Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

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.


  1. I've never been a Scully fan, despite the obvious genius with which he plies his trade. Whether it's the "vanilla" quality you address, or it's the Dodger "taint" that, for me, has dulled his sheen, I'm not sure. His calls have always carried more than a veneer of elegance that I've never completely warmed to. That said, his call of the last out, Harvey Kuenn's at-bat, of Sandy Koufax's perfecto in '65 is one of the great moments in baseball history and radio history (and human history?). I didn't hear the call live (I was only four), but I've savored the recorded archive multiple times. Scully's words hang in the air eternal: "Two and two to Harvey Kuenn. Sandy into his windup. Here's the pitch. Swung on and missed, a perfect game! On the scoreboard in right field it is 9:46 p.m. in the City of the Angels, Los Angeles, California...."

    Jesus, what made him think to give the time and place like that? Utter brilliance. (Or should I say, uttered brilliance.) OK, I'm guessing it HAS been Vin's association with the O'Malleys that's at the root of my arms-length appreciation of him. Had he and the Dodgers not deserted Brooklyn for Hollywood, I'm suppose I'd find him beyond beatification.

  2. Vin Scully is quite simply the greatest play-by-play announcer in history. He combines simplicity, clarity, and unexpected moments of pure poetry like no one on the air. I lived in LA for a few years and would actually look forward to a long drive home during gametime just to be able to tune in to him. Never a homer, unlike most announcers, always appreciative of stellar play no matter where it comes from, filled with colorful histories about players from both sides, nobody sets the stage better. Listen again to his call of Kirk Gibson's home run in the '88 series.