Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

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:

1 comment:

  1. spring can't come fast enough.. but this will help me get through the dark days of winter.. thank you for putting this together!! loving it. K