into the "Howie Show." And Hagin, a son of the Midwest, can be the butt of some good-natured ribbing for his spotty knowledge base concerning certain nuanced aspects of New York City culture such as the time last year when he drew a blank after Rose conferred a "mazel tov" on David Wright after a clutch hit or complete ignorance of the mere existence of some exotic potion known as an egg cream. Hagin gets his occasional comeuppance, casting a mock evil eye at his partner every time Rose mistakenly refers to the Mets’ new digs as Shea Stadium. A flub by either one is punished by a dollar fine that is put into a kitty for an end of season party. At their current rate, that shindig promises to be rather skimpy on the trimmings indeed.

     Rose, though, is hardly a mic hog and the pair give each other wide berth alternating chunks of the game as Rose bookends the production, riding point for the first and last few frames with a healthy dose of Hagin twixt.

     Also squeezed into the booth is the broadcast's secret hero, the "Immortal" Chris Majkowski, their producer/engineer and  wise-cracking swirl of constant motion who seems to simultaneously feed the duo stats, trivia, ad spots—all elegantly if cantankerously executed with a cell phone in one hand while hoisting a Diet Pepsi with the other. Maj, as he is affectionately called by his co-workers, brings something of the sensibility of a hip-hop DJ to the Mets mix. When Rose was recalling the old TV show Car 54, Where Are You? a season or two back, Maj went to the well, streaming the program's memorable theme song off the web between pitches of the ensuing inning as Rose happily sang along. Majkowski was at it again earlier this season when Rose’s passing references to El Paso and San Jose elicited a similar sound bite sample of Marty Robbins and Dionne Warwick singing their titular odes to those celebrated burgs. It's antics just like these which separate the crew from the rest of the herd.

     Rose and Hagin assume their roles just as you might expect and want them to: two bleacher bums kibitzing while duly noting the strikes, balls, flies, grounders, liners, and Texas Leaguers with just the right emphasis and lively flourishes. "Fastball on the outside corner strike three called!" never sounded so good.

     What may strike a new listener is not merely the facile, wide-ranging and precise vocabulary employed but the sheer volume and vivid detail of information the two impart. A foul ball doesn’t just merely drift into the stands but is snared in the webbing of a mitt brought to the game by a white-haired gent in his sixties who blushes like a school girl at her first prom. The wind blowing out to left carries with it a vortex of hot dog wrappers. The Washington Nationals’ rookie reliever warming up in the bullpen is given a back story worthy of an A-list screenwriter at a Hollywood pitch meeting. And the managerial choice of a pinch hitter is considered with the scrutiny a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff might give a Central Asian military conundrum.

     In the hands of Rose, a given half inning serves up a mini-concerto in baseball arcana and anality. After setting the scene and bringing the audience up to speed on the game thus far, Rose might share his assessment of the pitcher’s mechanics or chronicle a team’s missed chances before launching into an improvisatory flight of free form fancy and associative reportage, analysis, reminiscence, and shtick. Between the balls and strikes, hits, base runners and outs, the subject moves to the improving fortunes of the Cincinnati Reds, their lagging attendance despite a solid early season performance and the wise moves made by their GM Walt Jockety. The monologue might go on to include a description of Cincinnati’s old Crosley Field with its weird left field incline, a critique of 1970s baseball stadia and uniforms, recollections of the Mets-Reds ’73 playoff series, but the rap can easily veer off into strange, uncharted territory too. Should Jose Reyes pull up lame after a hard slide into second base, Rose is on it with the diagnostic and anatomic precision worthy of a Beth Israel intern. A mid-game assessment of Johan Santana's performance is critiqued alongside a narrative of what Rose describes as "his body of work." And if a Met pitcher loses a no-hit bid after the third inning or so, Howie is almost sure to chime in with the reminder that the franchise has endured seven thousand six hundred and eighty-five contests (and counting) without a no-hitter to its credit—a baffling and ironic stat that appears to haunt his dreams.

     And so the games and seasons flow on in a sublime reverie of agonies and ecstasies marked less by the wins and losses that wind up on the final ledger than by the bangs and whimpers contributing to the result. The walk-off dinger stands alongside the muffed double play in the game’s great equation. Remembered and cherished for a lifetime or best soon forgotten, all that transpires on and around the diamond is put into the “books” whether the Mets win or not.

     Oh yeah, Rose’s catchphrase. Never one to hold back, the broadcaster is predictably down to earth in describing its humble origin. "'Put it in the books' is really a street phrase," he waxes nostalgically. "In the schoolyard after a stickball game or a punchball game, every once in a while one of us would say 'it's in the books' or some variation of that theme. I tried it out on the air when I started doing play-by-play and it seemed to fit without sounding forced or contrived, so I stayed with it.”